What does ГОСТ mean?

I noticed the abbreviation ГОСТ everywhere in the supermarket from the first few days I arrived in Ulyanovsk. That was in September. I’m not proud of how long it’s taken me to Google what that actually stands for, but who cares. We’re here now! So what is ГОСТ and why is it written on all kinds of food packages?

ГОСТ is an abbreviation for Государственный стандарт, government standard. I’m sure anyone who’s noticed it written on so many different kinds of products came to this conclusion eventually, but even so, now you know for sure! Aren’t you satisfied?

Приятного аппетита!


Dear Gram (The time I finally admitted I like Moscow)

I’m from nearly-rural Pennsylvania but I’ve always loved cities. I have a lot of traveling ahead of me, but so far I’ve been to several huge cities along the east and west coast, plus Santiago and, of course, Petersburg.

And I love the cities I’ve been to! I love the arts, the public transit that actually exists and actually works (contrary to the grumblings of many of those cities’ locals.) I love the diversity of people, of foods, of languages, of experiences. Cities do not especially frighten me; I think the benefits are worth the increased risks associated with the increased density of humans. And cities do not especially repulse me, even when the summer heat makes them especially taxing, and even when I have to shuffle through their trash and dirty alleys.

But I have never come to like New York City, and for a while maintained that I did not like Moscow. New York City is too big, too dirty, and too mean for me. It’s a wonderful place for people who love it and I think the love that people have for NYC is legitimate, especially for those who actually live there. But it’s not my kind of place. For a while, I thought this was true of Moscow, too — but finally, I’ve changed my mind. I like Moscow. A lot.

Moscow is clean, or at least so much cleaner than NYC. Instead of being cramped, it’s open: the streets are wider and the buildings are shorter. And it’s old; I’m not going to pretend I know a damn thing about architecture, but I can say that I find that Moscow’s many different kinds of buildings have more character and charm than what I’ve seen in New York. And there’s one thing that makes Moscow special to me in ways that NY never will be: it’s Russian. Moscow is unique enough to impress foreign guests with its Russianness in spite of its massive size, and in spite of how drastically life in the capital differs from that in the provinces.

These realizations came gradually over time, but perhaps the thing that really moved me to love Moscow is that I finally made some friends there. They were a sharp, smiling kid from the south looking to make a new life in the capital; and a Chinese undergrad student (of Russian) on her winter holiday. Of “Olya,” the Chinese girl, I don’t have too much to tell, but the Russian boy worked his way into most of my adventures in Moscow (giving me invaluable Russian practice along the way :D).

I wanted to upload a bunch of pictures of my travels onto this blog, but my browser gave me an error that it ran out of memory while trying to do it. I don’t know how to get around that and it’ll take me time to figure it out.

Gram, I’ve already spent a lot of time writing these crappy blogs, so I’m going to quit here for now. I have the most share-worthy pictures on my Instagram, so log in there and check them out 🙂

Dear Gram (New Years Eve in Moscow)

Dear Gram,

I spent New Years in Moscow. I planned to go there and elbow my way into Red Square, Russia’s New Years equivalent to Times Square (complete with fireworks and a televised concert.) However, things didn’t go according to plan.

Several other Fulbrights had the same idea as I and we congregated in the capital, so I had company. Unfortunately, the rest of the evening didn’t go so nicely for me.

The weather was wetter than I had anticipated. I had come from Ulyanovsk, my post, where everything was frozen and seemed content to stay that way until the spring equinox… or maybe later. Not so in Moscow, which meant that my shoes were soon soaked through, something which quickly kills the fun of winter weather. Being outside was hard to bear, even while moving. Considering that I wanted to stand for hours and hours in Red Square, perhaps the next misfortune was also sort of a blessing: Red Square was closed, at least to plebs like me and my Fulbright colleagues, so  ultimately, I didn’t have to stand all night in one place on my freezing feet.

The entrances to Red Square were swarming with police officers (as was the whole heart of the center) and these armed, black-uniformed men repeated endlessly that the square is closed to all persons except those with a special invitation. I never did figure out who was special enough to get into the square that night, but it doesn’t take much imagination to guess. The rich, the famous, and the powerful — and perhaps a few plebs who got luckier than I?

So to cut it short, I did a lot of walking that night. At least the center was beautiful. It’s always beautiful, but it was elaborately decorated for New Years with little holiday markets and lots of gold, silver, and colored lights everywhere you looked.

