Experiences in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Germany, and El Salvador

photo by Kimberly Williams
photo by Kimberly Williams

by Robert Middlekauff

This past summer,four Sewanee students ventured abroad to three different continents to learn about other cultures and explore specific research projects. Founded in 1991, the Biehl fellowship allows Sewanee students to pursue a self-directed social science research project in a non-English speaking country of their choice. The intent of the fellowship is for the students to have substantial contact with the society being studied, and the students must submit a research paper and present a public talk upon their return to Sewanee. On September 26, Chane Corp (C’14), Maggie Dunlap (C’14), Rebecca Manseau (C’15), and Kathleen Richter (C’14) shared their experiences from their time in Kyrgyzstan, El Salvador, Germany, and Russia, respectively.Chane Corp traveled to Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Republic south of Kazakhstan, in order to understand the nature of Kyrgyz identity. Around the size of South Dakota, Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country inhabited by a mostly Muslim population of five million people, two-thirds of which are ethnically Kyrgyz. Kyrgyzstan’s was a part of a series of Central Asian empires, the most recent and influential of those in the USSR.

Corp went to this country to discover how the Soviet Union contributed to the formation of the modern Kyrgyz identity. In contrast to Eastern Europe, a large amount of nostalgia still exists in Kyrgyzstan for the former USSR. This period saw many improvements in the Kyrgyz economy, and they began to create a dual identity as both Kyrgyz citizens of the nominally independent Kyrgyz Republic and Soviet citizens of the USSR. Although this country has formal independence today, the legacy of the Soviet Republic continues to impact the Kyrgyz people.

After spending five years of her youth in El Salvador, Dunlap decided to travel back to the country in order to understand the great U.S. influence on this small country of around six million people. During the twentieth century, this country has seen a series of autocratic and military presidents followed by a long civil war from 1979 to 1992. The war pitted the right-wing coffee elite and the army against various socialist and communist groups that eventually coalesced into the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). It was largely a guerrilla war in which the U.S. supported the right-wing elite as a part of its Cold War policy of containment of communism. The U.S. influence on this country is still quite evident to this day: the U.S. has the largest embassy in Ecuador, and El Salvador’s currency is the American dollar. Dunlap’s main area of research was an analysis of the impact of the civil war on the identity of the Salvadoran people.

She discovered that the country is still so impacted by the civil war, and subsequent U.S. influence, that it divides the country to this day and contributes to modern attitudes and mentalities among the population. She believes there is a persistence of Cold War divisions, a lack of rule of law, and an alienation from the political process. This is exacerbated by the general sense in El Salvador that the civil war lacks any sort of closure. The war is still fresh in many people’s minds and those guilty of war crimes never saw any jail time.

Next, the presentations turned away from less developed countries in Asia and Central America when Manseau presented on the naturalization process in Germany and the role of language in this process. This issue stems from the increase in economic activity in Germany after World War II when Germany welcomed many Turkish people to fill the need for more workers. This influx of immigrants, however, was not accompanied by a change in immigration laws, and citizenship was mostly restricted to ethnic Germans and those of Jewish descent.

In 2000, the German government reformed this policy to allow more of its residents to become German citizens, and Manseau analyzed naturalization tests that immigrants may take after residing in Germany and holding a job for a certain period of time to apply for citizenship. The tests are not standardized throughout Germany, and they are selected from a pool of 310 potential questions. Through interviews of Turkish and native German people in Berlin, Manseau wanted to research how language and the difficulty of the tests play a role in the naturalization process. She discovered that even many Germans did not know the answers to the questions, but those immigrants who study and have a good grasp of the German language perceive the tests as less difficult.

The final project concerned the changing role of women in the Russian Federation since the collapse of the USSR. Richter went to Moscow and St. Petersburg to interview women and compare their roles in the USSR with that of women in the Russian Federation. She discovered that women in the USSR were seen as somewhat equal to men, but they were expected to carry the dual burdens of motherhood and employment. In contrast, the modern woman has been heavily impacted by the influence of the West and favors a glamorous, materialistic lifestyle, rather than the productive role of their predecessors.

For those who have interest in becoming a Biehl fellow, now is the time to start preparing. The fellowship is open to sophomores and juniors who are social science majors. There will be a meeting in November, and those interested should begin discussing project proposals with their professors this semester. For more information, contact Career Services.

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