Reflections on my time in Russia

My time abroad in St. Petersburg is now, I believe, far enough removed that I can properly reflect on it. First, I will touch on my linguistic experience. I have like have made big strides in my abilities with the language, although I have learned that gaining fluency is not something that will happen passively. Before my program, I laid out five goals for my language learning. My first was to be able to hold a conversation on various topics. By and large, I believe I have met that goal, although I still struggle with understanding spoken Russian. My second goal was to understand both perspectives on U.S.-Russian relations. I have definitely met this goal; from meeting Russian locals to visiting the U.S. Consulate, I have greatly improved my knowledge of the countries’ relationship. My third was gaining ability to read Russian literature. I have not yet tested this, but I believe I am capable. My penultimate objective was achieving 2 semesters’ worth of study during my summer; I believe my time was actually more equivalent to something a semester and a half. My final goal was to gain greater insight into the human experience. I firmly believe I accomplished this, seeing another side of the globe and experiencing new perspectives.

Overall, my SLA Grant experience was extremely rewarding. I have learned how to view the world differently. Most importantly, I learned the outsiders’ view on American exceptionalism. That term has many connotations, both negative and positive; this summer has allowed me to more fully see both sides. This is not to say that I was a blind nationalist before, learning to see American evil; rather, I have learned to recognize both the good and the bad in America, what it represents, and where it stands in the world. I would highly recommend the SLA Grant to anyone considering applying. My biggest advice would be for them to think about more than just the language. My biggest regret, mostly due to the cultural divide, is not making true Russian friends. If you are preparing to study abroad, embrace the unusual and the unique, reach out, and immerse in not just culture, but also language.

Going forward, Russian and my time in Russia will play a large role in my life. I decided against skipping a year of Russian and am currently in Intermediate Russian I, where I can solidify my knowledge of Russian grammar. I am tentatively still going to receive a Russian minor, but I may pursue another study abroad next summer and push to receive a major or supplementary major. Beyond the classroom applications, this experience will help my future career goals. I outlined before the summer how I hope to work in international relations, security, or a similar field, likely in the public sector. This experience, in addition to improving my linguistic abilities, has also gained me an international viewpoint others in my field may lack. Most importantly, this experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. It is possible that I will return to Russia, most likely to Moscow, for study next summer, but it is also possible I may never see Russia or have any such experience again. When, in old age, I look back at my time at Notre Dame, there will be many fond memories, but my study abroad through the SLA Grant may stand foremost among them.

An old post

While writing my post-program reflection, I realize that I had accidentally forgotten to publish a post from July 10, initially intended to be my 2nd post. So, I’m posting it here in its original form, as my final “while abroad” post.

4th of July, Russian style

I may be in Russia, but that didn’t mean that the 4th of July wasn’t celebrated! My program consists of around 60 American students, so we wanted to find a way to celebrate that was still cognizant of our environment and location. The holiday fell on a Tuesday, so there was not much of a chance for organized activities. Around ten students, including myself and two Russians, went to an American-style karaoke bar in the city. The bar was about an even split between Americans and Russians, and all the Russians seemed very excited to meet Americans and take part in the foreign celebration.

The remainder of the week was fairly normal, as I have now settled into life in Saint Petersburg. My classes continued, and I am adjusting to the very forward (verging at times on condescending) style of my professor. He is a polyglot: he is a native speaker of Russian and Dutch, learned German and English at a young age, and is also conversational in Spanish and French. As a result, it seems, he has little tolerance for our struggles with what he views as easy parts of the language.

On Sunday the 9th, we celebrated the 4th of July more officially. Our program administrators organized a picnic for all of us students, as well as the program’s Russian volunteers and any local friends we brought along. We went to a park and ate, threw a frisbee, and enjoyed ourselves. There’s a more remarkable part to this story, however: we stumbled into the filming of a movie! We saw dozens of actors, mostly extras, in aristocratic dress gathering and film crews preparing the set. One of us asked one of the actors what the movie was, and apparently it was a movie about Tsar Nicholas II and his family, in honor of the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. 

Finishing Up

My time in Russia is now drawing to a close. On the one hand, it feels like I have just arrived, but on the other hand, it seems like ages since I set foot in America. In my next and final post, I will offer my reflections and thoughts on my time here, but for now, I want to discuss my final actions and closing activities.

My class has now finished up. I won’t know my grade until early September, but it seems that I did well, probably receiving around an A-. I was in Group 2; there were six groups ranging from absolute beginner (Group 0) to fluent (Group 5). I have only 1 year of experience; everyone else with one year tested into Group 1 (plus some people with two years’ experience). I was the only one one in my class with less than two years of Russian, and two of the ten people had taken Russian for three years. In spite of this, I was the top student in the class or close to it, including receiving the only A on the midterm. My Russian abilities have vastly expanded during this brief time here. Russian grammar is not particularly complex; by now I have essentially learned every major grammatical topic. The major job of learning which I am undertaking is the expansion of vocabulary and the promotion of active knowledge over passive knowledge, that is, learning to produce forms and sentences on the spot, rather than simply recognizing them. I learn around a dozen words daily on average; I reckon I have learned around 400 words in my time here and been exposed to hundreds more. This experience has been hugely helpful for my Russian abilities.

