Jake Robertson, Class of 2015


1. Why did you choose Russian culture as your major?
As a nerdy ten-year-old who always chose history books over YA novels, I stumbled upon Russia: A Concise History by Ronald Hingley and was hooked on Russian history, language and culture. When I arrived at Princeton, I knew that I had two passions: Theater and Russia. I initially planned to major in Politics, but it soon became apparent to me that my deep love of stories, and the people in them, which drew me to both Russia and Theater, would take center stage within the intimate community of the Slavic Department. Slavic was endlessly supportive of my dive into the world of Gulag Theater, and fostered both my academic and creative passions. The close-knit nature of the department and it’s devoted faculty offered me a family that both nurtured and intellectually challenged me during my time at Princeton and beyond.
2. What is your most vivid memory of your college years?
I’ve got a kaleidoscope of happy and rewarding memories from my college years, but the most indelible was my PIIRS-sponsored thesis research trip to Russia’s Subarctic Komi Republic. It was truly the adventure of a lifetime, and I came away with a trove of thrilling memories, incredible primary resources, and academic and personal relationships that still thrive today. 
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?
How to choose?! I suppose the piece that affected me most deeply was Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, a thrilling look into the mind of a man losing his sense of reality in mid-19th century Russia. It offers a hilarious and disturbing critique of the arbitrary strictures and divisions holding up the Russian Imperial caste system. I later adapted this work, colliding the madman’s tale with my own biography to create my one-man theater thesis MADMAN, which I later revised and performed Off-Broadway in New York City.
4. Which career path did you choose, and why?
 My career path has proven to be a winding road that I would not trade for the world. After finishing undergrad, I went off to get my MA in Acting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, after which I moved to NYC, where I began life as an actor, writer, Russian teacher, translator, researcher, cat sitter and an array of other odd-jobs, all the while continuing my own research into theater in the Soviet Gulag. After 5 years in the city, I am now heading to Oxford with the Clarendon Scholarship for a 3yr research PhD, wherein I plan to explore Gulag theater even further, with the hope of using that research to create theatrical, literary and cinematic expressions of the stories and the people of that mysterious world. 
5. What are you currently working on?
I am currently neck-deep in the extensive editing process of my translation of a Gulag Theater memoir. With the help of a native-Russian-speaking editor, I plan to publish this resource and hopefully spur more interest in this fascinating world of theatermakers.
6. Are there any comments that you would like to add?
The only wisdom I would share with my younger self, though I doubt I would have listened, is this: the world will insist that you define yourself as much as possible, as soon as possible, and at the end of this road of definition lies success or failure. Instead of defining yourself for others, explore your world inside and out, and notice what makes you feel most yourself, what lights you up inside, and do whatever you can to fill your life with as much of that light as possible, definitions be damned!