P1150473.jpg My opportunity to visit Russia is very difficult to explain in just words alone. Spending six weeks in Moscow and St. Petersburg was one of the more defining moments of my life.

In Russia I had countless opportunities to witness Russian culture firsthand. I got to meet the famous Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli, president of the Russian Academy of Art, and compliment him in Russian; view an opera at the Bolshoi Theater; see a modern dance ballet of the Pushkin work Onegin at a magnificent theater older than the United States itself; go to a backyard theater performance in downtown Moscow with Russian locals singing and dancing together with actors; party until dawn at the infamous Russian club Propaganda; visit Red Square at midnight with Russian friends to have fun and be silly; visit Leo Tolstoy’s estate; visit Tsarist palaces in St. Petersburg giving Versailles a “run for its money”; eat Uzbek and Georgian food; and visit countless museums of Russian art that breathe life into the meaning of Russian culture.

The language

At Moscow State University (MSU), I was challenged to learn more advanced levels in Russian than I had previously studied at SMU. Although I have only taken a year in Russian, during my free time I would practice Russian conversation with my Russian and Ukrainian friends living in Texas, practice writing sentences to improve my grammar, but I didn’t really understand how much my Russian improved until I was conversing liberally with my Russian friend when I returned to Texas. Four hours of Russian each day was very arduous and tenuous, but it pushed me to my limits in speaking and listening comprehension.

I was very thankful for the patience of my MSU professor, Elena Borisovna. I felt very blessed to have an instructor who had a good sense of humor and genuinely enjoyed her job. Although it was difficult to translate some concepts into English, upon returning to America, I realized that my Russian literally improved exponentially. I have a clear understanding on how to grasp learning the Russian language without becoming stressed by its peculiarities relative to English.

Avant-garde art

IMG_3050.jpg Through my culture class I learned interesting things about Russian art. Museums I visited included Tretiakov Gallery, Hermitage, Pushkin’s Museum, Mayakovsky Museum (photo right, with Professor Zimakova), Artist’s House (Dom Khudozhnika), Tsereteli’s Gallery and other galleries and exhibits. There was also incredible art in the cathedrals and churches. I conducted a project on the avant-garde movement, which includes cubo-futurism, suprematism, and artists such as Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich, Burliuk, and Mayakovsky.

IMG_2648.jpg In Russia, a writer is more than a writer and an artist is more than an artist. An artist in Russia reflected the sentiments of the Russian culture. The avant-garde movement reflected the revolutionary culture brewing. It concentrated on the themes of flight, speed, and dynamism. It moved beyond art that was deemed “bourgeois” and representative of the elite. Much of it was utilitarian and functional and disregarded the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. (Photo left: At the exhibit “Artists of Volga region”)

Avant-garde artists wanted to move forward to revolution, but the Bolsheviks eventually banned their art. Much of their expectations became a disappointment, a testament to the reality that many Russians felt years after the abdication of the czar. The revolution that promised egalitarianism, reform, and equality resulted in totalitarianism and persecution.

Moscow connections

Although becoming freely conversational in Russian was a high achievement, I think my favorite aspect was befriending the Russian people themselves. In Moscow, I met wonderful people. I met a journalism student, Masha, who was full of life and energy who rode motorcycles to the Ukraine and halted down “gypsy cabs” without falter.

I met a young upcoming journalist, Misha, who has created an avid career in interviewing celebrities such as musicians, the cast of Star Trek, and even my aunt who is a screenwriter in Los Angeles! (After, of course, we established a friendship). I liked so-called kitchen parties with my new friends. The concept of inviting someone to your kitchen and talking about everything is something that I can readily relate to.

During my free time, I took the liberty to attend an Anglican Church on Sundays, the only one in Moscow (and the only one in Moscow whose architecture is Gothic). Being Episcopalian, we are part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The church there is a member of the Community of Cross and Nails, which is a powerful symbol of reconciliation and peace established after World War II after the city of Coventry was reduced to rubble by German bombs.

During my time, I meditated on the meaning of religious freedom that we take for granted in the United States (that wouldn’t have existed 20 years ago in the Soviet Union). I also thought of Russian human rights journalists, such as Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova, who died for defending human dignity against the abuses of the Russian and Chechen governments.

At the church, I met several Russian people whom I befriended, including a young man named Victor in his 20s who was delighted to meet an American person his age. He and his friends Lina and Oksana were very gracious, and our friendship grew. That afternoon, Victor took Oksana and me to a pond in Northwest Moscow, where we rowed a boat and discussed life. One afternoon, Lina invited me to a social gathering at the German embassy.

Friendships such as these are invaluable, and establishing relationships with others in foreign countries will last a lifetime. I haven’t met another culture that’s as lively as the Russian culture. They take pride in family, friendships, and relationships.

Deep ties

P1150475-1.jpg At the end of the trip, I felt nostalgia from the similarities of Russian culture that mirror my family. The directors of the program celebrated our completion of the program through music and champagne.

When Arthur Baishev, director of the MSU Center for Russian Language and Culture, brought out his guitar to sing Russian folk tunes, I felt nostalgia for a past that never occurred in my lifetime: my late grandfather, whom I never met (whose mother came from Russia), would always bring out his mandolin and sing a song with the entire family.

Music has been an important part of my life and in my family, and the Russians come together and sing. Despite their turbulent history, they find a reason to get up in the morning and just sing. Whenever I visit my family in Los Angeles, I see elements of Russian culture through the value of family and friendships, hosting a music party just to sing and enjoy life, and cooking gollubsy (a Russian dish of meat and potatoes wrapped in cabbage) during Christmastime.

I have never felt an emotional connection for another country like I have for Russia. In 6 weeks, I fell in love with Moscow, St. Petersburg, the peculiarities of daily life, and the people. My glimpse of Russia in America is through my professor, Tatiana, and my Russian and Ukrainian friends with whom I practice speaking Russian. Studying Russian culture in Russia has dramatically crumbled any stereotypes I had about this country. I plan to pursue my minor in Russian Area Studies.

This fall, I am taking a Russian language class, as well as a history class in Soviet and Post Soviet society, and if I had all the time in the world, I would study in St. Petersburg for a semester. I am not sure how my career goals will go. I plan to become a lawyer. Even if I do not come to Russia for professional reasons, I would love to have the opportunity to take my family and friends to Moscow and St. Petersburg and to show them these cities.

If you want global awareness and understanding of different cultures, don’t go to Western Europe. Western Europe is great and has its own rich culture and history, but nowhere as been more misunderstood by Americans than Russia, which is a continuation of the Cold War era. Russians and Americans have ideas about each other. I had an expectation of what Russia would be like. But you will never understand the culture and the people if you never visit.

The No. 1 rule when visiting a different culture and a strikingly different country, do not make any assumptions. My advice is for everyone to just go – go to Russia – get your hands messy – make mistakes – have fun – but most important, leave behind all baggage, material and immaterial, and open your heart. From Russia With Love.