That’s a question I always get, and will continue to get in the foreseeable future. Even after almost two and a half years, it’s always hilarious to see Russians become incredulous when they meet a foreigner; they can’t believe that someone from America willingly comes to Russia. You’d think that I would have a comprehensive answer by now, and in a way I do. I just wanted to expand on the basic premises, because quite a few people feel a bit disappointed in the lack of details during our conversations.
The main reason I came to Russia was to experience the country while learning Russian (which has been a lot slower than I wanted, because I’m admittedly slacking off), as my concentration as an International Affairs major in college was on Russia and Eurasia. Especially over the last few years, the news you hear about Russia frankly isn’t very positive, and I believe that by living and working here, I can see more than what’s reported. And it’s been a real eye-opening experience for sure, as I’ve had firsthand experience that life is more or less normal, without the alleged hardships. There’s a paradox of sorts, as plenty of Muscovites/Russians absolutely love Western stuff (iPhones in particular) despite what I’ve heard to the contrary. I just want to point out this isn’t intended to be read as an anti-West commentary, but rather, as one young guy’s perspective. I’ve said this before and it bears repeating, but the more you travel, the more the rest of the world becomes more humanized, and Russia is no exception. Life here is vibrant, albeit cold, and I’ve found people to be rather welcoming once you spend time here.
For a country the size of Russia, you don’t hear a lot about their culture, which to me is shocking. After all, Russia has a rich, vibrant history, and the fact that it’s underrepresented is criminal. Thus, delving into it was one of my goals prior to applying for jobs. What I’ve found is that Russians love to read, which makes sense given their literary accomplishments. If you walk through the city, you’ll see plenty of statues and monuments to writers/poets, and several metro stations are named after them; my personal favorite is how Dostoevskaya has murals based upon the characters of the eponymous author. Every day on the way to and from work in the metro, I always see fellow passengers reading, whether on e-readers or good old fashioned paperbacks. Yet another example of this is how there are metro wagons decorated with literary quotes from Russian and Western authors alike, up to and including the Bard himself. Heck, every year there’s a book festival on Red Square! And in all honesty, I never would have expected to discover this if I merely read about Russia. Russian history is especially fascinating to me, and having had colleagues who can remember the Soviet period is fantastic. Obviously, what you read about back home doesn’t quite have the same prestige when compared to actually hearing anecdotes then seeing the remnants. Even one of my Russian teachers has gotten in on the act, as she occasionally sprinkles stories of her students from years ago. I’m just blessed to be able to immerse myself in Russia!
As for Russian music, yeah, I’m going to pass on that. Not that it’s not interesting, it’s perhaps too unique. My few forays into it led me to conclude that it’s lagging behind. As in, a good decade behind the rest of the music industry when it comes to style, panache, and quality. Granted, all the music videos friends have sent me were very limited, so I’m attributing this point to a small sample size. If, however, you’re up to date on the performers, Polina Gagarina is probably one you know, as she appeared in Europe’s (in)famous Eurovision contest. (Side note here: my friend/former colleague once taught her son during summer lessons. I regret not asking him more about her.)
On the topic of the language, yes, it’s difficult. Yes, I should be trying a wee bit harder, but still, it’s not easy to learn. In my specialized concentration in I.A., language is the key to forging a career analyzing the every-changing post-Soviet landscape, which is why I set a goal for myself to come away with at least an A2 level (A1 is the lowest on the Cambridge scale and C1 is the highest) of Russian. While that’s probably not going to happen for a bit, I’m at least happy to see some progress. During my last semester of college and especially during the months before departing for Moscow, I tried teaching myself some small things, which was difficult, to be honest; it’s genuinely hard to find books that either are easy to understand or up to date. Hence my goal of immersing myself in Russia, where I kinda need the language on a daily basis. The challenge can feel overwhelming at times, but at the end of the day, it is gratifying. Seeing some words, whether in the metro or in the stores, and having an “ah HA!” moment makes the struggle worth it. Though my atrociously American accent affects my ability to be understood, there’s been a decrease in miscommunication. So, something’s been working out. I wholeheartedly concede there are days where I wish everybody spoke English, but I do my best to take a larger view of things-short term struggles will, fingers crossed, lead to employment.
In conclusion, this (hopefully) was an eloquent enough explanation of why I chose Russia. There has never been a day where I’ve woken up and thought “Crap, why did I do this to myself?”. The country has been full of good surprises, and it’s absolutely been treating me well. So, cheers, Russia, you’re a good place.
As a bonus parting gift, here’s Vitas’ Seventh Element. Enjoy the weirdness: