An Interesting Summer in Istanbul with Professor Sylvia Önder


CERES Professor Sylvia W. Önder has been in Istanbul, Turkey throughout this tumultuous summer as Project Director for the U.S. Department of Education’s Fulbright-Hays GPA with the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT) for Advanced Turkish Language at Boğaziçi University.  This year, the program selected 18 ARIT-BU Fellows from around the U.S. for the full packet of funding — including undergraduate and graduate students and one faculty member.  With two terrorist attacks against tourists in Sultanahmet on January 12, and in the Taksim area on March 19th, the lead-up to our orientation in Turkey was stressful.  Various other summer programs were cancelled or moved out of Turkey.  As our program takes place in the bucolic campus setting of the former Robert College (founded in 1878 by American Protestant Missionaries), far north of the center of Istanbul and behind the castle built by Mehmet the Conqueror, we were happy when classes could begin as usual.  Our 18 ARIT-BU Fellows were a significant and highly-qualified addition to the total of 37 summer language students.

Our first security meeting took place the day after the Atatürk airport bombing on June 29th, which killed more than 40 people.   Since we all had been through that airport recently, and since many had guests planning to come during the summer, the airport attack was a hard blow to morale.  The horrific attack that killed 84 in Nice, France on the 14th of July made it clear that terror is not confined to a single place, but was not reassuring to the families of our participants.  Life took on a tinge of paranoia as social media outlets created and bounced about theories about which national security advisories meant the next attack was imminent.

And then came the night of July 15th, a Friday at the end of a long week.  A friend called from Ankara – “Are you OK?” “Sure, why?” “We have jets flying over and I can hear explosions” “No, nothing like that here…” Until the jets started flying over and the TV announcer began to read in a strained voice a statement from coup plotters that the government had been taken over.  Social media, which remained available to any who had a Virtual Private Network (VPN), was alive with photos of clashes on the Bosphorus Bridge, reports of explosions at the Parliament Building in Ankara, and speculation about what was unfolding.  One of our undergraduate ARIT-BU Fellows living close to Taksim Square called at about 3:30 a.m. to ask me what I thought they should do – stay put even though the glass on neighboring buildings was shattering from noise and a chanting crowd had formed in Taksim?  Leave everything and run down to the edge of the Bosphorus?  As I was getting more information from him about what he could see in the streets below, a military jet blasted over my head in the direction of Taksim.  I heard a massive boom on his end of the telephone… my worst fears seemed possible… were military jets being used on civilian targets?

The boom, it turned out, was a sonic one, not caused by explosives.  We hunkered down for the rest of the night, all glued to our tv sets and Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp accounts.  We fielded concerned messages from friends and family.  The airport was clearly the worst place to go, since it had changed hands more than once and was where President Erdoğan was arriving from his interrupted vacation in Marmaris, calling supporters into the streets from his telephone as he flew.  The U.S. State Department recommended we shelter in place.  Because of our various forms of communication, I was in touch with all program participants — except one — by dawn.  The last participant had slept through everything and e-mailed me when she woke up later in the morning. Things were quiet during the day on Saturday, except in the media, where eye-witness reports and breaking news swirled in a tornado of speculation.  As the sun went down, though, flag-waving crowds chanting “Allah-u Ekber” (among other slogans) marched through neighborhoods on the way to the main squares, as requested by President Erdoğan.  There were reports of the beheadings of soldiers on the bridge, countered by opposing reports of civilians and police taking pity on the conscripts who seemed to have thought they were in a routine exercise rather than a coup attempt.  It seemed best to stay out of any crowds…Turkey 1

