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 . 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 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: .
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.