Living in Paradox
Erica Lally ’08 discovers Russia’s complexity during her Fulbright year
by Michelle Simmons
October 1, 2009
Erica Lally ’08 (right) with Irina, her host mother
Erica Lally ’08 is a collector of stories, each of which contains both treasures and losses. There’s the evening she and Russian friends spent with a family from Tajikistan “dancing, eating fried lamb fat and just genuinely enjoying each other’s company.”
It was “one of the most fun and memorable nights of my year here,” she says. “It was also a sobering reality check.”
During her year as a Fulbright scholar in Moscow, Lally recorded many such reality checks as she interviewed, worked beside and shared meals with Russians of all classes and ethnic groups.
Her project, to gather oral histories of the intelligentsia—an elite intellectual class dating back to before the Revolution of 1917—grew from her junior year at Dickinson’s study-abroad program at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow. “I lived with a fantastic host mother, Irina Nikolaevna,” Lally recalls. “She would take me to the dacha [country house] with her, and I fell in love with the people and the place.”
Karl Qualls, associate professor of history and one of Lally’s Fulbright application advisors, says that her research opens a window into a community undergoing significant political, economic and social change in post-Soviet Russia.
“This was a very privileged population,” he explains. “What she’s studying is both the history of this particular dacha and what happened after the Soviet period.”
Lally began her research two years ago, visiting archives in Moscow and interviewing a small group of highly educated Muscovites.
“One of the unusual aspects of this dacha community is that most of the people have lived there for three or more generations,” she says. “I find it absolutely incredible to be able to learn about the history of 20th-century Russia through the stories told by a few families.”
In May, Lally traveled with an international team from her Moscow church to the Pskov region in northern Russia to help build a house for a family in the village of Lapotovo, formerly a collective farm under the Soviet regime. And while she enjoyed her research and the dacha community, her trip to Lapotovo reminded her that she was “living in a bubble inside of a bubble.”
According to Lally, the village’s “reality is very different from the Muscovites I know—they are concerned with the financial markets, freedom of speech and where their child will go to school. Yevgeny Ivanovich—whose new house will still be smaller than most dachas—is concerned about having enough food and a warm place to live in the winter.”
Lally also immersed herself in human-rights issues and volunteered with an anti-human trafficking nongovernmental organization. Human trafficking, especially of women from former Soviet-bloc countries, is on the rise in Russia, and she sees it as “a symptom of much broader issues—poverty, education, corruption and a world that does not yet fully understand the effects of globalization.”
The Tajik family she befriended was a further reminder of globalization’s dark side. These immigrants, says Lally, labor under harsh conditions and are subject to intense cultural bias and violence. “All too often there are reports of Tajiks—or other people from central Asia—being attacked and beaten,” she says. “Now, when I hear those stories, I have names, faces and personal stories to attach to these events.”
Lally returned to the states in August and plans to work with an international human-rights organization before pursuing a Ph.D. in history or international relations.
Meanwhile, she’s written a short history of Kratova based on the stories she collected—many of them full of the mordant wit for which Russians are famous—and shared it with the community that she says has “shared so much with me.”