Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Final Post II

“Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” said Winston Churchill more than half a century ago. Churchill’s views are as accurate now as they were then. Russia is one of the fastest growing and most dynamic countries in the world. Spanning 11 time zones and two continents, she covers about one-sixth of the Earth’s surface. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Russia is its people. What are the people of the former Soviet Union like? Specifically, how do the Russians treat the “outsiders” in their midst?

The Russians have a reputation of being fatalistic and callous drunkards. It is true that Russians are much more fatalistic than Americans. And yes, they do like to drink. But neither one of those facts is correctly understood by most “Westerners.”

Russians just express themselves differently than Americans. Whereas Americans greet even complete strangers with a large toothy smile, Russians reserve their warmth for when they are sincerely happy to see people. Russians view Americans as being disingenuous and they see no need for it. Russians know who their friends are.

The way Russians view society tends to rapidly break-down into two categories: People are “friends” or “strangers”. A friend is the most valuable asset to a Russian. Routinely you will hear that, “100 friends are better than 100 Rubles”.

Being friends with a Russian is a great experience. On multiple occasions, I have been bought drinks or toasted by Russians because I was a foreigner who was striving to better understand their language and culture. Russians express an honest desire to better understand the West. They are truly curious as to what life is like beyond the borders of the former USSR.

If a Russian sees that his friend is in trouble, he does not think twice to extend a helping hand. When among friends, schedules do not matter as much to Russians as to Americans.

Perhaps another noticeable quality is that Russians can be much more direct than Americans. When they do not care for someone or something, they will probably say so. If you have erred, they will let you know. This extends to day–to-day life. If you are walking around the street without a jacket during the winter, old ladies will chastise your lack of judgment on such a cold day and tell you that you are going to get sick.

Russians take great pride in their country. They delight in telling foreigners of the accomplishments of their people. Though, there is a hint of jealousy when they speak about the West.

As a cautionary, I must say that most Russians are not exactly thrilled by racial, ethnic or other minorities in their country. A white American is interesting, whereas a Chechen Muslim may be despised.

Russians are not like Americans or Europeans, but they are some of the most incredible people in the world. As for me, I will spend the rest of my days studying the Russians and their ways, and there is nothing that I would rather be doing.


I have been back in the States for three months - and I still get emails from readers - which I still greatly appreciate!
I am not currently working in the Russian studies field (I am working on a local political race), I believe that the GMU Russian Department prepared me very well for a career in the Russian's world. I would highly recommend GMU's program to students interested in getting a BA in Russian Studies (http://russianstudies.gmu.edu/).
If you have any questions about GMU's Russian Studies, of course, I would be happy to answer them. I would also contact Dr James Levine, Chair of the Russian Studies Department ( jlevin2@gmu.edu). (Yes, he is the same Dr James Levine that wrote Schaum's Outline to Russian Grammar that I strongly recommended in my earlier posts).
GMU's Government and International Politics program is also worth noting .
Currently I am intending on applying to get my MA in International Relations at St Petersburg State University. Right now I am investigating the various fellowship opportunities, etc.
Earlier today I finished writing an article about Russians for a forthcoming book, by Carmelita McMillin about immigrant life, called Laugh Your Way to America, Or Cry, and Make It. (The article is above).
Other than that, my life here in the US is pretty quiet. I still hang-out with lots of Russian speaking people. I need to keep practicing Russian! I really cannot wait to get back to the former Soviet Union, and I am thinking about spending my New Year's/Christmas break in the Ukraine (again). Hopefully, I will be enrolled in my MA program at SPSU a year from now. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments!
Thank you for taking the time to share my Life in Russia with me!

Poka! Пока!


Friday, July 27, 2007

My Final Post

Dear Reader,

I have been back in the US for two months and have been keeping busy with things here.
I finish my BA in a two weeks and I am working for a local political campaign.
Aside from that, I have finally gotten my OPI (Oral Proficency Interview) scores and my grades from my classes in Russia.
The grades were all As and an A-.
The OPIs were more interesting.
On my ACTR administered OPI, taken in Russia, using the ILR scale (http://www.dlielc.org/testing/round_table.pdf), I got a 2-.
On the second OPI that I took in the US, a couple of weeks after I returned, I tested as an Advanced-Mid on the ACTFL (http://www.actfl.org/files/public/Guidelines.pdf). That is probably about a 2 level.
That would mean that I jumped 3 levels while in Russia (from 1, to 1+, to 2-, to 2)... That isn't bad, but I hope to make more improvements.
I have been lucky in that I have a lot of Russian speaking friends in the DC area that allow me to practice with them.
I am now looking for careers that would allow me to use my Russian, or for graduate programs (in international relations), or I am considering taking another language course in Russia... We will see.
Either way, I am always happy to hear from my readers.
Thank you for sharing with me my life in Russia!