After consulting with the Boğaziçi University staff, we decided to call our second security meeting of the summer for Monday morning.  We wanted to get everyone together, go over the events, make sure everyone had the proper advisories, see if anyone wanted to move to the dormitories, and resume classes to calm nerves.  The government seemed to be firmly in control of the public sphere at this point, with a few areas of unusual activity such as in the area around Erdoğan’s vacation hotel where a small team of would-be assassins was pursued, and alarming comings and goings from Incirlik Airbase in the South East.  But in Istanbul, businesses and museums were open, public transportation was made free-of-charge to encourage citizens to get back to normal life, and the Turkish flag appeared with pro-democracy slogans on all billboards and many homes and businesses.  The slogan that appeared right away everywhere was “Hakimiyet Milletindir” a slogan used by the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923 to mean that governance (or hegemony) belongs to the people.  In the commentary of many pro-government voices, the participation of the public in the prevention of the coup on the night of July 15th serves as proof that the people are finally able to protect their own democratic control of government from attacks by factions in the military and from evil-doers like Fetullah Gülen.

The Gülen network, until 2013, was operating in concert with Erdoğan’s A.K. Party in the realms of education, foreign policy, law enforcement, the judiciary, and others.   The opening of 37 Turkish embassies in the continent of Africa, for example, was coordinated with the educational and charitable work of the network.  Diplomatic relations with and media coverage in the United States have been heavily influenced by the network, which runs at least one charter school in at least half of the states of the U.S.A.  When the “break-up” came, both powerful men, each accustomed to total loyalty and unquestioned obedience, embarked on a quest to eliminate the other.  For American students studying abroad in Turkey, it became essential to understand that an overwhelming majority of Turkish citizens believe that the US government itself, or at least the CIA, was involved in, or at least supportive of the coup attempt.  And that the word “Pensilvanya” has come to stand for the Gülen network, since Fetullah Gülen lives in a small town in the state of Pennsylvania.  The official Turkish government term for the network is now the “Fetullahçı Terör Örgütü (FETÖ) which comes from an ending on the first name of Gülen, creating a meaning like “Gülenist Terror Organization”.

Fethullah Gulen and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Source:
Fethullah Gulen and Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The continuing suppression of media and academic freedoms, begun long before the coup attempt, gained steam in its aftermath.  One result is that the Turkish citizenry has an ever-narrowing range of analysis of events in the Turkish media at the same time as a growing awareness that foreign press is almost exclusively negative about recent events in Turkey.  This split awareness is made possible by the near universal use of the internet and a wide range of social media.  Although they are usually on holiday by this point in the summer, Turkish academics are following with a sense of dread the wholesale sacking of university deans and the call back of academics from outside the country to their public universities where they must sign statements that they have no connections to FETÖ.

On Sunday, August 7th, there was a massive rally at Yenikapı (the name means “New Gate” and the organizers used this to suggest the start of a new period characterized by unity between the political parties although the pro-Kurdish and liberal HDP was conspicuously not invited), and a Turkey with “one heart”.  At the end of the rally, President Erdoğan asked the crowd to affirm his wish that the nightly “protection of democracy” rallies in main squares around Turkey be discontinued as of Wednesday.  This means that our ARIT-BU program will end together with the nightly rallies.  It has certainly been an interesting summer…



Further Reading:

Being Different in Turkey: Religion, Conservatism and Otherization by Binnaz Toprak, İrfan Bozan, Tan Morgül, and Nedim Şener (PDF)

Interview with Dr. Jenny B. White as coup was unfolding: “How Turkey Came to This”

An insightful piece on the shake-up before the attempted coup by Reuban Silverman: “Some of the President’s Men”

A political view from the soccer pitch: “Erdogan vs. Gulen: Power struggle comes full circle in Turkish soccer”

Dani Rodrik’s blog: “Is the US Behind Fethullah Gulen?”

Al-Monitor “Is Erdogan really stronger after failed coup?”

“Turkey Chooses Erdogan” by Christopher de Bellaigue

A (Mid)summer in Sweden by Valentino Grbavac


When I found out back in February that I had been selected as one of three Wallenberg Fellows from Georgetown University, I jumped up and down for joy. Ever since I had heard about this amazing fellowship, I had dreamed of becoming a fellow. After the first few moments of complete euphoria and sheer happiness, I started wondering and asking questions. What will the summer be like? Where will I intern and what will I do there? What places will I visit during those three months? What will my first Midsummer celebration look like? I had so many questions, and later on as I packed my suitcase and left DC for Stockholm, so much planning and so many expectations.

