Not your parents’ Russia

It’s about 8 a.m. on a chilly November morning in St. Petersburg, Russia. I am skirting around what appears to be a collection of buildings run by the Russian military. My destination is the St. Petersburg State Polytechnical University, where I will take the Graduate Records Examination (GRE). The exam is in English, but as anyone who has taken the test knows, there is a lengthy intake process that includes a pat-down and a myriad of instructions.

All of this is conducted in Russian, so my three years studying the Russian language seem to be paying off right before an exam that will not feature a single Russian word. When I get to the soundproof booth, I look left and see a student from Mongolia. To my right sits a student from Russia. I take a breath, and here we go.

Much of my study abroad experience in Russia was composed of little moments — of fear, embarrassment, failure, and once in a while, small successes. This was one of them. Here, I was being asked to do all sorts of mundane things in Russian that would have flummoxed me months ago. Not only did I succeed, but I managed to not let the whole ordeal affect my performance on the test.

After even a couple of months back in Appleton, none of my experience seems real. Did I actually live in one of those Soviet-style apartments that we are so accustomed to seeing on television? Did I really live in such an incredible city that has spouted so much genius? Did any of this actually happen to me?

Living and studying abroad can be so many things, but it can be easy to lose track of it all as time flies on. Here I am, back in Appleton. I am unsure if I can put into words how I have changed. I still get the dreaded question every day: “How was living in Russia?” and I have yet to develop a good answer.

After four and a half months, I was so swept up in daily life that I sometimes forgot where I was and how incredible it was to be abroad. No one else in my family has been anywhere remotely near Eastern Europe. Right now, there are so many barriers to travel to Russia, yet I managed to make friends and thrive in this beautiful place.

When living abroad, the differences in daily life are easy to point out: the food is different, gender roles and expectations are way different, and people in public can come off as cold and even haughty. Going to school in Russia was also different; I would describe my classes as “improvisational” in the sense that you had to be prepared for anything and ready to adjust on a dime. But what surprised me more than anything was the warmth that I encountered. Once you get to know Russians, it becomes pretty obvious that they are basically just like us — and probably even a little nicer at times.

Our media tells us that Russians are scary. This sentiment is not only pushed by the news, but also by the countless shows, movies and video games that feature comically-accented Russian antagonists. Russians are supposed to be intimidating, vodka-swilling gangsters who are either about to stab you in the back or sell you state secrets.

But try telling this to Egor, a friend I made abroad who invited me into his home, introduced me to his family, and even gave me free hockey tickets. Try telling this to the Russian students and faculty on campus who have to deal with these negative attitudes much more than I do. You can call me an idealist or naïve, but the prospect of alienating another culture based mostly on skewed portrayals in the media seems wrong to me.

At the end of the last school year, I was surprised to find that these attitudes had even entered the Lawrence bubble. One day as I opened The Lawrentian, I was surprised to find an explosively-titled article called “The Russians are Not Your Friends.” The author rejected any idea of cooperation with Russia as a fool’s errand before making several offensive remarks about Russian culture.

All of this is couched in the excuse that the author does not mean to “insult individual Russians … who have given us arguably the greatest literature in human history, vodka, jokes and excellent hockey players.” This is a laughable justification for a disturbing attitude that only acknowledges Russian contributions to our own comfort. Such an attitude is extremely disrespectful and does not acknowledge our shared humanity, nor should it be acceptable in Lawrence’s academic environment.

It seems hard to believe in the current political environment, but Russian-American cooperation actually is possible; in fact, you don’t have to look much farther than Appleton to see it. Until surprisingly recently, The Fox Cities maintained a vibrant sister city relationship with Kurgan, a city in the trans-Ural region of southern Russia. For 23 years between 1990 and 2013 the relationship saw well over 500 exchange participants traveling between the cities.

Thanks to the friendships developed between community leaders, the program had some extraordinarily meaningful results. The program helped build medical facilities, initiated a domestic violence initiative, and participated in a project to eliminate a massive stockpile of chemical weapons just outside Kurgan. In 2003 Mikhail Gorbachev came to Appleton and spoke in the Performing Arts Center as a part of a major conference on global security and denuclearization. Yes, that Gorbachev was here! Sadly, this bridge has since disappeared, but it and countless other examples of cooperation between citizens should serve as an example and standard for the rest of us to live up to.

All of this talk of cooperation may come off as incredibly naïve, but it does not mean that we should consciously choose to avoid cooperation in any capacity. It definitely seems better than the alternatives, anyway.

This is why studying abroad matters, because in order to cut through all of the noise, you have to actually find a way to experience a culture. Russia is complicated, and what we see in the media will not always reflect people outside of our country. While abroad, I discovered that the same thing is true in the other direction. I was initially pretty offended when my host mom berated me for forgetting to wear slippers inside and accused all Americans of being rude and dirty, but I eventually realized that I held many of my own preconceived ideas about this seemingly harsh woman.

One day I learned that the loud radio station she pumped into the kitchen every morning was actually one of the last independent news sources in Russia; when I asked her why she did not watch the television at all, she responded that “it’s all crap and I don’t trust any of it.” This shocked me and led me to completely re-evaluate what I had come to expect from Russians of her generation.

I tried not to make this political, but it seems like you cannot say much these days and avoid it for long, so I will just say this: America’s intelligence community agrees that the Russian government attacked us by trying to undermine our election process through misinformation and planting of “fake news.” Is this a travesty? Definitely. But what have we done about this so far? Who has held Russia accountable for these misdeeds in a way that can modify this type of behavior beyond the current spiraling relations?

So far, accountability has come from neither political party, both of which seem more pre-occupied with finger pointing, grandstanding, and Russian hysteria. Meanwhile, Russia does present a very real security threat that needs to be addressed. However, I think that many of us — including politicians from both major political parties — are still imagining Russia as a Cold War villain re-incarnated. This presents an easy target that leans back on outdated understandings of Russia inherited from our parents. We can do better than spouting these same lines. Right now the Russian state is certainly not our friend, but this should not be an excuse to alienate Russian culture and reduce its merit to jokes and hockey.

The Lawrence bubble exists for many good reasons, but it is our responsibility to find ways to push ourselves beyond the comforts and restrictions of campus. The same thing also applies to the United States, which itself constitutes a very large bubble that shields our vision of the outside world. The chance to spend a semester abroad is an eye-opening experience and one that students would be wise not to miss. The minute you step outside of this bubble you become empowered. Venturing outside of our comfortable borders is a risk, but one that pays off in a wealth of unique experiences and memories.

It is time to get to know the world outside of the bubble.

This project made possible, in part, by the Schwartzburg Fund for Study Abroad.


Article by John O’Neil