https://www.duolingo.com/profile/ClarkStephen

Ramblings from an American in Russia

Greetings fellow Duolinguists (sounded better than Duolingoers),

I'm sitting here in Parnas on the north side of Saint Petersburg, in my sister-in-law's kitchen. The clock reads 11:10 PM and it's just starting to get dark. I don't feel like going to bed yet, so I thought I might ramble on a bit about the trip so far.

I was thinking today that I've lost track of how many times I've been to Russia and how much time I've spent here. I'd have to pull out my passport and start counting stamps to be sure. But a few things struck me about what I've experienced.

The first is that it seems to me that relations between the United States and Russia are at the lowest point that they've been since the cold war. I'm not going to write about politics but I want to point out the leaders of a country (any country) are not the same as the people of that country. In my experience Russians are friendly and open and funny. They love their kids and want a better life for them. They love to read and discuss ideas. So come to Russia. I have not had one bad interaction with Russians because of being an American ... not even with government officials at customs, etc.

Some things strike me about Russia. One is that most Russians will give up their seat on a crowded subway for a pregnant woman or an elderly man or woman. But put a Russian behind the wheel of a car and they run down that same pregnant woman and old folk to make it through an intersection before the light turns red.

Another thing is how quickly knowledge of English falls off as you move away from the tourist spots. Most of the Russians I've met fall into one of two camps: they speak multiple languages really well (my wife speaks eight) or they are as monolingual as your average American. Last year a woman working in a spa near Ushkovo literally ran away from me because I asked her if she spoke English (hey, my accent wasn't that bad). So I suggest that - unless you are really, really fluent in Russian - you come here on a tour. Or else you can marry a Russian as I did (your choice).

Signs are not much better. You will find both English signs and speakers in those tourist spots I mentioned earlier, but that only gets you so far. For example, the other day we went to a concert of youth orchestras (fantastic!) at the Mariinsky Concert Hall. We took the metro to the closest stop. In the metro signs (and announcements) are in English and Russian. Also I didn't leave my luggage in the metro so there went my chance to use that sentence. But to get from the metro to the concert hall we took a mini-bus. Good luck navigating those without fluent Russian. The signs are all in Russian and they only stop for a few seconds so nobody is going to wait while you try to remember how to say, "Does this bus go to Mariinsky".

Another thing about the signs in Russian: they are often written using cursive fonts. Duolingo isn't much help there. That's my next project when I get home: getting my wife to write me notes in cursive so I can practice. (Edit: see comment by LICA98 below for clarification)

One more thing I've noticed: Americans can't really appreciate what the experience of World War II means in the Russian psyche. This is due partly because we (Americans) fought it "over there". In Russia, the war was brought to them. Horrible, horrible things happened (read about the Siege of Leningrad if you want to be chilled to the bone) and there were also incredible acts of bravery (again connected to the siege, read about the Road of Life). We lost 419 thousand Americans in WW2. Over 20 million Russians lost their lives (and that's the low estimate).

The other night we went to the Oktyabrsky Concert Hall to hear the Kuban Cossack Chorus (directed by 80 year old Viktor Zakharchenko). At various points in the program they sang patriotic songs from WW2. Each time the audience rose as one and stood with tears in their eyes. Even I was crying.

We have no experience like it in the U.S. At its best, this is a patriotism that expresses deep love of country and victory that comes from many diverse peoples working together to overcome an outside aggressor. At its worst it is a "the whole world is against us" mindset that can be exploited by politicians.

I really think that I'm falling in love with the people of Russia (not just my wife). I look forward to many more trips if our leaders can behave. If I come often enough, maybe some day I'll even discover the answers to two questions that have so far eluded me: where I can get a decent cup of coffee and why Russian men over 50 like to wear fishing vests when they aren't going fishing.

Best of luck in your language journeys

June 1, 2018

36 Comments

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https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Helena295273

I am really glad that you got to see Russia beyond all that political whatever.

WWII was a big tragedy for us, so we still remember. For instance, Belarus (aka White Russia) has lost a quarter of its total population. If you write down the names of your relatives and friends, from babies to elderly, and then cross out every fourth of them, you could imagine how it feels. There were 16 concentration camps in Belarus alone, 300 villages were burnt down as a result of fascists' punitive actions, in some of them all people were either shot to death or burnt alive. 20 years after the war we still were digging out old bombs. And it took more than 30 years for my family to locate my grandfather's grave. This is not something that can be easily forgotten.

