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).

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Boris Yeltsin/Борис Николаевич Ельцин

I just had a conversation last week (actually, I think that it was during my excursion to the vodka factory) with my colleagues, that Boris would likely live forever, because his organs are so well preserved after so many years of heavy drinking. Apparently, our prediction was wrong.
Boris was, in my eyes, the epitome of a Russian politician. He was very charismatic and pretty populist. He was also a настоящий мужик (real man).
When he was 14 he blew-off two of his fingers, when the hand grenade that he was trying to throw at Germans detonated early. He was Мастер Спорт ("Master Sport", a very high Soviet award for great sportsmanship)... albeit in volleyball, but still very impressive.
He also showed such political prowess! Yeltsin during the 1970s (as a communist party boss) ordered the house that the Romanovs (the last royal family of Russia) were killed in be destroyed. He then paved the whole area over so that people couldn't come to pay tribute, or visit the spot of the murder.
Well, 30 years pass, Russia is no longer communist, the Romanovs are now Orthodox saints, and Boris sees that he needs to play this hand the right way... So he attends that funeral service held for the last royal family and says wonderful things about them.
In the course of those 30 years he also went from being a (atheistic) communist to being a (Orthodox) democrat.
Look at how he hopped right up on that tank during the putsch!!! Talk about taking whatever lenghts to win votes!
He took whatever stance was need to keep his popularity high.
Of course, there were the downsides of old Boris:
In high school I had a collection of photos titled "The Drunk Boris-Bear Dancing". It was a series of photos of Boris drunk and... well... dancing.
Aside from the epic drinking (and womanizing), Boris also probably should have reigned a little bit tighter of a control on the mafia. It is true (in my view) that we can thank Boris for the problems with the oligarchs. Had Boris been a little bit more stringent (and not let corruption reign) Putin wouldn't need to be scaring everyone in Russia worth over $1 billion to move abroad.
One of my favorite quotes is of Yeltsin, "If you want your children and grandchildren to be happy: Don't send them into politics."
Thanks for the advice Boris,

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


During my time here I have examined whether the stereotype of Russians being heavy drinkers is truth or, well, just a stereotype. I have concluded: One cannot begin to fathom how much Russians love their booze. I am consistently amazed at how they manage to drink so much!
It is not that the Russians are all drunkards. Just that their perception of what is "too much" or "inappropriate" is vastly different than what Americans view as being "too much".
As the stereotype hints, Russians drink their vodka neat (i.e. straight). Ontop of that, they drink incredible quantities of it. This could be because vodka is relatively cheap ($6 will buy you good vodka). Or because vodka helps kill time.
Americans tend to have wine with dinner, if they drink. Americans are also squemish about drinking. In our (horrid) "alcohol awareness" classes in high school, I remember being told that, "If you have more than two drinks a day, more than a couple of times a week, it means you have a drinking problem."
The only drinking problem in Russia is when you run out of alcohol.
It does not matter if you are a guest of young men in their 20s, or women in their 80s, for a Russian to not offer you vodka, if you are a guest for dinner, is truly unthinkable.
Though, on two occasions I have been offered wine while visiting Russians for dinner.
On the first occassion, my host told me about what great wine he had bought. I was expecting that we would sip through the bottel during lunch. I was wrong. Each time he would want a sip, he would propose a toast, and it was "bottoms up"! The glass would be emptied, and promptly refilled.
Recently, I was talking with a Russian/Polish friend about drinking. I asked him if Russian or Polish wives get angry if their husbands come home drunk. He responded, "Well, you have never been to a wedding in Russia, clearly."
"Well, the weddings last for three days. That is mandatory. If you survive the first night, you come back the next day, and then the day after. On the first night the groom is the recipient of countless toast. In short time he ends up on the floor under the banquet table, too drunk to stand up, passed out. The bride cries a lot... I don't know if she cries because she must spend her wedding night with someone who will likely be hung-over the toilet puking the whole time, or if it is because she realizes she has just bought a lifetime of commitment to him."
"Either way, the guests all have a great time. You can be sure that nobody is sober. Dedushka (grandfather) is going to get plastered. But everyone has a good time."
I continued my questioning, "Well, after the wedding, after being married for a bit, does the wife get upset if the husband comes home drunk?"
"It depends. She knows that he is going to drink... If he is a man he is going to drink. If he gets drunk and sings and dances, that is ok... No problems. But if he becomes overly flirtatious with other women, problems arise."
A while back I was staying at a Russian friend's house. His father had Ушёл на запой (had gone on a binge) and was nicely passed-out on the floor.
At around 10 pm there was a knock at the apartment door, my friend answered it to find a construction work, who 5-6 years before had done some tiling for the family. The construction worker asked to speak to the father, he wanted to borrow $2. Well, the noise from the construction worker awoke the father from his slumber.
The father simply said, "What, if I give you $2 you are going to drink it away... That is stupid! Why don't you just come into the kitchen and drink with me?"
The next morning when I got up, the two of them were still at it. Though it wasn't long before both were sleeping on the kitchen floor.
I had a history professor that relayed this story:
He had been invited as a dinner guest in Russia by two members of the (very) elite Academy of Sciences. My professor, another American, and 5-6 Russians came for the dinner. Well, in no time everyone was drunk. The Americans were taken home by taxi and all was well.
Two days later, the one American realized that he had lost his umbrella. He realized that he had left it at the apartment where the party had been held. When he arrived at the apartment to retrieve his umbrella, he could hear a lot of noise. He knocked at the door and was greeted by all of the people that had been at the party two days before... They had been drinking for two days straight! They didn't go to work, called in sick, and drank.
This past Friday our group took a tour of the local vodka factory (Владалко). This tour was the best excursion I have ever been on. The woman who lead us on the tour was small (maybe 5'4). She is also the chief manager of the factory.
The tour was really interesting... And then there was the taste testing... There were atleast 8 different alcohols that we tried. This little woman (the tour leader) knew how to handle her booze. She must have had 6 full shots... Considering her size, it seems like a lot... And then she returned to work!!!
On my construction site, a few Russians were brought on to work. They drink the entire day. It doesn't seem dangerous (if they are laying tiles, etc)... But I would be lying if I said that seeing the electrician drink on the job doesn't make me uneasy!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Going Along to Get Along

