The first class I am taking abroad is called Asia in Motion, a course based on how Asia began and how it moved from its beginnings, essentially exploring the motions of Asia and how it came to be today. We began in Russia, asking questions of whether Russia is Asia or European, when does Asia come into Russia, and whether it is our place to define Russia at all.
The day that stood out to me the most, was seeing Lenin’s preserved body; he, a small but grand figure, was glowing underground, laying in peace. Spectators were not allowed to speak, or loiter for too long, and the guards shushed the slightest of sounds, even our subtle and quiet “wows.”
From that moment, Lenin became real; my textbooks, and late night readings in libraries and cafes felt real. History jumped out of the page and laid right in front of me, glowing and sleeping peacefully. I felt, within that quiet and cold room, the warmth and hope people felt towards Lenin. He was laying on red, in an almost velvet like bedding, and warm yellow-orange lights lit him up in the most flattering way. He didn’t have wrinkles, it seemed, and it looked similar to one of those wax bodies you see of our favorite Hollywood celebrities.
The eerie silence of the room mirrored the historical silence of intellectuals I learned about in various literature, yet I could also hear cries for help. It felt real. This one man, a beloved man for many, laying right in front of me, caused so much pain for people yet brought so much happiness and community. Talking to local Russians living in Moscow, there was an overwhelming sense of nostalgia towards Soviet Communism, there was no unemployment, free health care, and people built friendships and community in order to get themselves their rations quicker. They were happy, they said.
Originally, I was close-minded and put off by this trip to see Lenin. I didn’t want to wait hours in line for this tourist attraction. I want an accurate portrayal of Moscow, I thought, and there was no way this tourist attraction could simulate Moscow. But, to my surprise, I was so wrong. Moscow and Russia, is full of history, and their history is what makes Russia, Russia. Lenin, and his views are still apart of Russia, especially the older generations. Even though I didn’t have the choice, I am glad we went as a class; I am glad it taught me to be more open-minded. There are reasons people come to see these tourist attractions, as it offers something you can rarely see elsewhere let alone near your home.
The line was worth it. It made the hours of reading from high school to now feel real and powerful. These experiences I have been learning about for years are not just words, but they are part of people’s past; they are part of this country’s past. Already, I’m feeling the perks of experiential learning. In that moment, I felt so glad to be studying abroad.
After our time in Russia, we boarded the Trans-Siberian Train to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Our 5 days on the train were full of readings and class discussions, and accidentally falling asleep soothed by the rumbles and bumps along the tracks. We read about Genghis Khan, in “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford. This was the first time I really felt I was learning about Genghis Khan (let alone Mongolia), as he was always a name I knew, but only in passing or in a lyric of a song. I had no idea how much of an impact he and the Mongols had in Asia. As we were on board this moving train, we were literally learning about how the Mongols began their influential movement through Asia, changing and modernizing the way Asia worked. We saw how Genghis Khan put Asia into Motion while also, as my Professor said it perfectly, put Asia into commotion. We, ourselves, were also in motion on the train beginning from Russia and moving through Siberia and Mongolia, learning the history of Genghis Khan. Many people and even scholars only see him as an evil and barbaric man, but I disagree and argue that these perceptions could be due to the color of his skin. I admit that Weatherford romanticized Genghis Khan, but I am appreciative I was able to learn a different perspective. While he orchestrated some pretty gory events, he undeniably positively influenced Asia in enormous ways.
I am grateful to be learning about the beginnings of Asia, and find it fitting for the beginning of this trip. I am excited to keep absorbing everything else we take in for the rest of the trip!