The other Fulbrights and I settled into a bar to warm up, and it was there that I tried my new favorite bar food, grenki, which are thick sticks of really crunchy dark bread (or really chewy croutons) smothered in garlic butter. The grenki were the highlight of my night, sad as that may sound 😛

As midnight drew near, most of the group wanted to stay in the bar and meet the new year together around one big table. I wasn’t about that. I decided to go see fireworks at a park I was familiar with (called Sokolniki.) Two girls in the group decided to join me. We stood in line to get into the park (standing in line in Russia, insert joke here) then counted down to midnight with the crowd. We watched a total of 3 fireworks shoot into the sky at midnight and hummed along with the Russian national anthem while all those around us hugged and sang and played with sparklers. The kids were cute. The drunk guys were not yet drunk enough to be scary, so they were fun to watch too. My companions decided to go straight home after the anthem ended, but I stayed and walked in a loop around the park’s center where most of the revelry was going on.

What a strange experience it is to be alone on New Years, but surrounded by people. To be surrounded by people, but to be foreign. To be a sober adult surrounded by giddy children and glassy-eyed adults. Walking through the park on Russia’s biggest holiday, I witnessed so many sides of humanity in the span of a 20-minute stroll. There was a lot of joy, but I also found many people who looked as lonely as me. I wondered if their loneliness was more permanent than mine. I saw a drunk girl fall down into a puddle and no one stopped to help her; I hope she got home safely. I saw lots of different kinds of relationships playing out between people of all ages, from kids with their grandmas to young lovers and married old goats. I wondered if the children, running like wild, had any concept of being up way past their bedtimes.

When I made it back to my starting point in the park, I saw that a pretty terrible concert was taking place. There was a band with some woman singing off-key and shimmying about on the stage. I decided I’d had enough. I rushed to the metro and made it into what was probably one of the last cars of the night, as the metro always closes at 1am. I got back to my hostel, showered, extricated myself as politely as possible from the other guests (who were much kinder and more sociable than at any hostel I’ve ever stayed in), and crawled to the top bunk of my bed with a sigh.

New Years is my absolute favorite holiday, but for most of my life my plans have dissolved into dissatisfaction. But I was safe, and I was in Moscow, and I still had another few days there in the capital to make up for it.

And that’s where my next blog post will leave off: what I did in Moscow, and the friends I made there!

Incoming posts of questionable quality in honor of my grandmathar

I have been avoiding my blog, but I have NOT stopped writing 🙂 I weeded a folder of about 300 poems I’ve written and set aside some I might try to publish. I started a separate journal for writing about what’s going on in the world and my place in it. I’ve started roleplaying with my best friend – and for those of you who treat “roleplaying” as if it’s a dirty word, stuff it. Call it “shared story writing” if you prefer.

I’ve loved working on all of these projects and even some stories and journals I’ve been writing on the side. But here I am again, updating my no-fun blog. And it’s all for YOU, Gram.

My grandma is really cool. She sometimes colors her hair purple and has an impressive history with both dating and motorcycles. Hummingbirds are her spirit animal. Her current occupation is Protector and Spayer/ Neuterer of Stray Cats.

My grandma said she wants to read about what I’ve been up to and see pictures. I’ve been up to a lot and have a lot of pictures (though not many good ones), so I’m going to have to take some liberties here. Usually I put more effort than I care to admit into my not-so-cool blog posts, but if I’m going to cover everything Gram wants to read about, I’ll have to stop trying to be interesting and hope that the pictures speak for themselves. The fact Gram is the lone member of my intended audience really does take the pressure off, though. 🙂

So here I go~

I wrote this post in December and forgot to publish it because I am awful and nothing matters


If you’re looking for something to read over the holidays, you can download Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita for free as a PDF. Or you can buy a more readable ebook version OR find it in stores — I would be surprised if BAM and big stores like that didn’t stock it. But how can you say no to free?!

