The Columns

W&L Senior Awarded Fulbright Research Grant

— by on May 14th, 2015

Washington and Lee University senior Naphtali Rivkin, of Teaneck, New Jersey, has received a Fulbright research grant to Latvia for his project “Anecdotes of Bravery: An Oral History of Latvia’s Popular Front.”

After traveling to Latvia last summer, Rivkin said, “By returning to Latvia as a Fulbright researcher, I want to investigate the multiplicity of reasons why ordinary Latvians risked their lives to resist the Soviet Union. Was it for lofty ideals like independence from Russia and freedom to rekindle Latvia’s heritage, European values and constitutional democracy? Or was it for something more personal, like a better quality of economic and civic like for them and their families?”

He continued, “I find oral histories to be an exciting and useful tool for explaining why major historical events happened.” As a student of culture and history, he wants to hear from people how they survived the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia.

“In a broad sense, I want to spend the rest of my life learning and explaining what makes people do good things and bad things,” Rivkin said. “If we can figure this out on a personal scale, we can become more fulfilled and honorable people. If we can figure it out on a community scale, we can curb crime and build society. If we can figure it out on a global scale, we can ensure liberty and prosperity for the future. For me, this Fulbright is just the beginning of a long journey toward understanding what inspires people to act.”

“Naphtali Rivkin is one of the most energetic, bold, dedicated young men I’ve ever taught,” said Kary Smout, associate professor of English. “This Fulbright fellowship will take him back to the land of his ancestors, where he will study in innovative ways why many Latvians were willing to take the risks to oppose the Soviet Union. What led these people to say ‘enough is enough’ and take part in a revolution? This is an exciting research project.”

Guided by Janis Taurens, professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Latvia, Rivkin will begin his search for extraordinary stories of ordinary Latvians in the Latvian State Historical Archives, which contains over six-million documents of state and local authorities, courts, estates, religion, politics and public organizations.

“I plan to search for registries of political groups and Soviet arrest records for political dissidence, continuing my search for arrest records in the State Archive of Personnel Files,” Rivkin said. “From there, I will search out and contact the people I find referred to in the archives, contacting Latvians through communities that keep track of one another, like The Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia.”

After Rivkin records his interviews, he will then draw on his resources at the modern history department of the University of Latvia to help him contextualize the stories against the backdrop of Latvian independence.

“Naphtali is an eminently well-rounded person: he not only does the highest quality academic work, but he is also a member of the ROTC program,” said Anna Brodsky, associate professor of German at W&L.  “As that combination of interests might suggest, he ties his academic life closely to issues of real and potentially imminent historic significance. He has undertaken an intensive study of Russia and its developing political culture based on his sense that Russia is NATO’s potential adversary.”

Rivkin is an English and Russian area studies double major. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Eta Sigma honor societies, Sigma Nu Fraternity, varsity riding, and Army ROTC. He is also a W&L writing tutor, an honor advocate for W&L’s judicial system and a radio disc jockey for WLUR 91.5 FM.

He is co-founder of The Stone, a W&L student publication; volunteers for English for Speakers of Other Languages; was a presidential scholar at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress; was a concert pianist with performances in Carnegie Hall, Merkin Concert Hall, Steinway Hall, among other venues; and is the author of five publications including “Russia’s Identity Crisis,” published in the Washington and Lee University Political Review.

Rivkin’s family escaped Soviet Belarus in 1975 and he grew up in America “in a Russian-speaking, Jewish-American home where we celebrate our heritage but take pride in our progress — where we fiercely defend our independence but happily accept our responsibilities as members of a greater community.”

Rivkin was particularly inspired by Donald J. Raleigh’s “Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation,” which he read to prepare for his study abroad in Moscow during the fall 2013. “Because of my fluency in Russian, I was able to interact with the native Russians outside the classroom of the Russian State University for the Humanities.”

His music training has taught him to listen attentively during an interview — “cadence, rhythm and tenor add a dimension to my interactions in another language.” That music training included studying piano for 15 years.

Rivkin has never taken his unique upbringing for granted. He has trained in the Army’s ROTC program to become an Army officer and is “committed to defending the freedom that provides the peace conditional for my well-being.”

Rivkin continued, “Whether in war as an Army officer or in peace as a scholar, musician and athlete, my aim is to live as a testament to my values so that I may continue to take action in helping others live well.”

“Naphtali is an ideal recipient for the Fulbright program,” said Richard Bidlack, the Martin and Brooke Stein Professor of History. “In class discussions in my Soviet history course, I could always count on him to think outside the box, to contribute original and intelligent insights. His infectious enthusiasm for learning and warm and friendly personality should enable him to make the most of his year in Latvia.”

Sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Program is the U.S. government’s flagship international exchange program.