Recently I was filling out a scholarship application that asked, "What personal attributes do you think are the most important for someone to posses, who is going to study abroad?" I considered for a short while what I see in my colleagues who are having a great time here in Russia, and what I see in my colleagues who have become disenchanted with Russia.
First of all, being opened minded is probably one of the most vital attributes for someone wanting to study in Russia. It is easy to be close-minded (and difficult) and sit-around complaining that the Russians are all but savages. But you really don't make many friends that way.
Russia is an experience completely unlike day-to-day life on a college campus in America.
Hanging out on construction sites is probably not something that I would do in the States. But I found friends there, we only speak Russian, and I have a great time. In the same way, I try to go out with different groups of Russian friends, all of the time, to increase my exposure to Russian culture.
Going to the art museum is not fun for me. I don't really care for art. But I have been to the art museums at least once a month with friends because that's what they wanted to do. By going on these excursions, with friends, I have met their friends and have usually ended up had a terrific time.
I also noticed that the Americans who have fallen-out-of-love with Russia, also refused to try Russian food. (I bet I could prove a corollary). These Americans would go out of their way to avoid anything that was unfamiliar. That seems like not only a great way to offend a lot of the locals, but to also come-off as difficult.
Another attribute that is vital is a sense of humor. I cannot imagine living here and being serious all of the time. Whenever I open my mouth, I nearly expect to make mistakes... And it doesn't bother me when Russians laugh at me... Because I am usually laughing too! That is not to say that I am not self-conscious about my Russian (I am), but I am not going to cry when Russians stand around, staring at me, trying to figure out what I am saying. I sort of expect that as part of the price to pay for language acquisition!
So, my scholarship essay concluded that: Having a sense of humour, and going with the flow, are the two most important attributes to posses, if you wish to study abroad. We will see if I was right, if I win the scholarship!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good times with Zina

Since my last post on Zina, my hozaika (host lady) , I have been told that I described her in all negatives. Or as one reader said, I describd Zina as a "she-devil".
Well, Zina is not a she-devil (most of the time). There are good times with Zina.
Just this morning I returned from Moscow after meeting a group of American students. In the hotel rooms in Moscow, the students had abandoned several liters of juice, vodka, beer and a bottel of champaign. Well I packed it all up and hauled it back to Vladimir with me.
When Zina saw what I had brought, you would have thought that it was Christmas. "Jason, such a smart boy! Good boy! This is what you need to do whenever you see anything for free! You must take it with you and bring it to me! Molodets!" She promptly set-in to icing the juice and drinking the beer.
I remember last semester Zina had a get together with some of her girlfriends. There was plenty of singing, dancing and of the social lubricant: liquour. Zina invited me to join her friends as they were celebrating something-another (it might have been the Day of Drivers' (aka another excuse to drink)). On these occasions she is at her prime. She is a wonderful host when she is having folks over.
Zina has also proved to be a good source of information on all of the neighbors. Because Zina is a babushka, she sits around gossiping on the phone all day. This gives her insite into all of the neighbors' problems, etc. She has spent many hours peering threw the window's curtain to see what the neighbors are doing on the street. This also provides me with entertainment. It allows us to discuss things other than my failings. Instead Zina will talk about the neighbors' kids failings.
Zina has been a lot of fun. I would not want to be with anyone else!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

My Daily Routine

My days have really changed little since I first began my program in Russia, though they have changed.
Currently I am in the following rut during week days:
0745: Wake-up, shower, shave, eat, listen to Zina for a while (normal morning conversations are one of two topics: "Jason, it is cold, did you leave the window open last night as you slept? Don't come to me for sympathy when you get sick.", or "Jason, I didn't sleep at all last night, I slept horribly. Uzhasno!"
0840: Begin the 12 minute walk to school.
0900: My first class begins.
0950: There is a ten minute break between every 50 minute class.
1000: Second class begins.
1050: Second class ends.
1100: Third class begins.
1150: Third class ends. Lunch break begins.
1150-1220: Lunch in the students' cafeteria. There are special tables which are reserved for our (American) group. So we actually do not mix with the Russian students during lunch.
1220-1230: More than half of the group piles into the courtyard to smoke.
1230: Fourth class begins.
1320: Fourth class ends.
1330: Fifth class begins.
1420: Fifth (and last) class ends.
* On Mondays, the group meeting takes place immediately following the last class. These meetings are utilized by Tom, the Residential Director, to primarily discuss upcoming excursions, etc.
1445-1700: Either run errands, stop by the Uzbeks' construction site, go running, or drop by the internet cafe.
1700-1745: In this block of time I eat dinner most every night, at home, with Zina supervising how much I eat.
1800-1900: Read/sleep/not-much-of-anything.
1900-2330: Study or hang out with friends.
2330: Read/Go to bed.

