Growin’ Up in Eight Weeks

In Bruce Springsteen’s 1973 album “Greetings from Asbury Park” (his first with the E Street Band), we listen to Bruce describe the process of growing up and setting roots down in a place in a song aptly titled “Growin’ Up”. After he describes the challenges, in the last verse he sings, “Well, my feet they finally took root in the earth…and I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car”. Perhaps this is symbolic of him finding his niche and learning to be comfortable with his identity. After eight weeks in Russia, I similarly feel that I have found an environment where I can embrace my appreciation of Russian culture and language, and I learned how to tackle new challenges of acculturation.

But now, it is time for me to say goodbye. Eight intense and incredible weeks here have left me with not only language gains and education but also more confidence in my capability to tackle new challenges. Those of you who know me well know that I’ve shared these sentiments of personal growth and confidence, and honestly that might be the most important accomplishment of this summer. In a couple days, I will concentrate more specifically on the language gains and education in my post-program reflection.

Over the course of this summer, there were many new and unfamiliar challenges and unfamiliar challenges in my daily interactions, but one

Main monument to the soliders at Borodino, the site of the bloodiest battle of the 19th century

source of stability was my weekly Catholic Mass. Nestled within a city neighborhood stands a large, red brick Gothic-style cathedral, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A couple of times I attended the English-French Mass but most of the time, I opted for the Russian Mass. Often I did not understand a lot of what was said, but I picked up responses and could also participate based on the consistency of the Catholic Mass. It was fulfilling when I finally understood some of the Gospel reading.

The status of Catholics in Russia remains complicated, as it is not recognized as one of the core religions of the Russian state. Significant doctrinal differences still stand between Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches, and reconciliation has been slow. Given the alliance between

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

the government and the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholics can sometimes find themselves politically marginalized. For instance, the English-French Catholic community (mostly consisting of African and Southeast Asian immigrants) at the cathedral continues to look for a permanent home, as they were evicted from their previous building and have not been successful in litigation. For now, they have Mass in the crypt of the Cathedral.

As a whole, the Catholic community in Russia is a small one, consisting of probably less than 0.5% of the population. As my host brother-in-law told me, there are two active Catholic churches in Moscow, a city of 12 million people. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is the most popular one, originally built by Polish Catholic immigrants at the turn of

The throne room of the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

the 20th century. My host family are actually descendants of these Polish immigrants and are practicing Catholics. My host mother stated that she, as a Russian Catholic, has not felt excluded by her friends and colleagues who know her Catholic identity. Likewise, my host brother-in-law shared the idea that in a city as big as Moscow, it is easier to practice than it would be in a small city or village. Yes, Catholicism is in the minority, but this vibrant community continues to grow here in Moscow.

Now, time for a short recap of my adventures this past week:

  • St. Petersburg / Lake Ladoga Cruise: Last Sunday evening, I traveled to St. Petersburg on an overnight train and explored the city on Monday
    A fort from 1321 that guards the southern entrance to Lake Ladoga from the Neva River

    before boarding a river cruise to Lake Ladoga. The boat took us up the Neva River to the southern coast of Lake Ladoga, a huge freshwater lake northeast of St. Petersburg that allows for gorgeous views and cool breezes. We stopped at several monasteries and a quarry-turned-park that provided the stone to build structures like St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. We also had the chance to view rural life in the Russian countryside, a far cry from the glamor of Moscow and Petersburg. The boat returned on Friday morning and after another day of exploring St. Petersburg and the Winter Palace, I returned to Moscow.

  • Borodino: On Monday, I decided to take a day trip to visit Borodino, the site of the famous 1812 battle of the Napoleonic Wars and the
    Fragment of the earthen barricades constructed by Russian artillery at the Battle of Borodino in 1812

    bloodiest battle of the 19th century. Unfortunately, I picked the day to go when the museum itself was closed, but I was able to walk around the territory and see some of the various monuments. The most impressive structure is a huge monument that commemorates all of the soldiers at Borodino, which looks out over the rolling hills of the battlefield. The small towns alongside the monuments belied the area’s historical significance – you would never guess that this place was the site of one of the most famous engagements in Russian military history. I made my return trip interesting by missing my train, asking how to get to the next city for a train, taking a bus there, and then finally catching a commuter train back to Moscow.

  • Lenin’s Mausoleum: As Lou Holtz once said, “If you have been here, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, none will suffice.” That’s all I have for this one.
  • Exploring Moscow / My Favorite Place: Yesterday, I walked all around
    A view of Lake Ladoga from the back of the cruise ship

    Moscow to see everything one last time, and I made my way back to my favorite place – the Большой камменый мост, or simply, the Big Stone Bridge. Some of you might remember that I took a picture from this same bridge last year and this year, and it was here that my love for Russia and Moscow began. I was able to stop by, take another picture of the gorgeous view of the Kremlin, and reflect on the language and personal gains this summer.

  1. I will be flying back to Washington and then to Pittsburgh on Thursday, staying for four days before I return to Notre Dame. I want to thank everyone who has been reading and following my summer adventures, and I hope that you have all learned along with me. I will write a brief closing blog in a couple days, but this will be my last comprehensive post. I have greatly enjoyed sharing my experiences abroad and perhaps my second “growing up” as a result of language immersion. I only hope that I will have the chance to blog live from Russia in the near future.


The law of adoption ban in Russia

As a person adopted from Ukraine, this relatively recent issue has been of substantial interest to me. In essence, Putin has made it impossible for American citizens to adopt children from Russia, which now includes Simferopol, the city from which I was adopted. When I tell people that I’m adopted from Simferopol, the issue does tend to come up.

The first person I spoke about it with was my professor Svetlana nikolayevna, who asked me if I had heard about the law. In her opinion, it’s not very good because children are denied a potentially good home. Hers is an opinion with which I agree.

The next person I spoke to about this was my language partner, and she told me an interesting story. When the law was being decided in the country, rumors were spread around about a child who was adopted from Russia to go live in America who had died in a car crash. It was decided then, by the country, that it was too dangerous for children to go to America. People were frantic and worried that kids were going to die.