Now, after more than half of my summer in Stockholm is over, I have to say that this experience has surpassed even my wildest expectations. It has been full of fun, adventure and above all, learning. I could have not imagined a better experience, and I am eternally grateful to the Wallenberg family, and everyone else involved, for this unique opportunity.

In May, I started working at Ericsson’s PDU Radio Products unit in Kista, a suburb of Stockholm often called “Sweden’s Silicon Valley.” Most of Ericsson’s R&D facilities are in Kista, and it has been exciting to work with the brilliant people who are developing 5G technology there. When I began my work, I had some a trouble communicating with my co-workers, to be completely honest. I have no background in engineering, and almost everyone around me has an engineering degree and speaks mostly in technical abbreviations and industry-specific lingo. Every second or third word I heard was an industry-specific acronym. During some meetings, I wondered if the person presenting was indeed speaking in English. Still, step by step, and with help from my gracious co-workers (who gave me a crash course in radios, hardware development, lean engineering and agile development) I learned so much. In what seemed like no time at all, I was able to speak the secret language of the ITC engineers. This experience made me realize the true value of MAERES courses. Through these, I have developed analytical skills and the critical thinking required to succeed in any field. After gaining these skills, with a bit of background knowledge, I am able to easily jump from analyzing Russia’s foreign policy to analyzing organizational structure and performance at a big international company. The vocabulary might be different, but the grammar is the same.

Ericsson’s PDU Radio Products Office Building in Kista where I spent most of my days this summer.

After becoming acquainted with PDU Radio Products, I began to work on projects. My first big task was to provide outsider feedback to help the unit transition to Ericcson’s new business model which is based on lean engineering. Another project I was tasked with was to find a better way to measure the efficiency of hardware development and the overall productivity of the R&D unit. I also explored the effectiveness of different agile methods, such as cross-functional teams, Kanban boards, “war rooms” and PULSE meetings. All of these projects, together with day-to-day operations, made me realize that I really enjoy operations consulting. Thanks to this experience I may pursue a career in this field.

What I have enjoyed most about the experience, apart from it being an immense learning opportunity, is how open and accommodating the company is and how kind and interesting my co-workers are. I have not been treated like intern, but rather, as an equal. In the US, it is unlikely that an intern would end up in a meeting with senior management to discuss strategy and trajectory. This is exactly what happened to me here in Sweden. My co-workers are not only a source of information about the technical side of the job, but also great guides to Swedish culture.

When we were not talking about the UEFA European Championship, they were telling me all about their favorite museums, the must-see places in Stockholm, about Swedish cuisine and culture, and about the best places to celebrate Midsummer. I took their advice and explored much more of Stockholm than I would have simply by following guidebook recommendations. For Midsummer, I took the advice of one of my colleagues to be adventurous and see out how Danes celebrate the holiday (even though, he reassured me, Swedish Midsummer festivities are the best ones in all of Scandinavia). I spent my Midsummer in the historic Nyhavn district in Copenhagen, somewhat sad about Croatia being kicked out of Euro Cup by Portugal, but nonetheless enjoying my first Midsummer festivities.

The historic Nyhavn district in Copenhagen was not only gorgeous, but also a great place to celebrate Midsummer in a traditional Scandinavian way.
The historic Nyhavn district in Copenhagen was not only gorgeous, but also a great place to celebrate Midsummer in a traditional Scandinavian way.

In July, it seems like all of Sweden migrates to the sunny beaches of Southern Europe. Most of my coworkers took a month-long vacation, so I also had some time off. I managed to visit some of my closest friends from the high school I attended in Italy. I visited Turkey, Macedonia and Romania and caught up with my friends in their home countries. It feels good to be back in Eastern Europe. It was very interesting to see architecture in each city and to experience the way that Istanbul, Skopje and Bucharest function, especially after having taken an excellent course on socialist and post-socialist cities by Professor Smith. I would recommend this class to all of my fellow MAERES students. It was also exciting (and at times scary) to be in the region during the failed coup attempt in Turkey and to receive first-hand information and insight from my Turkish friends about the subject.