As far as I could see each country mostly concentrates on their own WWII participation and experience, giving much less attention to other countries. For instance, while I remember learning about French Resistance in school, I know basically nothing about Greek Resistance, etc.

June 2, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/duogra

Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

To a much lesser degree, the British have the same issue understanding the European WWII experience. They never heard the gestapo knock at the neighbour's door. War was close enough that London got mightily bombed, but not so close that hearing German in everyday life could mean death.

And yes, the USSR was the steam roller that eventually stopped Hitler, there's no doubt about it. This steam roller's fuel was an endless supply of human lives. The sacrifice was inconceivably massive, and yet probably nothing much to think about in Stalin's head.

The gritty Russians went from medieval serfdom to totalitarian dictature to Mafia state. They never had a break.

June 2, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/PycLearner

I know what you mean about the cursive font, it's almost a second alphabet in itself.

June 2, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/1Pozin2

About coffee. Google, - Лучшие кофейни СПБ. But where can I get good coffee in America. I think local people don’t know what it is at all.

June 2, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/ClarkStephen

Ха ха. I knew I risked offending someone with my coffee comment. I was going for gentle teasing not an attack, but thank you for the coffee shop recommendation and have a lingot as part of my apology for impugning Russian coffee. :-)

June 3, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/1Pozin2

No offense at all. And I give you a lingo as a sign of friendship between the Russian in America and American in Russia.

June 3, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/AndroidKanada

THANKS! I'm headed to SPB shortly to see the place and check out language schools. Have 3 lingots!!

And an extra lingot to you both for being exemplars of civility.

July 6, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Theron126

Thanks for sharing. This sounds very familiar from my trips to Kazan - well, except the opportunity to hear the Kuban Cossack Choir live, which I envy you. Since, after all, they're a big part of what got me into learning Russian in the first place.

I was lucky in that on my first trip I stayed with a family who speak English not fluently, but well enough to communicate. By my second trip I spoke Russian a lot better and had a lot of friends from my first trip. If you ever come to Tatarstan, forget about decent coffee and learn to drink tea. I did, you can too :-)

June 2, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/ClarkStephen

Oh I do (drink tea that is). I was just teasing thinking of my wife's aunt's (as well as many other Russians) preference for instant coffee. See my exchange with 1Pozin2 in these comments on this subject.

June 3, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Theron126

Yeah, I understood that. I'm not sure if it's really a preference, or just that so few people actually drink coffee that coffee makers aren't a thing, so they don't know any other kind. Witness the fact that the one family I know that's lived in America is also the one family that has a coffee maker instead of drinking instant coffee.

June 3, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/P-Code

Удивительно! This is why I want to visit Russia. It will be a long time until I can since my family doesn't travel very much. But first chance I get, I want to travel there and experience as much of Russian culture as possible. I've heard that on New Year it's especially spectacular there, with many good foods and lots of people ice skating at VDNKh.

I hope that your trip goes well and that you have many more interesting experiences in Russia :)

June 2, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/susanstory

It's very interesting to me that you went to St. Petersburg because last week I got two small parcels in the mail from there. The parcels contained stuff I ordered from this website: http://www.flint-and-steel.com

http://www.flint-and-steel.com/about-us/our-story/

June 2, 2018

[deactivated user]

    i hate political stereotypes

    June 8, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/dogewithflowers

    you're always welcome in Russia :) i am really glad you like our country!

    June 3, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/nerienii

    Wonderful story. Thanks. A too the point question, . . . are you seeing many dark skinned faces there, as in people of African descent? Witnessing Russian behavior at football matches, and I do realize that this tends to be a particular segment of the population, but I have to always consider the question of a country's general attitude toward we darker skinned people. Any ideas or experiences there that you could share?

    June 5, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/oatmeal

    Here are some of my experiences: I worked in Russia for a few years, in both Moscow and in a smaller city (Tver). Many of my friends in Tver were medical students from South Asia and Kenya and Nigeria. They regularly were discriminated against. As an Eastern European woman who speaks Russian, there was a notable difference for me when I went to a cafe/grocery store/train station/wherever alone or with a white (Russian or non-Russian) friend vs when I went with one of my friends from South Asia or Africa. Significantly worse service and comments muttered under the breath. People would also shout from their cars at us when we went walking (which is a very popular pastime in Russia). Several of my Russian friends mentioned thinking that the African students, in particular, were rapists or otherwise inclined to rape merely because of their race/ethnicity. I was horrified and said as much.