The last person I spoke to was a woman who I’ve become friends with over the course of my stay here. She said much the same thing as my conversation partner, if a little more broadly. She is under the impression that it’s common for bad people with incorrect motives to adopt children from Russia. That there is no screening of individuals from America who wish to take on Russian children.

I approached this issue, inwardly, with a fair amount of skepticism. I find it hard to believe that there truly was any intention to hurt children from Russia. What I believe happened was the use of a few terrible instances, freak accidents, to reach a political end. This issue is an easy one to scare a population about, children are involved. It’s very easy to look at a terrible instance that my have happens one time and convince a population that it’s reoccurrence is imminent and inevitable and that children should be protected. As one of the aforementioned children, however, I can say I turned out fine. Yes there are a few things I like to complain about, but my parents love me extraordinarily much and I would be much worse off without them. In an attempt to stray away from a sample size of one, I can say that I have connections with others who came out of similar circumstances, some of them great friends. I’ve never heard of something bad happening to a child whose parents wanted them so badly, that they travelled all around the world to get them.

The danger in this kind of misinformation and fear spreading, is that children are denied homes with perfectly willing, capable, loving parents. If this law had been enacted before my time, I would be living a much more difficult, probably tragic life. That I know for sure.

I suppose the takeaway here is that it’s easy to scare people, and fear has consequences. It could be a lesson to us, to be wary of scare tactics of our own politicians, and to always keep an eye out for the political gain to be had, like a fight back on American sanctions against Russia.

Attitudes toward the US

To start with the most positive, I had lunch with a new aquantaince of mine and we spent a lot of time talking about literature and the books we read. This woman is about 27. Her favorite authors are Steinbeck and Fitzgerald and she mentioned something to me I thought was interesting. She said that she felt much closer to these books, that she feels like in a past life she was American and really wants to live in America. It was a little strange to see that kind of fascination with my country from someone else. It’s almost akin to the fascination I’ve had my entire life for Russia and Ukraine. She likes the openness and frankness of American literature, and the energy of the country. It was overwhelmingly positive

The second person I’ve spoken to about this is my friend Mikhailo, about 19. His view of the country is that there is more opportunity for being entrepreneurial. He’s a very forward thinking and forward minded person and craves the business opportunity in our country, and laments the relative lack of opportunity her feels in his

The final person is my dear friend Baba Natasha. She thinks that America must be a cool place to live but has very little concept of what’s in America. She once asked me if ice cream is the same. What I get from her is the notion that it must be a good place but little else. She asked me what kind of food we eat and how I spend my time, questions about the university system and is it common to live so far from your parents?

My takeaway is this: regular people in Russia have regular opinions. Especially in St. Petersburg, everyone is aware that people aren’t the politics of their countries. Baba Natasha has a fierce love of her country and traditions though, visible even through her excitement in learning more about me. People are kind and good and driven and interesting everywhere, and so far, seem to be aware of that even when speaking to a person from a different country. I might be an American but I’ve so far not seen any bad connotation with that fact

Borshch, a traditional Ukrainian dish

When most people think of Russia they think of potatoes and beets. So in a restaurant one day, I ordered borshch. I asked the waiter about it and was surprised to learn that borshch is actually Ukrainian in origin. Ukraine and Russia are very close, and it’s easy to see how the dish spilled over but according to this waiter, Ukraine did it first. The special part of its presentation? A bay leaf sitting in the broth for only five minutes before the soup is ready to be served. The role of soup is very important in Russian culture, as a warm dish would be in such a famously cold country. It’s one of the easiest dishes to make in times of struggle with whatever happens to be on hand and it therefore makes sense that it would catch on. I was in a bar once speaking with the bartender and mentioned that I want to practice russian more, and his first advice to me was to go to the old “Soviet stolovayas (cafeterias) where they serve s**tty soups.” Despite the roughness of the comment, the noteworthy part is his mention of soup before any other dish. So the most well known Russian dish in the most important food group of the country, is apparently Ukrainian. I’m sure many would refute me on that, but it’s just what I heard.

New Year’s Eve

I’ve always heard that New Years in Russia is a much bigger deal than in the US. Since the country was officially non-religious for so long, it became like Christmas. To be honest I was a little surprised when I heard so little about presents. After talking to a tour guide about the holiday, I learned that a lot of people celebrate it and that there is actually a big celebration in the square of the winter palace, but that it’s more of a tourist attraction than something many natives attend. From the family that I’ve spent time with, I learned that for most, New Years is mainly a time to take a little time off work, travel, see family, and have a little fun. So not that different, except for the fact that Christmas hardly rivals it.

Salted Fish, Anecdotes, and Present Perfect

As I’ve mentioned in other blogs, I’ve made friends with a family in my dvor (apartment complex). This week the mother of the children I play with has invited me to dinner almost every night. I’m finally eating properly! While my host family was a relative disappointment, with awkward conversation and bad food (and not enough of it), I’m really lucky that the other families where I live have opened their homes to me. My first night, after dinner, I sat with Oksana (the mother) and we drank coffee and talked about love and life until two in the morning. I’ve gotten to see her children in their home and learn how the youngest is learning to talk (sometimes we even make the same mistakes). Her food is wonderful, and there’s a lot of it, thank goodness. I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better cultural experience. Last night, I even got my moment with Oksana’s husband and really, for the first time in St. Petersburg, got to experience some of the culture here. Her husband is actually Ukrainian, so you could say I got some Ukrainian culture in there too. Yevgeniy, Oksana’s husband, sat down with me over a salt cured fish, yes a whole fish, and shared with me, told me how to eat it. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Over the fish (and beer, out of a mug, because that’s how beer is drunk with fish according to Yevgeniy) he asked me about american culture and tradition, all of my answers were poor, but fortunately he was comfortable enough talking. Then he told me anecdotes, which is the common form of humor in Russia. A lot of them had to do with Moldovans, whom he really enjoyed making fun of. Interestingly enough, he told me that old Soviet anecdotes aren’t funny anymore, they’re just “stupid.” He explained to me why Russians (but mostly Ukrainians) are so resourceful and explained his opinion on politics, Kiev, and a host of other things. I can’t say I understood everything, but I understood a lot. I am coming to realize that the Ukrainian accent is harder to understand for me. I didn’t speak very well, these were all topics for which I have little vocabulary, but I listened a lot. Honestly it was a little startling at first to just have Yevgeniy start peppering me with questions so intensely. In class I rarely got that kind of questioning, and I’m used to the subjects that I talk about with peers. This was a different generation, and older, more soviet generation and it was visible. I really felt like I was interacting with real Russians for the first time. Interestingly enough, Russian is Yevgeniy’s second language and he would sometimes ask Oksana how to correctly say something. The whole evening was an incredible window into how people live here. This family has opened up their home to me, fed me, let me play with their kids. Yevgeniy told me that he used to eat fish and drink beer with his father, and then he did so with me. I felt so honored and so welcomed. It was unlike anything I could have ever imagined and I’m so blessed to have had the random chance of meeting these people. I’m so glad I’m returning for a semester in the spring. Two months is not long enough, and I only just started to get to know this family. It takes time to build friendships here, and I’m fortunate that the friendships that I’ve had the chance to build aren’t going to end on August 9th.