So that is a brief synopsis of my normal Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.
Thursday the schedule is similar, only there is not likely to be much studying after class.
Fridays we go on excursions (generally for a couple of hours) during the mid-morning/afternoon. There are no classes held on Fridays.
Weekends vary significantly. I generally get up by 0800 and either study, or go for a run. This is followed by reading or more studying. Through out most afternoons/evenings I usually go hang-out with my Russian speaking friends.
Of course, my schedule is by no means concrete. In a couple of hours (today is Tuesday) I am going to some international festival that one of my (Russian) friends is anxious to go to. And tomorrow I am going to Moscow to meet with a friend arriving from the States.
Everyone finds their own routine here. I think the worst thing possible is to come home everyday from school and to just sit in ones' room. That is deadly! Don't do it! Its so bloody depressing... And you don't work on your language acquisition by sitting alone in your room!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Foreign Travel

I have often heard that a lot of students come to Russia for a full academic year, without having ever been outside of the US. I have also heard that this could lead to some rather intense culture shock/disappointment with Russia.
I had, before coming to Russia, spent a good amount of time outside of the States. When I discovered that in Vladimir I would have no running hot water for the first bit, I thought it was a really neat cultural experience. The people who had never been outside of America tended to view such obstacles as horrible. They also tended to quickly criticize the Russians for being nearly barbarian. I really can see that it was evident who enjoyed the challenges of living outside of the first-world, and who didn't.
Within the group of 13 students here in Vladimir, there is a wide range of how much exposure they had to foreign cultures, before arriving.
Below are some rough statistics that I gathered of my colleagues:

Excluding travel within the US and Canada (the 51st State)

- 2 students have been to more than thirty countries.
- Though only 2 students had previously been to Russia. One of which had been here on multiple other study abroad programs.
- Of the half that had been outside of the US, Mexico was the most common destination of their previous travels.
- That was quickly followed by France and the UK.
- About three had been to a former Soviet country before.

In all, I would tend to (strongly) side with the advice that if you haven't spent much time out of the US before, it might be best to go to Russia first on a summer program, or on a semester program at most (the ACTR offers both). I feel that Russia can really be overwhelming for a lot of people.
Though more than whether someone has spent time out of the US, I feel that their attitude is what matters most.
I spent my last two New Year's going to an economically depressed eastern Ukranian mining village, and I hang out in Vladimir on Uzbek construction sites... My idea of a good time is a little bit skewed from the norm. I didn't expect to leave the US and to arrive in a competing first world nation. A semester/year in Russia is not a semester/year in London or Paris. You will never have the experiences in London or Paris like you will in Russia.
I just throw that all out to be considered by prospective students.
If you have any questions about life in Vladimir/Russia/on the construction sites with the настояшии мужики...как я, please feel free to e-mail me!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Places to Go

This past week has been pretty busy... Which is a really nice break from the monotony of Vladimir.
Last Thursday I went to Moscow to meet a group of students who had come over on a Spring Break trip. It was great to spend some time with other Mason folks and with my GMU Russian professors.
GMU had organized a tremendously exciting trip for the students. It seemed like they really got to see a lot of Russia during their week in the country.
With the GMU group I traveled to Zagursk (now Sergiyev Posad), the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church. The "Vatican" there, is a really small enclosed area with a couple of churches a seminary and a monastery.
I also went with Dr Levine (GMU Russian professor) on a tour of the Museum of Vodka. The museum is conveniently located next to Hotel Izmailovsko.
On Sunday, with a different GMU professor, I saw the church where Pushkin was married in Moscow.
I traveled back to Vladimir on Sunday night. We made it in a record time of 2 hours and 40 mins, on the bus!
This past Friday, with my ACTR group, we took a tour of neighboring Bogolubogo. It is an old town with a monastery and churches. Now that I think about it: You can describe probably all Russian towns as being: Old and possessing lots of churches and monasteries.
I like Bogolubogo because it has my favorite church in Russia (the one on the river: http://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images;_ylt=A0oGklbLsgdGmiEAkYBXNyoA?p=bogolubovo&ei=UTF-8&fr=yfp-t-452&x=wrt&fr2=tab-web ). It is an old church built right on the side of the river. It is tremendously beautiful.
I also attended another Uzbek party... Its always a good time!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

My Hozaika

My hozaika (host lady) is a mixed bag. Some days are great, and some borderline on nightmarish with Zina Sergeevna.
She can be rather childish (we have kids' stickers (of mostly Disney characters) all over the apartment). She also cuts out pictures of puppies/kitties from magazines and glues them on the walls. Which I can't really argue with; the stickers cover the dirty 75 year old walls of our apartment nicely.
And she can be rather irritating. For a week after I got mugged, she never missed an opportunity to ask me, "И тебе не стидно?" ("And you are not ashamed of yourself?")... I am still trying to understand why I should be ashamed... But that was Zina Serveena's way of showing sympathy.
Last semester she would complain for days that I didn't go out enough... That I just sat at home. So I went out. This lead to her complaining that my coming home after 1800 interfered with her TV watching schedule.
She also is a rather envious person. She has already specifically told me what she wants me to leave her (of my possessions) when I return to the US...
I am not really surprised, as I know full-well that the woman searches my room like a hound. If I had anything that I wished to hide from her, it would be impossible.
I used to keep a liter of beer on the window sill (it's cold there) in my room. Zina would complain that she was poor and couldn't ever afford beer (and act as if she didn't even notice that I had beer). If I would offer some to her, she would act shocked and appreciatively thank me as she drank my bottle. If I didn't offer it to her, she would say that I was a lousy drunkard not willing to share with her, a poor and down-trodden grandmother.
She does the same routine if I buy a newspaper and don't share it with her the same day that I buy it.
Zina also has her passive aggressive days... After we have words, I she will typically, "accidentally" give me scolding hot tea, or an omelette with lots of shells, or she loves to give me for breakfast whatever had been for dinner the night before (imagine liver at 0745).
Zina though has had a rather hard life. She was born in 1941. Her father was killed at the front against the Germans and so she never met him. Her mother remarried and had a son. The son (Zina's brother) died when he was 10 from a blood disease. Her mother then died shortly afterwards. Her stepfather died somewhere between them. So Zina was raised by her grandmother and grandfather. First grandmother died, then grandfather. But Zina got married when she was in her early 20s, and has a daughter. Though Zina has been a widow for more than two decades.
Zina also has her good days. Her favorite subject is telling me how to better lead my life. It is something that I have grown rather used to. Zina's suggestions of how to find a Russian girlfriend are rather interesting.
Whenever one of my (guy)friends comes over to our apartment, Zina assumes that drinking will take place. She doesn't ask if we are going to drink vodka. She assumes.
And usually she assumes wrongly. Though when I tell her, "Zina, I don't wish to drink vodka."
She usually retorts with, "What?! What?! I thought that you were a man! You little boy, why don't I go get some milk for you to drink! Then you can have nap time! If you were a real man, you wouldn't say 'I don't want to drink vodka', you would say, 'I only have one bottle, I better buy some more before my friend comes over!'"
Don't think that I am being over-the-top, this is how Zina communicates.
I found that laughing as she is berating me for not being enough of a man is not usually the right response. This could be because I giggle more than laugh... but for whatever the reason, the only right response is to agree... And then to invite her to drink with us.
Overall I enjoy my time with Zina Sergeevna. She is all of 5'3", and I am terrified of her. But she has made some terrific food. Including her special "passively aggressive" cutletts...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Gays in the Former USSR

