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The Pros and Cons of Russian Life (by Joanna Duvigneau, Exeter)

This piece of writing will explain from my experience the pros and cons of living and studying in Russia. I arrived during Russian Winter (13th February 2010) and will be leaving during Russian Summer (16th June 2010), therefore a total just over 4 months.

The best thing about living in Yaroslavl for me has been living with such a marvelous Russian family. I had no idea that I would have the honour of living with such talented, hard-working and caring people and couldn’t have imagined a more fantastic home stay than the one I am in. My ‘Russian Parents’ always talk to me in Russian and correct me whenever I make mistakes. I now speak Russian the best when I am with them as I am so comfortable when around them. They feed me many delicious Russian dishes and have said that they now consider me as near to them as a daughter.

In addition to this I have been lucky enough to live in a house. Ordinarily, students who go abroad to Russia expect to stay in an apartment and are told to not expect certain luxuries that one has when living in England. I was once told to expect no shininess, no power showers, no baths, smelly toilets and peeling wallpaper. For my part, none of this is true; my Russian family keep a very beautiful tidy house and to add further to that I have visited at least 5 different apartments whilst being here and they are all in excellent condition and some of my colleagues even have double beds! We have a director who ensures that the people and accommodation, which we receive, are of an appropriate standard before we even arrive.
The city centre of Yaroslavl is very pretty with churches dotted everywhere and home to the first Russian public theatre C The Volkova. In the centre one can also find an array of shops and restaurants; whether one needs to buy cosmetics, books or shoes or whether one wants to sit down to a nice sushi evening meal or pizza, it is all available here! Be that as it may, I have enjoyed living away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre in a region of the outskirts of Yaroslavl known as the Perekop. It is a safe and quiet area and it is very easy to get to the centre and other regions of Yaroslavl, which brings me to another advantage.

Travel around Yaroslavl is made extremely easy through the buses and marshroutkas. For the very cheap price of 15 roubles, which is at most 30 pence, one can go to a shopping centre, 40 mins away. It’s fantastic! These methods of transport open up the beauties that can be seen around Yaroslavl. From the architecture of the churches to the rivers Kotorosol and Volga, the landscape of Yaroslavl is simply picturesque.

Lastly, I much prefer studying in a school environment to a university environment. The intense course that I am enrolled in, within the short timescale of just over 4 hours ensures maximum contact with the Russian language whether it is in a grammatical exercise context, within an excerpt of literature, during a conversation of an article, during the imminent translating of a new unread article or the break down of translation theory.

The hardest physical experience of being in Russia for me has been traveling on the train to St .Petersburg. I had no idea an overnight train could be so stuffy, hot, claustrophobic and dehydrating. Yet this is the fastest way to travel such a distance. I think that it may be possible to get a better carriage but at a high price. Despite all this it is possible to travel around Russia at a bargain. Three train tickets (one from Yaroslavl to St .Petersburg, one from Petersburg to Moscow and one from Moscow to Yaroslavl) costs less than a train ticket from London Paddington to Exeter!

I have found contact with England a bit difficult. I have bought and used phone cards but they don’t seem to last that long and sometimes my phone calls have been abruptly stopped for no apparent reason. It is rather annoying to not just be able to call home without a phone card and whenever I send an SMS to a mobile phone at home it does cost a lot! Yet phone calls and messages to my colleagues in Yaroslavl has been very cheap, which is nice. Thankfully we all have our own Internet sticks but it is at times incredibly slow and unreliable. There are Internet cafés in the city centre but as useful as the public transport services are sometimes they can get very packed and the traffic jams that one can sometimes get stuck in are horrific.

