Steppes Away: a Lawrentian’s Siberia

Adam Berey

I remember high school fondly, but at a Russian university, I’m living through it all over again.
Unlike a lot of students studying abroad, I’m in Russia not with an American program, but as an auditor at Irkutsk State Linguistic University.
ISLU has about 2,000 students, not much bigger than Lawrence, but the experience is enormously different. And not just because of the language gap, mind you.
Russian higher education doesn’t feel all that high. To an American, at least, it’s like a trip back to high school.
Partly, it’s having a foreigner’s knowledge of the language and remembering when, as a ninth-grader, I had the same awkward social graces, only in my native tongue.
But it’s not just me that’s a little less mature. The students here are younger — Russians enter university a year or two before Americans do.
And then there’s the bell system, and the teenagers making out in the hallways that bring back not-so-distant memories of choking through fog banks of hormones on the way to civics class.
There’s also a lack of constant school-wide community. Classes meet in a pair of buildings downtown. Most students are local and live at home with their families. The Soviet city planners squeezed in dorms where they could for the few out-of-towners, but they’re about 15 to 20 minutes away by bus.
And those dorms aren’t the chummy hives for student togetherness that we’re used to. The old ladies watching the desks don’t always let in students from other buildings, and there’s a curfew at 11, even on weekends. Still, there are a few scattered instances of “getting sausaged” — Russian teenagers’ overly logical expression for partying.
The buildings show their age — there are bare pipes and wires everywhere, the paint had already peeled off the walls when Gorbachev was premier, and the stairwells reek with an industrial, second-world smell that, like hot chestnuts, can’t be compared to anything else. I don’t regret opting for a home stay instead.
Instruction is, like at most high schools, rigid and tightly scheduled. Teachers forego critical thinking for old-fashioned busywork. Class lasts all day with a break for lunch.
And there aren’t electives. Instead, every student follows a schedule determined by his or her major department for the five years required to receive a master’s degree. Bachelor’s degrees are awarded to talented students only at the high school level.
Conferences, seminars and meetings often disrupt this tight, daylong schedule, and classes get shuffled around. My weekly stylistics class had to move three times in a row last month. The last time, it took us half an hour of class time just to find an empty room. And due to conflicts in the teacher’s schedule, the class hasn’t met since.
There isn’t much management, either. Though this weekend has been a national three-day weekend for almost 90 years, until Monday the administration still hadn’t decided whether to take off Friday or Monday. I can think of a number of Lawrence professors whose heads would explode working in this kind of system.
Bureaucracy drags on the educational process. At least, in its Russian form — it’s not the mess of forms and petitions that we’re used to.
For example, before I registered at the university, I had been told I needed six passport photos. I happily arrived with said portraits on my day of matriculation and turned them in.
“Unfortunately, these are all in color,” the woman said. “You need three color and three black and white.” So I went out and got another round at the inexpensive photo shop near the school.
“Unfortunately, these are glossy,” she told me when I triumphantly returned to the office. “They have to be matte.” My heart sank as low as my eyes rolled high.
This seems to be the usual work ethic here. Whereas in the U.S. we stall each other with paperwork and meetings designed to seem important, in Russia they manage to come up with extra requirements that are overtly pointless but nonetheless inescapable. After all, it’s my problem that I want to study with them, not theirs.