Get to Know Grace Michaels and Her Unique Abroad Experience

Grace Michaels spent her time this summer in Siberia, Russia, doing research on native people in the area. Her study is titled The Sacred in a Post-Soviet Space: The Effects of Modernization and Commercialization on the Buryat Peoples. On Oct. 1, she presented this research at the President’s Showcase of Academic Excellence.

Name: Grace Michaels

Year: Junior

Major: International Affairs and Russian Language and Literature

HC: What was your Inspiration to be a part of this research?

Michaels: I visited the Southeastern region of Siberia on my own once before, following my first summer semester in Moscow in 2017, and I just knew I had to return for research the next year. I found the whole area really fascinating and especially in a post-Soviet context. Siberia is often considered separate from Russia, but you have to study it if you really want to understand the entirety of Russia and even Central Asia. I know I sound a little nerdy, but I just think the whole thing is really cool! There’s no other place in the world like it. I’ve been really lucky to be able to explore it.


HC: Was this your first time living abroad?

Michaels: I was fortunate enough to travel abroad a couple of times in high school, but this was the second time I’ve actually lived and went about my daily business in a foreign country.


HC: What was the research about? What did you do?

Michaels: After the fall of the Soviet Union, tourism became a lot more accessible. My specific focus was its effects within places like the city of Irkutsk and the remote villages of Olkhon Island that have a larger demographic of native Siberians. We saw a rapid modernization and commercialization of the local and indigenous peoples’ cultural practices; the environment and the economy of the regions underwent a huge shift. My research was to find out how tourism and non-natives coming to these areas impacted the native people, the local environment and culture. While on the physical site, I mostly collected oral testimony and primary source material documenting environmental and economic shifts.


HC: What did you find out from the research?

Michaels: My research, per the interviewees, found that the people most directly affected weren’t necessarily upset about this. They were just happy that people from far and wide are actually interested, and actually giving money to help keep the culture alive, per their own words. So, in a way, they almost accredit the massive influx of tourism with cultural preservation and with helping them economically rebuild after the complete collapse in 1991-92. People are able to work a relatively comfortable job alongside earning the kind of living they feel they deserve.


HC: Were the early results in line with what you had expected?

Michaels: Honestly, I hadn’t really known what to expect in terms of their thoughts toward the modernization and commercialization of culture, but I had a feeling people would speak pretty negatively about the environmental degradation that tourism and non-native people bring to the island. Those whom I interviewed definitely questioned if the environmental issues that follow the building practices and development were worth the potential income. A lot of the natural wonders on the island also have massive amounts of spiritual significance. I think everyone would hate to see something so sacred and beautiful face any sort of destruction.


HC: What did you learn from this experience, and did anything really stick out to you?

Michaels: I think it’s pretty interesting that even though this research is in what I guess I would call a “pilot stage,” it can be compared to what we are seeing in the United States. If we look at the treatment of indigenous groups within both nations, there are definite types of commercialization occurring at different levels everywhere.

The Buryat people, whom I focused the majority of my time interviewing and learning about, often willingly market their own religious rituals or cultural practices during the tourism season, and it’s a massive form of income for them. In the United States, I wouldn’t say that tribes necessarily do the same, but there are royalties paid to certain groups to commercialize their image. Whether you think it’s an issue or not, it’s an undeniable fact that it’s happening. Here at home even, our university uses the likeness of the Florida Seminole.

When we see that people are being commercialized or marketing their images and practice, we also should pay attention to the economic opportunities and livelihoods actually available to them. In Russia, especially on Olkhon Island, the modern economy literally revolves around tourism and doesn’t leave room for much else. I don’t think I spoke to a single Buryat person whose income wasn’t influenced in some way by tourism or through cultural commercialization. I met an engineer and a veteran who had moved from the mainland to the island because he said he made more money as a tour guide in a season than he did working within his degree field year around.


HC: What would your takeaways from this experience be that you think students should know?

Michaels: So, because I feel like things going on in Tallahassee might resonate with students a little bit more than in remote Siberian villages, I would definitely say we just need to be mindful and to ensure that we’re always acting appreciatively and not appropriating. Just be sure to educate yourself further about indigenous culture. I hardly remember learning anything about indigenous folks up until I sought out the information for myself, and I think that that type of erasure is also something that we absolutely have to work against, especially and without question if people want to attempt to use indigenous tradition and culture. To be nerdy again and to try and relate it back to research, you can think of it as plagiarism. Cite your sources properly and with due respect.


HC: What would you like to do now? Any future goals?

Michaels: Haha, good question! So, I’ve turned this project into my honors thesis, and I’m hoping to defend it in the spring. I’m definitely looking at different internships and fellowships for the upcoming year. At the moment, I really love the idea of working in an embassy and pursuing something diplomatic. I’m exploring some very interesting, but very different, options, and I would be thrilled to pursue any of them. If they’ll have me, of course!


HC: Thanks so much! Any final thoughts?

Michaels: Absolutely! I have to shout out my supervising professor Dr. Nina Efimov in the Department of Modern Languages. Without her, none of this would be possible. I owe her everything, and she’s shaped my university experience in so many ways. Also, shoutout to my parents for being cool enough to support all of my travel and ambitions, and to the Center for Undergraduate Research and Creativity and my two colleges for funding them. I honestly couldn’t ask for a better support system.

All images courtesy of Grace Michaels.