Adviser: Ellen B. Chances
Slavic Languages and Literatures
“The thesis, I realized, does not have to be something that makes you cloister yourself away in the library for several months of your senior year. It can become the opportunity to learn a different, more engaged way of being in the world.”
At an end-of-the year party, a friend of mine remarked, “No matter what the topic, everyone ends up doing a thesis about themselves, about where they come from.” I was stunned by the observation, troubled even. My friend, who came from Switzerland, was doing her thesis on agricultural practices in that country. Like her, I had also gone back to my origins in search of material for my thesis—a documentary film about the after-effects of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. As I thought through the thesis topics of all our other friends, the same trend manifested itself again and again: Even if the thesis had nothing to do with their religious, racial, or class background, it was the expression of something … well, quintessential about them. There were theses that represented a coming to terms with a particular background, and theses that marked the beginning of a vocation; theses that brought about healing, and theses that signaled a calling. … And then there were theses like mine, which were a bit of both.
I had decided to return to Ukraine—both physically and in thought—for both practical and personal reasons. Throughout my first two years at Princeton, I had felt a certain malaise in relation to my studies: I had been inexplicably attracted to the humanities from the start, but I found myself constantly questioning the social value of my work. A Global Seminar in which I participated in the summer after my sophomore year on the history of Eastern Europe through film put an end to these doubts. The connections between the films we watched that summer in Krakow and Polish history were so self-evident, the social and political purpose of the films so subtly but insistently conveyed, that I was hooked. I came back to Princeton with my eyes full of the poignant images I had seen and my mind percolating with ideas about the purpose and nature of film.
Throughout my junior year I tried to take as many film classes as possible, but I found myself hitting a dead end—no matter how much film theory I read, I did not know what it was like to really make a film. If I wanted to continue writing about film with integrity, I simply had to know what it was like to be behind the camera, to make the framing and editing decisions, and to deal with whatever technical problems arose. I recognized the fact, however, that this was a big risk: I had only ever made one four-minute film before for an introductory video class, so I knew I had to choose a subject that I knew well and that mattered profoundly to me. After all, the thesis is not a negligible commitment: Many seniors affectionately refer to their thesis as their “baby,” something they carry with them for almost nine months before producing it into the world through heavy labor.
It was then that I proposed a documentary film about Ukraine as my thesis to the Slavic department. I was born and raised in Ukraine until the age of eight, but I had spent the rest of my formative years in the United States. Each time I returned to Ukraine, I returned to a memory, at once familiar and distant—yet each time the memory continued to slip away from me. The country was changing so quickly and so radically that it seemed no longer to resemble anything I knew. The Orange Revolution of 2005 was proof thereof; for more than a month, people who seemingly no longer believed in a just, representative government had come out onto the cold winter streets to fight for precisely that—for a modern, democratic, united Ukraine. And what touched me beyond compare was the fact that my father, a painter who had never wanted anything to do with politics, was among them. With the support of Professor Ellen Chances in the Slavic department and Professor Su Friedrich in the Program in Visual Arts, I set out to understand how this was possible.
The catalyst behind the Orange Revolution was the November 2004 presidential election, which polarized the country into two camps: the primarily Russian-speaking East, which supported the “blue” candidate, Victor Yanukovych, and the more culturally Ukrainian West, which supported the “orange” candidate, Victor Yushchenko. When Yanukovych was elected president, thousands of Yushchenko’s supporters came out to protest what they believed to be election fraud. After two months of bitter political struggle, a re-election was held, and Yushchenko was announced its winner. Yet despite this “victory,” little seemed to have changed in Ukraine. When I came back to visit that summer, I found no traces of the exultation or hope of the previous winter—only deep-seated disappointment and regret.
I was fascinated by the discrepancy between the official facts and what I was seeing on the ground. Rather than focus on the revolution itself, however, as several documentaries had already done, I decided to look at something I could have immediate access to—namely, the effect of the revolution on the 2010 presidential election. Equipped only with an amateur’s camera and Professor Chances’ advice, I spent a month interviewing people about their expectations the preceding summer, then returned to Ukraine in December for the election itself. I did not follow any particular plan—my goal was to talk to as many people as possible from as many different backgrounds as possible.
I was worried that my lack of formal training in the social sciences would prevent me from doing a sound analysis. As I carried out one interview after another, however, I realized that my background afforded me an unexpected advantage: As someone from that culture, I could effectively communicate with my subjects. I could understand the references they made, the jargon they used, and the gestures they employed. Yet as someone who had not lived in that culture for quite some time, I also could maintain the necessary distance. Things that my father, who had stayed in Ukraine, found completely natural, struck me as bizarre; where he saw nothing but the facts of life, I saw clues.
When I finally sat down in the editing room of the Lewis Center for the Arts at 185 Nassau Street that January, however, these clues were hard to find. In my desire to capture as much as possible, I had amassed 11 hours of footage. With Professor Chances’s advice, however, I finally was able to cull the important from the irrelevant, and with Professor Friedrich’s technical expertise, to begin to build a story. It was at this point that I realized just how much of a risk I had taken, and how lucky I was to have two advisers—one familiar with the subject matter, and another with the form I was trying to give to it. Though I was quick to find many of the interviews or scenes moving, Professor Chances reminded me that I had to make sure my viewer would feel the same way. She pointed out places where the historical context was missing and places where the sentimental content was just too much. Professor Friedrich, on the other hand, was always there to show me how to do all of this technically, and to rescue me whenever something went wrong—including the time my external hard drive malfunctioned and I was convinced I had “lost” the whole film!
