It’s all over. That’s it. My semester in Voronezh has officially come to an end. I’ve seen new places, met every type of person imaginable and learnt a million and one new things over the last few months and I can’t wait to share my stories with you. I’m coming home!!!!
It’s been a stressful few weeks because the weather was terrible and planes were cancelled, making my journey home a lot more complicated than I expected it to be. Luckily everything worked out just fine, so now I’m on my way back to the UK and ready to reflect on my Russian adventure!
First things first, I passed my exams. I think exams is probably the wrong word here as all I did was conjugated some verbs, wrote an essay and had a 5 minute chat with my teacher – I received marks above 80 in everything and I’m starting to think that miracles really do happen. Oh dear, I can hear all of my Erasmus friends screaming in outrage and giving me lectures about how hard their lives are and how unfair it is that we get marked so highly in Russia – but none of this actually counted towards my degree, so…
I still have a 3000 word essay to write in Russian on a specialised topic, along with some undoubtedly hard exams to sit next semester in Madrid. So to end the debate about who’s experience is the hardest/most beneficial then I think the answer is EVERYONE’S. Let’s all agree that no matter where we are in the world or what we’re up to the experience is equally as crazy, stressful and amazing. MLES 4ever xxxxxx
So, I’m going to attempt to answer the question that I know a million people (and by a million people I mean my Mom and Grandma) are about to ask me as soon as I touch down in the UK:
So, what’s Russia really like then?
I have to be honest when I write these blogs and the one thing I will say is that your experience in Russia will depend, number 1 – on where you go and, number 2 – the kind of person you are. Moscow was a dream. I loved it. There are signs of progress there and things seem to be going in the right direction. Like St. Petersburg, it has European elements and you do start to feel at home pretty quickly. There are gay bars, various religious places of worship and tons of culture. It’s just a shame that, for me, Voronezh didn’t even come close. Some people get annoyed when I say that parts of Russia are ‘backward’ but that’s not going to stop me from expressing my opinion on my own blog.
For me, freedom of speech doesn’t really exist, there’s too much propaganda in the media and out dated/unfair beliefs dominate society… I have never been more thankful to grow up in the UK in my life. This is where the type of person you are plays a large role. If you’re a straight, white, middle class human being then you’ll have no problem in Russia. People don’t realise I’m half Indian so, admittedly, I did get categorised into this group. It doesn’t stop there though, because even if you’re straight, white and middle class BUT you speak up about things that upset you and don’t conform to others around you then you’ll start to encounter problems.
I’ve never been the kind of person to take injustice on the chin. If someone slams homosexuality then I’ll defend it until I have no voice left. Love is just love, the world can only be improved by an increase of it. I don’t understand how people fail to see that. When I heard racist remarks, my blood boiled. When people made sexist comments I had to count to 10 in my head to stop myself blurting something worse out. It’s sad because even our teachers participated in this. One even pulled his eyes sideways to represent Chinese culture and made curry jokes about me (Potentially acceptable from my best friends, not so much from a teacher). The most frustrating part was constantly being called ‘beautiful’ in the same sentence that the boys would always be called ‘intelligent’; why can’t males and females be BOTH of these things? Physical appearance was the be all and end all – people forgot that there was actually a brain and a personality to consider as well. Even at social gatherings the girls seemed to be there solely as ‘eye candy’ and people to flirt with. Responding to this can actually be a pretty dangerous move in Russia because, as Jenny found out, some Russian guys get attached quickly and start to see you as ‘theirs’ and no one else’s. Not responding also had negative effects as they said things like ‘Why not? You don’t even have a boyfriend.’ and ‘You’re boring’. If you want my advice, I think the second option is the safest bet.
Also, I only I met about 2 people that were comfortable with homosexuality. Even those that said they didn’t care about being friends with gay people still held the view that it was wrong and they were uncomfortable with the idea of same sex marriage.
I didn’t see people of colour anywhere outside of the university walls and when I did they were actually receiving verbal or physical abuse on the street.
Finally, I don’t think I met a single woman who had broken her ‘stereotype’ or wanted more for herself than to just be what society expected her to be and I met no men that backed the movement for equality of the sexes. I think my heart broke a bit when I was teaching an all-girl class and they told us that growing up in Russia as a woman is one of the hardest things to do because marriage, motherhood and housework defined them. The girls all belonged to different cliques and were actually quite bitchy towards each other during class, but the one thing that united them was a unanimous desire for more freedom and a place for women in society.
This is the reality. I’m not going to sugar coat the truth just because it’s a controversial topic. Some people might go to Russia and think ‘I didn’t even notice it because it didn’t really affect me. Oh well, there were a few problems but I’m not that bothered because I get to go home at the end of it’ and just focus on the fact that they had an awesome time (which I can’t deny is true – I’ve had so much fun). But I just can’t shake the thought that Russia IS home for a lot of these people on the receiving end of injustice. What are they supposed to do? Put yourself in their position just for 2 seconds and you’ll realise why I think it’s worth speaking up about. The more we just accept or ignore and think ‘yeah it’s bad but what can we do?’ about these things then the longer they’ll carry on for. Even people that I called my ‘friends’ there still had days when their comments would leave me feeling really disappointed. If you aren’t willing to change your beliefs – fine, but don’t make other people’s lives miserable by acting on them.
