Interview with Svetlana Buko – A joyful and penetrative interculturalist
Russian culture has often been perceived by outsiders with a combination of awe and intrigue. Former British prime minister Winston Churchill once described the country as “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” — an unknown land that plays by its own rules, often to the detriment of the others.
All this can be seen in its turbulent history. Until the mid-13th century, Russia had been part of a loose alliance of “Viking” nations and considered part of European culture. In 1240, it was occupied by the Mongolian horde of Genghis Khan and remained under the control of the Tartars until they were overthrown in 1480. The country began to expand, creating a huge and wealthy empire, blasting its way into Siberia and pursuing the Tartars to their home city of Kazan, consolidating Russian power in Central Asia. However, never-ending tragedies from Ivan the Terrible to World War II, along with Stalin’s purges, explain in large part why Russians appear to be extremely cautious, as well as suspicious of foreigners.
Yet the immense suffering has generated the “Russian soul”, sharing both the hardship and joys of life expressed in music, painting and literature. According to Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, the Russian character should be understood as neither European nor Asian. Their long, painful experiences mean “Russians are never effective under European democratic conditions, as they require a severe tone. It is not strange that an ideal leader in Russia is usually characterized as a tough but fair tsar. Like any one with an imperial consciousness, Russians understand their predestination; however, Russia’s destination drastically differs from that of Europe.”
It is with this introduction that we present our interviewee, Svetlana Buko, a passionate and radiant member of SIETAR Europa. Educated in the fine arts and trained as a sociologist, she explores cross-cultural interactions from the perspective of the Russian psyche, one that goes deep into the soul of a people’s persona.
Let’s begin with the early life experiences that formed your present outlook.
I was born in Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg. I was raised in a naval family, my father being a captain of nuclear submarines. He was stationed at different bases in the former Soviet Union, located in the Black Sea, the White Sea, the Caspian Sea or the Baltic Sea. This meant we moved quite often from north to south. From a very early age on, I couldn’t help but observe how Estonia was different from Azerbaijan, or Murmansk was different from Sevastopol, and that there were so many different peoples, languages, so many different educational systems. And then, when I was 15, I attended an American high school in southern California for a year. All these places really shaped my understanding of the world.
My goodness, you really moved around a lot! Did you go to special schools for Navy children or the local schools?
Local schools. I was a typical child who grew up in the Soviet educational system with the traditional classical curriculum — history, geography, chemistry, literature, Russian, English, and music. I learned to play the piano, which was considered normal. I say this because when I spent my year abroad in California, I sometimes would play the piano. Everybody thought I had gone to some private music school for gifted children! But it was just my upbringing. I was part of the system.
This brings up your stay in the U.S. After the break-up of the Soviet Union you were one of the first Russians to go to the USA as an exchange student. How did you manage that?
It was an exchange program for high potential students from the former USSR republics, set up by the U.S. State Department, and I was lucky to have been selected. The high school I went to was in Riverside, east of Los Angeles, and I was told it was one of the top 15 schools in the U.S. at that time. Upon arriving in California, I had to take a placement test and, to my surprise, they put me in the 12th grade, the graduating class, where my classmates were all two years older than me.
Did you find it difficult to master the subjects?
To be honest, it wasn’t that difficult. I loved how the classes were taught and the teachers were great, always applying critical thinking and teamwork approaches. I was amazed by the way they would always ask the students how we were doing, were we understanding the process. It was an ideal culture for learning for me, there were the peer groups and also study groups. We had an excellent student body president, Erika; she was African-American, “Girls-power” type of lady, very engaging. And the school was very good at integrating new technologies, we had the latest computers and calculators. All in all, it was an excellent format.
The only difficulty I had was in history because it was taught differently. In the classical Soviet school system, it’s all about learning facts. I remember when my American teacher talked about WWII, I knew everything about it in terms of dates, battles, Allies. But I quickly learned that wasn’t enough for class discussions and assignments. For a homework, my teacher asked the class to write about how they felt about the war and to my surprise, I failed the assignment, my first F! My teacher, Mr. Sartini, then sat down with me and said, “I’ll teach you how to think about it. Just tell me what you feel.” And this was a completely new way of learning for me. I had never been asked what my feelings were. So I gave examples from the stories of my two grandmothers, who had fought in the war and were part of the city siege. I connected the patriotic and human components and explained how these stories were told in my family. And this brought me a completely different perspective of the war. When I teach my intercultural students, I always tell them about this experience to show them how different educational systems shape your mindset and ways of looking at the world.
