Mike Malsch’s path to the former Soviet Union — home from 2017-19 for the FBI legal attache — began in the Foreign Languages Building on South Matthews Ave.
That’s where Kari Bjerkness taught Russian 101, a language Malsch couldn’t wait to learn — “especially given that time in history,” the 1993 computer science grad says.
“So many things were changing in the world — later that year, the Wall separating East and West Berlin would fall. The Soviet leader — Mikhail Gorbachev — was pursuing policies, perestroika and glasnost, to open the Soviet Union up to the rest of the world, and the winds of change were blowing through Eastern Europe,” the 15-year FBI veteran says from Poland, where he’s been stationed since 2019.
“Kari was a master’s student and teaching assistant for the Russian Department. She was an energetic teacher who inspired me to learn and speak the Russia language, learn about Russian history and immerse myself in Russian culture.
“As an introductory course in Russian language, it taught the basics of the language — Cyrillic alphabet, grammar and some basic vocabulary. But it also initiated, at least for me, a desire to pursue Russian Studies as a minor alongside my major of computer science in the College of Engineering. An odd pairing, and one that confused my advisor, but one I hoped to use professionally one day.
“Twenty-four years after graduating, I was assigned to a position in one of the former republics of the Soviet Union — Kazakhstan. In 2017, I moved there with my family to live and work for two years. I was encouraged to brush up on my Russian language, since that was the official language spoken in the capital city of Astana, now called Nur-Sultan in honor of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“Resuming my study of Russian some 24 years after my last Russian class at U of I brought me right back to Kari’s class. I remembered the alphabet, some of the grammar and basic words and phrases. The lessons learned half a lifetime ago in Kari’s class provided the foundation upon which I could build, and I quickly regained my Russian language skills.
“My vision for why I began learning Russian finally realized, I was again reminded of the value of my U of I education.”