Archives for posts with tag: Former Soviet Union

Tangerines movie poster (image from Wikipedia)


Language: Russian and Estonian with (teeny-tiny) English subtitles

Availability: available on DVD and Amazon streaming in the US

This film was produced in a collaboration between Estonian and Georgian filmmakers and actors. It was Estonia’s nominee for the Academy Award, and made it to the short list, though it did not win. “Tangerines” is a lovely movie about older Estonian men who don’t want to leave their homes in Abkhazia (each for their own reasons), despite the escalating violence. They come across a wounded Georgian soldier and a wounded Chechen mercenary, and take them in, and the film follows the political, ethnic, and inter-personal relationships and tensions that follow. This film was purposefully very multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. The characters ultimately learn to move past their ethnic differences and prejudices to help each other in an extreme situation. As one would expect in a film about war, there is violence and sadness, but my overall feelings toward the film were positive. The only thing I didn’t like about the film was the teeny-tiny subtitles (on the edition I rented from Netflix, at least)…I had just been to the eye doctor, who cleared my vision as good, and I really had to squint to read these. I had an advantage over others, though, as I can understand the Russian part, at least! (My Estonian however, is non-existent).


This winter, I had my 15 minutes of fame on a popular Georgian TV show.  Specifically, my Georgian teacher from grad school had her 40-ish minutes of fame, and I was a supporting character.  She was being profiled for a human interest piece on her work educating foreigners about Georgian language and culture, and since I was also in Georgia, they wanted to speak with me about what I had learned, as well as to film me teaching, showing how my teacher had inspired me to do good for Georgia.  I think the piece turned out very well in the end; they made my teacher and my graduate program look great (I hope the show got my grad program some good press), and it was a good half-hour of TV programming.  My TV appearance also eased my path with regards to integrating into my community–my 1st grade class got to be on national TV, for which their families were very grateful.  My school was delighted at the PR opportunity, in particular the chance to show that even though our school is poor we have a fantastic English lab with a small library and a computer.  My host family was able to see my university and “meet” the people I’d worked with.  (My history professor (Hi, Professor B!),  was a big hit; my host grandfather said “He is a good man”).  My Georgian teacher, now a TV star, was seen as a hero in my community, and whenever I wanted to visit her in Tbilisi I had no problems leaving town whenever I wanted.

Rustavi 2
(from Wikimedia Commons)
Note: the TV logos pictured in this post are just the easiest-to-find TV company logos. It is not a sign of which channel interviewed me.

The final product of the program looked fantastic–my students were adorable (and looked like they always paid attention and were active participants in class).  The bulk of my interviews were done in English, which the TV staff translated (accurately, as far as I remember and understand the Georgian), though I did do a small piece of the interview in Georgian which was featured in the show.  They also taped me having a little chat in Georgian with my teacher and her kids.  The reporters and camera people were very friendly and nice, and I was super-impressed by the cameraman’s interaction with my first graders.  He was very kind and polite to them, while also getting them to do exactly what he wanted–that’s no easy task!  My only complaint about the final product was that I really wish they’d let me brush my hair before they started filming me.

Georgian Public Broadcaster (P’irveli Arkhi)
(from Wikimedia Commons)