Master and Margarita is satirical, deep, hilarious, and fantastical; it is adored in Russia; and it is easier to read than the other few Russian masterpieces that Americans might know by Dostoesvky or Tolstoy. Read it, then go online to read about the references and history you may not have caught the first time around. Or ask a knowledgeable person (cough :D) to fill you in. Having accomplished that, you will understand why manuscripts don’t burn…

Here are some keywords to get you interested in the story: Moscow, Faust, talking cat, checkered, naked witch, skull chalice, censorship, literary elite, Pontius Pilate, snaggletooth, love, sin …

It’s a shame that Russian literature is so understudied in the US, and it’s something that I have to answer for whenever I meet a new person who’s curious about Americans. What Russian literature do Americans read? If I were to be honest I would answer: Wrong question, friend; most Americans don’t read any of your literature at all.

So do your part to defeat the stereotypes about murica-centric U.S.A. and crack open a Russian novel this winter.

(If you want other recommendations I’ll do my best to hook you up :*)

I wrote this post in November and forgot to publish it; here ya go

I’d like to share this more for myself than anything.

I’m researching interesting places I’d like to travel in Russia when I have free time in the winter and summer before I go home. Every time I was in Saint Petersburg, I missed out on opportunities to visit monuments dedicated to the poet Anna Akhmatova, who might be my favorite woman ever. Before I look into other historical and cultural points of interest, I felt the need to at least read about one monument in particular, just to put my curiosity to rest.

One of Akhmatova’s most famous works, Requiem, concerns the period that she and countless other women spent waiting outside of a prison, waiting to pass food and news to their loved ones being held inside, waiting to learn if they were even alive. Akhmatova lived through extremely dangerous times in the Soviet Union when Stalin’s oppression was at its height. Her first husband was executed and her second husband as well as her son were repeatedly imprisoned, all for political crimes. Akhmatova endured much suffering without complaint. I believe the poems she wrote during these times would move any reader, even those who as stoic as Akhmatova’s own restrained style.

None of what I’ve just said is original. That’s not the point of this post. Honestly, I’m just here to share a picture and its caption that I found on a Saint Petersburg site:

Monument to Anna Akhmatova (poet) on Robespierre Embankment in St Petersburg, Russia

“…this three-meter high bronze statue emphasizes the willowy beauty for which Akhmatova was celebrated in her youth and, according to the authors, recalls ‘Lot’s wife, glancing backwards and freezing like a pillar of salt, and Isis travelling the Nile in search of the bodies of her husband and her son.'”

Maybe someday I’ll make it there to see this and other Akhmatova monuments in person.

Fatalism and Putin’s December Address

Russians seem generally fatalistic to me. I’ll give you three examples from my experience that have led me to this conclusion:

  • Akhmatova, one of the most beloved Russian poets of all time, believed she was born with a gift for poetry and therefore had the duty to write. (I remembered this when, studying in Volgograd, I tried to find a dance group to join at the university. I was told that unless I had been dancing for a long time, I would never be able to keep up with the others. Apparently there was no beginners level for people my age.)
  • The general attitude toward politics is apathy (plus sort of dark humor.) Votes don’t affect anything, they say in an offhand way.
  • When I’ve talked about social issues in the US, I’ve been told that talking about the characteristics that make people different only exacerbates existing problems, so we shouldn’t talk about them at all. (Black Lives Matter is the biggest example where this has come up.)

Other conversations on topics ranging from soul mates to gopniki have also led me here.

I don’t like fatalism as a worldview. There are some pretty convincing arguments as to why free will doesn’t exist — but that’s not what I’m talking about. People can and do change their lives, hone their skills, overcome their limitations, and even reshape their societies. Acting like the present state of things is unalterable seems ridiculous to me.

This is why I was surprised when Putin, in his address to the federal assembly earlier this week, mentioned Russia’s duty to empower all children, with emphasis on all. I’m paraphrasing here (as well as translating), but the gist of what he said is that Russia should assume that every child has the potential for talent and success. Russia’s duty is to help them realize their potential. And wouldn’t you know, the assembly cheered!

I wonder how sincere they were, both Putin and the assembly. How much do they really care about the children of rural Russians? Of trashy people, of gopniki? Everyone has told me that there is little opportunity for growth in just about any city other than Moscow or Saint Petersburg. It’s easy for me to understand leaving your hometown for better economic opportunities or more personal growth, yet in the US we can find that in plenty of cities outside of NY and LA. I would love to see a day when the majority of Russian kids didn’t feel like they had to somehow make it to one of those enormous Russian metropolises to be successful. Hopefully, Putin agrees 🙂

Something cute

I made a new friend this weekend. When I told him the only ancestry I know about is my Ukrainian side, he was immediately determined to take me to a Ukrainian restaurant in Ulyanovsk. IT WAS GREAT. Let me show you the restaurant (Gopak) via pictures I nabbed from Google.