Russia is a funny place, with funny people. This blog is rather hard for me to write, because I don't seek out "alternative" venues, and I would know as little about them in Russia as I would in the States.
But, I could relay some anecdotal evidence to support my introductory sentence.
During one of my first couple of weeks in Russia, I was sitting in a cafe with my Russian friend, trying to explain contemporary political issues in Russia, and how they varied with contemporary American political issues.
When I mentioned gay marriage as being one of the larger social issues in American politics, she was suprised, and asked, "Are there gays in America?"
I laughed (I thought she was joking), "Yes, there are. Are there none here in Russia?"
She looked seriously perplexed, "No, I don't think so,"
I was astonished, "Your kidding me, right? You don't know a single gay? Not one?"
Her answer was an emphatic, "No, I don't think that there are any gay people in Russia."
Well, despite her knowledge on this issue, I am rather certain that there are gays in Russia. Though they are a good deal more closeted than in the States. I haven't seen any Dupont Circles (a gay section of DC) in any Russian city.
I have heard that there are a few gay establishments in Moscow, but that is all that I nkow about them.
Though, when I held a political discussion with my hozaika (host lady), she didn't seem opposed to the idea of gay marriage.
I think that my host is in the minority of Russians. There was a gay rally in Moscow this past summer that was broken up by the police and rioters. They tried to beat the participants of the rally.
At orientation, students were advised that if they were of such a persuasion, it might not be the best thing to meet your host family and start off about telling them your status. Russia can be rahter hard on "others"/"outsiders".

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Race Relations

I was going to simply write, "Russian Race Relations: They suck", and that would be all... But I decided that might not give enough reason as to why some people think that they suck.
Russians are not racists, they just aren't familiar with folks who aren't Russian. If you read my last post on Russians' view of religion, you might better understand what I am saying.
Russia is actually a rather diverse nation. According to a Washington Post article, nearly a quarter of Moscow is Muslim. And in less than 10 years, more than 50% of the Russian military will also be Muslim. Most of the Muslims are from the Caucus region.
The fact that Russia is diverse should not mislead the reader to think that Russians often interact with this minority. They might deal with them at the market, or on the street, but I don't think that they often seek out friendships with them.
The folks from the Caucus typically resemble Iranians... More so than Russians.
They are pretty white. Hence the term Caucasian (i.e. the 'politically correct term' for "white", in America).
Aside from them there are also some Mongolians running around... Though they are less common (at least in Vladimir).
The blacks here probably have the roughest time. The locals really don't seem to love them too much. Actually, I would say that questions about blacks in America are one of the more common questions that I get about life in America.
I know one black fellow in Vladimir who has gotten beat-up a few times (though he has been here for more than 8 years). He now carries mace, and seems rather afraid of being out past dark.
I know that my Uzbek friends managed to get into a pretty good fight the week before last with a couple of skinheads.
Speaking of which, when I first came to Vladimir, I used to spend my Saturday mornings exploring the city. I would always bring my camera to take pictures. I would also photograph all of the neo-nazi graffiti. (You can see some of the pics in my photo album at the bottom of this page. Click the link).
I have discontinued that habit because there is more graffiti than what I can keep up with.
In the Russians defense, they might simply be a little misunderstood.
The word "black" in Russian is Чёрный (pronounced, "chjornie"). Though it only refers to folks from the Caucuses (who are not "black" in our, American, use of the word). So one could, without offending anyone, say, "Он чёрный." ("He is black")
Whereas the Africans are Негры (pronounced "nigry").
If Americans weren't so ethnocentric, and realized that the use of the word "негр" in Russian started before there were settlers in America, there would probably be less problems.
One could (correctly, as EVERY local Africans would say), "Я негр" (I'm black).
Russians aren't close-minded, but people who accuse them of all being "racist" might be close-minded. Russians simply don't have much interaction with folks who are radically different from themselves. They are usually honestly curious to meet an outsider. To meet an American black would be something that they would certainly tell their friends and family about.
Though it probably doesn't help much that American rap music is increasingly popular in Russia... This leads a lot of Russians to believe that US black culture resembels what they see in the behavior of rappers.... Which seems not to always be the best behavior to imitate.
It is funny that you do see a lot of grafitti with American rappers' names.
It is true, that minorities in Russia need to take extra precautions, and they should expect harassment from the locals and the police, but I really don't think that it is significantly more dangerous for them... Just be cautious.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Russian Multiculturalism: Religion

*** The topic of multiculturalism in Russia will provide me with material for many future posts. So as I encounter amusing/interesting anecdotal situations, I will post on it. My first installment is "Religion". I will do future posts on "racial minorities", "alternative lifestyles", and "foreigners". If you have any other ideas for a post, please e-mail me at jasonjaysmart@gmail.com . Thanks!

