When I send my friends and family updates about my adventures in Russia, they often forget that I’m also taking courses while here. Every weekday, we have about three hours of class. This is usually Russian language, and as in my case, additional courses in political science/sociology and art history, taught in English by Russian professors at the Polytechnic University.
Honestly, it can be hard to balance it all. As a group, we have incredible excursions almost every day, and I have a list of places I want to visit on my own time too. Throw in meals and trips with my host mom to local goings-on, and there’s barely any time to do laundry, let alone nightly homework. But I’d like to take a moment to reflect on how each of the courses I am taking are contributing to my experience abroad.
Russian Language: Intermediate
Alright, so this seems like a no-brainer; you’re in a foreign country, you don’t know the language well, and you take a course to learn the language better. I feel as though I barely need to explain how our memorization of food vocabulary on the first day of class made my grocery shopping so much easier. Thankfully, I already knew enough Russian to ask for directions, make minor purchases, and tell people to speak slower, but the practice speaking in the classroom is a huge help to me. When random strangers (especially older strangers) start talking to me at bus stops, on the metro, and so on, I really like to be able to carry on the conversation a while before I explain that I’m an American and probably understand less than 50% of what they’re saying. Maybe the worst feeling I’ve had since I’ve been here was when a woman with a young child turned to me, smiling, and started speaking words that might as well have been gibberish to me. I asked her to repeat herself, to slow down, and then what the unfamiliar words meant, but she asked, “You speak English?” I told her that I did. She shrugged, and said, “Tt’s not important.” It WAS important to me, however minor that interaction was—I learn languages to be able to connect to people who are different from me, and experiences like that drive me to practice and practice in class until I can understand a passing comment like “People are all in a hurry today, eh?”
It doesn’t hurt that our language teacher is hilarious. If I’m trying out some new words by answering a question like “Where do you live?” with something wacky like “On a private island in the Atlantic Ocean,” she absolutely rolls with it and corrects my grammar as we go. I think it makes the necessary process of repeated correction feel less discouraging when every sentence is making us laugh. I brought in my guitar this week, and we practiced the genitive case by singing the song Сердце (Serdtse) together! Starting my day with a grammar lesson and coming out with a positive attitude really does fuel my daily sightseeing.
Contemporary Russian Life
This course is a mix of political science and sociology, meant to give us an understanding of things like Russian political parties, how social policy differs in Russia compared to the United States, how Russian government is structured, fundamentals of the Russian constitution, and so forth. I think the most useful thing I’ve gleaned so far from this course has been the look at public opinion on things like values, Russian identity, and politics. As an American, it’s pretty common to hear generalizations about the trends in Russian governance, but these aren’t usually paired with statistics on the party alignment or poll results of individual Russian citizens. I find it very interesting, for example, that a survey we learned about in class asked Russian citizens whether they preferred “order” or “democracy.” What kind of a question is that? Why would you need to choose one or the other? Unsurprisingly, a solid majority of Russians preferred “order,” contributing to a stereotype of oppressive governance in Russia, when in reality that probably reflects more of a preference for individual safety and economic well-being than for abstract ideals. I would expect most pragmatic people to answer in the same way.
Such statistics have given rise to a number of conversations I’ve had with Russians, especially my host mother, who are curious about the American perception of their culture. It can be somewhat of a challenge to set aside any knee-jerk cultural imperialism but those conversations, especially the most uncomfortable ones, are helping me come to understand cultural differences that can seem downright weird when one doesn’t understand their context.
History of Russian Art
I should lead with a disclaimer here: I already love art, and particularly Russian art. I grew up trying to decipher the Cyrillic on the Russian icons in my house, and we’ve been singing Russian songs in my family for as long as I can remember. This art history class has a field trip to the Russian Museum scheduled for tomorrow, and I’ve already spent hours in that museum on my own time, taking in the landscapes, the scenes from Russian fairytales, the sculptures, the portraits, the religious scenes- everything.
I’m particularly grateful that this course spent so much time on Russian churches. Before our group trip to Moscow, our teacher explained the layout of Orthodox cathedrals and churches, the names for phenomena like iconostasis, and what each piece of furniture or group of domes is meant to represent. The professor showed us images of churches that we were able to appreciate much more fully upon visiting, and I can’t wait for this Saturday’s trip to Novgorod, where we’ll be able to see even more. It’s amazing how much more exciting it is to say “That’s St. Basil’s!” rather than “That’s that famous Russian church that I’ve seen pictures of!” And knowing the story behind a painting makes it so much more interesting to spend time with.
All in all, I am just so amazed by the experiences I’ve been having here, and I know that I wouldn’t be seeing everything the same way if it weren’t for my coursework. The structure of having classes each day also helps keep me from giving in to the temptation to just sleep for a solid 24 hours; I can do that when I get back to the States, after all!