“Russia is not really a prevalent field of study in Texas,” says Davis. “So this was just a blip, but it sparked my curiosity.” She went out and read as much about the Gulag as she could find, and decided there was a lack of material. “I wanted to study the Gulag more and contribute to the field,” she says, explaining that the endeavor ignited “this huge interest in Russian history.”
Davis devoted a term paper to the Gulag, and ended up presenting it at various conferences. She dreamed of going on to pursue a Ph.D. in Russian history, but knew that due to the limitations of Russian studies at Kingsville—she had to take private lessons in the Russian language because there was no class offered—she would not be admitted to a doctoral program in Russian history. So, she applied to M.A. programs.
“I wanted to get a master’s so I could boost my resume and learn more about Russia in general, beyond the history of the Gulag. I chose the Harriman Institute primarily because of the researchers I’d be able to work with,” she explains. “Professor Richard Wortman is one of my idols and being able to work with him has been an amazing opportunity.”
The experience, she says, has exceeded her expectations. “I knew that it would be challenging, as it’s definitely a huge step up from where I was before, and I’ve already learned so much.” She has also refined her topic. “Now I’m working on the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in commemoration of the victims of Soviet repression,” she says, noting that this will be her thesis topic, and that because of her time at Columbia, her interests have now broadened to include the history of the Russian Orthodox Church “throughout all time periods.”
This past summer, thanks to a PepsiCo Fellowship and a Harriman Summer Language Fellowship that she applied for at the encouragement of Professor Elise Giuliano, Davis was able to go to Moscow and take language classes, as well as study with the Russian human rights organization Memorial. “I feel like I can actually converse in Russian now,” she says. “And Memorial was so helpful in letting me use their archives for my research and getting me in touch with contacts in the Orthodox Church.”
Davis, who is currently a program assistant at the Harriman Institute in addition to her studies, is applying to doctoral programs for next year. “I feel like I’ve learned so much and that I’m finally prepared to start a Ph.D.,” she says.
– Masha Udensiva-Brenner
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