Crisis in Crimea Threatens Colgate’s Study Group to Russia

A group of 19 Colgate students are slated to embark on an extended study program to major cities in Russia and Kazakhstan from May 19 to June 9 during a time of increasingly chilly relations between the U.S. and Russia. The trip focuses on the political, economic and social development of formerly socialist societies, and will involve tours of Russian cities Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Kazakh cities Almaty and Astana. The program will be led by Associate Professor of Russian Ian Helfant  and Associate Professor of Geography Jessica Graybill.

Given the current volatility of the region and its close geographic proximity to the Colgate group’s itinerary, questions have arisen as to how the trip will be affected by these events. The school and leading professors have been closely monitoring the situation. According to Helfant, two important things to note are that the trip will not involve travel to Ukraine or to Crimea and that there have thus far been no sanctions from either the U.S. or Russian governments that would prohibit or otherwise affect the trip’s ability to take place.

“[My parents and I] have been following the news closely to make sure we know exactly what’s going on, and I do trust the professors and the administration to make a judgement call based on their extensive knowledge about the nation and its policies,” junior Russian/Eurasian studies concentration Amanda Ricca said, who is one of the students set to go on the trip.

In a letter to students, Director of International Programs Kara Bingham discussed the options available to students or parents looking for more information on the situation. Beyond the resources of the U.S. State Department, which are available on the State Department’s website,

Colgate also utilizes a program called “International SOS,” a security company that “provides [Colgate] with objective analyses of potential threats to the health and security of travelers abroad.”

In recent weeks, the world has been captivated by events in Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula on Ukraine’s southern border. The peninsula has been an autonomous region of the Ukrainian state for 60 years, but there are deeply-rooted ethnic and historical ties that bind the Crimean population with that of Russia; the majority of Crimean people identify themselves as Russian and speak the Russian language. Prior to 1954, the area was considered Russian territory, and while much of the overall Ukrainian population supports the movement to align the Ukraine with the European Union, the same cannot be said with certainty about the Crimean population.

In the past four months, the government of now-former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown (largely as a result of unpopular pro-Russian policy decisions made by his regime late last year), and the revolutionary government that replaced Yanukovych has openly sought to align the Ukraine with the European Union, as opposed to Russia. As a result, ostensibly because the Crimean people generally consider themselves Russian, Russian forces invaded and overwhelmed the peninsula, organized a referendum (of questionable legitimacy) and officially annexed Crimea to the Russian federation, claiming that the affront to Ukrainian sovereignty was justified by the close cultural ties between the two regions. As of now, neither the U.S. State

Department nor the Russian government has issued any warnings or travel sanctions that would affect the ability of the trip to take place.

“Sanctions which have arisen… are very specifically targeted at high-level individuals in Russian business and government, rather than foreign students and academics visiting Russia,” Helfant said.

Should the Crimean situation devolve into something even less secure, further action would be discussed and implemented. However, as Helfant pointed out, “a period of tension such as this underscores the importance of continued engagement with Russia and study of its language, culture, geography, economy and politics.”

Both Helfant and Graybill have extensive experience in Russia; Helfant has spent time there as a student, a graduate and a professor, leading Colgate study groups to Moscow in 1999 and 2004, and Graybill recently spent twelve months in the far-eastern region of the country.

Contact Crozer Connor at [email protected].