    In Moscow, I worked with a centre providing medical care for African migrants and asylum seekers. They were regularly harassed on the streets and at least once a week, someone would come in bleeding or having been injured the night before and needing medical attention. This was mostly men who were getting beaten up (often in Metro stations and regularly around football matches as you pointed out). Women who had babies with them seemed to fare better. Older children (7-12) talked about being stared at on the streets and having Russian children refuse to play with them. The medical centre had a racial taskforce which surveyed the centre visitors (they could also come just to socialise and not receive medical attention) yearly on experiences of racism. I helped conduct several of the follow-up interviews and heard many awful stories.

    As a Muslim woman, who started wearing a headscarf part way through my time in Russia, there was also a notable difference in the way people treated me (compared to not being visibly Muslim). I noticed this especially on the Metro, when people would move away from me (even on a crowded car) and say unkind things, when men tried to pull off my scarf on the street, and in other instances. There are, however, many Russian citizens who are Muslim as well (particularly from Tatarstan, Chechnya, Dagestan) and, of course, many Russian women who wear a headscarf outdoors during the winter and into the Metro as there's quite a draft (though their scarves are tied a bit differently.) So there are "minority" religions in Russia (Buddhists too, in Buryatia, Protestants and Catholics, and some Jewish people as well). It should be said that many of those Chechens and Dagestanis, as well as people from Central Asian republics, face a lot of discrimination too within Russia. A comparison could be the kind of discrimination that many Latinx experience in the U.S.

    This is a long answer, I suppose, but in conclusion, I really liked Russia. I visited and then moved there, travelled through the country, spent a long time learning the language, and I have missed Russia daily since leaving a few years ago. The country is beautiful -- the landscapes amazing, and the hearts of the people are wonderful.

    June 6, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/ClarkStephen

    @nerienii. Oatmeal's account is consistent with what I have seen and heard.

    June 6, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/sple00

    I've only been in Russia 4 four times on vacations. As far as I've seen muslims are an accepted part of the society in many places. It might differ from city to city, some parts of Russia is more muslim than orthodox.

    Africans is a totally different thing though. I've heard and seen some very rude things in Russia. I will not even mention it. I don't know why some Russians are so rude to them, but they are. Some of them, not all.

    June 7, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/oatmeal

    I'm not sure how much time you spent talking with or interacting with Muslims living in Russia on those holidays. From my experience living in Russia for a few years and being a member of that minority, there's a significant amount of discrimination. Not in Chechnya (no problem with being Muslim there) and not in Tatarstan (where Kazan is located). I didn't spend time in Dagestan, but I'd think that it's fine there too since it's a Muslim-majority area. In those parts of Russia the majority of people are (culturally) Muslim and it's completely acceptable to practice Islam or be visibly Muslim. It is not so acceptable in smaller towns throughout the rest of regional Russia, and while it's a bit better in big cities (St. Petersburg, Moscow), there is still a problem of discrimination.

    It's not limited to Muslims though. It's with minorities. The same thing happens to (visibly) Jewish people (think Chabad-type style of dress). I had many friends in the Jewish community in which I lived in Tver. Their synagogue had been vandalised several times and men with payot (side curls) and kippot (head coverings) had been attacked on the street. Even the general perception of Jewish people is pretty terrible among Orthodox Christians in Russia ("Jews killed Christ") as well as among the Russian Muslim populations (due to assuming the actions of the Israeli government towards Palestinians reflect Judaism or what the Jewish people believe).

    This is also clear in the (legalised) discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in Russia. There's too much to go into here about that though. People being beaten up and left for dead, the State turning a blind eye...

    Again, you're right. Not all Russians believe terrible things about people who are different than them in one way or another. Many Russians don't. And this kind of discrimination (against ethnicity, religion, sexuality, etc) is not limited to Russia. I just wanted to give my perspective on living as a minority in Russia since this thread was about experiences in Russia.

    June 8, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/ClarkStephen

    I think nerienii raised an important question and I am very grateful to oatmeal for sharing her experiences with us. I noticed that her posts were getting down votes (which I tried to counteract). I think it is important to have this discussion. Russia is a huge country (11 time zones!) and ethnic Russians are only one of the peoples that make up the country. People from these other groups can all tell stories similar to those that oatmeal shared with us. I know my friends who are not ethnic Russians can.