But that isn’t all. After my evening with Oksana and Yevgeniy, I and a few friends went to the Present Perfect electronic music festival. As far as Russian culture, it was another experience entirely. The festival was held in the outskirts of the city on the property of an old factory. It was the young people of Russia, the weirdos and the hipster rave crowd all gathered into one place. St. Petersburg is a relatively progressive place in Russia, there’s a large population of hipster youth, and it was really cool to be able to see the hub of it. My friends and I stayed out all night dancing and experiencing the deep underground nightlife of St. Petersburg. Honestly, I didn’t think that I was going to enjoy the experience that much, but it was really fun. Dancing all night and actually having a crazy youthful moment right after my finals was a really fun way to spend a weekend. The counterculture is rich here, and for a night I was part of it. 

Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart…

In his track “Hungry Heart” from his breakthrough 1980 album “The River”, Bruce Springsteen sings of an adventure that takes him away from home but prevents him from returning. As the first verse tells us, “Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowin’, I took a wrong turn and I just can’t go home”. As my time in Moscow quickly winds down, I feel a desire to stay in Moscow and continue to learn and live – the ironic part of this journey is that just as I feel like I am making my biggest strides in using and understanding Russian, it is almost time to leave. But alas, this is only an incentive for me to return to Russia in the near future.

Yesterday, I finished my classes for the summer semester at Moscow International University. A grammar exam, oral exams, and a couple of essays marked the culmination of 7 weeks of coursework. Next week, our group will spend 3-4 days on a cruise around Lake Ladoga, visiting the towns of the scenic Republic of Karelia (a semi-autonomous republic in northwest Russia that has more sovereignty in local matters than other oblasts). We will also have a day before and after the cruise that we will spend in St. Petersburg.

Before I cover some of my adventures from the past 10 or so days, I wanted to share my thoughts about a very important cultural holiday here in Russia – Victory Day (День Победы), celebrated on May 9. Just like V-E Day on May 8, День Победы celebrates the victory of the Allied Coalition against Germany in the Second World War. However, more importantly, this day also commemorates the millions of Soviet soldiers who lost their lives in their Great Patriotic War (Великая отвечественная война). As a result, this day is especially important to all Russians. Every year in Moscow there is a parade featuring surviving veterans and a concert, but in contrast to the celebrations, there are flowers and wreaths presented solemnly at the monuments to the victims of the war – civilians and soldiers alike.

Center aisle of Парк Победы, featuring the central obelisk with St. George on horseback

I had the chance to ask one of my Russian friends about this holiday and journeyed with her to Victory Park (Парк Победы), a gorgeous and solemn display of monuments to the victims of the war amidst green rows of trees. Among the monuments are a memorial synagogue and a sculpture dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. Another statue features four figures, one from each of the main Allied Powers – Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The main statue of the park is a huge, painstakingly detailed obelisk with a sculpture of St. George (the patron saint of Moscow) on horseback.

Perhaps it is this similarity between Russia and the United States – a shared legacy of the wartime service of millions of citizens – that we find the greatest reminder of our common humanity. My friend and I shared our stories of relatives’ service – her great-grandfather fought in the war, while both of my grandfathers served on the Pacific front. She told me that veterans would often come to schools and talk about the war, but like many American veterans they rarely spoke about details. Like many other Russians, Victory Day and its historical significance are incredibly important for her, and she says that it is actually her favorite holiday.

“In the fight against fascism, we were together.” Парк Победы, Moscow

One of my professors at the university also lectured about Victory Day and its significance, especially about the losses that the day represents. Every Russian family at that time sent at least one family member to thewar, and many sent more – sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. My professor actually showed us some letters that her father sent home from the war front, filled with encouraging and affectionate language. Unfortunately, most did not survive, and these huge losses are on a scale unimaginable to Americans. Most of these losses actually come from civilian deaths, thanks to invasion and siege. We still don’t know the official extent of Soviet losses, as declassification of Soviet documents means an ever-changing estimate, but perhaps as many as 11 million soldiers and probably more than 25 million citizens perished during the war. My professor personally relates to these losses, as her youngest brother was sadly killed during the war near Stalingrad.

As a result, День Победы remains a crucial memorial to the service and sacrifice of millions of Soviet citizens and is also a source of great national pride. Regardless of opinions of the Soviet regime, Russians celebrate this day because nearly every family can relate to its significance. Парк Победы is a beautiful reminder of this national pride and sorrow, inevitably intertwined in the Russian mentality.

On a lighter note, I had the chance this past weekend to visit two old Russian cities: Tula and Vladimir (I didn’t have the chance to visit Sergiev Posad on Sunday). Let’s look at these and other adventures:

Tolstoy’s home at his estate, Ясная Поляна
  • Tula (Тула) and Tolstoy’s Estate (Ясная Поляна): Last Friday, our group traveled via bus to Leo Tolstoy’s residence not far from the old city of Tula. His estate sits quietly among the fields of provincial Russia, about three hours by bus away from Moscow. We toured the scenic property and his home. Afterwards, we stopped in the city of Tula, known for its samovar museum and small Kremlin. The interior of the Kremlin was lined with craft shops and bakeries, and in the center of the territory stands a church and museum.
  • Vladimir (Владимир): On Saturday, some friends and I traveled by train to Vladimir, another ancient city northeast of Moscow. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the city served as the capital of medieval Russia but
    View of historic Vladimir, featuring 850-year old and 900-year old churches in the background and foreground, respectively

    declined in prominence after the Mongol invasion of 1237. In the 14th century, the grand princes moved their court to Moscow. Nonetheless, the town is full of history in its monasteries, churches, monuments, and its old entry gate. At least three churches  date to the 12th century, and the old stone gate that stands in the center of the old town was built in 1166. We walked around the city, ate at several small cafes, and saw how life in the provincial cities differs from the hustle and bustle of Moscow. From the top of the hill and the deck of an observation tower, one can see the rolling hills and fields of the Russian countryside. To date, my day in Vladimir was my favorite of the trip.

