by Ben Badua
Imagine walking the streets of a distant city you’ve spent half a lifetime dreaming about. As you make your way through town, matching your vision of what it would be like with the reality of the cityscape surrounding you, you start to notice something: The streets look unfamiliar. The signs? Unrecognizable. You’re lost. But instead of panicking, your mind wanders to one simple thought: ‘Wow. I’m in Russia.’
For men’s basketball senior Jeff Holmes, a Russian studies major, that realization was the culmination of an academic life spent poring over Russian literature.
“I had a romanticized view of Russia,” says Holmes. “It’s not Dostoevsky’s Russia anymore. The streets are all there, but there’s a modern feel to it. It wasn’t what I expected, but I still loved it.”
For the 6’7 forward, the journey from his hometown of Saunderstown, R.I. to St. Petersburg began three years ago in the summer of 2008, which Holmes spent working at head coach David Hixon’s basketball camp.
Hixon, aware of Holmes’ interest in Russian literature and culture, introduced the student to Russian Professor Stanley Rabinowitz, and on one hot summer day, Holmes took a break from muggy LeFrak Gym to spend an hour in the air-conditioned offices of Webster Hall.
“I just remember him having this fire in his eyes,” recalls Rabinowitz. “Ever since then I’ve been involved with his course of study in the Russian department.”
The student’s love for Dostoevsky and Tolstoy soon expanded to a healthy interest in all things Russian, but he struggled to learn the language.
“I have great respect for Jeff and his persistence and determination to follow his love of Russian literature and culture,” says Rabinowitz. “But it was clear that Russian - the language - wasn’t his strength. He’d been working hard, but it wasn’t coming easily.”
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Holmes continued to put in the hours to learn the language, balancing a demanding course load with an equally taxing commitment as a student-athlete.
“I remember talking to Jeff when his confidence was waning and slipping,” says Rabinowitz. “He was doing alright, but it was hard and he knew he wanted more. I gave him a pep talk and told him he had to go away. There was too much of the grammar he wasn’t absorbing. Learning a language is like being an athlete. You have to practice every day.”
Taking his professor’s advice, Holmes knew that he needed to go to Russia. It was just a matter of timing. As a winter sport athlete, he didn’t want to sacrifice time on the court.
Working with Rabinowitz and Amherst’s Russian department, Holmes enrolled in Brown University’s summer program at the Nevsky Institute of Language and Culture in St. Petersburg.
“This is why Amherst works,” says Hixon. “Jeff loves basketball, but he also takes his academics very seriously. He wanted to live the entire dream without one taking away from the other and the College found a way to step up to the plate. Amherst doesn’t make you choose. He could have a full life in athletics and a full, rich experience academically.”
“Once I knew I got into the program and that Amherst was going to help fund it, I was excited,” says Holmes. “Then we had orientation at Brown and the info session really spooked me. They had to warn kids about any possible dangers because for a lot of us, like me, it was their first time abroad.”
During the seven weeks he spent taking a pair of language and literature courses at Nevsky, he threw himself into the culture he’d been so fascinated with. He traded in his mother’s home-cooked Italian food (which he admittedly missed) for pelmini dumplings and bowls of borscht. He picked up meat pies from local vendors instead of frequenting McDonald’s, Subway or Carl Jr.’s (Usually, anyway. Sometimes you just feel like a burger).
He visited the Smolny Institute, which once served as the headquarters of the Bolshevik revolution, the Mariinsky Theater - home to the Mariinsky ballet, opera and orchestra - and the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, a beautiful Russian-style orthodox church adorned with over 7,000 square meters of mosaics.
He took in local festivals like Scarlet Sails, got lost in the crowds and spent four hours walking around St. Petersburg trying to find his way back. He found out the hard way that many of the city’s 342 bridges are pulled up at night and that house mothers aren’t always receptive to unannounced guests (even if they’re stranded and have no place else to go). He even learned how to sleep while it’s still light out; a skill born out of necessity thanks to the city’s infamously long summer days.
He’d gotten a glimpse into Russian life and the nuances of its culture. Most of all he was able to polish his language skills, something that came especially handy in his interactions with his house mother Tatiana, who as Holmes put it, spoke “machine-gun Russian”.
“I think she thought I was dumb at first,” says Holmes. “I thought my Russian was better than it was going in, so the first two weeks were rough and it was very basic conversation. She’d just say things like ‘Kid, shut the window’ or ‘Kid, close the lights.”
But as time wore on, Holmes adjusted. He and Tatiana would take walks around the city. With Holmes more able to express himself, his house mother grew talkative. He learned that she used to be an engineer, that her house had burned down, leaving her homeless until friends rallied the money to build her a new home.
“It’s hard to see Russian as being a cumulative study,” says Holmes. “My professors told me before I left that my Russian would be there when I needed it and it was for stories like that. I really came to appreciate the knowledge base I’ve worked hard to build. It was nice to be able to communicate with her on that level.”
Now back at Amherst, Holmes feels rejuvenated and more determined than ever to make the most of his remaining time with the Russian department.
“There was no question he was enormously energized and inspired by the trip,” says Rabinowitz. “I think he had a real sense of agency when he went there and that somehow the years of work finally paid off. It’s one thing when you’re here and you get frustrated when you can’t say something, but to finally go there and to realize you can do it? That’s a transformative experience.”
“It was sink or swim,” says Holmes. “I got to go over there to see if I learned anything. It’s nice to know that I have.”
Having passed his initial test with flying colors, Holmes hopes to someday return to Russia as a teacher. Only this time, his focus will be on teaching others an equally difficult language for non-native speakers to master: English.