The way you describe your experiences in California, an American might conclude that you were an overachiever?
Oh no, I wouldn’t classify myself as an overachiever. The majority of the things I learned was because I’m curious and have a strong desire to understand how we all live. My parents gave me much love and told me I could do whatever I wanted. But they added, “You’re not a genius, so if you want to achieve something in life, you have to work hard.” If I didn’t work hard, I was still going to be fine but maybe I wouldn’t have what I wanted. That was the main discourse in the family.
Another part of my upbringing is that I had amazing mentors, friends and supporters around me. Anything I’ve done in life has always been thanks to people around me, who encouraged me to remain curious, persistent and kind. It’s not like somebody told me that you have to learn another language, get a Masters or a PhD or become a professor. It just happened very naturally.
After your year in a U.S. high school, what did you do?
I went back to Russia and started my degree in theory and history of art at the University of St. Petersburg. We studied the collections from the Heritage Museum and Russian Museum of Art. It was my key to understanding societies. You could observe the evolution of humans through the perspective of applied art, fine art, theatre and even avantgarde art, which, by the way, had been forbidden during Soviet times. The school had an amazing group of art historians, many from abroad, who presented different perspectives. This degree formed my foundation, my identity as a researcher with the focus on cultures and values. And of course St. Petersburg is the best place to study this, it’s considered the cultural capital of Russia. Peter the Great created the city, moving the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg. His idea was simple: to move closer to the borders of Europe and design a new vision of life for the country. I think that’s often overlooked by foreigners, that the city has always been the artistic and intellectual hub of Russia, saturated with creativity, innovation, and connecting Russian history to European history. We also studied media literacy, which is paramount to my research and teaching. This whole concept of reading about different countries with sources in different languages and seeing how history, through the stories in the media, could be portrayed in different lights. One example I tell my students is the question that was asked in my American high school history class, “Why did the U.S. win World War II?”. I shared that in Russian history books “Russians won the war”, which came as a big surprise to the American students.
From your C.V., I read you went to Ukraine after finishing your art studies.
Yes, Ukraine was a start of my career in international development. I got a job as a project manager with IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) NGOs affiliated with the U.S. State Department. I consider these five years my best time for project management and international HR skills development. My work was chiefly administrating intercultural exchanges with different countries of the socialist world [East European countries]. I started to run the Ukrainian media partnership program — a coordination of the outlets in Ukraine and the U.S. as well as in Russia, Georgia and Moldavia — and financing independent, privately-owned media.
I also monitored discussions on the differences between facts and opinions, bias, emotional markers. It’s something I know, not learned from a book, but from working with journalists and media managers for five years in the USA and in Ukraine. I know exactly how “fake news” and “hidden ads” could look because that’s exactly what we monitored as a part of the Media Sustainability Index Research (MSI) work.
It was while observing the different communication styles of Ukrainian and American managers and their clashes that I asked the simple question “Why?” I was looking for a program that would give me intellectual insights into the cross cultural management and the flexibility to study this while working full time. The Institute of Sociology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev said, “You can use your language capacities and collect the data.” This allowed me to do my PhD thesis about American-Ukrainian values in inter cultural management. In retrospect I can see that it was a great choice. I received excellent guidance and rigor from the Research Institute professors and general academic freedom of sociological research in the country.
After finishing your PhD, where did you go?
