A Traveling View
I think that one of the most important parts of study abroad isn’t just experiencing life in your host country but also traveling outside of your country. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to spend extended time in Estonia, Hungary, and Ukraine. These more “off-the-beaten path-for-tourists” location provided a really interesting view into Russia and my time in Russia as an American student. Also, as I was joking with my good friend, “this is probably the most interesting my passport will ever be!”
This was my first trip outside of Russia. I think this trip made me realize just how much Russia is still such a severe juxtaposition of worlds, a country resting right in between 1st world country and developing nation as it struggles to find a way to transition between the USSR and the modern world.
To me, this was very shocking at first as I realized that I had just gotten used to and accepted the lack of safety regulations, nothing ever being on time, and things regularly breaking down. Hungary with its efficient public transport, actual ambulance sirens, and English everywhere seemed like a dream.
At the same time, though, these very different living standards made me think as well just about my expectations. It wasn’t as if I couldn’t survive in Russia without modern EU efficiency, and I think the general unknowingness about whether things were actually going to work or not contributes to a great sense of personal flexibility and a lack of dependency on trivial material things.
My mom, who travels regularly to Madagascar, describes life in a developing nation as “a rolling ball as opposed to a mapped out football field.” There isn’t really a straight trajectory to various goals and instead you kind of never know where the ball is going to roll next or how the fast the ball is actually going to roll. Of course, Russia isn’t a completely developing nation (and I think here the almost oligarchical government means wealth really does determine your standard of living and how “modern” your life is), but I do think this metaphor still works.
It was also interesting to see how Russia is viewed by Hungary, its old satellite state. Hungary has such an interesting history from being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to being occupied by Nazi Germany in WW2 to becoming Soviet during the USSR. While there are definite parts of Budapest that still architecturally look like perhaps a Soviet Moscow, there many times when my friend and I would look at each other nervously and say to each other, “we probably shouldn’t speak Russian” as we could still sense a strong resentment about Soviet times.
Tallinn, like Budapest, also felt very much like an EU country and had a very international, welcoming feel to it. This was felt instantly at customs. My friends and I arrived to Tallinn by a very cheap overnight bus. The original plan was to sleep the entire bus ride, but it appeared I had forgotten that border patrol is actually a thing (having thought that like a train, we would just go through customs at the beginning and end of our journeys). Cue us going through border patrol at 4am getting stared down by FSB officers while dead tired because I had just flown in from Budapest the day before. On the other side, the agents on the Estonian side were friendly, happy to speak English, and had a cute drug dog walking around sniffing bags.
I think one of the things that amazed me in Tallinn is that everyone speaks English, Russian, and Estonian fluently (if not more languages of course) and I was told by my waiter that this is simply just a basic professional expectation. This to me made me think a lot about my American linguistic privilege as a native English speaker. I grew up speaking natively a language that can be universally used almost everywhere. Even in Russia, no matter how isolated I felt, I could always find someone to speak English with, but I realized—imagine if you only spoke, for example, Estonian or Hungarian, it is very possible that you can travel and find no one who speaks your language. That to me was an absolutely wild thought, and I realized at once that my American upbringing is a privilege and a hindrance. True, I will never have to go through ESL but I think also growing up with the expectation that I can use English everywhere kept me from studying and mastering other languages.
Going to Kiev was very interesting especially given its current complicated relationship with Russia. When I told one of my Russian friends I was going to Ukraine they perked up and asked, “Crimea?” One teacher also when I explained I would be missing his class for a trip to Ukraine proceeded to explain to me exactly why Ukraine is actually a part of Russia. Very controversial.
I think the complicated history with Russia has been going on since the beginning. Kiev served as the capital of Kievan Rus, the region of Russia’s origin story. Then 1240, the Mongols invaded and Kiev lost importance and Ukraine ended up being divided and contested by many different empires (Lithuania, Poland, Ottoman Empire, Russia, Austria-Hungary) with only three brief periods of independence in the 20th century when Ukraine was part of the USSR.
How you think about Ukraine and whether it’s a part of Russia or not also comes through the language. The preposition used for the word in is always “v” but if the country is an island or a territory it is “na.” Most Russians still use “na” when referring to Ukraine.
Personally, Ukraine definitely felt the most “Russian” out of the different old satellite states I visited. Kiev was full of old Soviet buildings (juxtaposed with gorgeous really old buildings), and at one point I felt like I’d been airdropped straight into the Russian New Year’s movie The Irony of Fate (a comedy where the plot revolves around how all Soviet buildings look the same).
In Russia, I’m living with a Georgian-Armenian woman so actually eating every day Russian cuisine (meat cutlet + macaroni) is rare, but so in Ukraine, I did end up eating more everyday Russian food in Ukraine than I’ve ever eaten in Russia.
One of the most interesting things I noticed about Ukraine is that history feels very present. For one, as I mentioned before, the architecture is a juxtaposition of many different time periods. For another, things feel more fluid. In the USA during most of my pre-college experience, I’ve always had a feeling as though history and present are very separate things like the history formed the things in the present and the present is the present.
I think that maybe one of the reasons I felt this way is because the USA is a relatively new country with a relatively stable history. Other than when the USA was a British colony, the US has never really been occupied by anyone and the last tumultuous war on US soil was the Civil War. Ukraine on the other hand has been occupied by many different countries since the beginning. Their borders recently underwent a huge change with the annexation of Crimea. Things feel very impermanent, and my friend and I actually stumbled onto a protest on accident (that we quickly exited once we spotted the arrival of riot police).
I love this feeling of history being alive and present instead of distant. It makes you realize the importance of history and events that happened. History is not confined to books. It’s still alive, and so many events (WW2, annexation of Crimea, etc..) have had tremendous impact on so many people whereas in the USA I’ve felt rather isolated from them.
Thus I think that my travels were so interesting in informing me about the Russian perspective and about other countries’ view of Russia. I think my place as an American student in Russia is unique especially given the current tense relationship because it gives me a chance to see beyond whatever stereotypes I’ve learned and also gives people in Russia window into America beyond the stereotypes they’ve learned. And in this globalized world with which we live in, I think it’s crucial that we reach beyond stereotypes and actually travel and expand our minds to the possibility of different viewpoints and perspectives.