My primary concern regarding coming to Russia was racism. I got extremely worried about it being of a different ethnic origin to all my colleagues. It was like all of a sudden I was being put in a separate box from everyone else. I was told not only that I might be a victim of verbal abuse but maybe even physical abuse just because of my skin colour making me stick out like a sore thumb as a foreigner. (Unfortunately, the picture of Russia painted in the Western world is a very anti-foreign one but when I chose to join Russian club at lunchtimes when I was 13, the last thing on my mind was the threat of racism should I ever go there, I was more enraptured with the fact that ‘an apple’ was called ‘яблоко’; I was just so happy to be studying such an interesting and different language. Then when I was 16 I was the only student to sit the GCSE Russian exam in my school and achieved A (not an A* because my pronunciation wasn’t good enough yet). Sadly, then I couldn’t go further in Russian and was only able to take it up again when I started university. Then of course I was busy focusing on my degree. Then ALL of a sudden I realised that the time had come for me to actually GO to RUSSIA!) It terrified me - no one in my family had ever been to Russia, so they were all worried, none of my friends had either, adding further to this I am the first black student from the University of Exeter to ever spend they’re year abroad in Russia, so my lecturers and the support at uni could only console me to a certain extent, finally when I was studying Russian in French at the University of Rennes in France from September 2009-January 2010 my teachers there warned me to be extremely careful when I go to Russia because of the xenophobia over there. By the time February 2010 came I nearly missed my flight from stress about something I had actually absolutely no idea about but had merely been warned about SEVERAL hundred times. The reality of it is that people of different ethnic origins to Russians are such a rare sight that many Russians do not know how to deal with it and all have different reactions. Therefore: I have had people look at me and then look back again several times in disbelief C like “nooo she’s not real, I must have imagined her”, I have had people stare at me constantly C I’ve smiled back and sometimes gotten a smile back but others just more staring, I have had my photo asked for in the middle of a busy street, I have also been pointed at, laughed at , called “негра”, which I’m not sure is the official name for a black person in Russian or a derogatory term and accused of being from America or even Africa, I think out of all the reactions the latter effects me the most as I’m proud to be British and born in London and it is an ignorant presumption to assume. I have not been a victim of any physical abuse. On the other hand, there have been a few Russians whom I have met who have been curious about me in a positive manner and are interested in getting to know me for just being me but only a few (my homestay being the primary example). I have to conclude with this that the shock of it all did upset me for a bit but truly it is NOT as bad as I thought it would be. I’ve gotten used to it now and find the attention flattering sometimes. I even went to St. Petersburg and Moscow, which are supposed to be the most xenophobic places in Russia and nothing serious happened in fact I got less attention over there then I do in Yaroslavl. It’s definitely been an experience and I hope that I’ve succeeded in teaching as many Russians as possible to not only see the colour of the cover of the book and forget about its contents, which may not be automatically what they assume or have heard about. In the exact same way, people in the West shouldn’t judge/make assumptions about Russians as people who are extremely racist and the only thing they love to do is drink vodka! I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some incredibly lovely and kind Russians who work extremely hard and often appreciate it when foreigners take the time to learn their language. The moral of the story is: to always have an open mind.

I was told that I should not carry to much money on me when traveling to Russia, but I wish I brought more with me because the exchange rate and charges for taking money out are very annoying ! Money has simply been disappearing because as much as Russian life can be very cheap in some circumstances in others it can be very very expensive.
The final disadvantage to Russian life to add is the restriction of movement through the necessity of registration when staying in a certain place in Russia for a certain amount of time and the need for visas. It’s all so strict and it is also a shame because I imagine a lot of people would love to travel to Russia and a lot of Russians would love to travel outside of Russia but the whole process is so complicated and strict.

In conclusion, I have no regrets about living and studying in Russia, it has been one of the best experiences of my life and I only wish it could last a bit longer as I’m so settled here now and will definitely come back. Kukoboi is the name of a little village in a forest where, according to the legend, is the birthplace of the famous Russian fairytale heroine - Baba Yaga. You can still visit her there and she will welcome you with pies and shchee (traditional Russian cabbage soup) made in a Russian stove. She will also entertain you, sing songs and play games. Visiting the babushka is usually an unforgettable experience. There are even some tourists who are said to be charmed by her, so much so that they come to visit her every year.