Saturday, May 19, 2007


I made it safely back from Russia the day before yesterday (the jet-lag is killing me). When I got off the plane in the US, I realized how accustomed I had grown to life in Russia and everything seemed a slight bit foreign here.
I knew that I would miss Russia... and sure enough, within my first 12 hours back in the US, I was looking online for jobs in Russia. I cannot wait to return.
Everything about Russia I enjoy: The people, the culture, and increasingly the language.
Russian language (at least for me) is not terribly fun while at the lower levels. It sucks to make so many errors that nobody knows what you are saying. It is also a bummer when your vocab doesn't allow you to express what would otherwise be simple tasks in English. This part of the process is/was tremendously frustrating... Though persevere! It can only get better!
This summer I will finish my dual BA in Russian Studies and Government & International Politics.
I consider this past year as the most formidable in my life. My views on everything (e.g. politics, religion, life, ethics, etc) have been altered. I examine things in a much different light today than I would have a year ago.
I had read about life in Russia and Russians' view of life for years before going to Russia. None of it made as much sense until I lived among the Russians.
During my time in Russia, I sought to better understand the Russians through (here is application of my minor in sociology) "participatory observation" (i.e. "a set of research strategies which aim to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals (such as a religious, occupational, or subcultural group, or a particular community) and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their natural environment, often though not always over an extended period of time".)*
I sought to avoid all things American and western if a Russian alternative was available. I only hung-out with Americans a few times a month. I strove to look at any difficulty or obstacle in a way that a Russian would.
In the end, I feel that I took the right approach.
* Quote from Wikipedia

I will post one more blog when I find out my OPI score and the grades for my classes.

Thank you readers for sticking with me during my year in Russia! It was an incredible experience! Thank you to all of you that have written me letters or e-mails during the past year!!! It has meant a lot to me!
Please feel free to contact me (jasonjaysmart@gmail.com) with any questions that you may have about Russian (studies/study abroad/etc) or anything else.
I am delighted by how many readers have added me as a "friend" on facebook! Please add me as a friend! It is exciting to see what sorts of folks read my blog!
Thank you for bearing through the many (many, many) grammatical and spelling errors that I routinely made in the past 9 months. (I know that it is now abundantly clear that I don't distinguish between: their, they're and there, nor its or it's, nor e.g. or i.e., etc).
In my own defense, I was typing as fast as I could in order to save money at the Internet cafe... And lack of proof-reading can be detrimental to sound writing!

Russia (like most experiences) was great because of the people that I knew. Without them it would have been a wholly different experience.
Thank you to the Russian speakers I have know and have encouraged my love of their language. And to all of you who have written me: Thank you! Спасибо!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Student Questions: Answered!

A (George Mason!!!) student of Russian who will be on the ACTR's summer Moscow program e-mailed me. Going with the theory that we learned in grade school, of, "Don't be afraid to ask a question... If you have a question, someone else in the class is probably also thinking of the same question, but they're too afraid to ask." I have decided to post her e-mail below and my response. Hopefully another reader will also benefit from this discourse:

Hey Jason!
Actually, I only have dorky questions about Moscow - how much are things like shampoo and bread, will mp3 chargers or hairdryers start an electrical fire in my host mom's apartment (I have a huge converter and a variety of interchangeable prongs, seems to do ok in europe) , can you receive international calls free in Russia... The good thing about only staying a summer is if I have issues with these things I won't have them very long if I can't resolve them, yeah? As a result I'm a little blank on what to ask.

Though, Dr Levine said that if we wanted to stay longer we could apply for the next semester while in Russia, is that true? On the ACTR website I only see deadlines which have already passed (like it says apply for the Fall semester by April if you are on the Summer Program... a bit weird). I am looking into semester programs. I think starting out with summer is a smart move although I feel I easily adapt to strange environments. :)

Hey Sarah!
The price of things in Russia varies considerably if you buy the Russian product, or its western competitor. As an example: Russian shampoo will run you about $2. The American shampoo is probably around $6. Toothpaste is about $1.25. Oddly, a Russian friend told me recently that Crest brand toothpaste is not sold in Russia because Russians didn't want to brush their teeth with something that means "crucifix" (i.e. Crest = crucifix). I will say that when I first got here I only bought the Russian products... I wanted the "real experience". Well, I found that the "real experience" is your teeth falling out if you use the local toothpaste: Buy the American product.