Rested from this trip, I returned to (a still mostly empty) office to wrap up my projects and get ready to leave for home in the middle of August. I know that I will miss Stockholm once I am back in DC. It has truly been a fulfilling experience outside of my comfort zone of Eastern European politics and history. I hope to make the most out of the few weeks I have left here. It has been an incredible summer filled with learning, fun and both personal and professional growth. All that happiness and excitement I felt back in February has been more than justified by my experience thus far.

 A view of the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia taken during my summer vacation.
A view of the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia taken during my summer vacation.


Valentino Grbavac is a rising second-year MAERES student.

Summer in Tbilisi by Sofia Bachman

View of old Tbilisi from Bethlehem Church
View of old Tbilisi from Bethlehem Church


I stepped off the plane and went to get my suitcase at the Shota Rustaveli Tbilisi International Airport baggage claim. The airport was crowded with newly arrived passengers, and after a few minutes, the luggage efficiently swished in on the beltway. Stepping out into the crowd of people searching for their friends and relatives amongst the masses, I met the Georgian who had come to take me to my host family. As we drove through Tbilisi, he pointed out different areas and landmarks in the city, and he took a slightly longer route to show me more sites. Modern buildings were sharply lit against the dark night and shone as if it were mid-day. However, the older areas harbored cobbled streets, pre-Soviet architecture, and dim golden lamps, as if in a Dickens’ novel. My first impression of Georgia was a delightfully incongruous medley of Soviet apartments, modern sky-high structures of glass and metal, and centuries-old churches tucked into pockets here and there. While people scurried down side streets carrying groceries and returning home at the end of the day, in the car the kindly driver talked about his family to me in a mix of Georgian and Russian. Then, we arrived at my host family’s apartment, and I stepped out of the car to greet them.

Train station marketplace, Tbilisi
Train station marketplace, Tbilisi

According to legend, in the late 400s King Vakhtang Gorgasali took a hunting party out from the current capital of Kartli, Mtskheta. They had been travelling for a few days when the king released his falcon to catch a pheasant nearby. Both birds disappeared for a while, but the hunting party did not worry. Finally, Vakhtang Gorgasali took a party with him to search for his prize falcon and subsequent pheasant dinner. They discovered both birds dead in a boiling natural sulfur spring in the area of what is now central Tbilisi. The king ordered a city built on the spot, and made it the nation’s capital. In order to commemorate such a miraculous event as finding boiling water coming out of the ground, Vakhtang Gorgasali named the new city “Tbilisi,” stemming from the Georgian adjective for “warm,” “tbili” (თბილი). When I was told this story during a language class one morning, I learned two new words essential to its telling, pheasant (khokhobi, ხოხობი) and falcon (shevardeni, შევარდენი). Nowadays, these natural hot springs are the site of the city baths, where one can go to enjoy the company of friends, steaming water, and a good scrubbing.

The round domes of the Tbilisi baths
The round domes of the Tbilisi baths

I came to Georgia to study the Georgian language and all of its particularities. Here I would like to briefly introduce you to a few interesting facts about Georgian, and a basic grammatical structure so that you have the tools to create your own basic Georgian phrases. Georgian, part of the Kartvelian language group, emerged a few thousand years ago. While the writing, word usage, and structure has changed slightly over the years, Georgian in its original form is still intelligible to modern speakers. Imagine if the English of Beowulf were still in use today! Georgian, asides from having some fascinating, and equally challenging to pronounce, ejective consonants, is also famous for its consonant clusters. For example, the word brts’q’invale (ბრწყინვალე), which means “brilliant,” involves a cluster of four consonants, the ejectives being marked by the apostrophes. Let us begin our introduction with the two basic structures “How are you?” and the answer “I am well.” “How are you?”(formal) is “rogor khart?” (როგორ ხართ?). The response “I am well” is “k’argad var” (კარგად ვარ). Notice that in both instances the subject is left out, as the corresponding verb already clearly shows its owner. One last fun fact that I will leave you with in this short language lesson is that the word for glad, “mokharuli” (მოხარული), and the word for boiled, “mokharshuli” (მოხარშული), differ in Georgian by one consonant. Now you are close to being able to create the phrase, “Here is the boiled pheasant” (აქაა მოხარშული ხოხობი)!