I moved to Sevastopol, where my first husband is from. And it was where my father was stationed at one time when I completed my middle school. I really loved that naval base and the territory as well: rich history, the mountains, the Black Sea and multi-cultural community of Crimea. I worked there as a sociologist, gathering research about the Ukrainian and American leadership styles. One very special country-wide research project I managed at that time was about barriers to female entrepreneurship in Ukraine. It was funded by Walden University and University of Phoenix. I worked with the principal investigator, Dr. John Johnson from the U.S., and my job was to set up a team of 25 Ukrainian sociologists in different parts of the country, to conduct field research — interviews, focus groups, national survey and identify women who own successful small businesses in the country. I really enjoyed conducting in-depth interviews and was inspired by shared stories. One of the most interesting questions in the study was: “Do you consider yourself a successful woman?” In Ukraine, that was a somewhat problematic question because the word “success” is interpreted on a different scale. In the American context, if you say “I own a business, employ people and make a profit,” that’s considered success. Whereas in Ukraine just running a business, employing people and making a profit was not considered success, but the normal way of working. Our respondents said success is something grand, running a big corporation. Later the study was replicated in Poland and Mexico, where there were differentiations in the answers. All this was quite fascinating and it’s where I significantly strengthened my empirical field research and research project management skills, by tapping into the unresearched areas on how women run small and medium businesses in different parts of Ukraine, from Lviv to Kharkiv and from Kyiv to Crimea.
Let’s talk about Crimea. It was annexed by Russia in 2014. At that time, it was reported that 65% of the population were ethnic Russians, 24% were Ukrainians and about 11% were Crimean Tatars. What then is the dominant culture — Ukrainian or Russian? From what I have read, the territory historically was considered to be Russian until General Secretary Khrushchev attached it to Ukraine in 1954, in order to bind Ukraine permanently to Russia.
I was in Crimea in 2014-15, eye-witnessing the change of the political system, and I worked with foreign journalists who were reporting on this change. Concerning your question on dominant culture, my take is multi layered. I will outline the larger framework I use for conceptualizing the approach to the territorial disputes and borders. First, we need to remember that history is written by the winners. Like with any other disputed territory, the question depends on the historical point of departure. This is the first component to consider. I have researched other conflicts and visited places like Abkhazia, Transnistria, Northern Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh and I think territorial disputes should be addressed through multi-layered perspectives, since there are many issues. The second component is the narratives of the local people who experienced the movement of the borders, the formation, or re-formation of identity and how this registers in the political narrative during and after the territorial disputes. And there’s the question of how language relates to one’s identity. Has it been prohibited and replaced by another language but preserved within the family? These narratives are deep, and listening to the stories from both sides brings a lot out that is never told in the history books. Many of these stories are rooted in the perceptions of families. What we hear from parents and grandmothers and grandfathers about “us and them” is usually what shapes our perspective. If there was bloodshed, forced dislocation, ethnic cleansing or anything related to minimizing the rights of the minority, this is never forgotten. There is always a lot of pain, trauma and tensions in the territorial disputes – collective memories and contested histories — there are always several narratives on different sides of the borders. If we don’t make an effort, we usually get to know one side of the story. For example, after the breakup of USSR I’ve travelled to and lived in many places in the former Soviet Union – New Independent States (NIS) with their constitutions, rules and laws. I was always aware of what language I used. When I came back to visit Tallinn during my university years in Estonia, it was much better to speak English than Russian. It’s a similar thing in Ukraine and Georgia: it’s about respect for local languages and recognition of histories, and awareness of the negative and positive legacies of former empires. There are some similarities here in the ex-Yugoslav territories – Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and on the Italian Slovenian border where I am based now – with the Istrian exodus historical chapter. Never simple, very complex! The third important aspect within the disputed territories and moved borders is an economic component, which was the topic of my talk at the SIETAR Europa conference in Leuven (2019). Making a living could be a reason to overcome the contested historical past. People might accept the fact that there were issues in the past, but once they are doing business, they are more driven by the future and potential prosperity. And sometimes, in the border regions, it’s not even a choice, but a necessity. It’s not just about learning and speaking a language, it’s about adjustment for the sake of existing, putting food on the table.
How then do you put all these components together and gain an objective picture of the culture?