Because I reaped so many benefits from this TV program, I’m not going to tell you the details of which program or channel, because while I was happy with the outcome, I have some criticisms of the journalistic process.  Georgia is, of course, a post-Soviet country, and the media sector is still in transition. Freedom House rates the Georgian media as “partly free” in 2012…far better than in many other parts of the Former Soviet sphere of influence.  (You can see all their data here.)   In my opinion, a large part of the problem stems not just from the legal environment but from the fact that there isn’t a culture of investigative journalism or rigorous reporting.  My impression is that the reporters are told information by their sources, and then the run it (this is an issue that foreign aid groups and NGOs are aware of, and are working to change through journalistic exchanges and further education).  There is also not always a good understanding of the processes necessary to film in certain places, or talk to certain people.  The style of television and what is popular to watch is also different here in the States (as I’ve posted about before) which I’m sure contributes to the different culture surrounding TV journalism.  I should note here that my experience with the media back home in America is also limited–I’m not a journalist by training, and all of my contact with the American media has been through local TV stations or newspapers and human interest pieces, almost all while I was in high school.  What most surprised me about my experience being interviewed for the show was that it was I and not the journalists who was ultimately responsible for getting the permissions necessary for them to film me.  Since they wanted to film me teaching, that required permission from the school principal, the local education authority, and the class (as well as permission from my employer to talk to me)–all of which I had to make sure they had.  At one point in the interview, I was asked to change my answer, because I didn’t give them the answer they were expecting.  Apparently, I interpreted the question differently than they had intended it, so when they rephrased the question I did have a different answer, but I still didn’t say what they wanted me to say.  When they filmed me teaching, the crew had a very specific idea of what they wanted to see in the classroom (me giving commands in Georgian and encouraging the students to translate), which unfortunately does not correlate with the way I teach.  So all of the scenes of me teaching are dramatized, rather than documentary.  It also turns out that I’m not cut out to be a TV actress, because it took me at least 5 takes to open the door properly.  Overall I felt that the portrayal was accurate, but I was worried by the way in which the journalists were driven by their preconceptions of how the program should look, rather than finding the facts and letting them drive the story.

PIK (Pervyi Kavkazi) TV
(from Wikimedia Commons)

At some point, pretty much every foreigner writing a blog about Georgia has their post about gender roles or relationships in Georgia (here are some interesting ones: My friend Jared’s supra experiences,Fleur Flaneur’s examination of The Myth of the Strong Woman in Georgia,  and tcjbritishvili’s relationships with Georgian women) and I’m now joining in.  Rather than talk about my experiences as a woman in Georgia (clearly different since I’m a foreigner than if I was Georgian), I’m going to deal with the issue a bit differently and discuss women in politics here in Sakartvelo (perhaps I’ll regale you with comical tales of marriage proposals and housework sometime in the future).  Gender relationships in Georgia are interesting, and can be difficult for foreigners to put a finger on because they aren’t simple to categorize.  Georgia is at the same time a traditionally patriarchal society and the home of many powerful female public figures.  There’s a saying that “A Georgian man is the head of the family, but a Georgian woman is the neck”.  The Georgian man is regarded as the one in charge, but this doesn’t mean that Georgian women have no control over what happens in their families.  Women in public/political life thus pose an interesting conundrum in Georgia.

I recently had a conversation with a well-informed friend about this topic, and, well, I stand corrected. I was under the impression that there were more women in the Georgian government than there are.  I’m amazed that there are only 6% women in Parliament!  I honestly thought there were more of them… But as so often happens with Foreign Policy magazine, they seem  to have read my mind and published an article on women in Parliaments, particularly in the Former Soviet Union/Eurasia.  The crux of the article is that it isn’t just important to have gender representation in Parliament, but representation of different points of view: political and ethnic minorities as well as gender.  One important point regarding Georgia is that it isn’t just the current members of Parliament who make up Georgia’s powerful women.  Georgia has had a female Head of State (something the US has not) in Nino Burjanadze (now an opposition politician, and not the only female one, either).  Deputy Prime Minister and State Minister for Reintegration is the quite prominent Eka TkeshelashviliVera Kobalia is the Minister of Economic Development (another prominent figure, frequently in the news), and Khatuna Kalmakhelidze is Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance.  (and let’s not forget that there is currently an opening for Minister of Interior).  Many other, lower-level bureaucrats are also female, and the NGO staffers I’ve met (far from a representative sample, of course) are overwhelmingly female.  Has Georgia figured out a way for women to “have it all”?  No.  Has America?  Also, no.  Things in Georgia need improvement, but in my opinion the situation for women in politics isn’t as dire as the terrifying 6% figure suggests.