Russians are not "multiculturalists". That is not to say that they are "racist" (though many Americans would likely label most Russians as such). Russians simply don't encounter many folks that aren't Russian in their day-to-day lives.
I am from the Washington DC area. And I attend George Mason University (the most diverse campus in America; according to the Princeton Review http://www.gmu.edu/alumni/spirit/fall04/diverse.html). So my outlook/knowledge on "others" is a good deal different than that of the average Russian.
When first arrived in Russia, my host lady (hozaika) asked me if I was of any particular religious background. When I indicated that I was a practicing Catholic, she stated that she would not make any pork based dishes for me. When I asked her what her reasoning was, she said that she had had a student a few years ago who also was "Catholic".
I asked my host, "Maybe, the student you had before was Jewish... Which is not exactly the same as Catholic."
Her immediate response was, "Whichever, she wasn't Pravoslavnie (Orthodox)."
*If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know what my hozaika feeds me instead of pork....
Another time, I was with an "Orthodox" friend who asked something about the American ecumenical movement. I said something to the effect of, "Since the 1960s, the Catholics have been working to heal past wounds with the Orthodox, the protestants, the Jews..." She interrupted me to ask why I distinguished between "Jews and protestants."
My friend (and apparently her friends) were all under the impression that the Jews were something like Baptists (which they had an equally interesting understanding of).
Russia is not like DC. On no city block in Russia will you encounter a Methodist church and a Lutheran church that are separated only by a Starbucks.
In fact, I would be surprised if you found a single Methodist and a single Lutheran on the same city block.
Most people in Russia are "Orthodox". Which typically translates into showing up to church a couple of times a year (likely Christmas and Easter), standing around and lighting a couple of candles... If you think that I am oversimplifying, spend some time with Russians under 70 years old.
The second largest religion in Russia is Islam. I am under the impression that it is most prevalent in southern Russia (near the -stans).
The Uzbek guys who I hang-out with are apparently (in their own words) Russian Muslims. That means that they say prayer every time that they eat/drink... Though they drink. And Ramadan (a Muslim period of fasting) is no excuse to not drink vodka.
There are two or three protestant churches in Vladimir. The Lutherans use the Catholic church once a month for their services.
The Jews apparently have some kind of meeting place, but I do not have any concrete information on it.
The Mormons also have a church, I think.
The Jehovah's Witnesses have stopped me on the street to give me literature a couple of times, so I know that they are around.
There are more Orthodox churches than I can describe. They are on every street. I can see 1 monastery, 1 church and 1 cathedral from my bedroom window.
When I was in Kyiv, I spent an evening with two Fulbright Fellows there. They both study/speak Ukranian... They don't study Russian, just Ukranian!
Well, we were in a restaurant talking, when a drunken Ukranian stumbled up and started ranting that, "All of these foreigners now live in Kyiv, and none of them bother to learn Ukranian!"
I thought, "Wow! This drunk managed to find the only two Americans who actually speak Ukranian!"
Sure enough, my two American friends engaged the drunk in a short dialogue that went something like, "Well, we do speak Ukranian."
To which the Ukrainian replied, "Well, damn!"
The drunk when to the bathroom. When he came back out, (I have no idea why, it was January) he said the traditional Orthodox Easter greeting, "Christ has risen!"
To which the one Fulbright scholar replied, the traditional response, (in Ukranian), "And let us glorify him!"
While the other Fulbright scholar stated, "I'm a Jew."
The Ukranian drunk was puzzled. So in a tremendous act of Ukranian ecumenism, he asked, "Well, how do I say 'Merry Christmas' to your people?"
The Fulbright scholars (and I) were amazed by his ignorance, and the drunk stumbled off.
So, I would say that Russians simply don't encounter the same sort of multiculturalism that Americans are used to. I would also say that (religous) minority students in Russia need not fear. Russians seem to greet "others" (i.e. non-Orhtodox and not atheistic) foreigners with more of a sense of curiousity.
Their ignorance should not be taken as a slight, it is simply that the are not used to many folks that are not like themselves.

Friday, February 23, 2007

What is study abroad?

I came to Russia aiming to improve my Russian from a 1- to a 1+. So I feel that my goals were clearly articulated. Though I have come to realize that a lot of students (and other folks) expect that a year in a foreign country will equate to fluency.
While that would be really great, language gain doesn't work like that. I am (if I do well) going to move up two bumps on the language chart. Don't get me wrong: two bumps is a lot! But as I have stated before, a 3 is translator quality in a foreign language. So being a 1+ allows you to communicate most things that you wish to, but it may be choppy and vague, at times.
As a for instance. I spent about 8 hours at a "dinner" conversing with some friends this past weekend. They don't speak a lick of English. But we talked. We communicated. They said, "We understand the points that you are trying to make. We can catch the drift if nothing else, but the grammatical mistakes make it hard to understand you at times... That and you have a pretty strong accent that makes it still even harder to understand you."
There are language gain programs out there. Namely, US military training for intelligence officers. Though the reason that Uncle Sam is able to turn a 0 (linguistically speaking) into a 2+/3- in the course of a little over a year is not just because it is a great program.
For one, the students there are professional linguist with a very high aptitude for languages. I have known a couple of guys who went there as a 0 in a foreign language (Arabic and Korean) and came out as 3-/3s. That is pretty amazing.
Though the military is a "language gain program", not a "study abroad program". Whereas the ACTR provides "study abroad programs", not a "language gain program".
Yes, you make great gains linguistically in he ACTR programs. I would strongly recommend the ACTR's programs over the other ones out there, but I feel that too many people expect too much from the program.
As the ACTR's website states, "The academic program is designed to improve participants’ oral, listening, reading, and writing proficiency in Russian language and to develop their knowledge of Russian history, politics, culture, and society."
In the military, the linguist are paid to sit in grammar class for endless hours a day. They are generally polyglots before they show up. (I've got one friend who went through the military's language program, he already spoke Russian, English, French and Spanish, all at the 3 level, when he went into the service, but he learned Arabic while he was there. Even he said that he met another fellow there that spoke 11 languages).
So there are some very gifted polyglots/freaks out there who pick up languages without much effort. I, sadly, am not such a person. If you have read this far into this posting, I am sure that you have already encountered many mistakes in my English!
So I would caution people coming here not to set unrealistic expectations. The ACTR did a fantastic job at orientation describing language gain and what sort of goals we should set. I would recommend reading up on language gain before studying abroad, in order to maximize your time overseas.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


*** I recieved an e-mail from a reader asking for clarifaction on cellphones in Russia. Below I have copy-pasted what I wrote in response to the reader. I hope that it can be of use.

