Gordon Smith

Gordon B. Smith is a prolific author and editor on Russian politics and law. His commentaries on Russian domestic political, legal, and foreign policy matters have appeared in numerous media outlets, including Time, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Christian Science Monitor. Gordon is Director of the Walker Institute of International and Area Studies and Professor of Political Science at the University of South Carolina. He is the author or editor of ten books and more than 50 articles and book chapters on Russian politics and law. His most recent book is Russia and its Constitution: Promise and Political Reality (2008), and his current research projects include a study of Russian relations with the Baltic States.

Gordon travels frequently to Russia, Mongolia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus to assist in legal reform efforts, including helping to train jurors and prosecutors for Russia’s first jury trials. He has been a fellow of the Harvard University Davis Russian Research Center, the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Smithsonian Institution, and Russian Studies centers in England and Japan.

Q: Gordon, you have been leading Smithsonian Journeys to Siberia since the mid-1980's. What keeps you going back?
A: Siberia is a very exotic part of Russia. Travelers who only see Moscow and St. Petersburg miss so much of the country's cultural and ethnic diversity, not to mention a landscape that changes dramatically as the train crosses from Asia to Europe over the course of the 5,000 mile ride. Some examples: In Ulan Bator, we'll taste fermented mare's milk, a staple of the Mongolian diet; in Ulan Ude, we'll be introduced to the Buryat culture through music; in Kazan, we'll discover a large Muslim community. These are all experiences unique to the region that surprise and delight most travelers.
Q: Has Siberia changed a lot over the years?
A: Yes, indeed. Several cities in Siberia are now thriving commercial successes. This is in contrast to cities that were "closed" during the Soviet era that have not fared well after the collapse. I tend to look at billboards a lot in Russia. This helps me get a read on the economy to see what is being advertised. For example, the last time I was there, I knew that housing conditions were improving when I saw advertisements everywhere for kitchen cabinets and remodeling work. Billboards for fitness clubs are a fairly new phenomenon and tell me that more Russians are paying more attention to their health. These are signs of a growing middle class.
Q: What aspects of contemporary Russian life in Siberia interest you?
A: Russia's post-Soviet era is only twenty years old, so contemporary society will continue to evolve. Some of the topics I look forward to discussing with travelers during our journey include wealth, political power, and urban vs. rural life. The privatization of many state run institutions created great wealth in Russia—sometimes through corrupt practices, but in many cases, also through very creative entrepreneurial activity. Public attitudes toward a rising standard of living are interesting to watch and measure. Finally, most Russians who live in large cities are first generation urban dwellers. Therefore, a key to understanding the Russian soul is the spiritual connection most Russians have to their land. We'll see miles of dachas—modest cottages on small farm plots—where Russians spend time tending to their vegetable gardens as we pass through many Siberian villages.
Q: What sort of topics will you address in your lectures?
A: I will cover a diverse set of topics including the history of how the railroad was built; Russia's shifting foreign policy priorities with its neighbors to the east and west, and Russia's dynamic and diverse media scene are just a few.
Q: Finally, can you recommend a good book on contemporary Russia?
A: I often recommend Lilia Shevtsova's Lost in Translation: The Yeltsin and Putin Legacies for readers who want to better understand the last twenty years of Russia's transition.
Q: Any final words for our travel enthusiasts?
A: Riding along the shores of Lake Baikal is such a highlight of this trip. Many of our travelers don't realize how exhilarating it is to dip into the cold waters of this vast lake, so bring a swim suit!