Kathryn Smart MANPTS ’15 used to love going to ice hockey games with her father when she was growing up in Michigan. “It was our thing,” she says. Her favorite player was Russian, which became a large factor in her choice of Russian as her language of study while earning her undergraduate degree in international relations at Michigan State University. “I’ve evolved a lot since then,” she says with a bright smile and a warm laugh.
Kathryn cultivated her love for Russian culture as she participated in a study abroad program in Volgograd not once, but twice, the second time enrolling in an advanced Russian language study program. Her interest in the Chechen culture was piqued during her second trip to Russia and developed further as she returned to work as an English tutor for a Chechen family in Moscow. She enrolled in the master’s degree program in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute with an eye on a career in the nonproliferation field, but switched to a focus on terrorism after taking Professor Gordon Hahn’s Islamism in Russia course during her first semester.
“I am incredibly happy with my studies here at MIIS,” she shares, adding that she is particularly pleased with the way every class is fitted to her interests, including the language courses. “Professor Vassilieva challenges us with topics that are related to our areas of study and that is great.” Through the Graduate Initiative in Russian Studies, Kathryn will continue researching the role of women in Chechen culture at the Grozny State University, with the goal of better understanding the role culture and politics plays in women’s decisions to join militant groups in the North Caucasus.
In the fall, Kathryn will move to neighboring Georgia for three months to continue her Chechen language studies, supported by a prestigious Boren Fellowship. She has been studying Chechen online this winter and will continue working with a tutor while in Chechnya this summer. “I think it is very important to learn Chechen to fully understand the culture,” she shares, adding that she is very excited for the summer. When she visited Grozny over spring break, Kathryn says she found a modern city, and that the people were very warm and welcoming to her as an American, a far cry from the prevalent news images from a decade ago of a city in rubble.