Academy professor, cadets immerse themselves in Russian culture

From left to right: Cadet 2nd Class Chad Everett, Dr. George Mastrroianni, Cadet 2nd Class Andrea Brichacek and Cadets 3rd Class Cory Ostrowski and Andrew Cavallo visit Gorky Park June 13 during a cultural immersion trip to Russia. The travelers spent three weeks in Russia and visited Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novogrod. (U.S. Air Force photo)

From left to right: Cadet 2nd Class Chad Everett, Dr. George Mastrroianni, Cadet 2nd Class Andrea Brichacek and Cadets 3rd Class Cory Ostrowski and Andrew Cavallo visit Gorky Park June 13 during a cultural immersion trip to Russia. The travelers spent three weeks in Russia and visited Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novogrod. (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Travelers from the U.S. Air Force Academy spent three weeks immersing themselves in Russian culture during a trip to the nation May 22 to June 13, visiting Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novogrod among other locations.

The decision to take cadets for a cultural immersion to Russia was by design. 

"We went because the trajectory of political and cultural change in Russia will shape American strategic considerations in the future," said Dr. George Mastroianni, Academy psychology professor. 

This was Professor Mastroianni's and the cadets' first trip to Russia. Each of the cadets had completed least four semesters of Russian language training prior to the trip. The immersion gave the travels the opportunity to experience many new things, including many local foods. 

"Cadets were especially fond of piroshkis, which are pies filled with a variety of fillings, such as meat, cabbage, chicken and rice," Professor Mastroianni said. "There was also pelmenis, which are ravioli-like dumplings served in a clear chicken broth. Both were cheap and filling!" 

The language barrier wasn't always an issue as a few Russians they met spoke excellent English, some spoke a little and many none at all. That did not deter this visit. 

"The Siege and Defense of Leningrad Museum in St. Petersburg was probably the most memorable and moving site we visited," the professor said. "The somber memorial commemorates the 900 days during which Leningrad, whose former name was St. Petersburg, was besieged by German troops during WWII, from 1941-1944. It is estimated that between 60,000 and 1,000,000 civilians and soldiers perished of disease, starvation, and battle injuries during the siege. The exhibits in this museum especially touched us -- the tiny bread ration on which Leningraders were forced to attempt to subsist, the scenes of Leningraders pulling bodies on children's sleds during the winter of 1941-1942 down the same streets on which we spent pleasant hours sitting at a sidewalk café enjoying the sunshine in this beautiful city." 

The travelers also visited Piskarovsky Cemetery, where many victims of the siege of Leningrad were buried in common graves. The cadets commented on how psychologically and culturally different the American experience of war was from the Russian experience. 

"For the Russians, the war occurred on their own soil: everywhere we walked, there were immediate and visual reminders of the tragedy and suffering that had occurred in Russia, whereas for Americans at least since World War I war has been something that happened somewhere else," said the professor. 

During the trip the psychology professor also participated in a people-to-people psychology delegation headed by a past-president of the American Psychological Association. 

"We met with a number of Russian psychologists, and visited with psychology faculties from both Moscow State University and St. Petersburg University," he said. This was a valuable professional exchange which I will share with my colleagues here and which will enrich our understanding and teaching of Russian psychology, which gave us many important psychologists such as Pavlov and Vygotsky." 

In a world of future political and cultural change, the trip is one the cadets and Professor Mastroianni are likewill likely be a "win -- win" experience and life-long memory for all.