I have been spending this last week, in addition to seeing whatever sights there are left to see, trying to meet some more Russians. During my first weekend here, the program director said that Americans are like peaches and Russians are like coconuts. Peaches are soft and sweet on the outside, but inside is a hard pit that is difficult to break into. Likewise, Americans are kind and happy on the outside, glad to talk with strangers and always putting up the façade of a great life, but on the inside they can be hard to truly get to know. On the other hand, coconuts have a hard outer shell that is very difficult to get through and hides everything. Once you break through that shell, however, the inside is sweet and rewarding. Russians likewise are very difficult to get to know, but they are amazing once you get inside. This analogy has proven accurate. Unfortunately, as a foreigner with still limited Russian conversational skills, I have barely managed to break through the coconut with any of the people I have met. I hope in this last weekend to finally do as much.

My final organized activity was a toast given in Russian by all the students in the program to our professors. Unfortunately, my professor had to leave town and could not be there, but my class nonetheless took part and thanked our instructor for all she had done for us. It was great to see how everyone has learned.

I leave in just a couple days. I will have an overnight layover in Vienna. While I have limited time there, and I know no German beyond basic phrases, as someone strongly interested both in foreign culture and in classical music, I hope that my brief time there will be rewarding. After all, a lot of this study abroad is about becoming a citizen of the world.

Bucket List

My time in the Venice of the North is nearing its end, so I am trying to check off the St. Petersburg bucket list, so to speak. It is amazing how it seems that the more time you spend in a city, the less time there is to do everything you hope for. I have sometimes spent less than a day or two in a city and thought that I had seen most all of what I wanted to see. Even with six weeks in Saint Petersburg, I feel that I would need months more to see and experience everything. There are still numerous museums I have not visited, and I have only seen a few sections outside of the city center.

Yesterday, I was able to see three of my desired locations. First, I finally went inside of the Kazan Cathedral, a huge church, just a block away from the university, modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Unlike many of the large, old Orthodox churches in Russia, it still is a functioning church; most, having been shut down by the Soviets, act today only as museums. Pictures were not allowed, but it was enough for me simply to go inside and experience its beauty.

Next, I saw the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, the massive church in the old-Russian style built on the location where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. It is one of the signature sights in St. Petersburg, as is St. Basil’s in Moscow, but I had yet to actually go inside. It was worth the wait. As with St. Isaac’s Cathedral I visited earlier, practically every inch of wall and ceiling was covered in ornate mosaics and paintings. What particularly stood out is the shrine in the back of the church on the exact spot where Alexander II was assassinated (or rather, attacked; he died in the Winter Palace).

The interior of the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood

Lastly, I finally saw the bridges go up. St. Petersburg is a city built on rivers and canals—hence, the nickname “Venice of the North” or “the Russian Venice.” St. Petersburg is also a port city. Every night, around 1 or 2 a.m., the bridges on the Neva River all go up—they are all drawbridges. This sight, almost completely unique among major cities, was amazing to behold. I stood on the bank between the Dvortsey (Palace) and Troitsky (Trinity) bridges, the two most famous in the city. With this view here of the троицкий мост (Troitsky most), I felt I had finally become a Peterburger.

The Trinity Bridge going up over the Neva River

Concerts and Holidays

Over the course of my time here in Saint Petersburg, I have had the opportunity to meet a variety of locals and tourists, see several holidays, and take part in the culture of the city. I have attended 5 major music concerts. First, I saw the last concert of the season by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, playing works by famous Russian composers. I watched an open-air, free-to-the-public performance of the early Russian opera Ruslan and Lyudmila. Then, over the span of just six days, I saw Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet Swan Lake, Gounod’s French grand opera Faust, and lastly, Eugene Onegin, the most famous Russian opera. These were interesting experience not only musically but also linguistically. Opera is not easy to understand even in your native language, and trying to follow in Russian was a steep challenge.

The past week saw two holidays: Navy Day and Paratroopers’ Day. While I tried as best I could to experience them, this was not very easy. Navy Day, or День Военно-морского Флота (Den’ Voenno-morskovo flota), is a major holiday; Putin was present, along with dozens of navy ships. Unfortunately, this also brought remarkable crowds filling the streets and bridges. I gave up on trying to get to the Neva River to see the ships after about an hour. I was able to watch the fireworks display that night from my room. Luckily, I had previously seen several of the ships on the water on prior days.

