Devin Connolly participated in SRAS’s Russian as a Second Language program in St. Petersburg over the summer of 2004. She has since turned her love of language and traveling into a career with MIR, a specialty US-based tourism company that leads curious tourists through destinations spanning Ukraine, Iran, Russia, and Mongolia.
SRAS: How did your interest in Russia and Central Asia start?
Devin Connolly: My interest in Russia began when I was in 7th grade during the run-up to a school trip to Russia. During spring break of that year (1993), about 12 students at my middle school, along with a number of parents, teachers and staff at the school, went on a two-week tour of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vilnius, Lithuania. Since I was 13, I spent most of the trip socializing with the other students in my group, ignorant of the tremendous significance of seeing a newly post-Soviet Russia firsthand. But something must have taken root because when we returned to the states, I knew I would spend my life studying Russia and the Russtian language, and that I’d ultimately choose a field that enabled me to work with Russians on some level, and travel to Russia as often as possible. I spent my adolescent years studying Russian – at first with a private tutor, then in high school classes, and always independently with the help of textbooks I found at second hand bookstores.
SRAS: Wow, that’s a lot of Russia-related opportunity to offer middle- and high-school students! Where exactly did you go to school at? Do you know if they still offer these opportunities?
DC: I attended College Place Middle School in Lynnwood, WA. One of the staff members at the school had spent time in the Soviet Union as a Peace Corps volunteer and she was a driving force in organizing the trip. Unfortunately, she passed away several years ago and College Place no longer takes students to Russia.
SRAS: That’s highly unfortunate. After school, how did you continue your Russian studies?
DC: I worked full-time in my early twenties and put off university until I had completed my two-year degree, but when I began my studies at the University of Washington, I immediately declared my major in Russian language and literature. During my time at UW, I completed two study abroad programs, one with SRAS and the other independently with the help of the UW study abroad counselors. I spent the summer of 2004 in St. Petersburg and I returned at the end of that year to spend most of 2005 there. While in St. Petersburg, I taught evening courses in English grammar and conversation at the university, and I also had several students I tutored privately. I lived on the outskirts of the city with one of my students and her boyfriend. At the end of the summer, I interviewed for a job with my roommate’s company and was hired as the resident English instructor to teach group classes and tutor privately as needed, but I had to return to Seattle before I could begin my new position.
SRAS: Interesting. What sort of company was it that you interviewed for? Also, did you think that the position was good enough that you might put off university for a while and work in Russia?
DC: It was an electrical design and development company based in London. The position was good and the promised salary was fabulous compared to my living expenses at the time, but I didn’t feel it was worth putting off university to work in Russia, at least not in this position. I realized that I did not enjoy teaching English enough to want to make it my full-time profession.
SRAS: So you did go back and complete your degree – what did you do after that and how did you get involved with MIR?
DC: I graduated from UW in the spring of 2006 and continued working for a quarter at my student job in the Slavic and East European section of the graduate library. In that position, I received and catalogued incoming books from various outside sources. Among the items received on a regular basis were new books from publishers abroad, overflow books from other universities across the U.S., and donations from the personal libraries of deceased UW alumni and patrons. My job was to look at every book and determine if it was worth keeping. Books we kept were catalogued and sent into circulation and books we rejected were offered to other west coast universities. I had several other responsibilities at the library, but processing the incoming shipments of books was my favorite. After graduation, I was given one “grace quarter” to keep my library job and then I had to move out into the workforce.
Almost immediately after my library job ended, I was hired by MIR Corporation. I first heard about MIR through the UW Slavic Department. MIR would send an email to all undergraduate students in the department whenever there was a job opening, so they had become quite a familiar name to me by graduation. I decided to apply for a job at MIR because I heard there were travel opportunities that came with certain positions. After a lengthy interview process, I was hired. I worked in MIR’s Seattle office for two years and learned a great deal in that time. In the spring of 2007, I went to Uzbekistan for a two-week overland scouting trip that took us through most of the major stops in that country: Tashkent, Fergana, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Urgench. Traveling through Uzbekistan greatly increased my confidence when speaking with clients about any part of Central Asia. This spring, I went on our “Treasures of the Trans-Caucasus” tour through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia (in that order). The Caucasus tour was treated as a training trip, as I would begin my position as a MIR Tour Manager. I have now led that same tour I took this May two times in a row with two different sets of clients.
SRAS: So as someone with who has been to Georgia – what is the present political climate there? Have most people you’ve met been supportive of Georgia’s actions? Is there fear of another attack by Russia? What’s the perception among locals in Georgia of America’s role in recent events?
DC: The parts of Georgia I visited seemed remarkably similar to the way they were in May. There was no increased police presence in Tbilisi or anywhere along the Georgian Military Highway. We did see some European Union monitors in Kazbegi, but no further evidence of the conflict. Since I was with my groups most of the time, I did not get a chance to talk with many Georgians about the conflict, but our local guides shared their opinions with our groups. The feeling I get is that ordinary Georgians not directly affected by the conflict are quite removed from it. They see it as a struggle between their government and Russia’s government, but not something they are personally worked up about. It must be said that the only local people I spoke with about this issue were from Tbilisi, so I did not hear the story from the side of someone who had been directly affected by the conflict.
SRAS: Did you have to alter your trip plans because of the current military situation in the country?
DC: We did have to alter our itinerary because of the military situation. Thankfully, we continued with our plans of visiting Georgia and we were able to preserve most of the originally published itinerary. The one major exception is that instead of going to Gori like we did in May, we drove up to Kazbegi for half a day (from Gudauri). Most of the Georgian portion of our itinerary followed the Georgian Military Highway directly north-south without much deviation, especially not to the west. The Kakheti Province and other areas east of the Georgian Military Highway have remained peaceful throughout the conflict, so it was best to stay closer to the east.
SRAS: Do you find that demand for (or interest in) tours to the Caucasus has grown or waned in the weeks following the Georgian-Russian conflict? Did you have cancellations for your most recent tour?
DC: Demand has definitely waned, but not from MIR travelers. Though we had a few cancellations on our first Caucasus tour – both tours operated on schedule and with a group of at least 12 travelers. We later learned that our willingness to travel to the Caucasus at this time was quite unusual. Throughout our itinerary, we heard stories of groups from all over the world that had cancelled after the unrest in August. Georgia certainly wasn’t the only country feeling the pinch of this, either. Other tour operators had groups booked whose itineraries included Russia and other parts of the Caucasus in addition to Georgia and there were scores of cancellations after August 7. Not surprisingly, it was especially quiet in Georgia. We only saw one other tour group there of about two dozen travelers from Norway.
SRAS: As a related question – who is your “average client?” Do you have mostly students attending or do you tend to get more traditional tourists as well (retirees, etc).
DC: For group tours, MIR attracts mostly active retirees – people who have the time and means to travel to places like the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Russian Far East.
SRAS: What are your plans for the future?
DC: I’m getting married this December and I’ll become a stepmother of two excellent Scottish boys. Things will be quite domestic here in Glasgow, where I will now be based, but then the new touring season will start up in the spring and I will be leading tours all through the summer. Beyond that, I hope to use the downtime between tours to catch up on my reading list and explore Scotland a bit with my new family.