Language and culture for Russophiles abound in club

The window blinds in room 538 of the William Pitt Union closed to darken a sunset view of the Cathedral as eight Russophiles gathered for a showing of Soviet comedy classic “Twelve Chairs.” As the lights dimmed and the old-fashioned credits rolled, the members of the audience found themselves transported to the streets of Russia, circa 1927.

The film, originally released in the Soviet Union in 1971, was screened by the University of Pittsburgh Russian Club. While within Pitt there are other means of satisfying one’s Russian-movie fix, such as the spring Russian Film Symposium headed by Pitt professor Vladimir Padunov, the Russian Club wants students of all ages and levels of Russian proficiency to have a place to mingle, learn and immerse themselves within Russian culture. 

Jackie Dufalla, the club’s president and a junior majoring in Slavic studies, politics and philosophy, is confident that it can happen.

“There are so many kids who are interested in Russia, but there are a lot of negative stereotypes that go along with it,” said Dufalla. “So what happens is that they’re not too eager to show it — that they’re interested.” 

What these students need, according to her, is “a comfortable atmosphere to get rid of these negative stereotypes and to encourage students to go abroad and study Russian. If they love it, then they love it, and that’s what they should do.”

Dufalla first realized her passion during a sponsored trip to Moscow while taking classes in Pitt’s Summer Language Institute, a program for students who wish to learn Slavic languages at an accelerated pace. 

“I loved it. I just fell in love,” she said.

While the club cannot guarantee that people who stop by its meetings will instantly fall head over heels for the country, they do hold a variety of events for students interested in different aspects of its culture Events such as these include game nights and informal group conversations in Russian. Dufalla joked about fluctuations in club meeting attendance — as events typically attract 10 to 15 people — though “it depends on if we offer free food,” she said. 

Jay Boehmer, a senior Russian major, has attended about 10 to 12 meetings, and remarked that the personal atmosphere of each event has led to a “tight, core family” forming within it. Additionally, he says there is an interesting variety of visitors who attend from different parts of Pittsburgh and keep things from turning too stagnant.

One event, at which graduate students studying related fields discuss their research and field questions, can be meaningful for students studying Russian. 

“It’s not so hopeless as people think …  There are a lot of different areas people are focusing on, and they’re not that much older than you, and they’re passionate about this, and they got funding, and they love it. This is how they did it,” Dufalla said. 

The Russian Club’s group discussion days, which began last semester, have also proven popular among Russian students. These discussions, the next of which will be held  October 4, focus on strengthening proficiency in Russian while conversing with other members of the club.

“Last time we talked about Syria, an obviously hard issue, but it just helps you with your Russian so much because then you get passionate about these topics, and you’re more willing to speak in the language,” Dufalla said. 

She considered people’s willingness to talk about global subjects, rather than those scripted in first-year textbooks. 

“People are much more willing to talk about [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s op-ed in The New York Times rather than talk about their favorite food, you know?”

The Russian movie nights feature both classic pieces of Russian cinema and more obscure films from modern times that escape the international eye. Films are selected to give their audience the greatest cultural perspective — popular past-screened films have ranged from classics such as “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears” to lesser known satires, including “Diamond Arm“ — and ideas can be pitched by anyone to the club’s student officers.

For the next movie night, Dufalla hopes to see an even bigger showing. 

“We’re accepting of everyone, unlike Russia,” she joked. “You will find people who are like you.”

Boris Bukh, an assistant professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University and a native of the former Soviet Union, attended the event. During his third Russian club meeting, he enjoyed the film, which he had last seen many years ago. The club has served as a foray into Soviet culture for him and his wife, Laure Bukh, another Carnegie Mellon faculty member and a native of France, who enjoyed herself but joked that she felt a little intimidated by the language.

Bukh smiled when discussing his wife’s nationality. 

“I’m indoctrinating my wife,” Bukh said.

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