Rachel Bauman (’18) – currently a policy advisor on the Helsinki Commission – began a lifelong interest in Russia after writing a paper for her history class in her freshman year of high school. “I had to do a report on Lenin, and I got really interested in Soviet history and the Russian language,” she remembered. “Things got wildly out of hand from that one assignment.”
Beginning to pursue Russian language and studies
Soon afterward, Rachel began to teach herself Russian language, not knowing anyone who spoke it. She learned with books, videos, and online resources, learning basic grammar and vocabulary. She remembers, “When I went to Russia for the first time in 2015, I knew what was going on for the most part.” In 2015, Rachel spent the summer teaching English to Russian kids in a summer camp about five hours outside of Moscow. “It was my first taste of Russia,” she said. “I figured I had better go there if I wanted to study Russian issues to make sure it was what I wanted to do.”
Upon her return, Rachel moved to D.C. to pursue covering Russian issues professionally, having earned an English major and Politics minor from Messiah College summa cum laude. She landed a fellowship at the Center for the National Interest, where she completed some intern-style assignments while helping some of the Senior Fellows there with Russia research.
Finding a graduate school that fit
Once ensconced in D.C., she did not want to leave, even for graduate studies: “This is where all the action is.” She began looking at programs in the area where she could further her knowledge in her field. Several of the programs required a certain amount of college Russian language study, and Rachel had none on her resume, despite her already-impressive language skills. She saw an opportunity to study Russian formally at IWP.
“I liked that IWP was really small and that the curriculum was a little broader than other nearby schools,” Rachel said. “Considering that I was an English major and took some politics courses in college, I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing fundamentally in international relations. I saw an opportunity for that at IWP.”
Rachel also liked the fact that the professors had real-world experience in government: “I really enjoyed the scholarly aspects of being an English major, but sometimes it was hard to find practical applications for what I was doing. I liked that there was a lot of practical knowledge in the IWP community as well as a respect for scholarship.”
Studying and visiting Russia
At IWP, Rachel focused many of her papers and much of her research on Russia. “It was easy to tailor your classes to your interest while still achieving a broad overview on certain topics,” she remembers. For instance, she studied the Russian angle in her foreign propaganda class with Dr. Glancy and her course on nuclear nonproliferation with Prof. Sokolski.
In the midst of her IWP studies, she returned to Russia in the summer of 2017. She lived with a host family in the historic city of Vladimir, founded in the early 1100s. There, she attended Russian classes every day and was forced to use Russian in all of her everyday interactions – from taking public transportation, to grocery shopping, to communicating with her host family. She also had the opportunity to travel, spending time in Moscow and some surrounding cities.
Later that year, Rachel had another adventure, appearing on Jeopardy – a lifelong dream of hers. “My teachers at IWP were very understanding when I told them I had to be absent for a few days,” she remembered. “It was very intense and terrifying.” She didn’t win but enjoyed meeting host Alex Trebek. It was an amazing experience overall.
Working with the Helsinki Commission
Little did Rachel know that soon she would swap speaking on national television for organizing Congressional hearings and briefings for Congressional staff. “Out of nowhere one day, I got a message on twitter from the chief of staff at the Helsinki Commission whom I had never met before,” remembers Rachel. She had never heard of this Commission, but, discovering that her professor Dr. Chodakiewicz was a mutual friend of the chief of staff, quickly agreed to meet him for coffee to discuss Russia. At coffee, she learned that he was looking for someone to fill a Russian position at the Commission and that he thought of her after reading a piece she had written for The National Interest.
Rachel soon found herself interviewing with the offices of all four ranking members on the Commission, followed by a political approval process. She began working at the Helsinki Commission – more formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) – in May 2018, the same month that she was walking at IWP graduation.
The Helsinki Commission is technically an independent government agency that operates similarly to a Congressional committee and is located in a House office building. The Commission was created in the 1970s to help Congress monitor the implementation of the Helsinki Final Act and other commitments with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Members of the Commission are in both political parties and in both houses of Congress, including nine Congressmen and nine Senators.
Rachel serves as the policy advisor for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). The Commission focuses on three main areas, all of which Rachel could cover in her region: political/military issues, economic/environmental issues, and human rights issues. Rachel’s focus these days is primarily on human rights.
Her day-to-day work involves organizing hearings and staff briefings on timely topics. She assists Members of Congress with travel, including frequent Congressional delegation trips to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meetings. She prepares memos and background information for members when they do things relevant to the countries she covers. This arrangement allows the Senators and Congressmen to have access to a staffer with more in-depth knowledge than may exist on their personal staff.
As a part of her job, Rachel has traveled abroad to do two election observations with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. She helped observe the first round of the Presidential elections in Ukraine last spring, and in November, she was in Belarus for the parliamentary election. Right now, much of Rachel’s work focuses on Ukraine, and she has been there twice since she started with CSCE.
“It is nice to know that products that I give to our Commissioners are things that they will use to inform their votes and decisions on important issues surrounding countries like Ukraine,” said Rachel. “Especially when I write speeches and statements for them, these influential people are speaking with my voice. What I see is important, I can help them see as important.”
For instance, most recently, Rachel was a part of hearing on human rights violations in occupied Crimea. “They all knew about the occupation of Crimea, but it was almost six years ago,” said Rachel. “The members there were reminded that this is an ongoing problem, and it’s not a done deal. We should keep an eye on human rights violations there.”
Using lessons from IWP
Now that Rachel has been working in this field, she has seen lessons from IWP coming up often. “In Dr. Thomas’ intelligence class, he emphasized the tension between the executive branch and legislative branch,” said Rachel. “I feel like that’s my everyday life now.”
“My research and writing skills improved at IWP, which is good, because a lot of what I do is writing,” she added. Her work often involves distilling complicated issues into concise, readable memos.
Her Russia class with Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz was particularly helpful preparation for her current work. While post-revolutionary Russia is Rachel’s primary interest, the course at IWP covered pre-revolutionary Russia and life in other imperial regions that are now independent countries. “You can’t really study Russia without studying its neighbors,” she commented. “Now that I am working with the neighbors, it is good to have that background to see where everything fits in, even from far back in history.” Other classes – including economic statecraft – have been helpful in understanding how OSCE member countries work economically and how countries can manipulate others economically.
To future IWP students, Rachel advises, “Really take the time to tailor your schoolwork to your specific interests, because you may never have the free time again to do research on things that are interesting to you. Also, take some classes you’re not quite sure about. I thought economic statecraft would be boring, but it was one of my favorite classes. I also never thought I would be interested in nuclear policy, but Prof. Sokolski’s class was one of the most interesting and challenging courses that I took at IWP.”