  • Speaking: Yesterday I had a really good day of speaking, first with some oral exams in the morning and then later with a Russian friend of mine and her friend. We walked around Парк Победы and then ate at a local cafe, and besides not always hearing the questions I understood how to respond. Furthermore, I was able to more competently talk about some American politics and history – in the past, I’ve tried this but it doesn’t usually go well. However, with some help on some vocab this time, I was able to convey my points and was understood, which I considered quite a personal victory. For sure I’m still making errors, but the major errors are rare and smaller errors are less frequent. I am more satisfied with my speaking ability than ever before, and more importantly I have the confidence to put myself in most everyday situations.
In the foreground is a monument to Prince Vladimir, who Christianized Russia in the 10th century. Behind me is the Assumption Cathedral (Собор Успения Прксвятой Богородицы, 1160), which served as the inspiration for Assumption Cathedral in Moscow.

In short, I’ve had quite a few adventures in this past week – two new cities, many historical sites, and endless reasons to love Russia. I now realize that my personal gamble of spending two months in Russia was well worth the risks. Springsteen also sings in “Hungry Heart” that since “everybody’s got a hungry heart,” you should “lay down your money and…play your card”. Given this sentiment, I would say that for the first time, I truly gambled and played my cards. I took perhaps the biggest risk of my life, and now I am finally reaping the rewards of that decision.

Given that I will be on a cruise in the middle of a lake, I don’t expect to be easily accessible. If I have the service, I will try to keep in contact. Until then, good night from Moscow!

Moscow State of Mind

Billy Joel sang in 1976 that “I know what I’m needin’, and I don’t want to waste more time”, and nearly six weeks into my summer abroad I have a similar sentiment. Instead of New York, however, I’m in a Moscow state of mind, and I want to make the most of my remaining opportunities to progress in Russian. Between classes, homework, and explorations, the past two weeks have been a whirlwind of activity and learning. Nonetheless, life has seemed normal, giving me confidence that I can succeed in most daily tasks. Hearing and understanding spoken Russian in the classroom is easier and no longer exhausting. Next week will be my final week of classes, and I will post an update about my upcoming adventures for the following two weeks.

Once again, I want to start with another survey of an important cultural and political issue – and no, it’s not the Putin-Trump summit. All of you in the United States can debate that as you wish, but I will say nothing about that here. Instead, one of the hottest issues of the summer here in Russia is the introduction of legislation to raise the pension/retirement age. Currently, Russian women are eligible to receive pensions at 55 while men can receive pensions at 60. Under the new plan, through incremental increases in the age requirements, the new age of eligibility will be 63 for women and 65 for men.

For Russians, this news comes as quite a shock and brings important social consequences. Given that multiple generations of families often live together in one house or apartment, families rely on pension income for extra income. Many believe that current salaries are insufficient to support extra years of work, including a Russian friend of mine who was critical of the proposed reforms. When we talked about the issue yesterday evening, she informed me about the basic workings of the pension system – similar to the United States, citizens pay into the system throughout their working lives but through an automatic tax on purchases. She believes that lower pay combined with more years of paying into the system will strain families’ financial resources.

Furthermore, there are the issues of child care and life expectancy. My host mother and host sister both emphasized the impact on families when we discussed the pension reforms, and they could not believe how Americans do not receive their pensions until their mid-60s. Both of them stated the importance of mothers and grandmothers caring for children, who are often the center of family life. With more years of

Cathedral Square, Moscow Kremlin. To the left is Archangel Cathedral, and in the background behind me is the Annunciation Cathedral.

work required before receiving pensions, women will have to spend more time away from home and from children, leaving questions as to how to care for them. Their fears make more sense within the context of a strong dependence on the nuclear family, especially on mothers and grandmothers. Additionally, as we discussed, Americans tend to marry later and start families later these days than Russians.

Finally, life expectancy – especially for men – is lower here than in the United States: according to data from 2017, women can expect to live to about 77, which is similar to figures for American women. However, Russian men have an average life expectancy of only 66.5 years. As a result of the new reforms, some Russians are afraid that they will barely live to see their pensions. All of these factors have created significant opposition to the reforms, exemplified by demonstrations in cities across the country this week. Just as in the United States, Russia faces an issue of how to properly care for aging citizens while managing spending.

Nonetheless, I still want to point out some highlights from the past 10 days and a look at things to come.

  • Moscow Kremlin (Московский кремль): This past weekend, I was finally able to purchase a ticket to explore the churches
    The Tsar’s Cannon, Moscow Kremlin. Constructed in 1586 but never fired a shot. Also, the cannonballs do not fit in the cannon properly.

    and territory of the Moscow Kremlin. Though the weather was not terribly cooperative, I was thrilled to see the interiors of churches such as the Assumption Cathedral (Успенский собор, 1475-79, the site of the coronations of the Russian Tsars), and Archangel Cathedral (Архангельский собор, 1505-08, burial place of Grand Princes and Tsars up to Peter I The Great). The artwork and icons on display in these churches were often several hundred years old, including a famous icon of Christ dating to the early 12th century. Успенский собор is quite possibly the most beautiful church I have ever seen, as the walls are filled with icons and scenes of early Russian history. The Moscow Kremlin is full of history, and before I leave I hope to see the Armoury Museum – the site of hundreds of Tsarist artifacts and priceless treasures.

