MIDDLEBURY — Hauling across the globe from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Middlebury every summer since 2007 is, in some ways, a return home for Nina Kostyuk, a Russian professor at the Middlebury Russian Language School.
After 41 years studying and teaching in Russia’s second-largest city, the trip to Addison County brings Kostyuk back to her childhood growing up in a village outside the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa.
“Breathing is so easy here,” she said. “Now I live in the big city and the air is not as fresh and has a lot of pollution. It (reminds me of) the real village, like in my childhood.”
But growing up in the Soviet Union wasn’t always smooth sailing, Kostyuk recalled. Dealing with strict governmental regulations, censorship and the constant threat of a looming war with the U.S. were all grave realities.
Drawing on her youth, she still remembers the atmosphere in The Ukraine during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“I remember the adult people discussing the crisis, and they were afraid the war would happen,” she said. “I was a child and I remember that everyone was excited … and I wouldn’t say that America (was considered) the enemy, I would say your president (was thought of as) the enemy. All the speeches were against him.”
For years, she lived cloaked in a world of bewilderment about foreign places like the U.S., unsure of what characteristics such a place and its people might possess. Little did she know then that she’d grow up to become one of Russia’s leading educators for foreign students, going on to oversee the foreign students’ program at St. Petersburg State University.
When she left home to begin her collegiate studies at St. Petersburg State — where she also attained her PhD. and has taught Russian to foreigners for 25 years — she ended up living with a group of foreign students, which included Americans.
“When I entered university, I was living with students from America in ’77 and ’78,” she said. “We were sleeping in one room all together and at that time I realized that all the governments and all the politicians are on one side (of the coin) and the people are on the other side.”
While she lived with her foreign roommates, Kostyuk felt like she had to play by different rules. She recalled a debate that she had with her American friends.
“At that time … they were free persons and we were not,” she said. “We could not be very sincere at that time … I remember this. It was a little bit embarrassing to be asked questions (by our American friends) and be restricted (in what we could say) by our communist morals.”
Kostyuk not only befriended Americans, but she also grew close to her German roommates, much to her mother’s dislike. Kostyuk’s family had previously suffered at the hands Germans, she said, so when her mother visited the university, she would not enter Kostyuk’s room.
“But for me there were no barriers,” she said. “I think that with a community where you’re living together, like here (at the Middlebury language schools), it helps you to make friends. It helps you to understand people. No barriers is what I felt when I was in the company of foreigners at that time.”
When people from two very different cultures first meet, Kostyuk said she believes an initial fear exists.
“We’re afraid not to behave according to cultural grounds and to (impose) cultural emotions,” she said.
Kostyuk, however, believes people are the same all around the world.
“People’s reactions are the same. They get hurt sometimes … they make peace with each other,” she said. “They try to hide something and the other tries to find it … It’s like everywhere.”
In 2000, she came to the U.S. for the first time with her daughter. She taught at a private middle school in Chicago while her daughter attended classes.
“I was greatly surprised by the skyscrapers,” she said. “I had never seen skyscrapers.”
Before she left, she went on an adventure on a boat down the Mississippi River, following the course of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn; a demand that Kostyuk’s daughter made based on her favorite book.
In 2004, she met with a representative from the Middlebury College Summer Language Schools, and she decided to apply.
“It’s quite a famous program in St. Petersburg,” she said, touting the respect that Russian professors in Russia’s largest cities hold for the school.
After three years of waiting, a spot opened up at the school and she was offered a job. Thrilled with the chance to teach at what she called a highly organized and premier institution of Russian language learning, she jumped at the opportunity.
When asked about her favorite aspect of spending summers in Middlebury, she responded, “The feeling of professional satisfaction because here you have highly educated students, and it’s the dream of any teacher to have such students in the class.”
She also explained another type of satisfaction that overwhelms her as a teacher: student cooperation and friendship.
“When I see the students become friends and a group it means you will receive the highest results as the professional (instructor).”
As for Middlebury, she speaks of it with a certain twinkle in her eye.
“It’s paradise to compare with all other cities. If you want to have an image of paradise where people are peaceful, they don’t hurry, they smile at you, they don’t speak about trifles and you don’t (feel) like people are (just trying) to make money,” here it is, she said.
Often taking long walks around town, she admires the way that the stars shine in Middlebury.
“And I like the museum — Sheldon Museum,” she said. “I didn’t expect in such a small city to have so nice of a museum.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].