    I have also seen behavior towards people of African descent similar to what sple00 has described.

    I also know that I am from a country (the USA) that was founded on the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the economic exploitation of Asians and which struggles in the present day with ongoing racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. This is not about "putting Russia down" (nor the USA for that matter). This is about the reality that we cannot move forward to a more just tomorrow if we don't acknowledge the truth of where we are today.

    The late great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote "I criticize America because I love her. I want her to stand as a moral example to the world."

    So oatmeal, I for one thank you for your comments and I heard you when you wrote in your first post "This is a long answer, I suppose, but in conclusion, I really liked Russia. I visited and then moved there, travelled through the country, spent a long time learning the language, and I have missed Russia daily since leaving a few years ago. The country is beautiful -- the landscapes amazing, and the hearts of the people are wonderful."

    June 9, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Alexey914898

    You should talk with the Chechnya Muslims about the rights of the LGBT ;-)

    June 9, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/1Pozin2

    You are absolutely right. Take a lingot.

    June 8, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Tim365626

    Спасибо за понимание и оценку американского в России!

    June 5, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/ptoro

    "Or else you can marry a Russian as I did (your choice)."

    Need more information on how to marry a Russian... for language learning purposes of course.

    June 3, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/1Pozin2

    It is easy. Go outside with a poster,- Я хочу учить русский язык и не только язык. And they will torn you to pieces, esppessially in a place like Parnas.

    June 3, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/ClarkStephen

    I know you two weren't talking about my wife and I but I feel I must comment here. There are match making services that hook up Russian women wanting to marry American men. It is one of those things that happen under certain economic conditions. I don't want to comment on that except to say that was NOT (repeat NOT) what happened between my wife and I. My wife was already a graduate student in the USA when I met her. She has four Masters degrees (and now a PhD) and was not looking for a husband. But we met and fell in love and the rest is history, or in our case our son Sasha. The quickest way to enrage my wife is to imply that she married me for US citizenship. Not that you were implying that, I just wanted to be clear in case she ever reads this!!! ;-)

    June 4, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/msgur

    ClarkStephen, most of those "services" are scams. there are a lot of videos about them https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_6H8Lrlulo. it is not so easy as you think. you are just lucky

    June 4, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Theron126

    I guess you'll just have to do it the hard way - visit Russia, get to know people, make friends, find a girl you like and who likes you, and ask her to marry you. Which was always the sensible way anyway.

    June 4, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/msgur

    Theron126, The thing is that not many of Russians know English. and most of women who know English and want to get married with foreigners are gold diggers. After they get to America (any western country), they leave the man. I think the best way to find a Russian wife is to seek her in your own country. There are a lot of Russian students in western countries

    June 4, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Theron126

    Oh, but she doesn't have to speak English or move to America, if you learn enough to court her in Russian and are willing to move to Russia yourself ^^

    Of course, that introduces a completely different set of difficulties. Among others the fact that she thinks you're completely off your rocker, and she's probably right.

    June 4, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/helloworld2015

    Может быть, много внимания у русских мужчин

    June 7, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/1Pozin2

    It interesting to know how Parnas looks right now. When I was there last time, maybe, 20 years ago, it was abandoned suburb, god forsaken place. All the mansions, cottages were destroyed during the revolution, even before WWII. It was an industrial zone without any infrastructure. Marshes, garbage dumps, kitchen gardens. Public transportations?! Don’t make me laugh. It was inhabited by poor people with high level of drunkness and criminality. Now, there is a big housing construction in Parnas. Maybe, it will be turn into a comfortable neighborhood. But there is a saying, - You can change the place, not the people. And I advice you stay at home in the dark.

    June 6, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/ClarkStephen

    It is a huge development: scores of "anthills" (the large apartment complexes) all new, new schools, playgrounds, shops, etc. Mostly young couples with kids. I walked the half kilometer from the metro to home at midnight feeling totally safe. And they are still building, building, building. I have no accurate of the current population, but I'm guessing it is in the tens of thousands.

    June 7, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/1Pozin2

    Glad to hear it.

    June 7, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/1GtW3

    dctv

    June 2, 2018
    Learn Russian in just 5 minutes a day. For free.