Area Studies: Russia/Eurasia (AR281)

Over the last week and a half since A-100 ended, I’ve been immersed in AR281, otherwise known as Russia/Eurasia Regional Intensive Area Studies. My classes are held at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, VA, which is the same location where A-100, my Flag Day and Swearing In took place.

Here is a brief description of the Foreign Service Institute taken from my AR281 course syllabus:

“Established in 1947, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the United States Government’s primary training institution for employees of the U.S. foreign affairs community, preparing American diplomats and other professionals to advance U.S. foreign affairs interests overseas and in Washington. FSI provides more than 600 courses – to include training in some 70 foreign languages, as well as in leadership, management, professional tradecraft, area studies, and applied informational technology skills – to some 100,000 students a year, drawn from the Department of State and more than 40 other government agencies and military service branches…”

The point of this area studies course is to provide background and context so that my colleagues and I can do our jobs better. In my specific case, to increase my understanding of Uzbekistan and its history, geopolitics and systems vis-à-vis other countries in the region before I depart for U.S. Embassy Tashkent next May to serve my first tour as a consular officer.

Several of my classmates are newly sworn-in members of the 178th A-100 class, too, and preparing to head to Baku, Moscow, Ashgabat, and beyond. The class also contains a few Foreign Service Officers preparing for their third or fourth tours, and folks from various other federal agencies and branches of military.

I find this class absolutely fascinating. It moves fairly quickly, and covers an enormous amount of territory – everything from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus to the Baltic states (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia), the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). Think: the entire former Soviet Union, with brief nods to Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

The instructor and guest speakers are very well-positioned to discuss the subject matter, and many of my classmates also have extensive experience in the region. Given current events in Russia and Ukraine over the last several months, I am of the firm belief that this is a particularly fortunate and interesting time to be headed to Central Asia.

So far our sessions have included topics like regional demographic changes, cross-cultural communication, U.S. policy on breakaway regions like Transnistria and Crimea, Russian Orthodoxy, the rise of Islam in Central Asia, oil and energy geopolitics, regime change, historical migrations and clashes of civilizations, and crime and corruption. It’s obviously pretty heady stuff.

The course material does implicitly assume, however, a general level of regional knowledge prior to walking in the door. I think that if I had never lived in the Balkans, had never studied Slavic languages, or hadn’t studied the collapse of the Soviet Union I would probably be struggling a bit to catch up. I imagine if I were in near east studies, or south Asian studies (or anywhere else I know less about), I would probably have to do a lot more reading.

In any case, we are all getting paid our salaries to sit in a classroom and learn something that should (fingers crossed) be helpful to us in our work. It blows my mind, coming from several years of government work where I was lucky to get any training at all, on almost anything, due to the restrictive budget climate. I am happy to sit and listen, and contribute when I’m of a mind to, rather than being an expert. I have a lot to learn, and I’m thrilled to do so.

It also helps to be motivated – I am very, very excited about serving in Uzbekistan and so I am eager to absorb everything, whether I think I already know it or not. I just flipped through my notebook and counted 27 pages of notes (double-sided!) from the past seven business days in just Area Studies alone. Yes, I am a huge dork. No, I am not going to apologize for it.

After Labor Day, I will begin more than six months of Russian language classes – so the fact that Area Studies is in English and doesn’t require my brains to be pulled through my ears to understand it is a real blessing at the moment! I’m also not bummed to shed my A-100 attire of constant suit jackets after six straight weeks, and to have enough time to go to the bathroom, eat and do nightly readings without making myself insane. Thank you, Area Studies!

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