Now that I’ve travelled by marshrutka six times I’m obviously an authority on the subject and qualified to give advice on this means of transportation.  The thing is, though, I don’t think it’s really possible to be a marshrutka expert.  I’ll tell you why later.  First, what exactly is a marshrutka?  They’re a common form of transportation in the Former Soviet Union (and, I believe, other parts of Eastern Europe and Asia, though I have no direct knowledge of this).  “Marshrutka” is usually translated in English as “route taxi” or “minibus”.  They’re multi-passenger vans that provide public transportation between different cities in a region.  Their destination is shown on a sign placed in

My local marshrutka station–not much to look at, really.

the windshield.  There are marshrutka stations at the beginning and end of the route, but you can ask the driver to let you off at any point, and passengers can stand along the roadside and hail any passing marshrutka.  The driver may have a schedule in mind– a certain number of trips he’d like to make in a day, or making sure he gets home in time for dinner–but there isn’t an official schedule.  Generally, the marshrutka leaves when there are enough passengers for the driver to make a profit.  Now, this is simple enough but what always makes me nervous is the reliance on luck.  Maybe there aren’t any marshrutkas at the station when you get there, so you wait until one shows up.  Maybe the passing marshrutka is full.  Maybe you can’t read Georgian letters quickly enough to figure out if you need to hail that marshrutka or not (this is the reason I usually walk a little further to go to the stations, actually).  Although all these “maybes” always make me nervous about “marshrutka-ing it”, I haven’t yet had any problems.  On one of my trips there were no marshrutkas destined for my town, so I took a marshrutka to the next town and got off along the highway (a longer walk, but not at all a problem).  Though I remain skeptical of the system’s efficiency, it seems to work and has been working for millions of people for years…

Update May 25, 2012:
I’ve noticed from my WordPress stats that many people seem to be finding this post looking for advice on how to ride a marshrutka, so I’ve written another post dedicated to that subject just for you!

Thomas de Waal (I’ve posted his articles before; he’s one of my favorite Georgia-watchers) has a fascinating new piece in Foreign Policy magazine (yes, another favorite of mine) on using great Russian literature to better understand the  political situations of the Former Soviet Union.  He uses Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” as his analogy for Georgia.  Now, unfortunately I’ve never read Karamazov (my apologies to my many excellent Russian literature professors, I’m more of an early-19th-century girl: Pushkin, Lermontov, and Durova!) so I can’t offer an opinion on de Waal’s literary parallels, but based on his description I agree that he is on to something.  Maybe I’ll read The Brothers Karamazov and be able to share more.

And, in other thoughts on the article, I think de Waal’s format of using literature to talk about politics really shows the importance of Area Studies as an academic field. I studied East European Studies in graduate school and received a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, and am a big proponent of the program.

Another PSA that might be of interest: Kiva and Ladies’ Home Journal are offering 3000 free trials of the microlending program through January 31, 2012.  All these loans are for female entrepreneurs, and there are some in Armenia and Azerbaijan (UPDATE: as of 1/4 there are now many Georgian borrowers) as well as other Eastern European and Former Soviet countries. You can check out the program here.  Because this is a free trial, the repayment on the loan will go back to Kiva, not to you, so this isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme.  I’d heard conflicting opinions on Kiva’s usefulness, and thought this was a good opportunity to really see how it works for myself.  I lent money to Rima from Armenia and her grocery store (see photo).  I also saw this as an opportunity to do a Kiva loan without focusing on the financial details–repayment period and likelihood, as I would feel obligated to do with my own money, and just to find a borrower and project that I liked.  I suggest you take a look!

Elise is off doing wonderful things and making change as a Peace Corps Volunteer and English teacher in Ukraine.  She’s putting together a project to buy English books for her school.  Elise is really a great person–and she’s given me plenty of advice for preparing to go back to Georgia in an entirely different capacity and given me pointers on working and teaching in the Former Soviet Union.  You should visit her original post here, but I’m re-posting the entire post in its entirety so that the word gets out.  And, as she mentions, you should provide your contact info for a thank-you card from her kids–I got one for a box of books I sent and it was ADORABLE.