Professors Chances and Friedrich were not the only ones to help me with my thesis, however. As I reviewed my footage, I realized just how much the people I had spoken to in Ukraine had given me. Family friends and market vendors alike had opened up to me and shared not only their political opinions, but their personal stories, their desires, and their hopes. The thesis, I realized, does not have to be something that makes you cloister yourself away in the library for several months of your senior year. It can become the opportunity to learn a different, more engaged way of being in the world.
Finally, although the thesis stress may lie heavy on your relation to your friends and family, it also can prove how strong those connections are. On some of my darker days in March—when I realized that the current version of the film stood at over two hours—my mother, my boyfriend, and my friends would take turns at my side, helping me to cut away unnecessary scenes and to restructure the ones I was sure to keep. What kept me going through those days beyond their support, however, was how strongly I felt about my topic and how glad I was to be gaining a new, practical skill. If I can offer any useful advice, then, it is this: Pick a topic you know well and feel strongly about, but leave yourself room to learn. The thesis does not have to be a test of how well you have learned to research or to write—it can be a precious opportunity to try a new approach on a familiar subject or to bring the analytical tools you have already mastered to bear on a new topic. It can allow you to develop a talent, a way of thinking, or—again—of being in the world that is essential to you. However you choose to take it, you will walk away wiser, calmer, and most certainly more courageous!
Ellen B. Chances
Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures
“I enjoy working with students, like Masha, who are willing to push themselves into the scary territory that lies beyond the secure comfort zone.”
Advising Maria (Masha) Shpolberg’s senior thesis was a joy. She was enthusiastic about her topic. She was open-minded. She took intellectual risks. She was creative. She started early; therefore, she had the breathing space to allow the topic to take the winding roads that are part of the creative process.
For her senior thesis, Masha made a video documentary film, Orange Hangover, that focused on Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population of Odessa. She included historical documentary footage of the city; shots of Odessa as it is today; explanations of conflicts between western and eastern parts of Ukraine and of the Ukraine-Russia tensions; relevant historical background of the Soviet Union; and historical background about Odessa as a city of religious tolerance and cultural richness.
Masha was personally, passionately involved in her topic. She presented the material from her viewpoint, from the perspective of her return to Odessa—the city in which she was born—in order to figure out, for herself, what the “Orange Revolution” and its consequences have meant to some of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population.
At one point in the film, during her time in Odessa during the summer of 2009, she admits, “I’m baffled.” This technique worked well because the viewer was with her in her explorations. She interwove interviews with her Odessa artist father, some of his friends, people on the street, people at a voting precinct during the January 2010 elections, and random people at a food market and at an arts and crafts market. She blended shots of political discussion with those of everyday life. Her film included political and philosophical views of life as well as touches of whimsy and humor, all of which combined to create a picture of life at a particular time in history.
One of the things that was fun, for me, about advising Masha was that her project involved film, history, culture, and documentary film production. The study of Soviet and contemporary Russian culture, including cinema, is one of my areas of scholarly expertise. Thus, I could advise Masha on her film from a scholar’s perspective. It was great that Masha also had an adviser from the Program in Visual Arts, who advised her on the technical aspects of video film production. This was a truly collaborative effort.
Senior thesis advising affords the opportunity of working closely with a student for an entire year. This is one of the things that I love about the experience. I enjoy working with students, like Masha, who are willing to push themselves into the scary territory that lies beyond the secure comfort zone. It is rewarding to accompany a student along the bumpy road of doubts that leads to the student’s own discoveries and intellectual, creative growth.
Words of advice to next year’s seniors: Start early. Choose a topic that you love. Remember that in some ways, junior year is the most difficult because you have a full load of courses plus your junior independent work. During senior year, things are better because the senior thesis work counts for two courses.
Take full advantage of your adviser. At any points along the way, if your ideas seem fuzzy, disorganized, or too general, or if you feel as if you are losing your way, those are the very times when you should meet with your adviser. He or she is eager to help you clarify your ideas. Often, the tendency on the part of the student is to avoid his or her adviser until the ideas are polished. Don’t wait. Get in touch with your adviser so that the two of you, together, can work out ways in which to solve those particular thesis-writing problems.
Know that sometimes the feelings of deepest confusion are precursors to the most exciting breakthroughs of, “Oh, that’s how it all fits together.” Although it is difficult when one is in the middle of one of those periods of confusion and desperation, remember that the creative process is nonlinear. Some of the most painful feelings of feeling lost and discouraged will be those that lead to some of the most rewarding moments of joy and discovery. Think, for example, of how you learned to ride a two-wheeler bicycle. First, you were excited. Then, you felt frustrated because you kept falling off your bike. Then, you gathered up your reserves of perseverance and determination. You focused. You pushed through, despite the scraped knees. And then, miracle of all miracles, you stopped wobbling and rode smoothly and happily. It’s the same thing with your senior thesis.
Writing a thesis—or a dissertation, or a book—is like life. There are ups and downs, but the more of yourself you put into it, the more meaningful and satisfying the process will be. I wish you all a meaningful, exciting time.