The biggest surprise I experienced during my time in the MSc for Russia and Eastern Europe at the University of Oxford wasthat the degree of dedication which I exhibited for my field of study was consistently observed, sharpened, and matched by the programme’s faculty.
My thesis as a candidate for the REES MSc explores the role of identity in interstate relations by using the case of Belarusian-Russian civil nuclear energy cooperation. As this topic is significantly understudied, challenges were plentiful and, due to COVID-19, fieldwork proved unfeasible. However, support from the faculty and my supervisor (with no less than eleven meetings over nine months!) enabled me to adapt to each of these challenges in such a way that would have been nearly impossible to do alone.
Even after having gained a sense for the Oxford environment whilst studying here for two terms as a visiting affiliate with my undergraduate institution, the University of Georgia in the United States, the REES programme equipped me with a far different education than I anticipated. For an area studies master’s programme condensed into only nine months, the breadth and depth of Russian and East European affairs that the programme manages to provide is invaluable. What I found after a few weeks on the programme is that this provision is very much a two-way street and adapting to challenge is a way of life here. In the REES programme, an average week sees four lectures, two seminar series, two to three classes, and methods training. This is complimented with at least three hundred pages of required reading along with optional reading and continuous essay deadlines in preparation for the final examinations, as well as the thesis. Long working hours, deep thinking, engaging in every opportunity given, talking with guest speakers and visiting professors, developing ideas with my supervisor, and asking questions are minute investments compared to the return gained.
One of my favourite moments was the spontaneous chat with two of my professors and one of our guest speakers from the previous day after happening to run into them during lunch at the Hilda Box. This chat taught me more about how to conduct a comparative study across three quite different countries in order to gain a better understanding of their common characteristics than reading a book on my own would have. A similar opportunity occurred during a post-seminar reception when I was introduced by one of our professors to an Emeritus Professor who was just publishing a book on the subject of an essay that I was currently working on. The first-hand perspective that this Emeritus Professor provided in the time of our conversation made all the difference in my understanding of the subject and the final product of my essay. Throughout the programme, I’ve had the opportunity to meet individuals such as these and experts in the field working in foreign service, think tanks, NGOs, and international organisations, and each encounter has shaped my ultimate understanding of Russia and Eastern Europe.
Upon completing an MSc in REES, prospective students can expect to have gained the capability to think critically about our area and its engagements locally, domestically, and internationally. In this programme, thinking critically is more than simply understanding what happened, when, why and who was involved. Thinking critically can be tracing connections between the health outcomes
in Russia today to the psychological impacts of specific privatisation policies in the 1990s to consumption restrictions in the Gorbachev era all the way to critical decision points in the 1960s, and offering scenarios that could have and may still alter the course of health in Russia. Thinking critically can also be identifying agents of change in migration patterns that transform Wellington boots in Poland from work supplies to fashion icons whilst also transforming Roma migration to London from daydream to nightmare. This skill of critical thinking is priceless in any field and indispensable in understanding such a unique area as Russia and Eastern Europe.
Ultimately, the REES MSc has been even more valuable than I anticipated, and I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to be part of the 2020 cohort. It is not just the programme itself but the entire experience within and surrounding it that provide a complete package for students of Russia and Eastern Europe. There is no other programme like this one.