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Jenks Connects With the Real Russia

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Photo by Victoria Sanchez

History’s Andrew Jenks learned to swear like a Russian while working on a giant floating fish factory.

It is part of a skill set he brings to his research into Russian society. The author of “Russia in a Box: Art and Identity in an Age of Revolution” who described how peasant craftsmen made the transition to life under Stalin by making lacquer boxes also is working on a book describing his attempt to follow in the steps of legendary Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Russian profanity offered Jenks a vent for the frustration that so often accompanies the ins and outs of Soviet society on his way to earning his B.A. in Russian from Bucknell University, his M.A. from the University of Michigan and his Ph.D. in Russian history from Stanford in 2002. He joined CSULB in 2006 from Niagara University. 

 “After I earned my master’s from Michigan, I got a job as a translator and representative for a company in a joint venture with the Soviet Union called Marine Resources International,” he recalled. “My job was to serve on a Soviet processing boat in the Bering Sea. I coordinated the transfer of 20-ton bags of fish from American catcher boats to the floating fish factory, which was the size of a football field. On the rare occasions the Coast Guard boarded, I translated. I became fluent in real Russian and not what I’d studied in college.”

Jenks’ Russian connection is bone-deep. “My grandparents on my mother’s side came to the U.S. from Russia,” he said. “Russia is my bleacher seat on the world. I study Russia as much to understand our society as to understand theirs.”   

By knowing Russia from the inside out, Jenks isn’t intimidated by their system. “It is not true that Russia is a terrible place where there is no freedom,” he said. “You just have to learn to work the system. When an American bureaucrat says no, it means there is a rule somewhere. When a Russian bureaucrat says no, it is just the beginning of a process of negotiation. Regulations are a façade. If you work the system correctly, you can get anything. I find that tremendously liberating. ”

In the summer of 2007, Jenks set out to retrace the steps of Yuri Gagarin, first man in space following his 108-minute orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961. “I visited the places where he grew up, where he trained as a cosmonaut and where he landed,” he recalled. “I went to numerous museums devoted to his memory and talked to a wide variety of those who knew him from his basketball coach to his niece.  When I visited Star City, Russia’s answer to Cape Canaveral, I received a guided tour from the wife of a cosmonaut. What I discovered was the continued survival of a national cult devoted to the memory of Yuri Gagarin.”

Jenks was impressed by how the cosmonaut’s memory continues to resonate in Russian society. “Yuri Gagarin is a palimpsest for Russian society (a manuscript page that has been written on, scraped off and used again). Russians inscribe the ideal sense of themselves on him and they’ve done it ever since he went up in space,” he said.

Gagarin’s multi-faceted character has made him a useful symbol for Russian history. “When Russian society collapsed in 1990, Gagarin was remembered as a drunk and a womanizer, a hick who got lucky. He became a kind of Boris Yeltsin in space,” he explained. “But when Russian society revived, Gagarin was turned into a sober, disciplined, karate-chopping handsome Russian, a Vladimir Putin in space.”

The message of Jenks’ future book is the distortion that followed Gagarin everywhere, even in death. “Here’s a guy who emerged from a super-secret world who was so anonymous, he didn’t even tell his family what he did. He thought he was going to die up there. But when he came back from space, he became someone who not only transgressed the Earth-space boundary but the boundary between the open and closed worlds of the Cold War,” he said. “Other people were arrested and shot for blowing their covers but not Yuri Gagarin. This was totally unprecedented.”

Jenks has several other projects on their way to completion, including a text for Prentice-Hall on environmental history that explores such disasters as Russia’s Chernobyl, Japan’s Minamata, India’s Bhopal and New York’s Love Canal. He visits India this summer with the support of CSULB’s Yadunandan Center for India Studies to look more deeply into the Bhopal accident. But his interest in Russia in general and Gagarin in particular will remain.

“What Russians remember best about Yuri Gagarin is his smile,” Jenks concluded. “Anyone who visits Russia knows that Russians don’t smile much in public. They see the idea of saying hello with a smile to people they don’t know as utterly ridiculous. But Yuri Gagarin’s smile stands for a desire to humanize the public space. He went into space at the same time then-premier Nikita Khrushchev was dismantling the cult of Joseph Stalin. Gagarin replaced Stalin with a smile. Yuri Gagarin gives me a sense of the human quality of Soviet civilization. It reflects the Soviet image of themselves as the salt of the Earth.”