Same goes for a lot of other, general products. Russian clothing seems to deteriate rather quickly. Will overdoing the electric plugs cause a fire? Probably. It wouldn't suprise me. One of the things that I will not miss about Russia is the complete lack of emergency fire escapes.

When we were in Sochi last week, I noticed that the fire escapes were all securely locked with a large master lock. Though there was a sign on the doors that indicated that if their is an emergency, the woman at the front desk (in the building nextdoor) has a key.

The ACTR gives you a fire extinguisher and a smoke detector for your apartment. I have already concluded that if their is a fire in my apartment, we are all going to die, so it doesn't really matter if I have a smoke detector... That being said, the battery to my smoke detector is currently powering my radio.

Russian electrical outlets seem to shock people a lot, so be careful. Additionally, they often times don't work... Especially in older homes.

To the best of my understanding, you can apply for the next semester while you are in Russia. Though you should contact the ACTR now to confirm that.

You can recieve international phone calls for free. It is free if you get them at home, or on your cell phone. Though if you get a phone call on your cell, while you are away from the city where you bought the phone, you get charged (i.e. my phone is from Vladimir, if I am in Moscow I get charged for recieving a call. Not a lot. But their is a charge).
I hope that this helps!


I split up the post that I did yesterday... The post was way too long. So the below is verbatim half of yesterday's post.

* * * I said that I would posts the books/programs/city that I recommend for students coming to Russia. It seems to be a common question that I get. If you can't find the below listed books on Amazon (etc) try checking to see that I spelled the name correctly, I am a horrid speller (as this blog has proven). Also, check that the below books are the newest editions. Newer editions are always better than outdated ones. My comments are written below each book. In no particular order, here they are:

Schaum's Outlines Russian Grammar, By James Levine, 0-07-038238-7
This is really an outstanding book. I used it during my Russian classes in the US, as well as here in Russia. It is as useful in 100 level Russian as it is after a year in Russia. You MUST bring a grammar book with you to Russia. You can't live without one. This is the most popular book amongst my colleagues. It has lots of very good examples and explanations. Of all the ones I have seen, it gets my strongest endorsement. You cannot live without it.

The Russian's World Life and Language, By Genevra Gerhart, 0-89357-293-4
This book is an awesome. You would do yourself a favor to bring it with you to Russia. It is (more-or-less) a one volume, cultural encyclopedia of Russia. There are sections on every aspect of Russian life (from weddings, to the schools, to religion, to home appliances, to common adages/poems). It is very readable and is not very heavy. If you have interest in Russian culture, you should own a copy. Though, the book (published, I think, in 1998) has become dated. Though I have heard that a new edition is coming out in the near future!

Any atlas. I would bring a simple atlas with me to Russia. It will come in handy. I didn't know where Sochi was... Until I looked on my atlas.

Towards the Spiritual Convergence of America and Russia: American Mind and Russian Soul, American Individuality and Russian Community, and the Potent Alchemy of National Characteristics, By Stephen Ludger Lapeyrouse.
This book is hard to find. It is a long essay on the difference of world perception between the east and the west. Like a lot of books on Russia, it has become dated. Though if one wishes to seriously understand Russian thought, this book is wonderful.

Harper Collins Russian Concise Dictionary 2nd (or newer is always better) edition 0-06-095661-5
This dictionary has proven to be a wonderful tool. Rarely do I encounter a word that is not in this dictionary. Importantly, it gives the case that various verbs take, etc. It has been my companion for over five years, and thousands of words.

The Rough Guide to Moscow, By Dan Richardson 1-84353-282-4
This is the most readable and interesting guidebook I have ever seen. I (no joke, really) read it at nights for pleasure. It is awesome. It covers not only the cool things to see in Moscow, but gives a very anecdotal history of everything. It also seems to be tremendously well researched.