Hi Jason,
I just read your latest blog on technology. I've got a question for you regarding cell phones. A friend will loan me a cellphone to use while I'm in Russia. I know it has to be a GSM tri-band and unlocked. Since I've never used a cell phone internationally, my question is about SIM cards and plans. Do you get a telephone number with the SIM card? I will want a plan that allows me to make and receive international (to and from the US), as well as local calls. Do you know how much these things cost? Are they sold by the number of minutes? Any information you can share will be appreciated.

Hey Reader!
The cell phone that you described should work... But I am far from being an expert on the subject.
When you buy a SIM card, you are also buying "minutes" for the phone. SIM cards typically run 150 roubles ($6). Though in Russia, unlike in the US, you don't have "150 mins of talk time", rather you have "150 roubles of usage". That means that if you make an inter city call, it will deduct around 7 roubles from your SIM card. Or, if say you bought the SIM card in St Petersburg, and you were to call Moscow, it would be a steeper rate of deduction.
If you buy the SIM card in a cellphone store in St Petersburg, the number should be local to St Petersburg. When you get to Moscow, it might pay to buy another SIM card in order that all of your calls in Moscow are local.
There is a problem that you will likely encounter. Because the Russian government is paranoid, all SIM cards must be registered. So when you buy a SIM card they make you fill out a form of identity questions (i.e. Name, registration address, etc). You will probably be able to use you tourist registration info. Though when I bought my first cellphone/SIM card, they were registered in my tutor's name. The store (incorrectly) stated that non-permit residents could not buy SIM cards. The cellphone store employees don't look down on this practice... They just need something on the paper.
So you can just as easily ask a Russian tour guide to do you the favor of helping you to buy the SIM card, and to see if they will register it in their name.
Your phone should be able to make/recieve international calls. If you got your SIM card in St Pete, and you get an international call from there, it costs nothing. Though if you have a SIM from St Pete, and you get an international call in Moscow, it costs (not too much (I think), but be aware that your time is diminishing as you talk).
Also, if you call (without a phone card) I heard that it cost about $2 a minute.
After your initial 150 roubles run-out, you can buy refill minutes at nearly any kiosk. They look like phone cards and have an explanation of what to do on the back. Essentially, you buy the card (in increments of 100, 250, 500 roubles +) and dial the number in the back. Then you scratch off, then dial the secret pin code (also on the card).
I hope that this gives you atleast an idea of how it all works. It isn't so bad. The ACTR gave us a packet (written by one of the Residential Directors) on how the cell phones work. You might want to see if you can get a copy of it. Thanks for reading my blog!


Thursday, February 15, 2007


***I have gotten a couple of technology-like questions recently, so I will attempt to answer them:
Russians aren't very big on technology. I would say that it is a very safe bet that the majority of Russians have never used a microwave.
So when it comes to computers, you can guess that there isn't a lot of experience there either.
Some students have asked whether it is worthwhile to bring a laptop to Russia. I am under the impression that the American students who have brought computers only use them for playing DVDs or music. Though, that can be nice.
I don't have a computer, and I can't say that I miss out by not having one. It really only serves entertainment purposes here.
You can buy Internet dial-up phone cards. They are cheaper than the internet cafes. The internet cafes run nearly $2.5 an hour.

. There is no wireless, anywhere.
You can buy computers/computer parts here... Though they are a great deal more expensive than what the average Russian can afford.
Entertainment in Russia is less computer/TV centered than in the US.
Russians (at least historically) were really into reading/literature... though I feel that that is being replaced by the TV.
Russians go to movies. We have two theaters in Vladimir. Movies cost about $1.5-2 for a matinee, and about $6 for evening showings. Due to the cost, movies are also not too terribly popular.
Cell phones are very popular. Everyone has a cellphone.
Cell phones also act as a status symbol. Russians spend a considerable amount of money on cell phones. In the 7 minute walk from here (the Internet cafe) to my house, I will pass atleast 6 places that sell cellphones.
All of the cellphones are imported... I would estimate that Nokia (a Finnish firm) is the most popular. The cheapest cellphones go for about $45 (that's the one I got). And calling plans seem less popular than pay-as-you-go. Beeline is the best firm in Vladimir (also the one I got).
They also charge you to call a cellphone from a house phone.
To call another cellphone is about $.28 for the first minute.... So calling is not as popular as SMS (text messaging) that cost around $.05. My cellphone (like most of them) can type in Latin letters or Cyrillic (Russian) letters.
If you are coming to Russia to study, I would suggest that it is better to buy your cellphone in Russia, than in the US. First, not all (most) US phones will not work in Russia. Secondly, having a phone that types in Russian is very important.
My phone's settings (and all Russian phones' settings) can be switched between Russian and English.
A lot of people are hesitant to give out their house numbers, so cellphones typically act as the basis of communication.
So, I hope that clarifies some of technology in Russia!

