Field courses, what’s not to love: Riga and Vilnius tour of Aleksanteri crew

Specializing in Russian and Eastern European studies has been a rough ride lately, since the offensive war of Russia is affecting everything from teachers’ workload to lecture substance and personal relationships. However, the need for expertise in Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian issues is all but fading.

The Aleksanteri Institute provides incredible courses for research in these areas in both the ExpREES Studies and in the English-language Master’s programme MAREEES, but when we deal with area studies, there’s nothing like getting a grip on the grassroots level.

This is why we, a group of Aleksanteri institute people from varying academic backgrounds conducted a field course in the Baltic countries of Latvia and Lithuania. Our group was compact enough to fit into a minibus, but wide ranging and multidisciplinary enough to ensure that there were always fresh perspectives to learn from along the way. As is often the case with area studies, we all were interested in the same topics but from so many different points of departure, such as business, media research, linguistics and politology. The field course was a great chance to put our knowledge to the test, to learn new things and speak with local experts. Our group visited two Finnish embassies, and professionals from both academia and the third sector.

We also got a chance to brush up our language skills in language café sessions and by reading the slogans of anti-war demonstrations in front of Russian embassies. The role of the Russian language in the now conceptually problematized “post-Soviet space”, as in the relatively newly independent countries of Eastern Europe, is an intriguing theme in flux right now. As for example, in Lithuania, people have decided to substitute swear words, previously loaned from Russian, with Lithuanian alternatives. What a topic for research in linguistics that would be! The importance of knowing your target area’s language was highlighted, but on the other hand it was reassuring to notice how a little goes a long way.

During the course, we got to learn and ask about topics ranging from internet regulation and censorship in Russia to the state of Lithuanian foreign relations and got to know a lot about the very topical hybrid threats in NATO’s centre of excellence. In the programme, academic rigor was in great balance with more hands-on approaches. Especially engaging was the guided walking tour around Vilnius, showcasing the city’s past through micro history and Soviet era monuments. The field course’s advantages in comparison to a classroom were also obvious looking at the results and presentations of a participant observation assignment in Riga: groups gathered material from the city space on how the national symbols of Latvia are used, how the Soviet occupation era is commemorated and redefined in statues and other monuments, and in which ways Russia’s war is condemned, and solidarity for Ukraine portrayed. Overall, one recurring theme during our field course was to get to know about the change in the countries' immigration policies and their empathetic attitudes towards Ukrainian refugees.

All in all, the course exceeded all expectations. After years of Zoom lectures, the possibility to hang out with course mates, discuss and experience themes relevant to our academic interests was worth gold. While our field is now under distress and in need of re-evaluation, the field course really exemplified how important the questions we are dealing with are – questions well worth answering, even if somewhere else one might be able to find more uplifting subjects of study.

  P. S. Traveling by land in the Baltics is also a really good and budget-friendly option, both environment-wise and as an experience! <3