Independent Minds, Working Together

Russian History Course Provides Forum for Discussion of ‘Breaking News’

Students in Peter Pozefsky’s class consider implications of Chechen origin of Boston Marathon bombing suspects

April 19, 2013 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Skeptics of the liberal arts might not fully understand the value of a course in Russian history, but students in Peter Pozefsky’s class, “The Fall of Soviet Union and the Rise of the New Russia,” have no doubt about its relevance — especially after learning that the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were of Chechen origin.

Just 12 hours after a deadly firefight between police and the alleged terrorists near Watertown, Mass., 20 students — most with a laptop or iPad open to monitor the latest developments — gathered Friday afternoon in a classroom at The College of Wooster’s stately Kauke Hall. Seated at rectangular tables placed in the shape of a large square to facilitate discussion, they resumed their on-going conversation about the conflict between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya — an exchange of ideas that became even more lively following what took place overnight.

The general theme of Friday’s session focused on what Americans should know about the complex history of the Caucasus Mountains, the region in which the conflict has taken place, that might help them to develop an informed opinion about the unfolding events in and around Boston.

Pozefsky, a member of Wooster’s faculty since 1994, framed the discussion by encouraging students to consider what they have learned about the varieties of Islam in the Caucasus, the extraordinary ethnic diversity of a region in which dozens of languages are spoken, and the complexity of Chechnya’s relationship with Russia. He then opened the floor to his eager and well-informed young scholars.

Kate Mozynski a senior international relations major from Dallas, chimed in first, stating that there should not be a rush to judgment. “It’s too early to say that the two (suspects) were part of an organized terrorist group,” she said. Brianna Ewing, a senior Russian Studies major from North Canton, suggested that the suspects’ motives might be more domestic than foreign, given the fact that they spent the majority of their lives in the United States. K.J. Davis a senior history major from Victor, N.Y., chided the media for its coverage saying that it was “trying to a provoke a reaction,” rather than report the facts. Allison Miraldi, a junior history and Russian Studies double major from Elyria, described the situation as a “moment of awareness where we apply our knowledge and question how genuine the information reported really is.”

A majority of students participated in the discussion — most by choice, some at the urging of Pozefsky. Each of the students was contemplative and well spoken in responding, demonstrating the type of critical thinking on which Wooster prides itself.

As for the value of the discussion, Davis noted the importance of being able to express oneself without fear of reprisal. “There is a sense of community here,” he said. “Everyone may have a different idea, but we all feel comfortable in expressing our point of view.”

Pozefsky was pleased with the discussion but somewhat surprised by its focus. “I was interested in how the students might put their extensive knowledge of the region into context, but they seemed more concerned about not rushing to judgment,” he said. “As historians, we often have to draw conclusions without having as much information as we would like. What’s important is that we attempt to do so in a way that is not hurtful or careless but instead truthful, productive and meaningful.”