Biology, the Circus, and a TED Talk. How do these lead one to Russian Studies?

They say variety is the spice of life, and for Anna Belokur her life has been full of variety. This once professional circus performer with a Bachelor’s degree in biology has now found herself enrolled in the Master's Programme in Russian Studies at the University of Helsinki – but how did she get to this fascinating stage in her life?

Anna Belokur is a student from the USA in the Master’s Programme in Russian Studies. Interviewing her is Libbie Katsev, also a Russian Studies student from Mountain View, California, USA.

Katsev: "Let’s start with a basic one. Where are you from?"

Belokur: "I’m from a town of about 2000 people in northern Appalachia, a region in the Eastern United States. When I try to describe it to Europeans I usually say ‘Have you seen The Hunger Games? It’s what they based District 12 on.’ The specific region I’m from is called the Endless Mountains, if that gives some picture of how remote it is."

Katsev: "But unless I’m mistaken, Belokur is an Eastern European name, isn't it?"

Belokur: "Yes, you’re right, it’s a 100% Ukrainian name - my Dad’s family is from Kiev. It always confuses people when they hear my name in relation to Russian Studies, and then I start speaking with an American accent!"

I used to be a professional circus performer”

Katsev: "Ok, so why does a Ukrainian-American from a small town choose Russian Studies in Finland?"

Belokur: "It sounds bizarre but I used to be a professional circus performer, which kept me speaking Russian through my teens - many of my colleagues and coaches were from the former Soviet Union, and I leaned on my Ukrainian-ness to help me fit in. When I left the circus and went to college, I wanted to do something very serious to compensate for my artsy teenage years, so I majored in biology.

Despite being in the science department, I got to know a political science professor named Michael Snarr. Through some random conversations he found out that I had an interest in Russia/Russian language, he had a friend who had a friend, and it culminated in me being offered a summer job at a non-profit in Moscow between my junior and senior year.

I loved the job, I loved Moscow, and although I went back and finished the final year of my biology degree, I knew that whatever I did next was going to involve Russia. I want to thank Michael for recognizing that I had this interest and encouraging it, even as I insisted “I’m a biologist!”

That also brings me to the ‘Why Finland?’ part of the question. While I lived in Moscow, I was browsing weekend destinations when an ad popped up to inform me that flights to Helsinki, Finland were extremely cheap. I wasn’t very excited about Helsinki, but I wanted to go somewhere new and the tickets were cheap. Long story short, now I live here. It just ended up being a perfect fit.

I think this question really highlights how the oddest things can have huge effects - I do Russian Studies in Finland because of the people I met and places I went that had absolutely nothing to do with Russian Studies or Finland."

More freedom at the University of Helsinki

Katsev: "Coming from a completely different academic field, what do you find the most challenging about Russian Studies?"

Belokur: "It’s difficult to compare Bachelor and Master’s studies, and to compare the Finnish and American university systems, but from my undergraduate experience I was used to a rigorous cycle of study and examination, and that really isn’t how it works here. There’s little to no emphasis on memorizing facts or sitting exams, but rather being able to speak about a topic in an informed manner based on independent reading.

There’s much more freedom at the University of Helsinki, which can be good or bad — you’re able to tailor your studies much more personally, but there’s also more room for self-doubt and procrastination."

Katsev: "So what does a typical day look like for you?"

Belokur: "I usually have a mix of Russian Studies classes or language classes interspersed with breaks where I eat and do homework (I have a 30-minute commute so once I’m on campus, I stay there until my last class is done). In the evenings I play futsal or go to the gym. My classmate Paula and I have just started taking a twerking class together. When I have extra time on my hands there are a lot of great places for walking and cycling, although in the winter it’s much nicer to stay inside with a glass of wine and Finnish reality-television."

A place with many opportunities to meet people, have experiences, and gain knowledge

Katsev: "What would you say to prospective students who are wondering whether the International Master’s Programme in Russian Studies is right for them?"

Belokur: "I’m actually going to steal this answer from Malcolm Gladwell. At one point he was on the TED Radio Hour speaking about the process of decision-making, and he pointed out that although people stress over choosing the ‘right’ university, what makes an education worthwhile is basically unknowable from the outset. He cites his own experience, saying that what made the University of Toronto life-changing for him was that he met one specific person with whom he had really formative conversations. And he jokes, ‘in a million years, how could I have known whether Tom was going to be there?’

I think this is the best mindset to have - to realize that nothing listed on a brochure is going to ensure that you have the time of your life and emerge successful, but to trust that this is a place with many opportunities to meet people, have experiences, and gain knowledge that will shape you."

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Anna Belokur is a student in the Master's Programme in Russian Studies at the University of Helsinki.