A quote by poet Shota Rustaveli on the route to Q’azbegi
A quote by poet Shota Rustaveli on the route to Q’azbegi

While my main objective in Georgia was language and culture study, I also investigated what it means to different people to be Georgian. The answers of the various Tbilisi locals I spoke with were unanimously positive towards their country. Of course, not everybody listed the exact same qualities or combination of qualities of innate “Georgianness.” To some, being Georgian involved a deep connection with the land itself. To others, it was having Georgian as a birth language. Some said it was growing up in Georgia. A few named a connection to Orthodoxy as being part of what makes a Georgian a Georgian. Others referenced knowing and singing Georgian folk songs. Various people said it was about being part of thousands of years of history. A couple of people of people said that a deep part of being Georgian was staying intact as a people over centuries of invasion and territorial infringement. One unifying sentiment of “Georgianness,” despite differing opinions on how to achieve this, was that Georgia and being Georgian is all about being welcoming, embracing friends, family, and bringing outsiders in. Among such variety as a market-stall lady, a taxi driver, a communist, a tour guide, an architect, a university student, and a mother, innate Georgian hospitality was always at the top of the list. I would like to add that, from an outsider’s perspective, the tales of Georgian warmth are no myth but certain reality.

Myself and peer mentor Natia’s polylingual son at Tbilisi Sea
Myself and peer mentor Natia’s polylingual son at Tbilisi Sea

Sofia Bachman is a rising second-year MAERES student. She is spending the summer studying Georgian in Tbilisi with American Councils.

“Strolling Down Nevsky Prospect,” by Leslie Martin

The following piece is excerpted with permission from Leslie Martin’s digital project “Strolling Down Nevsky Prospect,” completed for REES 577: Socialist and Post-Socialist Cities. To view the rest of the digital project, visit


by Leslie Martin

Intersection of Nevsky with Fontanka at Anichkov Bridge. Photograph by author.
Intersection of Nevsky with Fontanka at Anichkov Bridge. Photograph by author.

To see and to be seen: Purposeful Social Display

“Though you may have some sort of necessary, indispensable business, once you enter it you are sure to forget all business. Here is the only place where people do not go out of necessity, where they are not driven by the need and mercantile interest that envelop the whole of Petersburg.” – Nikolai Gogol, Nevsky Prospect,  245

Nevsky has always been a place of “social display,” even during Soviet times. Catriona Kelly paints a vivid picture of Nevsky as a constant meeting place:

“The post-revolutionary years had seen the democratization of this formerly elegant street, and it was perambulated by a motley crowd, from indigents up to groups dressed for an evening out. In the 1960s, the more fashionable ‘sunny’ or south-facing side between Liteinyi and ploschad’ Vosstaniya was familiarly known, among young Bohemians, as Brodvei (Broadway) or Brod, and used as a place to converge. The nickname vanished with this generation, but the preference for the place survived. The prominence of Nevsky was assured by its uniqueness. There simply was no other comparable street for strolling, nowhere else you could be certain of meeting someone you knew, and probably more than once.” (Kelly, 260)

 View onto Nevsky from outdoor cafe, 2012, Photo by author
View onto Nevsky from outdoor cafe, 2012, Photo by author

I can personally attest that it is easy to run into friends and acquaintances on Nevsky and I knew less than fifty people in the entire city, the majority of whom did not live in the city center. Considering the fact that the majority of shopping and nightlife are located on or just off of Nevsky, no one should ever be surprised to meet a friend there. Nevsky is the center; it is a magnet for business, tourism, youth, and beauty.  As  historian Ronald Hingley noted on his trip in 1961 to Leningrad that “It is surprising to find anywhere in Russia so many well-dressed and attractive women as you can now see on the Nevsky Prospect” (quoted in Kelly, 260).

