- You specialise in the history of Russia, a country which provokes great emotions amongst Poles, how do you perceive this country?
- I think that Russia is an extraordinarily interesting country, even though relations between Poland and Russia were in the past, and continue to be, difficult. The history of Russia fascinates me and I think the country has a rich culture and literature, which had a great influence on European culture, particularly if we consider culture in the 19th century context, i.e. the period I specialise in. Russia is also a fascinating country to visit and learn about, and the Russians are an interesting people. And you certainly have to separate politics from the view the average Russian, say from the Kaliningrad District, has of our country. A lot of people from Kaliningrad have been coming to the Tri-City recently. For them, we are, in many ways, an interesting country. I like going to Russia. Every year I try to take a group of students for a research trip to Moscow. I think that theory is theory and practice is practice and first-hand contact with the inhabitants of the country, observing their lives and the unique social conditions enhances students’ knowledge, as well as increasing their knowledge of the realities of life in Russia. I have taught Russian history classes and I think that trips like these are a real lesson in how Russia lives, and also a chance to see with your own eyes the places where ground-breaking historical events took place, events which have had an impact on how the geopolitical map of the world looks today.
- When did you know what your career path would be?
- You have to go back to primary school when I first encountered the family history of the last Czar, Nicholas II, and its tragic conclusion – how they were shot in Ekaterinburg in 1918. This happened to coincide with the official burial of the Czar in 1998. The Polish press printed a lot of stories, often incomplete, about Czar Nicholas II and his family. A particular amount of space was devoted to the history of his youngest daughter Anastasia. There had been speculation for many years that she may have survived the slaughter. I started to read about the subject, and got interested in it, and because I went to a school that offered Russian language classes, I decided that after school I would try for Russian Philology. That’s what happened. I studied philology for five years, but from first year I was a member of the ‘Enthusiasts of the East’ academic circle at the Faculty of History, where I met my maestro, Prof. Zbigniew Opacki, under whom I wrote my MA thesis and am currently writing my doctoral dissertation.
I am a professional teacher of Russian, and apart from that I teach Polish to foreigners. As it turns out, the majority of the students preparing for life in Poland are from countries of the former USSR, which teaches me a great deal too.
- You mentioned the important question of Polish-Russian relations and the dualism of how different they seem at state level, as opposed to when you have contact with ordinary citizens. How could our society be convinced that what we hear about from the highest spheres of leadership is not always what normal people think?
- I think it’s a difficult job. I believe that what’s in the media is only a certain part of how the Russians view us. Of course there is a part of society with a negative outlook on Poland, or more accurately the actions of the Polish government, as much among Ukrainians and Belarusians as Russians, but that doesn’t include all of society and it’s difficult to generalise. I think that one important issue that might bring about changes at the social level is interpersonal contact. Russia is unfortunately quite a closed country, which you need a visa for. This generates additional costs we have to bear, and then there’s the time we have to devote and this is certainly an additional stress. All bureaucratic and consular matters are difficult to get through and stressful. As accustomed as I am, I know that this can be discouraging. Of course, it’s only my opinion, but it’s definitely easier to go to a country that doesn’t require visas or where you can get them at the border. I’m glad that local border traffic has made it easier to go to Kaliningrad and I’m glad that people from Kaliningrad come here, because I think in this way we can see each other as we really are. Politics is politics, but life is life and I believe it can only be good that such contacts are happening. There is a student exchange programme at the University of Gdańsk, where our students go to Kaliningrad, and other cities, for language courses. I have never personally taken part and I don’t know what type of trips they are, I think they’re short – two- or three-week batches, but I do know that students think very highly of them. For them it’s a great chance to use the language in everyday communicative situations. They certainly have the opportunity to observe student life amongst their counterparts at the Immanuel Kant University in Kaliningrad and I think it’s a valuable learning experience. I’m also glad that every year I can take a small group of students to Moscow. Moscow is a Russian phenomenon- they say it’s a state within a state. It’s hard to apply one rule to Moscow and to the rest of the Russian Federation. For students it’s a revelation that some things work differently there and that they go about things in a slightly different way than in Poland. In certain aspects it’s an adventure. Even travelling around Moscow gives you an idea of the size of the city in terms of area. Moscow is spread out, so a simple walk takes on a different dimension than in Gdańsk, for example. Historical buildings and the most interesting places are often several kilometres apart, which is very close for Muscovites, only four Metro stops away. I think this also shows the mechanisms at work in the city and the country …
To come back to the question, economic relations between our countries have existed, do exist and will exist, and I know that there is a need for specialists with a fluent knowledge of Russian and an understanding of Russian realities, all the more so because I worked for a large company after my studies, which specialised in sales on the Eastern market. We will not change our geographic position and we should remember that Russian is in everyday use in Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and in parts of Latvia, which makes contact and work easier. Instead of accepting the image propagated by the media, young people should concentrate firmly on the direction of their professional career.
- Do you have time for a hobby?
- During the academic or school year, I don’t have much time for my greatest passion, which is travelling. I read a great deal, I like going to the cinema, cooking for friends - a little genetics is at play here, since my father is a professional chef and we often cook together, so this is definitely first on the list. My husband and I help homeless cats by giving them temporary shelter and promoting the adoption of animals.
During the holidays, however, free time and everything I’ve managed to save goes on travelling. I’ve managed to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which is possibly the dream of anyone interested in the history of Russia. In my opinion, rail travel is a little overrated, but when travelling on a sleeper train you can certainly hear a lot of stories, meet Russians from smaller towns where life moves differently than in the capital. It’s also an excellent chance to taste traditional Russian specialities … I was with a friend by Lake Baikal and we reached the border with Mongolia. On the way, we managed to see all the places connected with Czar Nicholas II, including Rasputin’s home village, so I fulfilled my childhood dream. We were in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Now I travel with my husband, we’ve been to Russia many times and visited Iran, China, and hitch-hiked through Western Turkey. This year we’re considering the Arabian Peninsula or Russia. We’ve also been to Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States. Every year we also try to visit somewhere in Poland, since we believe you have to know your own country and its tourist attractions. Obviously we’ve also been to the countries of Western Europe, but the ‘East’ remains our favourite. It’s certainly closest to my heart and only there can I relax and take it easy. Every time I’m confirmed in my conviction that the course of studies and professional path I chose is the right one and one that brings fulfilment. I encourage everyone, especially students, to travel eastwards, since the routes east of our borders are decidedly cheaper, and the hospitality you can experience and the uncertainty about what may happen tomorrow – in the positive sense of the word of course, is invaluable. And I encourage all future students to go for History, since as everyone knows, it is life’s teacher.
Interview: Krzysztof Klinkosz
Photos: Piotr Pędziszewski