Langensheidt's Pocket Dictionary English-Russian, Russian-English
You need a pocket dictionary for class (and for other situations). This one is good for a pocket dictionary, though it has some problems. I cannot stand when a Russian book doesn't give the case that a verb should take. The language is already nearly impossible, and often times this dictionary doesn't do much to improve the situation. To be fair, I have used it for a couple of years, and only a few times a month does it not have the exact word that I need. I give it a mild review. Though, equally, I don't know much about its competitors.

501 Russian Verbs, By Thomas R. Beyer, jr 2nd Edition 0-7641-1349-6
This book is logical and simple. It has the full declension for more than 501 verbs. It also gives the case that they should take. My criticism is that for a lot of the verbs, their explanation is ambiguous. I might read (and understand) the declension, but I may not better understand how to use the verb in a sentence. It does not give examples! I have heard that the Big Silver Book of Russian Verbs is good... But I really don't know. You can probably flip threw both of them at your local bookstore and decide for yourself. I give this book a decent rating.

Русский язык как иностраный, Н.С. Новикова и О.М. Щербакова 5-89349-393-1
This is a great book for learners of all levels. It is a soft covered collection of short stories, with all of the words that a foreign is unlikely to know, in bold, and translated in the column. I have enjoyed it for a couple of years and it has done a lot for my Russian reading ability. It was recommended to me by a professor, and I recommend it to you!

Говорите по-русски С.А. Хавронина (14th Edition) 5-9576-0206-x
This book is great for improving reading and vocab. After each short story there is an explanation of the key grammatical lessons of the story. The stories are enjoyable. The explanations are excellent. The book really is fantastic. It was given to me by a professor (with his recommendation that I use it) and I am better for having listened to his advice.

The Ugly American By William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick
This book should be required reading for anyone looking to live/study/serve abroad. It is a (fictional) account of US diplomats' behaviour (and disgrace) while living overseas. The book was first published around 50 years ago, and it is as relevant then as it is today.
There is nothing that angers me more than too see the behaviour of some of the Americans in Russia. As cliche as it sounds: When abroad, you are representing your country. Read this book.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Russia: What I would advise other students coming

So, my days are numbered in Russia (to be exact: 8 days, or 167 hours if you consider our departure time). And I can honestly say that I am ready to come home. I have had enough of life in Russia - for now. Really, I just want a break from language learning. As much fun as it is (really, it can sometimes be fun) I am ready to be back in the DC area.
It is not that I am "sick" or "disenchanted" with Russia. Rather, I am ready for a change of pace. The day-to-day grind of being in school has taken its toll on me. I want to unwind and be in an environment where I understand everything that is happening, all of the time.
Though, I equally feel that after 1-2 weeks back in the States, I will be bored of it and want to come back to Russia.
My advice to students coming here for a year (or semester, or summer) is to try to keep your enthusiasm for Russian perked as long as you can while you are here. Also (most importantly) be open-minded and optimistic. You will go nuts (or wind-up hating Russia) if you do not.
I was talking with my colleagues yesterday. Of the 12 of them, everyone is ready to come back to the US (even though some of them (the weaker ones!) returned to the US for Christmas break).
After you are here for a while (the length of time varies for every student) the enthusiasm and excitement/newness for/of all things Russian wanes. You need to have Russian friends/hobbies, that encourage your interest in learning the language.
A Russian girlfriend is the perfect means of maintaining that interest. You are learning the language with someone who is (less likely) to harshly criticize you. They are probably also more patient than the average interlocutor. Additionally, the motivation to learn is greater when you see the actual application of your language skills, and it is not just the theory of the language.
I will also say that, for me, working with the Uzbeks was awesome for my Russian. They don't speak at an elevated level (they don't sound like cavemen, but they equally aren't like Pushkin). I use all of the new vocab I learn with them. I also pick-up a lot from them. It also gives me the chance to practice dialogue and monologue speech (both of which an OPI tests for).
When I first got here I wrote down every new word that I encountered. I filled up 4 notepads in one semester. In the second semester I only filled one notepad, and I made a start on another one. This is not only because I was less diligent the second semester, but also because my Russian vocabulary was so bad when I got here.
The end of the semester in Russia is the same as in the US: Tests, BS/filler classes, anxiousness to get away from school/tests/studying.
That being said, it appears that I will be completing my BA this summer. So 4 days after my return, I will be starting classes again (sadly, no Russian language courses).
I have become certain that Russian language study is something that I will contine. It will be a life-long process. I was amazed when one of my Russian professors said his Russian had room for improvement. I couldn't begin to imagine how it could get better! (I mean, he is a professor of the bloody language!) But every (intelligent) language learner knows his weaknesses, and where he needs to improve.
That being said, I took my (final!) OPI today. I feel that I did better. When I find out my score, I will (as promised) post it on the blog.
* * *