I was told that the thatched roof appeals to a strong stereotype about Ukraine -_-

Image result

The inside is accordingly kitschy too 🙂

It was cozy and I had good company and all I wanna do is show you the pictures of my food. Okay? Here! (Don’t forget to click on them to see more detail.)

First we have black bread and white bread with dill baked into it. It’s served with salo spread, which I thoroughly believed I would not try until I saw it, smelled it, and finally spread it on :3 It was creamy and uncommonly spicy and flavorful here in the land of cabbage and potato.

Next was my small meal, which I chose based on the following dialogue:

Friend: Ooh, I love draniki.
Me: ?
Friend: You know draniki? They’re potato. It’s kind of like a pancake.
Me: *googles draniki* … wE CALL THEM potato pancakes 😀 !! I sometimes eat them on holidays and like, festivals and, yes, I’LL TAKE ‘EM.

(These ones came with mushrooms! And a side of onion-meat-slaw that I didn’t bother with.)

And finally, sirniki, sweet cheese patties, this time topped with ice cream and berry sauce! They might be the best ones I’ve had yet ❤

Recommended 100/10, especially for an item not pictured here: a pumpkin soup that they served inside the pumpkin. That’s adorable. I wish I’d been hungry enough to try it. I like Gopak.

Where I’ve been for the past month

October brought unexpected changes and adventures that kept me fully occupied and away from my blog.

The bigger event is that I had a complete change if heart regarding grad school. Over the course of the last month, I’ve decided that I want to go, to which department I’ll apply at which schools, and what my career goals are. The choices themselves aren’t too surprising — I’m just shocked by my own turnaround. I couldn’t wait to finish my undergrad and never look back. I suppose coming to Russia changed my mind. Realizing that I could get this degree without increasing my debt was also a much-needed push 🙂

But I’ve said enough about that for now. Perhaps I can do a short post about applying for grad school from abroad… Until then, here’s a little bit of what I’ve been up to!

I moved out of the student dorm and into an apartment that is much nicer than what I deserve. My roommate (a full-fledged academic adult from Germany) and I are floored by all the floorspace. In the same week, I also visited the country home of one of my professors. She has a beautiful place, much nicer (and spacious!) than any other Russian home I’ve ever been to. I declined to photograph her entire home, thinking it rude 🙂 I did snap one picture of the process of making a vatrushka. I told her it’s one of my favorite Russian dishes that I can’t find in the US. It’s a slightly sweet cheese pie, and it’s heaven.

Moving into this dorm was stressful because I was prompted to do it somewhat suddenly, and right before a big trip. I believe it was Thursday when I did the big move, and on Friday afternoon I flew out of Ulyanovsk to take the GRE in Moscow. No photos from that excursion — it was lame. 🙂 But what came after was so much better. Saturday, after several long hours of testing and an exhilerating rush to the Sheremetyevo airport, I was on my way not back to Ulyanovsk, but north to Saint Petersburg. And you won’t believe who awaited me there. None other than my marvelous freckled man, Bob! He was able to spend TWO WEEKS in Russia, about half in Saint Petersburg and the other half at home in Ulyanovsk with me. Here are some highlights of our trip.

No trip to Piter is complete without a walk through some palaces. The first three pictures are from Catherine’s Palace at Tsarskoe Selo (located outside Piter in a place called Pushkin). The latter are photos of the small and main throne rooms in the Winter Palace at the Hermitage (aka the most enchanted place I’ve ever been.)

Bob and I each made time to see things that catered to our different interests. He was stoked to see the small space museum located within the walls of Peter and Paul Fortress (where we spent an entire afternoon). I also took him to Piter’s grand Central Naval Museum, for which I hope Bob will love me for at least as long as the eternity we spent there examining models, flags, and other seaworthy realia. I’ve been to Piter twice before and hope to return, so I just made one small excursion for myself: We made a pilgrimage to the spot (Chyornaya rechka) where Russia’s most famous and beloved writer, Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin, had his final and fatal duel. Bob and I even made up a mock duel for ourselves to make it feel more like an event. I was surprised by how much it affected me; it was creepy to mark the paces and then turn as if to fire. Come to think of it, neither of us knew exactly what the rules of a duel are, but it seemed close enough.