Two of the several Russian Navy ships which I passed while on a boat cruise.

I did have the chance to learn more about the holiday and its significance. I talked to Sergey, the primary tour guide for my program’s excursions, about Navy Day. He told me about the history of the holiday, specifically its Soviet origins and now how it has spread to numerous other countries. It still marks one of the biggest days of Russian national pride: after all, Russia Day, their independence day, is not strongly celebrated—it marks freedom from itself, something many struggle to find pride in. Especially in the context of increasingly strained relations with the U.S., Navy Day is also a chance for Russia to flex its military might, another tradition dating to 1939, the first Navy Day in what was then the Soviet Union. Its primary and most official purpose, however, is for honoring the Russian Navy, just as with Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day in America. I also talked, while trying to weave through the crowds, to a Russian I met about the holiday. He viewed it less as a solemn celebration of the past and more of a chance for nationalistic braggadocio. For most Russians, he told me, it is primarily a chance to drink lots of vodka, see some cool military ships, watch fireworks, and feel patriotic pride. I related it to the way that many Americans celebrate the 4th of July.

Additionally, Paratroopers’ Day, in Russian День Воздушно-десантных Войсков (Den’ Vozdushno-desantnykh Voyskov, generally shortened to День ВДВ, Den’ VDV), occurred on Wednesday. While technically a celebration of the Russian Air Force—it is literally the Day of Air-landing Forces—in practice, most do not celebrate the holiday. Those who do are generally young men who wear light blue striped tank tops, drink large volumes of vodka, and swim in some of the many fountains around the city.

I, per the advice of those familiar with the holiday, avoided the celebrators, called paratroopers; I instead finally visited the Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world. There was far too much to possibly pick a favorite work of art, so I will cop out by showing not a painting or sculpture, but rather a throne: the Hermitage is housed in what was once the Winter Palace, and this is the throne room of the Russian emperors of old.

The Throne inside the Hermitage, once the Winter Palace

Adventures in Saint Petersburg

My time here in Russia continues to move along. I have made some good friends, both American and Russian. My average day goes something like this: wake up and grab a snack before class, get lunch somewhere in the city after class, walk around the city or go sightseeing, and then grab some dinner and do my homework before bed. It’s amazing to have the chance to live in and explore such a remarkable city.
One of my favorite tours so far was of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest church in Russia. I have been inside many beautiful churches, but they paled in comparison to this one. The entirety of it was covered with incredible artwork and detailed golden masonry. To literally top it off, afterwards I went up to the colonnade around its dome and was able to see incredible panoramic views of the entire city, west to the Gulf of Finland and east to the far suburbs. That same excursion included a walking tour of many of the sites found in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s works, especially Crime and Punishment. Even having not read any of those books, it was remarkable seeing the locations where the actions took place in person. This is just one of the many amazing photos I was able to take of the interior, which is no longer an active church.
I will not sugarcoat it; the weather here in Petersburg is generally not particularly pleasant. The closest comparison in the U.S. is probably Seattle: it rains very frequently, and most days are cloudy. Today was actually one of the hottest days since I have arrived, with a high around 75º, bright and sunny the whole day. On the whole, however, my biggest advice for a trip to St. Petersburg is to bring an umbrella!
I also love exploring the city to find interesting places to eat. Doing this, in addition to eating food that is both good and cheap, has allowed me to have some interesting interactions with locals, as well as Russian tourists. At an Armenian restaurant one day, I struck up a conversation, as best as is possible with my Russian ability, with an Armenian couple there. I learned that they had immigrated from Armenia about a decade prior, and that they sometimes felt the effects of Russian xenophobia. Under the Russian mindset, people are either Slavs or not Slavs; by and large, someone’s race, per the American view, does not matter; it is a binary. The only major exception, it seems, is a particular dislike of Chinese people, mostly for the sort of disrespectful tourism once associated with Americans. This couple said that, while most people treat them well, they have seen the worst of Russia, such as drunkards berating them to go back to their country.
At a столовая (stolovaya), a Russian cafeteria-style restaurant, I ate beef Stroganoff, and I had the opportunity to talk with a worker there about the dish. It is one of the classic Russian dishes, named after a member of the wealthy and influential Stroganoff family. Traditionally, it consists of sautéed beef cubes in a sour cream sauce. Sour cream is one of the most important foods in Russia. Combined with the noble origins of the dish, it makes sense why it is one of Russia’s signature foods, both in Russia and around the world. As the worker told me, there are many traditional variants, so there is not just one authentic way to make it.
My experience in Saint Petersburg continues to be enlightening and entertaining, and I hope that it continues to be so. I’ve got a lot of tours and concerts coming up, so hopefully it will be an enjoyable time!


