Thesis Trip to Irkutsk

How I wound up in Siberia to report my thesis

Last spring I needed a thesis topic. I thought I'd go to St. Petersburg or Moscow and talk with young people about how economic sanctions imposed by the West had changed their lives.

One Russian woman I met in New York said the amount in her savings account had dropped by half. "My friends have similar stories. Sure, if you go there, they'll talk to you about it."

As I told a mentor of mine this idea she said, "What about other parts of Russia? I never hear anything about what goes on there, like Siberia. Maybe there's a story out there you could tell."

This reminded me of a friend who journeyed to the Siberian city of Irkutsk and brought me back a little, silver-colored bell. He told stories of an ancient, deep lake near the mountains and the Shamans who practice their faith on the lakeshore.

"Maybe I should go to Siberia," I thought.

"I wonder what kind of story I could find there?"

I first read some business and other news articles about Irktusk. One story quoted Sergei Makshanov, a businessman who denied sanctions were having an effect on his country's economy. Another told of an Irkutsk native earning his PhD at the University of Wisconsin. He studied English and French in Russia before leaving for America at the age of 22. I also read about Lake Baikal and its only outflowing river, the wild and pristine Angara

Eventually I found the Vietnamese Irkutsk English Club on Facebook. I wrote the most-active member, whose name appeared to be Tien.

Then he wrote me back:

In spite of my mistake--calling him "Tien" instead of "Dat"--he was willing to speak with me. Soon we were talking every Saturday on Skype. Sometimes his little brother, who was still in Vietnam and would soon be leaving to study in Finland, joined us. Other times Dat's Vietnamese friends in Irkutsk were on the line.

They said they loved Russia and called it their second home.

"The people are friendly here, especially our Russian teachers and the staff that help us in our dormitories."

Soon my thesis idea was shaping up: Marina (my wife) and I would fly to Irkutsk and interview these students about how they got to Russia and what life was like for them there. What troubles did they have? What new experiences did they encounter? What did their parents say about their decision and what plans did they have after graduation? If I could answer these questions, it seemed, then I could tell a compelling story that might present a different side of Russia to Western readers.

I would write "Russia as a Land of Opportunity," and explore both historical and contemporary connections between these two countries that both have controversial pasts with the US.  Telling what these students' lives were like would give the story characters that people could relate to.

Because of other travel plans early in the summer, Marina and I couldn't fly to Irkutsk until August.

"It's a pity that I won't be here to greet you," Dat said over Skype. "I will already be in France. But I assure you other students will meet you and be happy for your interviews."

And so in August we flew to Irkutsk and spent nearly a month with these students. We visited Benchorov's Homestead on Lake Baikal where they volunteer in the summer and winter.

We played ping pong, rode bikes on sandy roads and listened to a classical pianist in a log cabin near the water. We attended the annual Independence Day soccer game between the local Vietnamese working in the markets and those on student visas at the university.

We went bowling and interviewed professors and Russian classmates of these students.

Through subsequent research I've learned that Vietnam's welathiest citizen, real estate billionaire and entrepreneur Pham Nhat Vuong, also studied in Russia. Ho Chi Minh, the controversial and famous leader who led Vietnam in revolution against the French studied there, too. There are many connections between these two countries that I am learning about and writing on in my work.

One day I hope to meet Dat in person and thank him for this cool story. Gregorii Shalomov, his Economics teacher from Irkutsk, joked that after Dat finishes his Master's degree at The University of Paris Sorbonne, he will move back to Vietnam and become that country's Minister of Finance. Hopefully we meet before then so he won't know so many state secrets that he won't be able to talk with us anymore.