Last semester I studied abroad in Berlin, Germany with AIFS and the question was always, “What do you think of your election?” or “Do you like Donald Trump?” People wanted to know about our politics. Here in Russia, however, the question has moved away from politics to one of confusion: “Why Russia?” Despite being aware of the legitimacy of this question, I am always thrown off. The answer is difficult to simplify into a one sentence answer. So why?
When I moved to Germany to study in August, I thought of how different the culture was. Stores would always close on Sunday, my USD changed to the Euro and the cars were all compact. Public transport was not only present, but also efficient, as I had never regularly used public transportation in a city. A week into Russian life has made it seem German and American culture go hand-in-hand. Russia is something that, as an American, I feel unprepared to see. St. John Fisher College does not offer a Russian language course and only offers a class on Russian life every other year. Being here, I have the opportunity to see what the culture of Russian life is like. I live in St. Petersburg, take classes and have discussions about former Soviet Republics, and explore the remaining land mass of the world’s largest country.
Transitioning from using Euro or USD to a completely different currency has also shifted my thinking. 1 USD is approximately 60R. In addition to this, the cost of living is lower, as is the quality of life. Unlike New York State and Berlin, you cannot drink water from the tap. You can buy a can of soda for about 30R, or 50 cents; it would cost a little more than a dollar in the US. On one of the first nights of being in Russia, I went to eat with a group of friends. I had a beverage and a chicken breast and it only cost the equivalent of $7-8. This makes you take into consideration the amount Russian citizens earn from working.
The Russian transportation system seems like it was from the Soviet era. This is not to be confused with being inefficient. The Metro requires you to scan your metro card before passing a gate. After the metal detectors, you need to take an escalator deep underground. It is normal to stand on the escalators for nearly four minutes, and each second you can hear the faint hum of the moving stairs. On the adjacent escalator, you will see rows of people standing silently as they wait to reach the top, all without expression. Once you reach the platform, you only need to wait a minute or two until a train comes. If the car is full and you aren’t in a rush, it is fine to wait until the next one comes. Buses on surface streets are connected to cables the hang six meters above the street, however I have not used this form of transportation yet.
As time passes and experiences come, I will have a better idea of how exactly the culture is different. All I can expect is that it is not anything like what I have lived with throughout my life, and I think my AIFS friends and I will grow because of it.
It has only been a week, but it feel as if it has been a month. Beyond the various tours AIFS took our group on to see two palaces and the city, I have been able to walk around with a small group of friends, eat at different venues, and I have even walked on one of the frozen rivers that run through the city! When I was in high school, my classmates and I spent two days learning about World War Two and the Cold War (with all that it entails) without getting into detail of the Russians and Soviet Union. The extent that we discussed Russia was that they were the sole reason of the Cold War and beyond that, there was nothing. I am ashamed of how little I learned about this country. I look for an experience that shows me what Russia is really like; not the government, but the people, the life, the experience. Beyond this, I am almost on the other side of the northern hemisphere. I’m living through a Russian Winter, which is not as cold as I was expecting. I am amazed by the differences I spot between the United States and Russia, and I hope to find similarities as well.
Language and Opportunities
At my home university, I do not have the option to learn Russian. Over the summer, I learned the alphabet and cursive so I could read signs, but that was the extent of what I knew before coming here. At home, I could not learn all that studying abroad would facilitate. Learning Russian may not be important to the average American, as we were gifted with the opportunity to be fluent in the world’s foremost international language: English. Out of the several countries I have visited, Russia is the only one where I can’t use English as a safety net.
I am hopeful that in the near future US relations with Russia will improve, creating opportunities for business. One of the biggest exports of Russia is oil, which I find particularly interesting because one of my focuses in school is Energy Production. I believe that knowing Russian will give anyone an edge in future employment opportunities, and it is also good to know a new language to grow your mind!