Monday, February 12, 2007


The internship opportunities in Vladimir are rather few and far between. Though I managed to finally find something: Я работаю на стройке (I am working construction)!
This is exciting for a number of reasons. For one, I work with a bunch of guys who are my friends. So it is really not that bad spending eight-ten hours with a group of ones' pals.
All of the guys are immigrants from Uzbekistan. They take tremendous delight that an American wants to learn from them. They are also thrilled by the Uzbek phrases that I have learned.
When I proposed to the foreman, Komil, that I be his intern, he seemed really excited. He is apparently a master of tile work.
What I do all day is slab concrete on the bottom of tiles, and hand them to the master. I also get the privledge of running up and down three stories of stairs to fetch wet concrete.
I typically also eat lunch and dinner with the workers. They (the Uzbeks) eat everything with their hands... They never use forks, etc.
They are also tremendously patriarchial. The lone woman that lives with at the construction site cooks and cleans. I don't think that she is allowed to leave the house.
Uzbekistan is a muslim country. Though they are really like Muslim-light. They eat pork and drink beer (and vodka only on holidays). They always say prayer after eating/drinking (even after drinking beer). Only the senior members of the community are allowed to drink or smoke. The younger ones (in their 20s) are not.
They are also much more into formality. Older persons (even if they are only a month older) are always addressed using the formal "Вы" (the equivalent of "you"). Whereas younger persons are spoken to using informal "Ты" (the equivalent of "thee"). Also, children refer to their parents using the formal. As wives also speak to their husbands using the formal, though husbands speak to their wives using the informal.
I am allowed to use the informal ("Ты") with everyone.
Last night I was invited to a wedding feast at the construction site. The wedding was for the sister of one of the workers. Since the workers couldn't attend the wedding (the wedding was in Uzbekistan) they decided to make their own celebration.
There were about 10 Uzbek guys, and one other American (I brought him with me). The two Americans got the "places of honor" to sit at the dinner table.
The event consisted of lots of food (mostly all rice based), vodka and dancing. The Uzbeks impressed me by their tremendous hospitality. They also impressed me by their sincerity in speech. Really, the Uzbeks are fun to spend time with.
***I hope to upload some pics soon!***

Friday, February 09, 2007


Russia is a mixed bag of opportunities. For Russians, there really aren't that many tremendous opportunities (that I have seen). I have heard that the number of people studying at the higher levels in academia have fallen-off in recent years... What the point of getting (the equivalent of) a PhD if you will only be making a couple hundred dollars a month?
I have a good friend, who upon completing her pedagogical degree (in being a teacher of English, German and Russian), found that there were no jobs available for a candidate with such qualifications. She ended up moving to Denmark to work as an au pair.
Her friend, who had the same qualifications, had done the same (moved to Denmark to work as an au pair) the month before.
I think that Americans may (incorrectly) suppose that there are many opportunities here, after reading about the multi-million dollar oligarchs in Russia. These oligarchs are an extreme minority in Russia.
Though, there are many Americans that come to Russia for business. Americans even come to Vladimir for business!
Last night I met up with Mat Cote, an American who owns a construction firm based in Seattle. He is here doing building inspections for insurance companies and banks. He only arrived two weeks ago, and he has found that business here is really good.
Of course, specialized skills always pay better (i.e. an astrophysicist has a greater value in the marketplace than does someone with a BA in philosophy).
To give an idea of what a job in the Russian world pays, let me give a couple of anecdotal stats: I have a friend in Kyiv, who is completing her degree in Business Admin. At the university that she attends in Kyiv, classes are taught only in English. She speaks English, Ukrainian and Russian at the translator level. She wrote me a very excited email telling me that she was was looking to sign-on with a company that would pay her $150 a month. This was big money.
Additionally, a teacher in Vladimir was telling me that the going salary was about $200 a month. Though a teacher in Siberia makes about $120 a month. A principal in Siberia makes around $180 a month. And a pensioneer (retiree) makes around $150 a month.
So, as I said, it's a mixed bag.
HEY: As I write this, the clerk in the internet cafe is berating a customer for shortchanging the cafe 16 cents. Oh, it looks as if they're going to fight. There is going to be some free entertainment!
I have to go,

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Scholarships (spending other peoples' money)

For all of the students who have sent me e-mails/facebook notes, asking about financial aid/scholarships/fellowships, etc, I have worked hard, and found answers to your questions! Actually, I sent an e-mail to Alissa Bibb of the American Council's Outbound Office, and she did me the tremendous favor of directing me to the below link:
http://www.acrussiaabroad.org/pbRLASPFinancialAid.php .
I have very little to add to what the above link states.
It is true that I won scholarships for this program. And if I can win a scholarship, I think that everyone should give it a shot! Really, give it a shot, you have nothing to lose.
Please e-mail me if you know of any other scholarships... I will post whatever I hear.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Convenience of Moscow

*** Hey! I wanted to start my article by thanking all of you who continue to read my blog/online-article! Readership is doing really well, and I am delighted by the e-mails that I am getting! Please keep sending questions that you think would be interesting to have answered, or discussed.
I've gotten a good number of e-mails regarding funding/scholarships/grants for study abroad programs. I am doing some research, and will post on that topic in the near future!
Please keep telling others about this site! Thanks! Jason
One of greatest conveniences of life in Vladimir, is that Moscow is a mere 2/5 hours away (depends on if you take the train or the bus). And so, if you have the crazy urge to visit the concrete (literally, it's like the only building material used) capitol of Russia, it is an easy trip.
Yesterday I took that easy trip. A friend of mine, Nastja, was moving to Denmark, and she asked if I could make the journey with her to Sheremetyevo 2 (Moscow's central airport).
In a great stroke of luck, I also have a good American friend who was in Moscow yesterday.
I met my Vladimirite friend, Nastja, yesterday morning, and we took the 0900 train to Moscow. Arriving at Kurskii Vokzal, we then headed to Ploshad' Revolutsia (its in the middle of the city, next to the Kremlin).
We met my American friend, Anastazia (despite the name, she is not Russian) and her British colleague Alice, in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Both have just recently finished their Maters in Russian Political Studies, at the London School of Economics.
We did the touristy walking about Red Square, and then we toured the Armory. I had not been to the Armory before, but thanks to Anastazia (she had the tremendous foresight to buy a ticket for Nastja and I before we arrived), I got the chance to see it.
There are such tremendous treasures there. There are lots of icons, dresses, crown jewels, and (most famously) the Faberge Eggs.
After touring about the museum, and catching-up with my former George Mason University classmate Anastazia, we went to lunch.
We (suprisingly) found a reasonably priced restaurant not more than a 15 minute walk from Red Square.
After a fairly typical Russian lunch, Nastja and I had to split so that she could catch her flight to Copenhagen.
I had planned to meet Anastazia and Alice after the trip to the airport, but we didn't manage to connect.
Well, Nastja and I got to the end of the Metro's Green Line, where she then caught a marshutka to the airport.
I then took the metro back to Kurskii Vokzal. After a while there, I boarded a bus back to Vladimir. We made it to Vladimir in only 3 hours!!!
It is nice that Moscow is close, though we are not a suburb. There are so many cool opportunities here!
More later,

