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When glasnost came to Middlebury, Part II: Soviet student exchanges changed lives

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Posted on September 6, 2018 |
By Nick Garber



Soviet exchange 2 Armenian student in Middlebury Ter-Kazarian,.jpg
ARMENIAN STUDENT KRISTINA Ter-Kazarian, second from right, came to Middlebury College 30 years ago as part of a groundbreaking exchange program with the Soviet Union. She is shown with Raymond Benson, second from left, who headed up the program, and other Soviet exchange students at an orientation event in Middlebury in August 1988. Courtesy photo Kristina Ter-Kazarian

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part series. Part one, published on Sept. 3, discussed the months of negotiations between Middlebury College administrators and Soviet officials that produced a groundbreaking exchange program 30 years ago this fall.

MIDDLEBURY — In March 1988, after a year of negotiations, officials from the Soviet Union and a Middlebury College-led consortium agreed to send college students between the two superpowers in an effort to calm Cold War tensions.

Hours after the first Soviet students arrived in Middlebury that August, consortium administrators had a problem on their hands: the students had disappeared.

“The college had taken over the Middlebury Inn and housed the students there,” recalled Ron Nief, who served as Middlebury’s public affairs director at the time. “A number of us went down to meet their leaders. We got there, and couldn’t find a lot of the students — they weren’t in their rooms, they weren’t at the hotel.”

Where they were, it turned out, was the Grand Union supermarket across the street from the Inn, today the site of Shaw’s supermarket.

“They were all over there buying food, because in their minds, this couldn’t last,” said Nief, who now lives in Madison, Wisc. “They had come from a situation where if bread showed up, you bought all you could because there wouldn’t be any tomorrow. They bought fresh vegetables and food and started hoarding it.”

This group, after all, wasn’t only younger and less supervised than any past student delegation to come here from the USSR. It was also far more diverse, composed of undergraduates from more underprivileged Soviet Republics like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

“The Soviet Union itself was very hierarchical,” said Kevin Moss, a Russian professor at Middlebury who later served as the resident director in Moscow for the Middlebury-based American Collegiate Consortium for East-West Cultural and Academic Exchange. “If people had opportunities, they were people from Moscow, maybe from Leningrad. But (consortium students) were people from any university in the Soviet Union, so they were coming from all kinds of provincial universities. The biggest thing that they could have imagined before was maybe going to Moscow, and now they’re coming to the United States.”

Kristina Ter-Kazarian was one such student. A native of Armenia, she had been studying computer science at a university in the capital city of Yerevan when she was summoned to her dean’s office for an unexpected meeting.

“He gave me something in English to read, and he said, ‘Can you translate it for me?’” she recalled in a recent conversation. “I translated it, and obviously he checked my grades before so he knew I was one of the best students, and he said, ‘Would you like to study in the United States?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, maybe!’”

While Ter-Kazarian was intrigued by the offer, her parents faced the difficult choice of allowing their only child to spend a year in a country they knew little about.

“Most people in the Soviet Union in those times didn’t travel to the U.S., so whatever information they were getting was from the TV or other media,” she said, “which in Cold War times wasn’t that positive!”

Ter-Kazarian, though, said that people her age tended not to share the concerns of the elder generations.

“I wasn’t really scared. We didn’t believe most of the things we were told on TV, either good or bad,” she said. “You’d just say, ‘I’m going to go myself and try it out!’”

‘WE WERE THERE, REBELLING’

With parental approval, Ter-Kazarian became one of the 52 students who arrived in Middlebury in August 1988 for a three-week orientation. A program in the Middlebury College archives shows a jam-packed schedule: visits to Addison County Fair and Field Days and Shelburne Farms, meetings with reporters and photographers, nightly screenings of quintessentially American films: “Citizen Kane,” “Chinatown,” “Annie Hall.”

Nana Tsikhelashvili, a student from Moscow who studied through the consortium two years later in 1990, remembered feeling disbelief as she was bused around rural Vermont.

 

“I had an illusion that the U.S. was all like Manhattan — I was looking for skyscrapers,” she said. “But we had been driving through little towns and villages in New England, and every time I’d look out the window I’d see small houses and cemeteries. I was like, ‘What?’”

“It was good to give you some flavor of the culture,” Ter-Kazarian said of her own orientation. “Then when you start studying, the real life starts there.”

Unlike most of the other students, who were shipped to liberal arts colleges across the country, Ter-Kazarian was one of three who remained at Middlebury College for the academic year in 1988-89. The freedom of the liberal arts curriculum was a radical change for Ter-Kazarian and most other exchange students, who were accustomed to highly specialized Soviet universities. An Independent article from September 1988 — published under the headline “Unchaperoned Soviet student tests the waters” — documented her daunting experience on the first day of classes.