In my view and from my experience, it’s practically impossible to unpack the complexity of perceptions by yourself because we draw from our culturally-biased ways of explaining it – always better to work as a research team. One solution is to have several narrative layers. When listening to people and searching for the reasons behind their behaviors, there should be a team: a local person, a regional person and a person from the outside. This tri-level approach is wise because it minimizes bias. While it’s more difficult working in an intercultural team, it’s really much more productive in terms of gaining more perspective. I have always worked in the intercultural teams and found it extremely rewarding and interesting. Right now I teach intercultural management and do research on the impact of a tri-border region — Slovenia-Italy-Austria — and the intercultural cross-border competencies development. Interestingly, the Italian city of Gorizia and the Slovenian city of Nova Gorica are located right on the Italian-Slovenian border in the heart of Europe. Not knowing the history of the territory, for an outsider, it might look like one urban space: continuity of streets, common square, shared green spaces. Once historical chapters are added, we see that this territory has many historical points of reference — Austro-Hungarian, Italian, Yugoslavian, Slovenian — where borders were moving and shifting. As I mentioned before, this is never easy for the locals. Gorizia and Nova Gorica are united by the years of history and threads of memories from different generations. In all, the tri-border territory is very complex. Now if I want to live and unpack the actual intercultural experience in this tri-border area, do I have to speak three languages — Italian, Slovenian and German? And from which perspective do I examine the area — Italian, Yugoslavian or Austro-Hungarian? Each will give you a different viewpoint.
Let’s talk about the impact of the pandemic on the town. When the virus came, the Italian and Slovenian authorities set up a fence right in the middle of the city, something that was unimaginable before. What happened?
The decision of closing the national borders was for reasons of safety, basic measures to stop the virus spread. It was not done at the local level in the border province, since national-border decisions are always made in the capitals: Rome and Ljubljana. They often don’t have the detailed vibe of what’s actually happening at the border. The two mayors of Gorizia (Italy) – Nova Gorica (Slovenia) knew much better the daily cross-border transit of people within the territory, that is getting to work or taking kids to school on both sides of the border. They had to implement the decision made in Ljubljana and deal with uneasy consequences on both sides of the border. What is very important to identify is that, before the pandemic, there were only stories of the old Yugoslav border, minor physical remnants – old poles, empty checkpoints. In March 2020, the border reappeared within a matter of days. When you think about borders, it’s the pure sociology of small groups and their communication patterns of “us vs. them”, which is a natural phenomenon. In spring 2020 people in Gorizia-Nova Gorica were asking questions, such as: “why is the border here? How is it going to impact relationships, perceptions and businesses?” Interestingly, amidst all the turmoil, finger-pointing and border-closure grumbling, local people made daily effort to stay connected and friendly. A Go2025 team of cross-border enthusiasts turned this challenge into an opportunity and this area was awarded the status of EU Capital of Culture 2025. I use all the recent border stories for my teaching now, and students really enjoy hearing them. Often, the perception of what’s happening depends on who you ask – there are many different types of people here on the border. For example, there is a Slovenian minority living on the Italian side, a minority that has always lived there as the border shifted. Also, historically, state border between Italy and Yugoslavia was protected by a lot of soldiers on the Italian side, many of whom came from the south. We all know that culture and demographics are different in Italy [North and South]. On top of this, you have an international community. So when you cross the border and want to get an idea of what’s happening, you need to ask yourself who you are talking to. As an outsider-researcher, I found this fascinating, since there are many different narrative lines linked to the demographics. I teach this framework to my Slovenian students: global, national regional level; historical, geographical, cultural, political perspectives. As for the future, I don’t know if this current border crisis will unite or divide people. I’m an observer, not from ex-Yugoslavia or Italy, so I bring in an outsider’s perspective.
Lastly, SIETAR — how do you view it?
I think SIETAR is a great network. I’ve been a member of SIETAR Europa for the last five years and also worked closely with members in Italy and Austria. Generally speaking, SIETAR is a network of consultants. But I think that’s changing. Barbara Covarrubias Venegas was organizing events for the Dublin congress and added a research track. I’m very happy about that. Even during this lockdown, SIETAR has allowed me to connect with like-minded people throughout the world. And it has organized webinars that bring in very interesting people from Asia and the U.S. Together with my colleague Dr. Eithne Knappitsch [SIETAR Austria], we connected with SIETAR USA and organized webinars about cross-border education. It’s so enriching, really amazing to connect and share best practices and learn from other Sietarians. All I can say is I’m happy there’s an organization like SIETAR that makes all this happen.
Interviewed by Patrick Schmidt