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Vladimir: Vital Statistics

Recently I discovered that the newspaper Molva lists statistics for the city of Vladimir everyday.
Vladimir has a population of only about 314,000 (about the same size as Buffalo, New York). Between January 29-30, all of the below occurred:
- 8 traffic accidents: 6 deaths, 5 injuries
- 11 fires: 1 death
- 55 burgluraies
- 5 suicides
- 5 disappearances
- 15 counterfit bills were fouund
- 24 bodies, without ID, were found

What do the stats tell us? That the FSB (the Russian FBI/CIA) is doing a good job on fighting counterfiting! Think: You are more likely to find a body than a counterfit bill! I now feel much more secure about my finances in Russia.
Really, these numbers (according to one of my fellow students who is a cop in Denver) are not as bad as the numbers for Denver, Colorado.
Vladimir is a very safe city. The only two fears I have living here are: The stray dogs and the drivers (they don't yield for anyone).
Other than those two concerns, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Vladimir to people. DC, the capitol of the most powerful nation in the history of the world, is a far more dangerous place than Vladimir.
I will post more later,

Thursday, February 01, 2007

New Semester

So, the new semester has begun! We have a wide variety of new students. There are new students from the University of Kansas, Notre Dame, Georgetown and West Point.
It is exciting to see the various levels at which they speak Russian. When I came, I am certain, my Russian was worst than most of theirs. But to imagine how far I've come, in just a few months, is pretty invigorating.
Also, to see what they struggle with (i.e. life with a family that you had never seen, until you arrived) is also pretty funny. Russia is one very big "growing experience" on several levels!
I have a new classes this semester: writing. It looks as though it should be a great class.
I have the same teachers as last semester, which is a blessing. All of the teachers are true professionals. To teach Russian to a foreigner must be the most stressful job in the world... But they are always so patient and helpful. They all understand what areas of the language are the most difficult for us.
Also (remember the classes are taught only in Russian) the teachers are temendously skilled at explaining difficult concepts of the language, using vocabulary that can be understood by the students.
I am also pleased that our Residential Director, Tom, is back. I went with Tom and the new group as they toured the city on their second day here. He showed them the Post Office, the school, the bus stops, the train station, etc. He spent hours with them and answered all of their questions and concerns... As he had done when we arrived in September.
Tom is also tremendously patient. Seeing as how he is forced to deal with such minutia everyday (i.e. "My host lady makes me eat too much, what should I do?") I am impressed that he manages to sincerely answer everyones' questions.
Tom also gets to deal with students who may very well not be too prepared for life in Russia (i.e. "Tom, I need to buy a coat. I didn't think it was going to be so cold in Russia.") The patience he has is remarkable.
Tom also tried to convince me to go to the hospital after getting mugged. Actually, Tom has been asking me how I am doing for everyday of the past week.
Tom deserves a medal.
In other news, I am trying to find an internship for this semester here in Vladimir. I will let you all know how the search goes.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Getting Robbed

So, I got robbed last night...
Last night I celebrated my 22nd birthday with a few people in my apartment. As the night got late, everyone started to head home.
One of my friends asked if I would walk her to the center to get a taxi. Having walked to the center, I got her a cab, and she left.
Alone, I went to one of the few stores open at 0330. Inside there were 3 young Russian who were all very excited to have met an American. Discovering that it was my birthday, we all had a couple of drinks together.
Soon after, I decided to take a taxi home. I figured, "Well, it is a about -14 degrees (Celsius) today, I might as well take a taxi. The ride will cost less than $2."
Well, on the way home the driver decided to rob me.
My memories of the whole night are few and far between... It is what a blow to the head will do to you.
I distinctly remember refusing to give him my money... And lots of yelling... Then everything got black.
My host lady found me laying in the hallway. I don't remember how I got home, or locking/bolting the door, but I did.
I assume that it was a bit of a primitive instinct to get home, no matter what. Had I been laying unconscious on the street for the night, I would have certainly gotten frostbite.
I have a concussion. And I am pretty bruised all-over. I had a ton of cash stolen, my credit cards, a bank card, and my cell phone.
When I woke-up the next morning, I had slept for about 11 hours (I normally sleep 7-8) and I still felt exhausted... It felt like I had not slept in a week.
I went to the police station, with a friend, to file a report. After two hours at the station, they concluded that nothing could be done (as I don't remember the make of car, the driver's name, etc).
My host told my neighbor what had happened to me. The neighbor is an elderly woman who kept saying, "the Russians are good people... He was just a bad apple."
Initially I agreed with her. On the whole I like Russians. Though I personally like the minorities in Russia more than the majority (in Russia, all but one of my friends, is either Catholic, Jewish, Polish, Uzbekhs, European or African).
Of course, I would still strongly encourage people to study in Russia. Granted, I am the third person (in my group of 12 Americans) to be robbed in less than 4 months, but their are robberies and muggings in DC, too. I remember that someone got robbed at knife-point on GMU's campus just last year.
I will say that the ACTR (the organizer of my study abroad program) has expressed quite a bit of concern for my well-being. This morning my director was trying to force me to the hospital (I won't go). He seems legitimately concerned and took (what sounded like) copious notes as we talked over the phone.
I hope that you avoid such enlightening cultural experiences...
*** This is a rewrite of the article which I wrote yesterday. Yesterdays, like today's, may suffer from some incoherence... But that's what concussions are like!