OK, so if I could do it all again, would I go to Vladimir? No, I wouldn't. I would probably have gone to Moscow or St Petersburg. That being said, I don't think that I would have ever had such a great time, with so many sincere and interesting people, had I been anywhere else. Though now that my time is up, there is still a lot that I wish that I could see still in Moscow.
Equally, life in Vladimir (and the people here) are not a lot like Muscovites (they tend to dislike people from Moscow). Though through-out my career, I will likely have minimal contact with people from the sticks. Most professionals will be Muscovites, etc. It would have done me well to better understand professional Russians and their behaviour, than how the back-water folks of Vladimir live.
Though (a BIG THOUGH) if I was coming for the summer or semester, I would come to Vladimir again. You will probably do the most for your language here.
If you are a wimp and want to live like an American in Russia, then go to Moscow/Peter. If you want a more authentic experience (or perhaps Soviet experience) go to Vladimir.

* * *
Would I recommend the ACTR programs? I would. I have learned a lot. Grammar was the most valuable class. Phonetics was also great. While some of the classes have room for improvement.
My largest gripe is that you are on a study-abroad program where its like being on a high school field trip. If you show up late to school, they call and check on you. If you cut class, you get in trouble.
We have weekly excursions, you must go on 8 of them. I have been on 7. The last one (on Friday) is to Suzdal. I went on this exact same excursion last semester with the group. Additionally, I was there two weeks ago with my friends. The city is old and not terribly interesting (that is, unless you're into old uninteresting things). I know it was important a couple of hundred years ago, but you know how much impact that has on daily life in Russia today? None. None-at-all.
The ACTR is probably one of the longest operating study-in-Russia programs. It has been at it for atleast three decades. And the experience from all of that time is evident in how well structured the program is.
Though I don't like the paternalism of the program (i.e. docking your grade for skipping class, etc), I do see the upside of it. Russia is a big and strange place. It is fairly easy to get yourself into trouble. It can be comforting that their is someone looking out for you.
There is a link to the ACTR on the bottom of my blog page.
If you cannot afford an ACTR program (I was fortunate enough to win a full scholarship), look around.
I heard that Moscow State University's programs are good. I think that their website is cie.ru

* * *
In the end I have no regrets for being here. I have learned a lot. I chose the path less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Sochi, Russia

I just got back at 0345 this morning from the Black Sea city of Sochi.
If you look on a map, Sochi is about 45 kms from Georgia. This means that it is 36 hrs by train from Vladimir.
What do you do on a train for 36 hrs? Not very much. Reading, sleeping and playing cards is probably very high on the list of what there is to do.
Sochi is a relatively new city (less than a hundred years old) and is the premier beach spot for Russians. The weather in Sochi while we were there was mostly rainy, but even in the rain it was a neat town.
There are a tremendous number of natural wonders to see (i.e. mountains, waterfalls and lakes) ... None of which are too fun to visit in the rain.
The people are a lot more laid back than the ones in Vladimir... Cars even yield to pedestrians!
I met a lady in Sochi who runs a Russian-American dating service (i.e. "buy-a-bride-online"). This proved to be one of the most interesting people that I have encountered in Russia.
In short, she said that not all of the American men were strange... Many were "normal" but just too preoccupied with work to be able to date. Whereas the Russian women were not "desperately seeking to leave Russia", rather they were interested in "trying something new" or interested in the "opportunities of a foreign husband".
Sochi is really everything that Vladimir is not. Sochi is like Berkley, CA, whereas Vladimir is more like Little Rock, Ar.
If I could do my year again, I would go to Sochi. It is such a beautiful place. Tropic weather and vegitation, etc. Intellectual (atleast moreso than Vladimir) people. It is a (new) resort town, so there is all of the things you would expect to see in such a place. Including a disordinantly high number of Russians who speak English.... So perhaps it is better that I am in Vladimir!
I will finally be leaving Russia on May 17, so I am planning on 3-4 more posts. One of which will be from DC, on the trip back. My next post will likely be on my regrets/lessons learned of: What I should have brought/left, books I should have read before coming, etc AND whether I would advice students to go to Vladimir, or to Moscow, St Pete (that seems to be the most common question that I get from students now).