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January Term Course Sheds Light on Murky Soviet History

January 12, 2012 — Russia has an unpredictable future and a shadowy past.

Professor Yuri Urbanovich, who is teaching a January Term course at the University of Virginia on "Post-Soviet Political Challenges: Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict, Separatism and Irredentism," wants his students to understand that Russia's recent past can be murky because of Soviet secrecy and conflicting viewpoints.

Urbanovich, who teaches about nationalism in world affairs, Russian-American relations and Russian politics, among other topics, in U.Va.'s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, is a native of Tbilisi, Georgia, and has seen much recent Soviet-era history close-up.

He worked in the U.S.S.R.'s Ministry of Foreign Trade in the Republic of Lithuania from 1972 to 1975, the International Relations Division of the U.S.S.R. Union of Cooperatives in Moscow from 1976 to 1980 and served as a consultant to the Soviet delegation at the Geneva Conference for Disarmament from 1986 to 1987. He has also taught at Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1983 to 1986 and was a negotiation trainer for the first Soviet-American workshop on diplomatic negotiations hosted by Columbia University's Harriman Institute for Advanced Studies of the Soviet Union in 1990.

Urbanovich came to U.Va. in 1992 to join Vamik Volkan's now-defunct Center for the Study of the Mind and Human Interaction, which dealt with conflict resolution, There, he coordinated a multi-year project in the newly independent Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

"The project was aimed at promoting Russian-Baltic dialogues, defusing detrimental nationalistic tendencies and enabling a 'velvet divorce' from the Soviet Union," he said. "I know these things from direct involvement. It would be a pity not to share the information, so I offer it as a January Term course."

In the first week of the J-Term's intensive two-week session, he offered a crash course in Russian history and then got the students to build on this knowledge to analyze challenges to post-Soviet Russia, such as the ethnic conflicts that have erupted in many of the former Soviet republics.

He said the 27 students in his class are diverse, with varying background knowledge of history or politics.

"Many of them have a superficial knowledge of the Soviet Union," he said. "They have little understanding of the grievances that built up in the Soviet Union over the years. They have a certain parochialism that comes from viewing a place from far away."

He said he wants to give students a deeper understanding so they can view the situation in Russia more objectively.

"They have a little bit of Hollywood in their viewpoint," he said. "They divide it into good guys and bad guys. They don't understand that there are a lot of gray zones and it is much more complex than it first seems."

To flesh out the gray areas, Urbanovich has the students research certain aspects and present them to the class. In a recent session, nine students outlined some popular understandings of the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union; Urbanovich filled in details of the times and the personalities, recounted personal reminisces and provided cultural context. He also showed them contemporary news accounts of events, such as Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordering tanks to shoot at the Russian parliament building in 1993.

"A student is not a pitcher to be filled up, but a torch to be lit," he said.

Kellianne Tomlinson of Alexandria, a third-year Russia and Eastern European studies major in the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, said the course has helped her understand that she has a love of history. "It's always exciting," she said.

She said she has studied pre-Soviet Russian history, but Urbanovich's course has filled in the more modern times for her.

"We got to see how the Soviet leaders took power and made their own ideology into a totalitarian government," she said.

Grant Johnson, 21, a fourth-year foreign affairs major in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics from Great Falls, has taken two previous courses with Urbanovich. He said he realizes that the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union were better than he had originally thought.

An aspiring diplomat, Johnson said, "My specialty is in East Asia, but I could see myself working in Russia or the republics of the former Soviet Union,"

Kyle Armstrong, 23, a fourth-year government major from Fairfax, said the class has exceeded his expectations.

"I had no background in Russia," he said. "To understand the current situation, you need to look at the past."

He said the course has given him a much clearer understanding of the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the nature of the Cold War and Yeltsin's role in Russian history.

Caroline George, 34, a fourth-year business and social science major in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies from Arlington, took two weeks of vacation time from her job as a property manager to attend the classes.

"This is very valuable to me," she said, "and Professor Urbanovich's stories and personal accounts add to the material.

"It is common to have mischaracterizations and stereotypes with history this complex," she said. "It is always helpful to shed light on preconceptions."

— By Matt Kelly

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