Two months into my study abroad here in Moscow, I have this to say: Russia can be a depressing place, but much more so if you fail to look past the political flaws, lack of social mobility, and general gloominess.
Moscow is neither Eastern nor Western– it’s just Russia. The media often portrays Russia as a dark place, devoid of human rights and ravaged by revolution. While Russia is far from a Western liberal democracy, this doesn’t mean it is innately depressing or that it has nothing to offer.
There is so much more to Russia than its corrupt government and failed social reforms. Negative stereotypes exist for a reason, but they don’t come close to telling the whole story about an incredibly complex and multilayered country.
I recently sat down with an expat who has been living in Moscow for almost two years, and she shared with me what I think is a spot-on analogy. She said that Americans are like mangos – it’s easy to get past the peel to the juicy fruit and talk to them about all of their opinions and experiences, but at a certain point you hit the pit, as many Americans seem to exhibit a lack of curiosity for truly understanding other countries. Russians are like coconuts. The shell is impossible to break, but, once you break it, they have an unimaginable amount to offer.
On a daily basis during our study abroad, we see nothing but the shell of Muscovites. We see them as they ride up the escalator out of the metro station or smoke their cigarettes on the side of the road. Does the average Muscovite look happy? I would say no. But send a foreigner to New York City, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they came back with a similar story.
In Moscow, we study at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. But we don’t really study there. All of our classes but one are only for Stanford students.
We pass Russian students in the hallways, make small talk with them occasionally, but we aren’t integrated. We don’t know them well enough to make sweeping statements about the political and social directions that their generation will take this country, a country that we are guests in for only twelve weeks.
Clearly, Russian students are aware of the political situation in their country, and not every student has the desire to be the Russian John Adams. But that doesn’t mean that they are all politically apathetic. Time and time again I have heard about students at universities around Moscow who have a desire for change. It’s only a matter of time until the shell of the coconut breaks.
A study abroad is an exercise in contrast between what you know and what you didn’t realize you didn’t know. Every night, I drink tea with my host family for an hour, and we just talk. I learn more in my two-bedroom Soviet apartment than in any class. Tea in Russia is a ritual, and, if you think about it, that’s pretty amazing.
While Russia is a few years behind in technological advancements, smart phones are becoming abundant, and people are becoming more connected with a variety of social networking sites. Regardless, they still find time for their tea, for their daily face-to-face contact. In that way, they are far ahead of the West, because they put a tremendous value on personal contact. It’s something I love about Russia.
Studying abroad in Moscow has not been easy, and something happens every day that disappoints me a little bit about Russia. But, every day, something also always happens to make me smile. It is no secret that Russia is fraught with corruption and has a long way to go to become a “modern” nation.
This is a country that, with its natural resources, its people, its location and its sheer amount of space, can become a global political and social powerhouse. It just may not get there by conventional means, and it probably won’t be a transition in the manner of the West. Tomorrow, the skies will not part, and Russia will not lift itself out of its general social and political backwardness. But it might happen sooner than you think.
Contact Carolyn Wheatley at [email protected]