#21: Russian students and shadows (1910)

From the time of our first voyage on the Black Sea, in 1890, we felt the shadowy influence of Czarist Russia lying along those coasts, often quite intangible and cold but always powerful. And one who knew them could not help liking the Russian people, characteristically kind-hearted, good-natured and winning. If they were superstitious, they were also reverend; if ignorant, they were thirsty for information; if poor, belated and oppressed, there was the more reason for friendly cooperation on the part of us Americans. The Caucasus provinces were next door to Anatolia. Many of the people of the two neighbor regions were of the same blood, Turks or Tatars, Armenians, Georgians, Circassians, Greeks. And the Crimea was just beyond the Caucasus. The process of Russification was going steadily forward. Some settlers in Russia had relatives in Turkey. So it was not strange when a student or two of non-Russian race slipped over to study in our College. Following the Constitution, two students became six, Russian or non-Russian citizens from Muscovy, then rapidly increased to a dozen, a score, and with the academic year, 1910, our students from Russia numbered 31, 10 or more coming from truly Russian homes, but with Cossack, Polish, Georgian, Greek and Jewish representatives in the growing quota. Students completing our course would lay the foundation for an education, while those leaving after a shorter period could acquire an adequate use of English, French and accounting, not forgetting Russian, and could find employment on leaving school at salaries as good as were received by their college professors and better than their fathers ever earned. Young Russians were keen to get what we Americans offered.

The Russian students were well liked individually and as a group. They did not "grind" as scholars, but they got the English language rapidly and well, and that was primarily their object in coming to us. With their tall figures, blue eyes, tight jackets, and belts with brass buckles, they presented a Northern appearance quite different from some students of more southern areas, Arabs and others, whom we knew, often with loose robes and relaxed muscles. One might expect the Russians to be difficult students to control, but such did not prove to be the case. When student and teacher faced each other, the characteristic Slav in our experience was fully amenable to authority and was exceedingly courteous.

Working as Dean with the students who sought us, and visiting their homes and communities when the right time came, gave me the key as I felt to the Russian character: it was essentially youthful, boyish, sometimes seeming almost childish. Russia was the youth among the nations. Peter the Great grabbed the Russian coat collar and yanked the awkward, bashful boy forward to a place in the refined society of Europe. Russians suggested the remark of Abraham Lincoln that the Lord must love common people, or he wouldn't have made so many of them.

NEXT: Turkish students (1914)