All in all, it was cold and it was wet but I’m glad we went 🙂 On our way home there was freezing rain and a curious string of malfunctioning trams, so we ended up ducking into a “Coffee Haus” to warm up before continuing our adventure. Not pictured is the Cruiser Aurora, a huge ship with historical significance that I’m sure Bob could tell you all about, which happened to return from many months of restoration just in time for us to pay her a visit. Serendipitous, don’t you think?

I’m being kind of lazy with this last block of Petersburg photos, just like I was being kind of lazy when I decided not to take as many pictures as I knew I’d like to have later on. So it goes 🙂 I’m more of a “be in the moment” person. The top three pictures show me 1) inside the church located within Peter and Paul Fortress where the great tsars of the Russian Empire are buried; 2) inside my favorite church in the world, The Church on Spilled Blood, named for the assassination of tsar Alexander II; and 3) outside that same church, looking almost as cold and unhappy as I felt almost the entire time we were on the chilly and damp streets. The Church on Spilled Blood is so magnificent, it’ll make you forget any bad weather. It’s absolutely otherworldly.

The bottom three pictures show 1) the raising of one of Piter’s many bridges, taken sometime around 2AM; 2) lunch with a student from my alma mater who happened to be in Piter, studying abroad (yay!!); and 3) Bob outside of the Winter Palace when we went to the aforementioned Hermitage.

When finally it was time to fly back to Ulyanovsk, we had several days to relax, which I used to make sure I had my plans for my classes’ Halloween party in order.

Bob and I made a sugar skull (out of ice cream) to celebrate El Dia de Los Muertos, because let’s be honest, it’s way cooler than Halloween. The other two pictures show one of my most charismatic students, Dan, leading some Halloween games during our big party. I hardly had to plan anything — the students decorated, brought candy, and ran all the games! At least Bob and I had the privilege of teaching everyone the Time Warp. (If you tell me it’s not a Halloween song, I’ll fight you.)

We spent a lot of time just hanging out in Ulyanovsk. Here we’ve got, in somewhat clockwise order: Me by the Volga and the Emperor Bridge; a little Ulyanovsk pride with flags and banners and such; some cool construction (and a common sight in all the smaller cities I’ve been to); a bench with the city’s crest worked into the metal; a strange ad for a club I’ve since learned is for the middle-aged (no surprise there, heh); Ulyanovsk’s shiny new church; obligatory Lenin; a socialist-realist mural; a retired war train; and ASHAN! aka Russian Walmart.

I have one last block of photos to share! Did you know that Ulyanovsk, aside from being Lenin’s hometown, is also the Aviation Capital of Russia? (Caps for emphasis.) Well, Bob knows. I believe he was more excited than I was when I told him that I was coming here. Accordingly, we spent about an hour at the Museum of Civil Aviation 🙂 Have a look:

We even got to go inside one of the jets!!!

Whew. What a post. I hope you enjoyed. There’s always more on my Instagram… 😉

What does Ulyanovsk think of the US election?

Today at the Cat’s Pajamas English Club I met with a group of students and adults to talk about the 2016 US election. The club is pretty casual and loosely organized, but I was able to identify a leader-type-girl and I wrote to her a few days ago to request the topic. Unfortunately, through the course of our conversation tonight, one of the guys revealed that this organizer-girl had misinterpreted or else exaggerated my intention. She advertised the meeting in an inflammatory way: “Sasha, an American, wants to get together to tell us all why Trump and his policies are insane!”

I felt surprised and also a little betrayed to hear this. I can take it with a sense of humor and I realize that the girl didn’t mean any ill will toward me, but frankly, the words she put in my mouth go against the philosophy guiding my year in Russia: I’m here to listen, learn, and offer my perspectives to those who want to hear it. Not to proselytize, and certainly not to label people and ideas I don’t like as “insane!”

Thankfully, the people who came to the club didn’t bring any aggression or ill will with them, and they also didn’t seem to be expecting a show. We had a thoughtful and fun conversation, led in part by my stellar colleague Katie who’s also here on a Fulbright ETA fellowship. In short, I’m SO glad that we did it! We were able to explain the electoral college to the group (which is no small feat considering how hard it is to understand even for ourselves :D) and, I hope, to show them some perspectives on the election that they simply didn’t get from the mainstream Russian and US media. As for me, after listening to their thoughts, I feel that I better understand their political attitudes toward both of our countries. Now I’m here to share that perception with you! In general, I can break down my impressions into observations on attitudes, knowledge, and reactions.

