Slavic Languages and Literatures
Eden D. Doniger ’98
My colleague and I are sitting in the senior attorney’s office on a cold winter afternoon in 2005, staring at three shot glasses of vodka lined up neatly on the coffee table. I do not like vodka, but I will need to put personal preferences aside for the sake of this mission. Today, our task as junior associates at a major law firm is a bit unusual: We must determine which of these three vodka brands tastes the best. Will the winner be our client? Or will it be one of the competitors?
Of course, our taste test is unscientific and will prove nothing in the grand scheme of things. But the three of us think it would be lovely to wrap up months of hard work on legal review for our client’s latest advertising campaign by being able to boast that theirs is the best, just as a recent official taste test had concluded.
I brace myself and take a sip of each glass, sniffing coffee beans between libations. And there it is: glass number two. I cannot articulate why, but that one is my favorite. As a non-vodka drinker, I actually do not even mind it. My colleague voices his agreement. We look expectantly at the senior attorney. She grins. We all win.
During the months leading up to that absurd but entertaining taste test, my colleague and I were buried in boxes of legal, technical, and historic documents in Russian. My role was to analyze the documents, translate them if necessary, and provide advice to the client. The reason I was picked for the job? I was a Slavic languages and literatures major at Princeton, and no one else at the firm had the requisite background.
That turned out to be the most interesting, fun project I have ever worked on as an attorney. I would have been sent to Moscow to complete our research if not for the fact that I moved to Atlanta and changed law firms.
Embracing the right fit
When I chose Slavic languages and literatures at Princeton in 1995, I wondered if I was isolating myself from broader career opportunities and connections if I did not go on to seek a Ph.D. I was one of only two students in my class to major in that department; the other student was my best friend and roommate. I had also considered majoring in English, history, or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (and had, in fact, applied to “Woody Woo” proposing a focus on Russia, but was not accepted).
I felt in my gut that Slavic languages and literatures was the right fit. My passion for Russian was born in boarding school at Andover, and that passion expanded to literature and history when, at my mother’s insistence, I took a freshman seminar on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. After that, there was no turning back; I simply could not get enough of everything Russian. I think my Slavic ancestors were reaching through time and grabbing hold of my heart and mind. I enjoyed every minute I spent within the dimly lit walls of the basement in East Pyne. I spent two college summers in Russia. I ended up taking two years of Czech as well, did a Fulbright Scholarship in Prague after graduation, and obtained a graduate certificate in East European studies while at law school at Emory University. I wrote my law review article on legal issues facing women in Russia.
Opening fascinating doors
Interestingly, my practice as an attorney has never encompassed international law, the seemingly logical path for someone with a background in a foreign studies discipline. The parameters of an international law practice just did not appeal to me. I practice mostly in the areas of litigation, media law, and constitutional law. But time and again throughout my career as an attorney—starting with the vodka project—my choice of departmental major at Princeton has come in handy professionally. I have had numerous opportunities to use my Russian language skills to serve colleagues and clients. Even more broadly speaking, my background has been an irresistible topic of conversation for prospective employers and—now that I am a partner in a law firm myself—prospective clients, who are often intrigued by Russian history but know little about it. Those are the kinds of introductory conversations that lead to real connections and opportunities.
I now know that choosing my departmental major based on my passion was the best academic decision I could have made at Princeton. Not only did I have the time of my life as a student, but I also unwittingly opened door after interesting door for myself professionally.
I used to feel conflicted that I chose a career in law rather than a path devoted to something Russian. My concern came from fear that I might lose touch with such an important part of who I am. That fear has not been realized. Besides the aforementioned professional outlets to use my Russian studies background, I also have had plenty of personal outlets. I will continue to seek out such outlets throughout my life so that I can always nurture my need to feel the way I felt when studying at Princeton.
Looking back, my path was always clear. I loved Russian from the moment I started learning the alphabet in 10th grade. It was just a matter of letting myself embrace that passion without reservation and trusting in the results. I am so grateful that I did.