  • Cosmonaut Museum (Музей космонавтики): For those of you who don’t know, I had a fascination with space in my childhood that still manifests
    “In the name of peace and progress”, Cosmonaut Museum.

    itself in a genuine appreciation of space exploration. As a result, I was excited to have the chance to explore the Cosmonaut Museum in the city, which is the equivalent of our Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Inside were various reconstructions of rockets and the original rocket head used to send the two Soviet dogs, named Strelka and Belka, to space. Interestingly enough, I also thoroughly enjoyed Soviet propaganda posters encouraging space exploration.

  • Conversation and Learning: Most of my past two weeks has been me focusing on learning vocabulary, completing assignments, and practicing speaking. Given everything to do here, the tasks before me have seemed intimidating at times. However, I believe the work is starting to pay off – my host family last week complimented me on the fact that my speaking ability is “much better” from when I first arrived. Additionally, my conversation partner told me that I was understandable and that her corrections were simply some grammatical and technical ones. I still make plenty of mistakes, but total breakdowns in communication by this point are becoming increasingly rare. I want to improve even more in the next three weeks, but I am proud of what I have done so far.

This weekend will be full of excursions and adventure – our group will visit Tolstoy’s estate in Tula tomorrow and Sergiev Posad (a Russian Orthodox monastery) on Sunday. Additionally, some of my friends and I will travel to Vladimir, an ancient Russian city about 100 miles northeast of Moscow, on Saturday. More to come next week regarding those travels and other updates.

If you’re still here, thanks for reading this far and supporting my journey! I love that you take the time to read about Russian culture and every day life. I can only hope that this blog has helped you to understand and appreciate the Moscow State of Mind.


Никто не забыт и ничто не забыто

Никто не забыт и ничто не забыто

“no one will forget and nothing will be forgotten” written on the wall in the Piskaryovskoe memorial cemetery

As I sit here, in the sunlight shining through towering birch trees gazing out around me and the hundreds of graves and mass graves holding hundreds of thousands of people, I would like to get a few things out in the open about Russia, things that are now easily forgotten.

When people in the US think about and talk about Russia, it’s about Putin, and Bears wondering the Russian streets, and about alcoholism and the evil soviet army. I’ve not yet seen a bear here, no I don’t know how Putin is doing, TVs advertise non-alcoholic beer, and the Soviet army wasn’t always evil. That doesn’t mean that this country doesn’t have its problems. There is still a population crisis and alcoholism is still a problem, especially in the older generation, but even my expectations, formed by years of studying Russia and speaking with Russians and people who live there, were not exactly accurate. There are certainly cultural differences, but the Russia of today is not even like the Russia of 10 years ago. And even when thinking and talking and making fun of Russia’s soviet history and the strange, almost otherwoldnesss of Communism with a capital ‘C,’ things are easily looked over, to make a prettier picture of the American stereotype.

In 1941, the German Nazis attacked the city of Leningrad, now known as St Petersburg. From that time forward ensued an 872 day long blockade of the city, which most people know as the Siege of Leningrad. Now the siege was mentioned during high school as one of the battles that took place in Russia, but from my Russian classes in college and now from my time in the city itself, and it’s memorial, I realize that what I knew about the event was greatly underemphasized. A city of over 2 million innocent people was subjected to the German wish to wipe the city out. The casualties of the Siege of Leningrad exceeded those of the battle of Moscow, Stalingrad, and the bombing of Tokyo. The German Army cut off almost all flow of goods to and from the city, save a sliver of ice that as many people died on as were evacuated. People died from starvation, dysentery, tuberculosis, as an entire city was subjected to a winter with an average temperature of -22F on 200 (125 if you were elderly or a child) grams of bread a day; bread that consisted of 50% sawdust. Every person suffered. Children were left without families. One girl, Tanya, famously wrote in her diary after all her family were killed “all are dead, only Tanya remains.”

This is a human tragedy on par with the holocaust. It is widely known that over 1.5 million people died, but not all the information was released by the Soviet government, and the number could be much higher. It was an ethnically determined attempt to utterly wipe out an entire city. And it wasn’t supposed to end there. Adolf Hitler planned to follow his destruction of Leningrad with the destruction of the Donetsk Basin, and finally Moscow. He wanted to thus wipe out an entire country, but he didn’t get the chance. He didn’t get the chance because of the resilience and bravery of the country he was trying to evaporate. The people of Leningrad never stopped fighting. Stepping over dead in the streets, soldiers held the blockade. When spring came the entire capable city gathered to plant vegetables. Libraries still functioned, the theater was open. Even after a winter during which the 2 kilometer walk to get food was as deadly as the starvation without it, the city survived and fought. I’ve hardly heard a greater success story than that of the survival of this, then communist city.

But this is forgotten when we joke about drunk Russians and soviet repression, during which, by the way, soviet people suffered psychological and real terror as they and their sons and daughters were made slaves to the gulags for “political crimes” they knew nothing about. Russia is far away so we laugh it off. We think of Russians as cold oligarchs and ruthless abusive mafia, while almost every person in this city is a descendant of one of the mothers and daughters and brothers and fathers who suffered and survived this immense tragedy.

People in DC avoid Russians, don’t trust them, and look to lessen our President because of his involvement with them. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but we as a country, liberal or conservative, have decided to categorize an entire nation based off of its leader and his politics. I myself am guilty of bashing communism and its countries. I very rarely hear Russians spoken of in terms of the repression they’ve suffered ethnically, it’s much more common to hear stories about evil Russian spies or hackers tampering with our elections in service to a completely authoritative and iron-fisted leader who rides on the backs of bears. We can’t seem to wrap our minds around Putin’s popularity, despite the fact that Russians are living better than they have in their entire history. After suffering centuries of subjugation as serfs and a century of terror and poverty under the soviet fist, people here are now freer than they’ve ever been, and living comfortably. But we ignore that, we refuse to pay attention to it as we loudly and assuredly claim the repressiveness of Putin’s regime, because it isn’t identical to what we have at home.

Walking past the graves and feeling thе weight of what is around me, the bickering about Russia that goes on in our everyday media seems so very small. This is a place of people, of strong people who have endured tragedies we couldn’t even imagine. People, who then were Communists with a capital ‘C.’ I’ve gotten a chance to reorient my perspective here and add a little humanity to the narrative touted in our country, and perhaps reading this you might do the same.

