*****This column was written in November 2006, when the author was still in Irkutsk, Russia.*****
Just before the election earlier this month, I was in the Internet caf talking politics with a fellow American. Thinking we were alone, we were surprised to hear a deep American voice next to us.
“Let’s throw the bastards out,” said a man in his mid-50s, sporting a goatee with a robust, white moustache. That was how we met Mike Milam.
This week, I dropped in on our university’s only permanent American. Milam was alone in the American studies office when I arrived, poring over a magazine.
“I just got a care package — DVDs, ****New Yorker****s. My wife’s awesome.”
Milam was hired three years ago as senior professor of American studies and now heads up a small faculty on American culture and language.
He doesn’t speak much Russian, but his students learn enough English that it isn’t a problem in the classroom. In fact, Milam gets along with them quite well.
“I don’t find that much difference between students here and in the States,” he told me, “except that students in the States are so remarkably grade-oriented.”
That’s not to say that Russians don’t care about their marks, but you won’t find anyone here arguing with a teacher over a tenth of a percentage point on a test grade.
The language barrier hasn’t hurt his social life, either. “My closest friends are English professors,” Milam said. “They won’t even let me speak Russian.”
The people have been the biggest draw for Milam — enough to take him away from a career teaching in Florida and writing, from pedagogical works to political articles in ****The Humanist****. He now has a book in the works on his experience here.
“Russians consider themselves to be extremists,” Milam said. “An American will get drunk and have a hangover the next day. A Russian will just be drunk for three days.
“If two Americans get in a fistfight, they won’t really hurt each other. But a Russian will get the other guy on the floor and kick his face in.”
Milam said he enjoys the emotional intensity of the Russian people. At a funeral recently, “the grief was just overwhelming,” he said.
He doesn’t miss American reservedness. In fact, missing America isn’t something Milam does much of at all. “I live like a Russian, basically. I wasn’t into creature comforts in the States.”
Living like a Russian means not having a car and never using an elevator. Milam considers his daily commute — which includes a hike to and from the bus stop and five flights of stairs — a healthier routine than life in America.
Milam’s life has always tended toward the unusual, like when he left college in his native Indiana to work on a tugboat on the Mississippi River and later as an apple picker in central Washington.
Milam returned to school eight years later at Western Washington University to major in English and philosophy. He completed a master’s and doctorate at Indiana University in comparative literature. His dissertation on Scandinavian nihilism took him to Denmark on a Fulbright.
That led to a long stint teaching humanities at the University of Southern Florida. There, Milam shifted focus to Russia, a longtime fascination.
“I read Dostoevsky when I was 17.” The passion and intricate philosophy of the writing led to an intense love of Russian literature.
Milam’s teaching career changed course in 1995 when he saw an ad in the ****Chronicle of Higher Education**** for teaching program in Russia through the University of Maryland.
“I said, ‘Sure, awesome. I’m gonna teach in Russia.'”
Milam was accepted and assigned to Irkutsk. That year, he made a number of important connections, especially with an important research director.
“I really wanted to come back, because I had a bunch of really good friends.” But discontent with the Maryland administration led Milam to turn down a second year and return to Florida.
It’s said that a Russian friend is a friend for life, and Milam’s old Irkutsk pals eventually persuaded him to apply for a teaching position here. He was glad for a chance to escape from American university life.
“It was old, I’d been doing it for 20-some years,” he said, “so Pam and I decided to sell the house and move to Russia.”
The foreign teachers here are well provided for. His contract includes a suite in a special section of the university dormitory.
“Yeah, I don’t even see the students. I hear them sometimes, but hardly ever.”
Milam’s wife returned to the U.S. last year for the birth of a grandchild, and he makes it home for holidays here and there. But Russia always calls him back, and that’s just how he wants it. “I like the Russians. That’s why I’m here.”
Dr. Michael Milam is the sole American teaching at Irkutsk’s linguistic university.