If you want to buy souvenirs or traditional Russian arts and crafts, Изма́йлово is a place that you must not miss. This is the biggest flea market where you can find all sorts of souvenirs for reasonable prices in Moscow. Vendors there will be likely to ask for higher prices when you are a foreigner. But bargaining is perfectly acceptable there: a 10% discount is almost guaranteed, and the process of bargaining is sometimes very fun.

I have been to Изма́йлово for three times in total during my stay in Russia. The first two times were at the beginning of the program, and the last time was on the second last day I was in Moscow. I saw a significant improvement in my ability to communicate with the vendors and bargain for prices.

The most popular Russian souvenirs are obviously nested dolls. Prices of nested dolls range very widely, as machine-made dolls are super cheap while hand-made dolls by famous artists can reach hundreds of dollars.

Traditional Russian Souvenirs
Soviet Style Magnets meant to tell people not to drink








Besides some traditional souvenirs, you can also find many interesting products there, such as old photographs or student IDs, and some very nice Orthodox artifacts which unfortunately cannot be brought out of the country due to laws for protection of cultural heritage. There is one booth that sells bear fur, which is very impressive. I asked the price for the biggest one, and the seller said 1 million roubles, which is equivalent to around $17,000 dollars.

In Изма́йлово, there is also a really nice restaurant that sells Шашлык, a very common and popular Georgian food. This is actually my favorite in Russia. Honestly there is not that much delicious food in Russia (at least to me personally), and Georgian food is definitely one of the best. I will write more about Russian food in my next post.


Добро пожаловать в Россию!

Welcome to Russia! I’ve just finished up my first week here in Saint Petersburg, and it already feels like I have been here for a long time! There’s so much to take in, between the sights and sounds of the city itself and the major adjustment of taking classes in a foreign university. Despite any challenges, I have managed to settle in, and I couldn’t be happier to be here.

My program here with the School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) has three lengths: 6, 8, and 10 weeks. As I am in the 6-week program, those doing the longer versions arrived a month before I did, so they’ve been able to help me adjust to the area. Saint Petersburg is an international city: in addition to Russian, of course, and English, I’ve also heard Korean, Chinese, German, Spanish, French, and more! The dining options correspond; within a few blocks of campus there’s everything from traditional Russian to shawarma to new age American cuisine, most all of it tasty.

It has been challenging attempting to adjust to the language difference. The obvious examples, like ordering food and attempting conversation, are indeed difficult and occasionally frustrating, but I find most off-putting the small things. For example, it is disorienting hearing bits of conversation on the street and not recognizing most of the words. I’ve been trying to follow the advice of others in my program: celebrate the small victories. One day at lunch, I successfully ordered food and answered a follow-up question, all without issue, and I felt a sense of accomplishment.

On the whole, the strangest adjustment has been the so-called ‘White Nights’. Saint Petersburg is close to the Arctic Circle, so the sun rises at around 3:30 in the morning and does not set until well past 10, and the sky never gets dark. It’s very easy to look outside, think it’s the late afternoon, and discover it’s already 10:30. Compounded with jet lag, this made the first week of sleep difficult.

Attached here is a picture I took of the Казанский кафедральный собор (Kazanskiy Kafedral’niy sobor, or simply the Kazan Cathedral), a large Orthodox church modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It’s the next block down from campus, right in the heart of Saint Petersburg! On the whole, my first week was rewarding and exhilarating, if also intimidating and challenging. I hope that the remainder of my time will be the same!

Первый день в Москве

After struggling for several weeks trying to complying with the Russian Visa requirement, I finally arrived in Moscow on June 7th. While I was waiting for the driver to pick me up, I talked to the first Russian local I met to purchase a local SIM card. The first thing that came to my mind when I tried to speak Russian was: Wow, I really should have studied harder back in school. With a mixture of Russian, English and body language, I was finally able to purchase the plan I wanted.

On my way from the airport to Moscow State University where I am going to study at, I was able to glance at the city for the first time. It was nothing like the stereotypes that we always hear of. The temperature was normal, even warmer than South Bend. The city was new, showed little sign, if there was any, of a decaying economy.

Moscow State University Main Building

After almost an hour’s drive, I finally arrived at Moscow State University, my home for the next month. Moscow State University is the most prestigious school in the country and was established in 1755. It took me almost one hour to finally find the rector who was in charge of moving in issues. I was assigned to a double with a Russian post-doc student. Although the room is called as a double, it is actually a room divided into two singles with two people sharing the bathroom and toilet. You may think Russians are cold, as no one walking on the street would smile like people do in the states. My roommate said or did nothing as she saw me move in to my room until I knocked on her door and started introducing myself. She is actually very nice and friendly, giving me her number and telling me to ask her for help if needed. Later that evening I met with the orientation guide from my program. She gave me a tour around the university and helped me buy some daily necessities. We also ran into other students of my program accidentally, and went out together later that night.