Individual graves and the Piskaryovskaya Memorial Cemetery

Ohhhh, We’re Halfway There….

….And some days, I’m still Livin’ On a Prayer. Once again, good morning from rainy suburban Moscow! Today marks 4 weeks since I arrived in Russia on a cool, dreary day, meaning that I have nearly reached the halfway point of my journey. The past two weeks have honestly been a bit of a blur, with so much learning in the classroom and sightseeing around the city. I can now sense noticeable improvements in my speaking ability and vocabulary; further details are forthcoming.

Today’s blog will be the first of four or so posts dedicated to cultural or political topics here in Russia and my engagements with native speakers about those topics. Since millions of Americans at home (and abroad too!) celebrated Independence Day, I want to discuss foreign attitudes of Russians about Americans and the United States. Given everything between the United States and Russia recently – elections, Syria, sanctions, Crimea – this post will be nowhere near comprehensive in analyzing various opinions. Instead, this is a chance to look at issues from the viewpoint of Russian students and adults, including my host family.

View of the Moscow Kremlin and the Moscow River from the Big Stone Bridge (Большой камменый мост)

First – and this is a crucial distinction – attitudes about the American government are not the same as attitudes about American citizens. Everyone seems to agree that relations between the two countries are in dire need of improvement. Yet, Russians seem frustrated that the promise of improved relations has not arrived – sanctions are still in place, differences of opinion regarding Syria and Crimea have no easy solution, and generally Russians sense lingering political hostility and distrust from the American government. My host mother, in particular, was particularly critical of current American relations and foreign policy in regards to Russia – she was vocal about her displeasure with sanctions and Crimea. Among many students with whom we conversed in our program’s Russian-American Club, there was a general agreement about the idea / mentality of “us against the world” (especially the Western World) among Russians. Politically, they see themselves as an isolated state, pushed away by Europe and the United States. Many writers have suggested this as part of the reason behind perceived recent Russian aggression; for what it’s worth I believe there is merit behind this theory.

However, these attitudes do not seem to carry over into how Russians view Americans as a whole. Russian students and young adults, in particular, love meeting and interacting with American students and always have a lot of questions about life and politics in the United States. My Russian isn’t necessarily good enough to give complex answers but is sufficient to convey my ideas, and so conversations have been informative and enlightening. Many Russians use the opportunity to practice their English with Americans, which can be slightly frustrating when I’m simultaneously trying to practice my Russian. As a whole, Russians want to see improved relations with the United States and believe that the two nations can be friends and allies. It is important to note here that generally, they believe that the United States needs to show a greater commitment to this process.

“The Annunciation” (Благовещение). Novgorod, 12th century. Now displayed in the Tretyakovsky Gallery in Moscow. This is one of the oldest icons in the entire gallery.

For example, my host mother has hosted American students for years and firmly believes, despite her attitudes about American foreign policy, that interaction can bring about greater understanding. Additionally, one of my Russian friends spoke of дружба (friendship) between the two nations as if a matter of fact. Finally, a middle-aged gentleman who always comes to our Russian-American Club always posts opportunities on Facebook for American students and even started a Facebook group to facilitate interaction between all of us. As an American who has read too much into what divides Russia and the United States, these sentiments allow me to believe that better days are ahead.

Since I haven’t posted in two weeks, I’d like to conclude by giving some of the highlights.

  • The World Cup: Russia had an unexpected run during the tournament, but unfortunately Сборная Россия lost to Croatia last night on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. Nonetheless, it has been incredible to witness the support for the team – after the upset victory against Spain, Moscow celebrated practically all night. I haven’t seen those Belgian fans since that night at the pub, but given Belgium’s success I may still see them.
  • Classes: My academic work continues to be engaging and informative, and I believe I am learning a lot here. Some of the lessons have focused on strengthening the fundamentals, which has honestly been good for reassurance and a more solid understanding of more complex topics. I am picking up on new vocabulary and am starting to use verbs more correctly and accurately – one of the hardest parts of the language. The workload has increased and I’ve had to spend more time in the past couple of weeks in my studies. I still leave myself plenty of time for exploration.
  • Exploration and Historic Sites: There’s too many here to list, but I’ll name some of my favorites – Alexander’s Garden (Александровский сад), the State Tretyakov Gallery of Art
    Memorial to all the cities that saw fighting in the Great Patriotic War (WWII). In the foreground is Leningrad (St. Petersburg).

    (Государственная Третьяковская галерея), the War of 1812 Museum (Музей Отечественной воины 1812 года – The Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812). Александровский сад is a beautiful park that sits right outside the western wall of the Moscow Kremlin, where one can see monuments and statues next to beautiful plants and pines. Notably, the Tomb of the Unknown Solider and the Eternal Flame sit right at the park’s entrance, and further down are monuments to all the Soviet cities that saw fighting during World War II – or, as it is called here, the Great Patriotic War (Великая отечественная война).

  • St. Basil’s Cathedral (Собор Василия Блаженного): St. Basil’s gets its own post because I had the opportunity a couple weeks ago to purchase a ticket to see the museum inside. Gazing at hundreds of years of beautiful icons, mosaics, and the multiple iconostasi – walls of icons in the nave of the main church and chapels – I stepped back in time to an era when Russian Orthodoxy, along with the monarchy, was the center of the Russian world. The Cathedral also gives beautiful views of Red Square, the Kremlin, and the Moscow River. The only disappointment was that my phone ran out of battery while inside – now I have an excuse to return.
  • Speaking: Last but not least, I was proud of myself this past week for some very good days of listening, comprehension, and speaking. For sure, not every moment was glorious – miscommunications and broken speech still mark me as a foreigner. Nonetheless, in the past week, I noticed myself suddenly speaking quicker, more accurately, and more consistently. The glaring errors and breakdowns are less and less, so good days now don’t seem like a fluke. The challenge going forward is to further push myself to speak when I tend to listen. I won’t be near an expert by the summer’s end, but certainly I will be able to communicate in many more situations.

If you’re still here, thank you for your continued interest in my travels and experiences in Moscow. I love hearing from everyone back home, so please reach out through Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, WhatsApp, etc. Hopefully the second half of this journey leads to similar learning, fun, exploration, wonder, improvement, and confidence as the first half!