Let’s start with attitudes, in terms of how Russians treat serious issues. (Spoiler: It’s with a sense of humor.) Going back to the organizer-girl, I can give an example of Russian irreverence toward our politics. She was the first person with whom I interacted once the results were known. When I woke up late on Wednesday morning and saw that Trump was certain to become my next president, I was devastated. I was literally shocked: it took hours for me to feel anything and two days for me to start to fully grieve. Please don’t be turned off by my strong words; I say “grieve” with care and intention, for when I saw on Facebook how my LGBT, black and brown, and female friends reacted to the news with horror and pain, I felt more hurt and betrayed by my country’s people than I had ever felt before. I am a critic of my country, but I love our people and the freedoms we stand for, so for me to see that so many Americans had voted for Trump in spite of how he marginalizes all those groups and more — it devastated me, and I grieved.

Then, when that girl texted me, she said: “Hi! Are you going to move to Canada because of Trump? :D”

Now, put yourself in my shoes: A man who I believe is toxic has been democratically elected as my country’s leader. I’m in Russia, far away from my friends and family and also in a country where hardly anyone shares my views toward my country’s issues of equality (racial, gender, marriage and otherwise). All I want to do is go home and grieve with my like-minded peers and then act to defend us all from the impending damage. Failing that, I would at least be happy to be able to vent to some Ulyanovsk friends about it — but I don’t have Russian friends here, so that option is just as far-fetched. And in this moment when I’m quite vulnerable, a girl that I hardly know is joking with me about abandoning my country to run to Canada. (And the grinning face with which she punctuated that comment was the icing on the bitter cake! :P) This stranger was completely unaware of how upset I was by the results and was in fact joking with me about them! So, how would you respond?

I think I handled the situation not badly. I told her in very short terms that I want to go home and fight for what I believe is right, and I did mention that her joke struck me as insensitive. I suggested that she refrain from joking about it with Americans if she wasn’t sure of their political views. Reading over my messages again, I don’t think I was rude, although at the actual club meeting I learned that this exchange had also been shared with the other Russians. (I wish she hadn’t done that either. Sigh.) This made me uncomfortable, as if I my emotional reaction had made a negative impression and even a reputation in their eyes. But I won’t dwell on it. TL;DR: Either way, I’m used to my emotional reactions being questioned by Russians who tend to be more apathetic and mocking about the issues I care about the most. (I’ve even become ever so slightly better at monitoring my emotions thanks to the scolding and advice of a close Volgograd friend.)

To wrap up my bit on Russians’ sense of humor and apathy toward politics, here are some of my mental notes from all my experience with Russian people and culture:

  • Many of my students as well as these English club participants were surprised that I didn’t know who the next US president would be, and indeed many polls were mistaken when they projected that Hillary would win. Several Russians have told me that here, they know which candidates will win their elections and that elections don’t bring change. Their apathy and their humor comes from the perceived futility of their elections.
  • Here’s what The Guardian reported about the Duma (legislative) elections that just took place in September: “Turnout in the election was just 47%, the lowest in the history of modern Russia. In major cities, the turnout was even lower, with just 28% of eligible voters making it to the polls in Moscow.” Every one of the dozens of Russians I’ve asked about voting has answered me with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. Of course we have similar sentiments in the US, where we’re no strangers to general distrust of politicians, but the attitude in Russia is marked by less hope.
  • With less hope comes a lower likelihood of demonstrations. It seems to me that in Russia, activism is more likely to land you in danger or in jail. I’m going to pass on searching for statistics at the moment, but at the very least I can say that my observations and conversations support this.
  • If you’re curious about what Russians say when they joke about politics, the comments range from innocuous and offhand to vulgar and riotously passionate. From a coy smile when they say “we know who will win” to a mat-flavored description of how the system f**ks us all. 🙂

Moving on to the knowledge that Russians have about the US in general, I am certain that most US Americans would be surprised by how much they understand about us and just how well they speak our language. I’m not arguing that Russians are smarter; I know for a fact that there are higher qualities and quantities of English-learning resources and opportunities available than there are for learners of Russian. I also think that Russians prioritize learning about us more than we do about them, and even Russians who don’t try to learn about the US nonetheless pick up on some things through consuming our media. Just as examples, they might find politics in rap music and pop culture references in TV shows. Take it from my experience that finding good, interesting, and enjoyable (and therefore encouraging) means to study Russian and Russian culture is quite a bit more difficult.

