Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Risk Worth Taking

Michael Denner poses next to a portrait
 of Russian author Tolstoy.
Stetson University Russian Studies Professor Michael Denner has always encouraged his students to take risks. Teaching by example, in June 2011, he decided to take a risk of his own and trekked across the Russian countryside with his friend and academic colleague, Thomas Newlin, a professor at Oberlin College. The two men walked 100 miles in five days from Moscow to Tula walking in the footsteps of renowned Russian author, Leo Tolstoy.
Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy lived from 1828-1910, and is most famously known for his historical novel, War and Peace. He was also known as a profound religious thinker who even influenced the philosophy of Gandhi.
Because he despised spending his winters in Moscow, Tolstoy decided to take the first of many journeys in the spring of 1886, and walked 125 miles from Moscow to his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in Tula. As soon as weather permitted and without any planning, he grabbed his boots, bag, and began walking home. Along the way, the author slept in the fields, was welcomed into strangers’ homes and took refuge in inns and the homes of his friends.
Professor Denner was inspired to duplicate Tolstoy’s trek not only to get a better understanding of the author, who has fascinated him throughout his life, but to also get a deeper understanding of the Russian people themselves.
During a recent faculty presentation in Flagler Hall, Denner constantly emphasized how welcoming the Russian people were to him. Despite being warned that he might be robbed or harassed or even hit by a car, Denner encountered only kindness coming from the Russian people. He even stated, “The tradition of Russian hospitality has not changed a bit… even the dogs were nice to us. Everybody we met loved Tolstoy.”
"Dacha for sale" is posted in front of a building in rural Russia.
At a pace of 30 miles per day, the two professors traveled through Chekhov, Serpukhov, Pushchino, and Yasnogorsk. Fighting through the aches, pains…and blisters, Denner and Newlin were determined to reach their goal.
Their walk was filled with acts of kindness by the Russian people. A closed bridge would have taken them a dozen miles out of their way if not for a stationed ambulance crew that, without hesitation, used their boat and ferried the two professors across the Oka River.
One night, the director of the Audrey Bolotov Estate (Bolotov was known as “the Thomas Jefferson of Russia”) allowed them to stay in a “shalash,” a type of grass hut. The estate director then surprised them with ‘a true Russian night.’ They stayed up until 3 a.m. eating, drinking and singing old Russian songs.
Feeling the risk was well worth it, Denner said, “Here at Stetson, I am often called upon to be something of a translator of culture and to talk about what life is like in Russia. Previously, I had only spent time in the major cities of Russia. I had a very urban understanding of Russia. And now, having seen it first hand, I have a much more complex and richer understanding of contemporary Russian life.
“I feel like a better mentor and better advisor because of this experience.”

No comments:

Post a Comment