Frustration and Joy

It’s now been almost a month since I arrived here, and as I predicted in my last post, I haven’t had the easiest time here. To be honest, as far as language progress goes, I’m a little disappointed in myself. My vocabulary is very poor, and I’ve spent a lot of time wasting time, rather than sitting down and working on my vocabulary like I should. That isn’t necessarily true, because I do have a job now that takes a few hours out of my day, but there is a lot of time that I spend not doing anything at all, even seeing the city, and I’m starting to get a little frustrated. In class it’s showing, when day after day I’m the only one in the room who doesn’t know a word, and it’s tiring. Furthermore, in class there is one student who has very little respect for the rest of us and it shows, he’s dismissive, and sometimes outright rude, and takes up a lot of valuable time talking when the rest of us could be working our conversation skills and learning something. The frustration I feel, with myself mostly, is very real and sometimes a little difficult to handle. It gets very emotionally exhausting, especially when I feel like I have very few friends here. I have people I can talk to, and the students on the program with me, Russian and American, are all very kind, but there isn’t anyone here I feel like I can confide in, and the atmosphere in my host home is always a little awkward. I didn’t realize this could happen, but there is a very real stress that comes with not having a place in which you feel comfortable or a person with whom you feel comfortable. Nothing is terrible, I have people I’m friendly with and my host family is very sweet, but the emotional load just feels heavy sometimes, especially coupled with my disappointment in myself.

On a lighter note, I have created some very wonderful connections in my first month here. My second week in, I went to the little playground in the courtyard of my apartment building to work on some words for myself. Out of the building came a Бавушка (grandmother) and her grandchildren, two boys. They started playing and eventually I worked up to talking to them, and then playing tag with the boys. The youngest (two, Архипка, Arkhipka) was at first a little suspicious and adorably protective of his older brother (Захарка, Zakharka), and they’re both very active. I proceeded to spend the next two hours running around with them, and learning the Russian rules to a familiar game from my childhood. If you care to find out: the person who is “it” is (водит) (leading) and you’re safe if you’re в домике (in the little house). That day was the happiest I’d been in the country so far. The kids and they’re wonderful Баба Наташа (Baba Natasha) were so welcoming and inclusive, despite the fact that I was a stranger and foreigner. Since then, they’ve taken me into their routine. I’ve met their mother, who loves talking to me and learning about english and helping me figure out how to say things in Russian, some other children: Федя, Соня, Стёра, Маша) (Fyedya, Styopa, Sonia, Masha), and yesterday a wonderful old man with whom I talked about the music I play. They’ve shared ice cream with me, and Sonia even gave me a picture she drew!

It says Рите! Which means, to Rita, which is what Im called because I introduced myself by my Russian name, which is Margarita

Baba Natasha has really brought me in to her home, the family talks about me, and the kids wait for me to come outside and play with them. I feel really blessed to have met these amazing people, and to have been accepted into their little playground world, my terrible Russian and all. To be honest, I learn much more from them and from practicing with them than they ever could from me, and playing with them is my favorite part of the day.

I’m also lucky, because I got to overhear a student in my program asking about volunteer opportunities with kids, and shamelessly asked if I could tag along. I’m glad I did. Five days a week, from five to seven pm, I am an English teacher at a learning center on the edge of the city. The kids range from 4 to 7 years old, and it’s absolutely an energetic bunch. I get the songs they learn stuck in my head mercilessly, but it’s so worth it. I even learn Russian during the moments when the kids refuse to speak English! I love working with them, and on friday, I even stayed after and talked with the other teachers, who are Russians, and got to do even more language practice!

If I’m proud of one thing on this trip so far, it’s the connections I’ve made with kids. I’m so lucky to have this world of interaction and play and joy open to me while I’m here. It lightens the load of everything else, and is probably my saving grace on this trip.

Coming Out of My Cage…

View of St. Basil’s Cathedral (and a lot of football fans) from Red Square.

…And, as the 2004 hit song by The Killers goes, I’m doing just fine! Though the rest of Mr. Brightside thankfully does not apply here, these first few words describe a gradual but noticeable change in my approach and attitude for the summer. As my second week in Moscow has somehow come to pass, I am excited to explore the city, interact with my host family, and try home-cooked Russian meals. Given my pre-trip fears and the realization that I would be set up for the thing I hate most – failure – I find this an accomplishment.

Of course, the failure in this case, as I soon learned, was not a lack of ability to survive, but rather just repeated and stupid language mistakes that come with immersion in a new culture. I have spent my first couple of weeks trying to listen rather than just talk as much as possible, cognizant of the need to comprehend others’ thoughts. Perhaps my host family thinks I’m really quiet and shy, but I think the process has had benefits. This past week, I was proud that I didn’t ask my host family or other professors to repeat as many of their words and sentences as last week. Furthermore, I can understand main ideas and topics within a Russian history lecture.

In a sense, then, this summer abroad is a chance for me not only to learn Russian, but a personal experience for me to learn how to adapt to new environments, embrace failure, and confidently seek a new tomorrow. I’m proud of what I have done so far, and I look forward to engaging even more with my host family and other Russians.

But for now, let’s recap the highlights:

  • World Cup fans – After a theater performance on Friday evening, some of us went to watch a game at the bar, and some Belgians were having an incredible evening to say the least. Mind you, Belgium wasn’t even playing, but they still sang and cheered and interacted with us. Additionally, Mexico has an incredible following here – a young man played La Bamba on the trumpet in a metro station as others sang along.
  • Food – My host mother has already made some amazing meals that I simply would not have back in the states. For example, at breakfast I had сырники (sirniki), which are like mini-pancakes stuffed with cheese, along with a strawberry and sugar jam. Lunch consisted of a delicious meal of peppers stuffed with meat and rice. The diet here centers around fruits and vegetables, meat, and potatoes, and these meals are quite filling.
  • Classes – The professors are intense and it’s all in Russian, but so far I understand a good bit, and what I don’t understand I am learning. They also make sure that you absolutely master the material before moving on. I’m starting to realize that they know very well what I do not know.
  • Errors – In this program, we have conversation partners who are native Russian speakers, and the idea is to interact weekly with them in order to improve our speaking and listening. So, in perhaps my most egregious error yet, I met my conversation partner outside of the university, and I proceeded to hear and understand absolutely nothing. After a long day of class, compounded by the outside noise, we had to work out introductions in English. Hopefully I get the chance to start over with her this week.
  • Red Square (Красная площадь) – Authorities have been limiting access to Red Square during the
    The wall of the Moscow Kremlin that extends along Red Square. Hidden against the wall but just under the small center tower is Lenin’s mausoleum.