English Textbook Grant

Posted on December 21, 2011

I am very pleased to announce that my Partnership grant, which has been in the works for a very large part of my Peace Corps Service, has finally become a reality. We finished everything last week, signed it, and today I got an email from Washington, DC saying that it is available on the website for donations.

Please, if at all possible, make a donation to this grant! Every dollar counts. Just $15 will guarantee that one of the students will have a textbook to use until they graduate. However, any amount you can donate to this project will be greatly appreciated.  Also, please know that donations through Peace Corps are tax-deductible.

To donate, click here. It will take you to the official Peace Corps website, and to information about the project. It is called “English Textbooks and Maximizing Potential.” Then, enter the amount you want to donate and follow the instructions. 

You can also go to and click on “Donate to Volunteer Projects” on the left hand side. In the search bar, type in Stephens or 343-294 to get to my project. It is called “English Textbooks and Maximizing Potential.”  Then, enter the amount you want to donate and follow the instructions.  

***Please note, if you donate to the general fund of Peace Corps or Ukraine, the money will not go to this project.***

English Textbooks and Maximizing Potential

One of the biggest struggles for teachers nowadays is the lack of motivation among their students. Luckily, our specialized school for foreign languages doesn’t have that problem. Students specifically attend because they want to study English. They dream of becoming translators, journalists, diplomats – even actors and actresses.

With eager students, passionate English teachers and more lessons per week than a general school (5 compared to 2-3), our school’s potential for success is great. However, the reality is that motivated teachers and students are not enough, if the foundation of the educational curriculum itself is inadequate.

We don’t have enough books for our students. Students have to share them, so no one can take them to complete homework. Using them in class is problematic; in addition to having 2 or 3 students to one book, the books are outdated, disjointed and full of errors. Despite extremely low salaries, teachers try to supplement the books by buying additional materials. New textbooks are desperately needed but this community just can’t afford it.

This grant would allow us to buy new textbooks. With modern, relevant books, grammar and vocabulary lessons would build upon each other, ensuring that language skills are repeated and revised. Lessons based on new textbooks would result in a more cohesive curriculum with defined objectives. Teachers would be able to do their jobs better. Students would have no limits to their progress.

With your help, our school can maximize its full potential and propel its students towards a successful future.

If you can’t donate monetarily, I encourage you to read my colleague’s list of suggestions: If You Can’t Give Money.  Anything you can do to help with this grant project is greatly appreciated!”

As a grad student in East European Studies in the Midwest, I had the opportunity to attend the Midwest Slavic Conference. I recently received the latest call for papers in my e-mail, and thought I would pass the information along–I found the conference to be a fun and supportive forum (and the cookies were good! Always an important factor.) Here is the official information:

Midwest Slavic Conference Flyer2012 Midwest Slavic Conference
The Ohio State University
March 30 – April 1, 2012

The Midwest Slavic Association and The Ohio State University Center for Slavic and East European Studies (CSEES) are proud to announce the 2012 Midwest Slavic Conference, to be held at OSU March 30 – April 1, 2012.

Conference organizers invite proposals for panels or individual papers addressing all disciplines related to Russia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. The conference will open with a keynote address and a reception on March 30th, followed by two days of panels. If you would like to participate, please send a one-paragraph abstract and brief C.V. to by January 7, 2012. Undergraduate and graduate students are encouraged to submit presentations. Limited funding will be available to subsidize student lodging.

Application Deadline: January 7
Notification of Acceptance: February 1
Panels Announced: March 1
C.V. and Paper Submission Deadline: March 15

CSEES would also like to announce the Midwest Slavic K-12 Teacher Workshop: “Islam Outside the Middle East.” This workshop will take place on Saturday, March 31st and is open to all current and pre-service K-12 teachers of all subjects and grade levels. For more information on the workshop, please contact Ms. Jordan Peters at

For more information…
Center for Slavic and East European Studies at OSU
303 Oxley Hall, 1712 Neil Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210
(614) 292-8770 ~

%d bloggers like this: