Barbara Cates, Class of 1980


1. Why did you choose Russian culture as your major? 
I'd like to say it was a carefully considered decision, but it was not.  I'd come to Princeton intending to major in math, and quickly discovered that theoretical math was not for me.  I loved numbers, and the only numbers I saw were the numbers of the questions on the problem set or test, and I was lost.  Meanwhile I'd started studying Russian, and found that it was taking up most of my time, so I might as well major in it.  And the Russian Department threw the best parties; more importantly, it was like a family.  My fellow Russian students were among my best friends at Princeton.  Our classes were small, our professors knew us.  We occasionally had dinners together, babysat one professor's small (Russian speaking) children, and those relationships continued after graduation.  
2. What is your most vivid memory of your college years?
My memories are mostly more warm and fuzzy than vivid, and it's difficult to pick one out, but this one is fun:  at the end of our first year of Russian 101-102, which featured week after week of afternoon drill/torture sessions with our very demanding instructors, Veronika Nikolayevna and Yevgeniya Konstantinovna, we had a party  David Remnick played "Back in the USSR" on his guitar, in full rock star mode, turning flirtatiously to Veronika Nikolayevna, who was from Moscow, as he sang "And Moscow girls make me sing and shout" and we were all laughing and singing along.
3. Which literary work (or any work of art) would you recommend to a newcomer who is interested in Russia, as one of the keys to Russian culture?
Well, I'd thought maybe War and Peace, which first got me hooked on Russian literature even before Princeton, and which is the only full-length novel I've read entirely in Russian - with the aid of an excellent audiobook narration to keep me moving along.  Or Anna Akhmatova's Requiem for the Stalin terror of the 1930s, which I quoted in a Russian radio interview about September 11:  "No, not under a foreign sky, nor under the protection of foreign wings, I was there with my people, there, where, alas, my people were."
But I've settled on the songs of Bulat Okudzhava, perhaps the foremost of the Russian bard singer-songwriters.  His songs reference Chekhov and Pushkin, and in their minor key they express the pain and longing of the Russian soul.  He explores public transportation, from the midnight trolley on which broken people find community in their loneliness to the metro that is never crowded because of the holy eternal order in which people stand on the right and walk on the left.  His songs about war are sung on Victory Day, but they convey the brokenness:  "Grab your coat, let's go home."  And his song about the Arbat is all the more heartbreaking as the soul of the Arbat has given way to commercialism.
4. Which career path did you choose, and why?
Graduating with a Russian degree, officially Slavic Languages and Literature, in 1980, with the Cold War in full force, there weren't a lot of options. There were minimal opportunities in business or culture; I wasn't cut out for the secrecy of CIA or NSA; the State Department seemed way too "establishment" for me; and I couldn't begin to think about academia.  But a few years later I took an internship on the Soviet Desk at State and discovered that it was interesting work being done by people I respected.  By the time I joined the Foreign Service in 1989, glasnost' was in full swing and the Iron Curtain was crumbling, and I was lucky enough to be posted to Moscow as my first assignment, June 1990-December 1991, where I had a front seat for the unraveling of the USSR.  I had two more assignments in that part of the world:  Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 1998-2001, jand Yekaterinburg, Russia 2002-2004, before I retired from the Foreign Service late in 2010.
5. What are you currently working on?
In retirement I've mostly been a free-lance volunteer.  I've continued to use Russian, probably just about every day.  I visit Tashkent regularly to keep up with friends, usually for a month of mostly Russian immersion.  Even as my Russian has gotten more fluent and conversational, I continue to struggle with the random grammatical curve balls the language throws; learning Russian is definitely a lifelong process.  I also volunteer as an OSCE elections observer in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.
6. Are there any comments that you'd like to add?
Majoring in Russian was not a well-thought-out decision on my part, but it's one of the best I've ever made.  The Russian language has opened for me a world of friendships and experiences and adventures that I couldn't begin to dream of when I was an undergraduate.