The Soviet Impact: A Nevsky in Leningrad — What’s the point?

Leningrad, view of Nevsky Prospekt, A. Skorospehov, 1969
Leningrad, view of Nevsky Prospekt, A. Skorospehov, 1969

After the Revolution, St. Petersburg was downgraded in nearly everyway possible for two reasons: one, the Bolsheviks wanted to break with Russia’s imperial past; two, the city was overwhelmingly form over function. The imperial capital was underdeveloped, could not serve the immediate needs of the new ruling class and it was difficult to see how the city could meet the demands of the Revolution: “In Marxist terms, the superstructure elegiac romance and heightened emotions meant, at base, insufficient provisions, poor roads and transportation, and a moribund industry.” (Goscilo and Norris, xiii)

Leningrad, Arch in the "New Holland" Island; Nikoliev, 1969
Leningrad, Arch in the “New Holland” Island; Nikoliev, 1969

The Bolsheviks for all intents and purposes abandoned the imperial capital and many argue that the city remained frozen in time, a living museum of a Russia that no longer existed. As a result, the city – and especially the city center – remained distinctly un-Soviet. Decades after the Revolution, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in his prose poem “The City on the Neva” that to his great pleasure “no wedding-cake skyscraper may elbow its way onto Nevksy Prospect.” (1960)

In practical terms, the Bolsheviks’ abandonment of Leningrad meant that centers of state authority were moved to Moscow. Leningrad’s nationwide role was deemphasized and over time the city became provincial in its own way. This is exhibited in the simple fact that Moscow was developed into a transportation hub, first with railways, and later with airplanes. (Kelly, 31)

Saint Petersburg City Duma. Photograph by author.
Saint Petersburg City Duma. Photograph by author.

So where did that leave Nevsky? In the new socialist state, what role could Nevsky – a commercial and social hub for the old elite – possibly play on the path to Communism? Would there an ideological impact Nevsky? Largely no.

In 1918, the Bolsheviks officially renamed the street Prospect of the 25 of October, but the new name did not take root among the locals, and, as before, everyone continued to refer to it as Nevsky Prospect.

In the 1960s and later in the 1980s there were suggestions for the removal of all shops on Nevsky. But in official plans that called for a reduction the number of shops, there were also provisions for increasing the number of cultural institutions on the street. (Kelly, 170) Perhaps the removal of shops had more to do with preserving St. Petersburg as a cultural capital and less with communist ideology. Gostinyi Dvor on Nevsky remained a major shopping center, living up to its resplendent past. (Kelly, 185)

Who “won” Nevsky?

Throughout its 300 year history, Nevsky has been dominated by aesthetics, an idealized view of history, and commerce.  These three constants are also found in the narrative of St. Petersburg, which can not be told without Nevsky.

St. Petersburg was designed and, to an extent, maintained as “a visually stunning showcase of Russia’s imperial ambitions” (Goscilo and Norris, ix). In his essay in honor of the city’s 300th anniversary, curator, Arkadii Ippolitaor described St. Petersburg as “the City in a porcelain snuffbox”. (Goscilo and Norris, x). These sentiments have led to the idea that the city is not for living in, but a museum to experience.

“St. Petersburg no longer exists as a city, for it as become a museum piece, much like an eighteenth-century snuffbox.”

Nevsky and Fontanka, Anichkov Bridge. Photograph by author.
Nevsky and Fontanka, Anichkov Bridge. Photograph by author.

What separates Nevsky from the rest of the city is its constant movement of vehicles, people and capital. It has been the movement of people on and money to Nevsky that allows the street to remain uniquely Nevsky – a center on its own.


Leslie Martin (MAERES ’16) is currently a Project Assistant for Eurasia at the National Democratic Institute (NDI).