Don's Diary

February 13, 1998


I am just getting used to smallness: small country, small town and a tiny college. Vidzemes Augstskola (ViA), a new university college in Valmiera in northern Latvia, has only 200 students, shared between political science, economics, psychology and tourism studies. I work there as a Civic Education Project lecturer (CEP employs western lecturers to teach in Eastern European universities and engage in education reform projects).

It is a frustrating day. My political theory tutorials are disappointing. The students have not done the reading although I set very little because of language difficulties, and Latvian laconism makes class discussion a challenge.

As our rector, Janis Ikstens, is ill, I cannot discuss my forthcoming meeting in Russia with him (I am to represent ViA's political science faculty in cooperation discussions between ViA, Novgorod and Tartu universities), leaving me uninformed and ill-prepared. Novgorod University is in Russia; Tartu in Estonia.


As Janis is ill, I have to go to Riga (two hours away by bus) to collect our passports and visas from the travel agent. I combine the trip with shopping in Riga's well-preserved old town.


The snow returns. I prepare classes for next week and watch The Thornbirds with a Latvian voice-over with Russian subtitles but I remember the story anyway.


Meet Anita from economics, who is to drive to Tartu. Snow, ice, potholes and 90-degree bends do not slow us down. At the border between Latvia and Estonia we buy car insurance and meet the Tartu delegation: Urmas from economics and Vello, an Estonian-American from political science. Drive towards Novgorod (370km) in a bright yellow Ford minibus, amusing ourselves with Russian border horror stories. 15.30: arrive at border between Estonia and Russia. Ten years ago this was all one country. Our documents fully examined, we enter Russia at 16.20. Time spent at borders today: 1 hour, 30 minutes. (We were lucky.) The road from the border to Novgorod is icy and rutted. 21.00: arrive in Novgorod to stay in the Best Western, a luxury hotel.


Breakfast in hotel. Capitalism has not improved Russian milk. Temperature is mild (-3 degrees C). Valery Zelenin, vice-president of Novgorod State University, takes us to the main university building, a big contrast to the hotel: broken-down 1970s decor and cold. The meeting is in English, although everyone except me speaks Russian. "English is more neutral," says Zelenin, who wants help in creating an MBA course for the university's best students (those who can afford fees). He has visited the "Eurofaculty" in Tartu and is impressed. He wants an academic exchange to help curriculum development and to train teaching staff. Neither Tartu nor ViA are ready for this - we also need teachers and rely on visiting foreign lecturers funded by CEP or Eurofaculty. We can agree on some cooperation though: a student conference in Tartu, an exchange of students for short research trips, and an economics workshop in Novgorod. The scope for cooperation in political science seems more limited as Novgorod has neither a political science faculty nor a BA programme. Even if ViA's western-looking students were sufficiently interested in Russian politics, it seems unlikely they will be ready for research without a local political scientist to guide them.

Lunch and tour of medieval Kremlin. Novgorod was an autonomous kingdom and until the 16th century the city was ruled by a system of town meetings, the Veche. Several Lenin statues still standing. Visit Institute of Humanities sited in an old monastery. The institute is more interested in social and cultural theory than in political science. Academics there suggest that Vello and I have an "American" view of political science in that we see it as a subject separate from philosophy and cultural theory. They prickle my qualms about being a British academic in Russia representing a Latvian institution after only four months in Latvia. At the economics institute we meet students and listen to a long speech about Russian-Baltic cooperation. Fuel for jokes on the journey home. Arrive in Valmiera exhausted.


Lecture on Locke. Email CEP Russian director suggesting setting up a lecturer position in Novgorod. As afternoon off is deserved, I walk home via Valmiera's recently opened supermarket. Try a new blend of tea - Sir Winston's sounds English enough.


Lecture on Locke. Several students show me proposals for papers at CEP's student conference in the spring and I suggest some changes. Seminar on feminist political theory, a course I have developed, although not a popular subject in Eastern Europe.

Karen M. Ford. Lecturer at Warsaw University, Poland since 1995. She moved to Latvia this academic year. More information on CEP can be found on

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