I know a lot of you will tell me that this happens all over the world. I’m not disputing that at all, but I still wanted to share my thoughts and create some awareness about MY experience of Russia. It wasn’t a completely negative one though. This is from Russia with Love after all, so moving on from the small list of things that drove me crazy and onto the things that actually reaffirmed my complete love of life. THIS is the magic of Russia:
- It’s a really interesting country. There’s so much to see and do and you can experience bustling cities, endless countryside or snow-capped mountains all on a single train journey. It makes for great photographs and that I often found myself in that blissful ‘I love life’ mood.
- I felt like my time in Russia was pretty unique. How often do you get to spend 4 months living somewhere like that? People in the UK always seem really impressed when I say I study Russian too, so just for the added ‘cool points’ I give it a thumbs up, even if it is a bit shallow.
- I got a LOT out of the experience. I always love places that help me grow as a person and push the boundaries of my comfort zone.
3 things I’ve learnt:
- I don’t care for networking.
I do understand the importance of making contacts and meeting new people who can open doors for you – I’m down with that. But I think there’s a fine line between making contacts and USING people and I’m not really willing to cross it. If I like someone and get good vibes then I will work on the relationship. If I don’t like someone then I won’t fake it just because they can offer me something superficial. Job opportunities, free things, invites to social events – I’ve watched people around me cling on to others for these opportunities. Hey, I think a few years ago I’d probably have been doing the same but I just don’t have time for that anymore. My friends are overwhelmingly fantastic, I want to be able to offer them something that’s totally real and not waste time spreading myself too thin amongst people I secretly dislike. So yes, I’m leaving Russia with only a handful of new friends but I can assure you that they are worth a million ‘networks’ – you’re gonna love them!
- My Russian is so much better.
Being able to understand people’s phone conversations, read street signs/shop signs, write text messages and actually respond with coherent Russian sentences when people ask me a question is something that I never thought I would be able to do. Seriously! Even though I’ve been studying the language for 2 years now I always found classes really hard and was barely scraping 2.1’s in the exams so I just thought I was doomed forever. Something magical has happened though and thanks to the university classes in Voronezh and living with a host family, I’m finally on my way to achieving my goal of being tri-lingual!
- My lifestyle = my choice.
I figured this one out a long time ago but living in Russia just re-affirmed it even further. I don’t necessarily live my life like every other 20 year old but that’s totally ok. I don’t smoke and this put me in the minority in Russia. We had to have regular stops for people to light up/buy cigarettes, my clothes needed washing pretty much every day due to stale smoke and there’s only so much fun you can have inside alone when everyone else is on the balcony. I quickly realised that there was no right or wrong answer, it’s just a personal choice and I had no right to stop someone from smoking so I just had to make the decision to distance myself if I didn’t like it. Simple. I also didn’t really drink much and that proved to be a lot more difficult than I imagined it to be. Okay there were occasions when I’d done a shot and ended up giggling uncontrollably (#lightweightprobz) but most of the time I went for a polite ‘No thank you’. Unfortunately, in Russia, this is an insult. At social gatherings people couldn’t get their head around why I could possibly not want to drink (If I have enthusiastically performed every dance routine from High School Musical completely sober then do you really want to force alcohol on me?!). I kind of alienated myself, I’ll admit it, but it got to the point where ALL anyone was offering was ‘Hey, wana drink beer at our flat/smoke shisha/go to a bar?’ and I started to go insane. Staying in watching Russian ‘Dancing on ice’ with a 10 year old and baking apple cake with my host mom actually proved to be a better use of my time… No regrets!
- I’m also coming home with an open mind and an open heart towards Russia. Ok, there were people that I couldn’t stand but there were also people that I loved and not every Russian is a vodka-loving, cold hearted, fur wearing supporter of war. Just because the media in the UK and US only really broadcasts the stereotypes doesn’t mean you should believe their every word. There are two sides to every story!
- My host family – I’m going to miss them so much. In fact they were the best part of my entire Russian experience. I somehow got placed with the most kind hearted and wonderful humans: Grandma and Grandad – Julie and Vanya, Daughter – Anya and Grandson – Andrei, plus an array of other family members who popped in and out daily! SO. MUCH. RUSSIAN. PRACTICE! I understand that not everyone has a great host family experience so I will never stop being thankful for that stroke of good luck. After being waited on 24/7 with 3 meals a day, constant laundry service and room cleaning for half the price of my rent in Bath, I think it’s going to be a real shock waking up in the morning and have to make my OWN breakfast again. Noooooooooo!
- The university have been great! They let us travel so much and they organised some fantastic excursions. They’re pretty democratic too, you can basically choose what you want to study and if you don’t want to do something you can just say it. The only thing they don’t appreciate is a lack of effort – one guy from Bath studying in Voronezh didn’t show up to any lessons and sat 0 exams! WHY he came to Russia I have no idea but hey, some people make ridiculous life decisions and then they pay for their mistakes by not being able to speak the language they are studying at degree level… (Yes, I’m throwing shade. No, I don’t care.)
- One word: Cheburashka. Doesn’t mean anything to you? Okay, watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Xrr9mcdFvw
- Finally, and most importantly, they sell big bars chocolate filled with jelly babies and popping candy for less than £1. If that’s not a reason to love this country then I don’t know what is.
Aaaaaand, that’s all folks. Thanks for being there with me every step of the way! It’s been a rollercoaster of ups and downs but now it’s actually over I can honestly say that I’m going to miss it. Russia will always have a special place in my heart ❤