2018 UC Santa Cruz Alumnus Ian Kussin-Gika is currently finishing his first year of Graduate school at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, in Monterey, CA, where he is studying International relations, nonproliferation, and terrorism studies. Prior to this path of study, Ian double majored in Linguistics and History at UC Santa Cruz. During his undergraduate career, Ian had the opportunity to carry out research abroad in Birobidzhan—the autonomous Jewish region established in the Soviet Union that still exists today—and received a Chancellor’s Award, the Hitchcock Award for the Best Overall Essay, and a THI Undergraduate Research Award for the 2017-2018 school year for his senior thesis: Kinderlach and Communists: or A Comparison between Soviet Ethnic Policy and Labour Zionism Through the Lens of the Infamous JAO.
While Ian had not been directly affiliated with the Center for Jewish Studies, he made strong relationships with some of the Jewish Studies faculty who helped him bring his research ideas to life. “I didn’t take any Jewish history classes at all” he explained, “ but my interests came together in my thesis.” He was interested in this research on the Soviet Union because, “as someone Jewish with a family from West Russia, and the Pale of Settlements area, I was interested in learning more about their history .”
During his time studying in Russia, Ian enjoyed “getting to know people that were culturally and religiously similar” to him while experiencing a distinctly different setting. “Getting off the plane, it was about negative 19 degrees Fahrenheit… and the languages spoken were Russian and Yiddish, so the street signs would be in both languages.” With the help of a translator, Ian was able to get insight on the lives of people in Birobidzhan. He interviewed the head Rabbi and was able to meet locals to learn more about the past and present culture of this very particular city. Ian learned, “very few Jews still live there—most of them left to Israel, Canada, or bigger Russian Cities. There is a small Orthodox Jewish community, a small Muslim community, and some Hahn Chinese people as well, but most people speak Russian—not as much Yiddish.”
When it comes to academics “Don’t be your own biggest obstacle” Ian advises,“ I didn’t think I was going to get financial help for research, but I reached out to a couple of faculty members to get the ball rolling and was able to get the support to do this work. I think it’s great that they have so many resources for undergraduate students—if you’re interested, you could find someone who would be willing to help lead you in the direction you’d like to go in.”
Photographs by Ian Kussin Gika