By Conor Dempsey
Professor Sarah Smyth, Head of the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, was awarded a Medal of Pushkin by Presidential Decree from Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on 4 November.
The Medals are awarded annually to no more than ten individuals for promotion of the Russian language and culture. They are generally awarded to writers, academics and others directly involved in Russian language and culture abroad.
This year the medals were presented at a ceremony in the old throne hall at the Kremlin along with the Award of Friendship.
The Medal is often used, according to Smyth, as a diplomatic gesture. This year the three other recipients were from Transcaucasian regions previously part of the Soviet Union, including South Ossetia.
The inclusion of an Irish academic in such a group may seem unusual, but Professor Smyth notes that there has been a shift in Irish-Russian relations recently.
Irish business people have been showing an interest in tapping the potential market that Russia represents. Both President McAleese and Bono have recently visited Medvedev. Smyth has heard that Brian Cowen may be planning a visit in the near future.
The award ceremony took place in the old throne hall, which Smyth described as “just gold”, adding the experience was like “being on a set”.
The award ceremony was rehearsed to perfection and the guests all felt at ease according to Smyth. The atmosphere she described as relaxed, the hosts “welcoming, friendly and attentive”.
Smyth acknowledged the lack of media attention on Russian affairs apart from at the highest political level, noting that Russia tends to receive either “bad press or no press”. She attributed this common perception in the West to obvious historical factors, pointing out that few Irish or British newspapers have permanent correspondents in Russia. Speaking of the strong divide between literary Russian and “common” Russian she looked forward to the emergence of a Hiberno-Russian and the publication of the first Russian book in Ireland.