I’m not sure how I made the online acquaintance of Alex Maxwell - either Instagram or Twitter but we first met in real life in August 2018 in Berlin at a vide-dressing of sorts. She lent me three euros so I could get the beige trench coat I wanted. It cost ten euros. This act really moved me because I didn’t know her that well and I was so grateful to meet a fun and gregarious person. As we started chatting and getting to know each other more, I was shocked to learn that she was from Russia.
“People don't believe that I am not from the American Midwest because I don't sound anything like a Russian person,” Alex says.
She grew up in Magnitogorsk, the steel heart of the country, and she now divides her time between San Francisco and a small college town in Virginia during the academic year. During the summer, she readies herself to live in any European country. Hence our Berlin meeting.
“I felt truly happy when I got my passport that allowed me to travel the world,” she says. However, visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina and “seeing the visible signs of the pain and destruction that city went through so recently” affected her quite a bit.
Alex speaks two languages natively - English and Russian, and she lived in Bulgaria for four years, which is where she “picked up Bulgarian and learned how to swear in about 25 other languages of the region, including Albanian and Moldovan.” She also studied French and Spanish independently for 10 years.
So why did she enrol in a Russian literature PhD program at the University of Virginia?
“Growing up in Russia in the nineties definitely affected what I do and how I do it, even though I spent the better part of my adult life denying it,” Alex says. “After working really hard on getting two undergraduate degrees, one in Business Administration and one in Journalism and Mass Communication, I did a total 180 on my career and threw myself into studying Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the like.” This combines her love for Russian prose with her “less-than-calm upbringing during one of the most dangerous and crime-ridden times in Russian history.”
Keep reading to learn more. //
RS: What's a day in your life like?
AM: My days have never really had any consistency to them, in part thanks to grad school, and in part thanks to the fact that every year I get myself into something new entirely. Luckily, the flexibility that comes with being in academia allows me to do things like that. For the past couple of years, I have been working as a field producer for a EdTech company in Silicon Valley, so every couple of months I will fly out to the most random US city to shoot a film for about 10 days! The rest of my time is filled with reading, writing, going to conferences, working at a digital media lab as a film, 3D scanning, and 3D printing consultant, taking a class with the amazing experimental documentary filmmaker named Kevin Everson, and being inspired to make awful and kitschy films with my friends.
RS: Can you tell us more about your dissertation? How did you decide to do this?
AM: Well, I was reading a book once... That's how most of my stories start. I was reading a book once, a Russian book, and the particular section I was reading had to do with explaining the concept of Nirvana - what is understood to be eternal bliss in the Buddhist religion. I was reading without paying too much attention to the words themselves, but rather thinking about the concepts, but then I was startled by a realization -- the exchange I was reading was happening among three criminals, and it was taking place entirely in criminal jargon. I was astounded that I, a 22-year-old that had never been to prison, was able to not only understand every slang word, but, even more importantly, totally ignore the complete inappropriate stylistic attributes of the text, and instead focus on the message. Why was prison slang not an impediment to my understanding of this book? And then I thought it might interesting to write a dissertation about this.
RS: So what do you specifically research?
AM: Verbal expressions of prison and criminality in Russian literature, and the potential of those words to be used as a literary device.
RS: What are the main challenges of your written expression or art?
AM: To paraphrase, art is a knife with which I explore myself. I wouldn't recommend getting into writing as it is sometimes a very painful experience, but if so inclined, I would suggest that one try to write about things they have love/hate relationship with. Not something they love. Not something they hate. It has to be both, to accommodate both ends of the spectrum along which your mood and state and being will be swinging wildly back and forth.
RS: What do you look for when creating something?
AM: I want the consumer of my art to experience the exact emotion that I was experiencing making the piece. It's very, very hard to gauge what makes people feel things, but I love figuring it out.
RS: What are some of your scents and feelings?
AM: I love the smell of this one cheap perfume my mom used to buy me called "Sun." I love the tingley "am I having a stroke" feeling I get in my hands when I am in love.
RS: Best concert you've been to?
AM: Christine and the Queens - each and every time I felt completely mesmerized.
RS: How does capitalism affect you?
AM: I am part of the system, hardcore, indoctrinated by my Russian father who thinks America is the promised land. Trying to fix my ways by waking up a little more every day.
RS: What do you find artificial or deceiving in our world?
AM: Corporate memes, but also they are a little too real sometimes. Frustration for me comes mostly from people being dishonest with me.
RS: What makes you think too hard?
AM: How language acquisition works; why we're on this planet and how everything hasn't imploded yet; product design in general.
RS: What's the scariest thing you've ever done?
AM: I think going down that one water slide in Bulgaria back in college. I landed in 2 feet of water but it was my first time ever so I reacted like I was a Titanic passenger right after the crash.
RS: When do you feel most comfortable?
AM: At the end of a long day when I know that I have done something (even if it's just one thing) that will make me a better person in the long run.