Mississippi Heard began in Russia. On a month-long train ride across Russia during my Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA), I gathered video and audio recordings while fellow Fulbrighter Stephen Barton photographed the people and places we came across and met. We asked Russians about their perceptions of America and how they defined themselves within their own pre-existing stereotypes.
But, the train ride was just one side of the story. After hearing how Russians felt about my homeland, international (mis)perceptions, and their “true” identity, I was left wondering – what do people from my home think about this country I’ve lived in for the past 10 months?
Born and raised in the South, I grew up in a town of 2,000. When I lived in Naberezhnye Chelny, Tatarstan, Russia with a Fulbright ETA, my students often asked me what life was like in America. They had ideas I came from a land of wealth, privilege, and luxury. While I can’t deny the United States is toppling over with too much, it is fact I grew up in the poorest, fattest, least educated state: Mississippi.
When I told my students in the industrial town where I lived, taught, and did independent research that their educational facilities were often more robust than those I grew up with, they hardly believed me. They referenced Hollywood films and popular media, responding with, “But…!” and asking about the roaring parties, idyllic Victorian homes, and oversized SUVs I surely had, lived in, and drove.
But, the media had gotten me all wrong; as I listened to Russians describe concerns over their national identity abroad, I heard how it’d gotten them wrong, too.
Riding the train across Russia, traversing our largest nation’s expansive diversity, I heard descriptions of European Russia, the Asiatic steppe, Siberia, and the eastern most city only miles from North Korea. The common denominator among descriptions was anxiety over setting the story straight; acknowledging the past but in a hurry to differentiate between then and now, Russians spoke self-consciously, and sometimes apologetically, about their country’s political and social trajectory. Their anxiety and the compulsion to start with the past reminded me of the only other place I’d known as intimately: home.
After the train journey and my assistantship ended, I talked with Russian friend Katya Korableva, and together, we decided to walk across Mississippi. This time, I’d continue with video and audio recording, but she’d do photography.
From mid-October until Thanksgiving, 2014, Katya and I walked 450 miles from the Mississippi-Alabama border to the Gulf of Mexico. We asked Mississippians about their perceptions of Russia and heard how they defined themselves within their own pre-existing stereotypes. Just as Russians had been self-conscious about international perceptions of the Soviet Union, Mississippians were in a rage to explain away their (anti-)role in the Civil Rights Movement.
When Mississippians spoke about Russia, they answered many Russians’ worries over being boiled down to bears, vodka, and the Cold War. Some Mississippians did, in fact, have a limited view of the Motherland; however, most had nuanced introductions to more novel parts of the culture: a jeweler in Kosciusko knew Russia by way of diamonds, a hair stylist in Jackson had enjoyed the city’s only Russian restaurant for years, a social worker in Laurel had hosted a Russian exchange student.
A year after the journey ended, an art exhibit featuring photography, text, video, and audio components from the project premiered at the Sewanee Art Gallery at Sewanee: The University of the South, my alma mater. There, Steve, Katya, and I met again, and though we thought we’d heard all comparisons between the South and Russia during the Fulbright, at the exhibit, we had conversations about rural Russia vs. rural America, political influence, and gender identities in conservative places.
Have questions for Hanna about her Fulbright experiences in Russia and as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador? You can reach her at HMiller.firstname.lastname@example.org.