I don’t think I have to linger on this subject. Many Russians know our geography, literature, history, and key people from past and present, and thanks to that, conversations like the one we had today are easier to sustain. Good on you, Russians. I wish my countrymen could know as much about you!

And last, I want to describe some reactions to things that Katie and I said. I’m SO grateful that no one was condescending or inflammatory at this meeting, and that means that there are no explosive reactions to tell about. Instead, there was interest, some confusion, and a hint of awkwardness inspired by yours truly.

  • Katie and I called a vote to see who they would have chosen in the election. (They laughed when I suggested we do it anonymously. “This is Russia! No one cares!”) Only one or two of them voted for Clinton, another one or two chose Jill Stein on the sole basis that she is the most communist (and I should note that these people voted with a hint of irony), and the other dozen or so people chose Trump. Mostly, they made this decision because they knew that Clinton spoke harshly of Russia and Trump did not.
  • I’m very open with people, even here, about my opposition to Trump, so I’m often asked by Russians how I could oppose him when he’s the only candidate that might work with Russia. I’m glad that they’re concerned about it, and I answer that I simply don’t believe that Trump will improve our countries’ relationship (although I suppose one can hope). Sometimes I also add that although I am concerned about US-Russia relations, I’m more worried about the damage Trump can do domestically.
  • Russians are often surprised to hear that the US is a flawed country, or perhaps they’re just surprised to hear me admit it. The costs of health care and education were important topics in this election, and Russians are intrigued to hear that these two costs are our two leading causes of debt. In Russia, the number one cause of debt is purchasing an apartment or home; health care and education are largely paid for by taxes, which of course are higher here than in the US.

I took a minute to speak from my heart about the people marginalized by Trump’s rhetoric and to ask the group about their thoughts on it all. The struggles of women, people of color, Muslims, disabled people, the LGBT community, and other less commonly named groups are risky to mention in Russia and are not often met with the kind of compassion or even tolerance I hope to find. I explained, in as few words as I could, that many people are not only deeply hurt by the election results, but also frightened by them for reasons both tangible and symbolic. Some of my best friends, my most esteemed peers, and my favorite teachers face the possibility of losing the legal status of their marriages, religions, and their very existence in the US (if they’re at risk of being deported — and for the record, it’s not only Latinx people facing this threat.) Perhaps a deeper fear is for their very safety, as Trump’s multifaceted bigotry is now justified and normalized by his presidency. Hate crimes are up. The KKK is stoked with their new president (The Guardian, BBC). Trump’s VP, Mike Pence, believes conversion therapy can traumatize children into heteronormativity (Politifact). And the only actions that those opposed to this hate can take, for now, is to regroup, wear a safety pin on their lapel as a sign of solidarity, and try to push forward. Going back to my bullet points on reactions, I ask: How did the group react to all this when I brought it up?

Unfortunately, they hardly reacted at all. One man pointed out that many women voted for Clinton. I cited the normalization of sexism (“boys will be boys”) and no one followed up from there. Black Lives Matter didn’t come up. Considering the status of LGBT rights in Russia, the risks to marriage equality were stripped of compassion and reduced to Katie’s quick note that marriage equality is a good example of how laws are often adopted by states before being applied to the country as a whole. A little later in the conversation I tried to bring up the discussion of social and emotional impacts once more, but no one took the bait and the conversation again turned to things they considered more interesting. I wanted to at least try to talk about these things, and even though it didn’t work out, I’m not bitter, and since I wasn’t expecting it to work out anyway, I’m not surprised.

In total, we spent two and a half hours discussing education, infrastructure, attitudes toward politics, legislature, health care, our two-party system and many other great topics from both countries’ perspectives. I can’t express enough pleasure with how civil and engaged they were. And if you can’t already tell by how much time and thought I’ve put into this short essay of a blog post, I am inspired and intrigued by this fruitful opportunity for intercultural discussion. Katie and I brought our very best and we were welcomed. This is what a Fulbright fellowship is all about!