“I just spent the day going to classes to see what they are like,” Ter-Kazarian said at the time. “There is so much to choose from that it took me a lot of time to figure out what I wanted.” Her final schedule included two computer science courses, but also courses in Soviet history and studio art — the latter of which helped her discover a creative passion she never knew she had.

Tsikhelashvili, who was sent to Trinity College in Connecticut for the 1990-1991 school year, recalled spending her first days on campus as an object of curiosity.

“I was staying with three other roommates, and in the beginning, hundreds of people were coming to see us,” she said. “All of them were curious just to look at me — what was I wearing, how did I look?” One roommate admitted she was shocked by Tsikhelashvili’s brightly colored clothing, having assumed the Soviets would be clad in black and brown.

As the months passed, Ter-Kazarian and Tsikhelashvili said they got used to American academic and social life, despite the heaviness of the workload. And while the consortium staff remained ecstatic over the groundbreaking nature of the program, the students agreed that any geopolitical significance tended to fly over their heads.

“You feel like you’re breaking lots of barriers just by talking to people,” Ter-Kazarian said, “but you don’t feel like you’re doing something politically important.”

One exception, Tsikhelashvili noted, was a visit her consortium class made to the Soviet Embassy in Washington during January 1991. A dull meeting with a Soviet diplomat turned contentious as students sought answers about an ongoing military occupation of Lithuania.

“Students from our group started asking political questions … The conversation became very tense, and the embassy personnel were embarrassed by the fact that they didn’t know what to say or how to react,” she recalled. “That was a very official place, and all of a sudden we were there, rebelling.”

“That particular moment made me think that this was very important — a really unique situation,” she said. “There were only 70 young people from all over the Soviet Union who were not afraid of talking about controversial topics in front of a very high bureaucrat. An understanding of the real importance of this exchange came later.”

‘A WHOLE NEW LIFE’

Following their respective years abroad, Ter-Kazarian and Tsikhelashvili returned to a tumultuous Soviet Union. Ter-Kazarian went back to Armenia in 1989 to complete her computer science degree. When Tsikhelashvili returned to Moscow in the summer of 1991, meanwhile, she was greeted almost immediately by societal collapse.

“In August of 1991 there was a coup in the Soviet Union and soon after that there was the collapse of the Soviet Union — it became a completely different country,” Tsikhelashvili said. “You could feel the unity of people and the new expectations, new hopes, new illusions.”

Yet as the USSR broke apart and their native countries changed dramatically, both women retained their ties to the United States. Ter-Kazarian enrolled in Armenia’s first-ever MBA program, affiliated with the University of Southern California, leading her to a 10-year corporate career at Johnson & Johnson in Russia.

But after a few years, the liberal arts came calling. Remembering the beloved studio art course she took during her first semester at Middlebury, Ter-Kazarian left the corporate world to found an “art consulting” company in Armenia, advising businesses on their art collections and office exhibitions. After a decade in the arts, Ter-Kazarian recently moved to Seattle, where she plans to pursue a degree in museum studies from the University of Washington.

“This is exactly why I say my decision to take an art class at Middlebury was really important,” she said. “Because it came back to me much later in my career — I started up a whole new life!”

The consortium itself disbanded in the mid-1990s — the combined result of declining federal education funding in the United States and the new freedom of Soviet students to apply directly to American universities without the aid of a consortium. Tsikhelashvili, who had taken a job a few years earlier at the consortium’s Moscow office, joined the staff of Middlebury College’s School in Russia shortly afterwards, where she remains as the program director.

With a job that obligates her to continue straddling the two countries, Tsikhelashvili said her yearly trips back to Vermont have given her an unusually balanced perspective.

“I think I understand American people better than other Russian people understand them,” she said. “When you have a family member, you know sometimes they’re a good person and sometimes there are some shady things about them. Nobody’s perfect, but you still love this person — you still feel like it’s your family.”

And Ter-Kazarian made her own pilgrimage back to Middlebury a few years ago, to accompany her son as he enrolled as a first-year at the college in 2010. Walking around campus with her family, she was happy to recognize some of the sights she’d left behind in 1989. But the real shock, she said, filled her nostrils as they entered Proctor Dining Hall.

“I recognized the smell of Proctor! It smelled like this kind of spaghetti sauce. It was — you cannot imagine,” she recalled with astonishment. “You don’t think about this — you remember houses, buildings, but you never think about the smell of the cafeteria.”

Where her own parents had once hesitated, watching their daughter leave to study in a foreign, adversarial nation, Ter-Kazarian now felt reassured.

“I felt so safe, because I knew the school,” she said. “Even though I was living in Armenia and Russia at that time, it felt like, ‘Oh, OK, he’s in a good place. There are good people around him.’”

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