A lot of students, especially undergraduates, underestimate the importance of getting out of the classroom when you are studying Russian.
Experience outside of the classroom is important for one very important reason — your network. It is an extremely important asset for a regional specialist. This professional field is extremely crowded, and having local contacts can easily be the decisive factor that gets you a job or internship.
The point of a network is that it allows you to tap into the insight of people living in the country itself. Consider why this is so important. English-language news coverage of Russia is not particularly informative. Even if you can speak Russia and read the local press, you are still missing context. But why speculate if you can send an email to a few contacts in Russia nad get their perspective. Theirs will still be an opinion, but it is local and it gives you credibility as an expert.
All sorts of contacts can make your network. They don’t need to be senior or influential, in fact, some of the most valuable contacts could be friends, host families, and just regular people who give you a perspective on how regular locals feel about certain issues that you are unlikely to get from someone more “important”.
The amazing thing is that your network is self-perpetuating. The more people you know on the ground, the more you can ask for additional referrals, increasing your access exponentially. This is especially important in countries where cold-calling people is not effective – such as Russia – and where an introduction from a friend can make a huge difference in the access you get to people.
When you apply for a job/internship/graduate study/PhD program, your network should be a key selling point. A network in a relevant country is as valuable an asset as an internship or research project you’ve done, if not more. It’s an asset you bring to the employer that their organization can take advantage of and something that you should be highlighting when discussing how you can make the most of it. You don’t need to know senior government officials for your network to be valuable. Sure, there are businesses entirely built around their owners’ relationships with senior government figures, but as a young specialist, this is not expected nor required.
Your network adds to your credibility. Speaking with people on the ground and pressure-testing your own assumptions allows you to better understand the perspective of people on the ground, and also to demonstrate that you are not analyzing events from an ivory tower, thousands of miles away. Your conclusions are likely to thus more accurately reflect the reality on the ground, adding to your credibility with the harshest possible critics of an outsider’s analysis – locals of the country themselves.
Is it really then all about the people I know? Of course not. We’ve been hammering on about this point simply because it is so frequently overlooked. But it is also about what you know, and local contacts help you for one very important reason.
Your network can challenge your biases. In Western-based analytical communities – whether it’s policy, government, or academic research, it’s easy to be influenced by peers, mentors, and the dominant thinkers in your chosen area of expertise. This, however, often creates an echo chamber, exacerbated by domestic media. A network on the ground is likely to expose you to completely different opinions and perspectives, challenging you to add nuance to your analysis and to critically assess accepted conclusions to develop a more sophisticated, and personal, point of view.