    World Cup, but I was finally able to get onto Red Square this week after multiple previous attempts. Other highlights include the State History Museum (Государственный исторический музей) and seeing St. Basil’s Cathedral (Собор Василия Блаженного). I’m hoping to check out more museums and sights around here.

  • Russian Catholic Mass – Well, this wouldn’t be a Notre Dame blog post if I didn’t throw in some Catholicism. Seriously though, in spite of a small Catholic minority, Moscow has a beautiful cathedral tucked away in a busy neighborhood. Named the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the towering red brick spires stand out among the other buildings. Like so many other churches, the Cathedral was closed during Soviet times, but in the late 1990s the church became active again. Today, the Cathedral has Masses in many different languages. Last week, I attended a joint English-French Mass, but today I went to an afternoon Mass entirely in Russian. As expected, there was much I didn’t understand, but the universality of the Mass seemed apparent to me even here, nearly 5000 miles away from my home parish. I was even able to pick up on a couple phrases and passages.

As I continue to go forward, I’ll post some highlights, some errors for your amusement, and my personal thoughts and interactions. This is a personal journey for me in more ways than language, and I’d like to bring you along with me. For now, good night from Moscow and I’ll post in another week!

St. Petersburg, A City of Gardens and Water

I’ve been here now for about a week and a half, and I can’t say I’ve seen a more beautiful city. It isn’t just the architecture, which was to be expected, but the White Nights bring a real magic to this place. On Saturday night, at around two am, I watched the sun rise with the bridges on the Neva after walking past the Hermitage Museum. It was like walking through the wildest dreams of my childhood. That sounds corny, but let me explain:

I was adopted from Simferopol, a city in Crimea. I spent the third year of my life in an orphanage, and the first two somewhere only God knows. Now this part is going to get a little silly, but bear with me. My favorite movie as a child was Anastasia. If you’ve seen it, you know its about a young orphan in Russia who finds out that she is really a princess. Perhaps it is a little bit far fetched to have dreamed that I, too, was really a princess (sometimes I also had a secret, long-lost twin) but, outside of daydreams, I strongly identified with her. She was like an older sister, a role model, and a very real influence in my life. We both, left at train stations, had humble and obscure beginnings. I wished that I, like her, could go from being “a skinny little nobody” to someone extraordinary. The first scene of that movie opens on to the Winter Palace, now the Hermitage. On Saturday, walking across that square, with the palace lit and the sun rising, it really did feel like some long-hidden and forgotten daydream had been achieved.

Just being in this city is achieving something for me, but I’m not here just to realize childhood daydreams. As much as learning Russian is apart of my childhood wishes, it is real work, and it is the part of my past that I hope will bring me into my future. Arriving here has shown me that I’m perhaps better than I thought I was, but that doesn’t mean that I’m very good. At orientation in DC, the told us that there would be good days and bad days in the languages, and I’ve definitely experienced both, consecutively, in fact.

Monday was not a good day. I was very tired and since all of my classes are completely in Russian, that certainly didn’t help. Conceptually, of course working your brain in a new language is tiring, but you don’t quite know how tiring it can be until you feel it. On monday, I understood very little of my classes and it was frustrating. I did click off after my second ad penultimate class. On the street, I tried to speak Russian, but halfheartedly, and just let it happen when shopkeepers and waiters spoke to me in English. The evening was a little better. A group mate of mine pushed me to speak Russian to him and the concerts I went to were very interesting. The first was Mendelssohn and a piano concerto, both of which were very impressive, but the best part of the evening was the second concert. After dinner at an Indian restaurant with my friends (yay! food with seasoning!), I went to a concert of Egyptian music. Because the Russia-Egypt game was the next day, there were a lot of Egyptians in Russia, and many at the concert. The music was of a contemporary Egyptian composer who performed on the piano. The music was entertaining, cinematic, which made sense because the composer has done a lot of film work. It definitely sounded like Egypt, but it most sounded like Egypt at the end. During the last song, the Egyptians in the audience clapped and sang in Arabic. Because the concert was held in the Mariinsky Theater, which is an enormous and beautiful hall, the singing sounded distant, yet, at the sam time, seemed to surround us. After we left, I spoke entirely in Russian with the Russian friend who brought me and went to bed very gratefully.

One final note about the concert before I move on to the better day: I have heard from music teachers that in Russia, the audience claps in unison. I can now safely say that that is very true. The collective still exists in Russia, and getting to feel it in that way, to be apart of it, was a peculiar experience to say the least.

Now, to yesterday (Tuesday) and my good language experience in class. To be honest, I rocked it. In grammar I talked as much as our resident know-it-all, and in phonetics, I was told I said the word completely perfectly more than once. Even in politics I managed to ask a question and contribute some to the class discussion. on the street was perhaps the best part. I went to a cafe for lunch, and not only did the waitress actually answer me in Russian, she didn’t even look at me funny when I spoke to her. After class, I had a non-alcoholic mojito and actually managed to do some much-needed vocabulary work. I haven’t talked much about my host family (don’t worry, I will) but the short end of it is that I can only understand like 30% of what my host mom says to me. Yesterday, however, we managed an entire conversation at dinner, with both of us talking!! I’m even comfortable enough to ask her to repeat herself!

In conclusion, I’ve had good moments and bad moments here, and in the next six and a half weeks, I’m sure to have many more of both, but at least now I know what I’m in for. As I sit here, on an island in the middle of a pond in one of St. Petersburg’s many gardens, watching people feed the fat pigeons while I write, I know how lucky I am to be here. To get to walk into a dream and work towards gaining a skill that I’ve wanted as long as I can remember makes me think that I might be slowly stumbling my way towards an ending better than Anastasia’s.