We have now hit the half-way mark of my semester abroad in Moscow. Saying that feels crazy because in many ways I feel like I just got here (cliche, but the truth). I moved out of the Russian dorm and into to a new babushka’s home two weeks ago, and so I just recently felt settled in a single place and not living out of a suitcase. Not only do I feel settled in a better home environment, I am now much more comfortable in Moscow.
Things that have changed since January arrival:
CHANGE 1: I am now on autopilot-mode in the subway and on many bus routes. I don’t have to always look up what metro line or bus number I must take anymore as I have a better mental picture idea of where things are in the city. When I returned from St. Petersburg, I really felt like “wow, Moscow is my home right now” because I was relieved to be back in an area where I did not feel like a lost tourist. This change feels significant to me, but is not very unique.
CHANGE 2: I am more adjusted to the social atmosphere. When I first arrived I made myself a list of 10 things that surprised me in the first 48 hours. One of them was that people are much quieter and seemed almost passive/depressed on the metro and bus. No one smiled, no one was dancing to their music from their earphones and no one was aimlessly staring around. The atmosphere felt much more serious, and as one friend described it, it felt like people had weights on their shoulders. It did not help that most people wear modest black outfits, where as in the NYC subway you can see some crazy outfits and loud, expressive people on the regular.
I think it is very easy for Americans to explain this scenario with two things. First, that police presence is much higher in Russia than it is the U.S. (which was also on my list of 10 surprises) and so people keep to themselves more. And two, that the U.S. is a freer country and so people will be more expressive. My director has been challenging us to think about “freedom,” how we define it, and whether the U.S. is as free as we make it out to be. It’s a question that has tortured me a little, because freedom sometimes feels so nebulous (what freedoms are we missing out on?) and situational (my director, an American, says he feels more free in Russia). And every individual has different priorities for their freedoms. For example, some value online privacy more than others. I am trying to not jump to immediate conclusions on freedoms (or lack of freedoms) in the U.S. vs. Russia by the advice of my professors, but it can be difficult at times.
Anyways, regarding my feelings of about the more subdued atmosphere on the subway/bus and the police presence: two things have happened to me with time. To start, I think I have simply adapted to the higher police presence and weirdly find myself questioning it less and less. Before, the big police dogs that would sit near me on the metro would make me sweat some and feel uncomfortable because they are so large, intimidating and not friendly looking. They are genuinely dogs on the job. Similarly, I remember being shocked on the first few days that the every metro station has metal detectors and bag scanners (like you see at TSA, but you don’t have to take out electronics or shoes by any mean). Every single station has it and occasionally I get stopped and asked to scan my bag contents. Now this seems normal to me and I am used to it. I don’t know if the extent or the physical number of police men (and even private security guards, which are often more common than the police) is necessary, but I am now used to their general presence.
There are a few things, however, I am still getting used to with police presence. When I saw first saw the random passport checks, I immediately thought of the contested “stop and ID” or “stop and frisk” dialogues in the U.S. and when reasonable suspicion is appropriately applied by policemen without a search warrant at the time. There have been court cases and even university classes taught purely on this matter. Whereas in Russia, sometimes policemen will ask pretty ladies for their “passports and documents” because they want to flirt with them and get their phone number. This would cause public outrage and frontline news in the U.S but is much more normal in Russia. The other thing I am still getting used to is the military style police guards that I’ll see occasionally with much larger, semi-automatics and often riot gear and helmets. I’ve seen this before when I was at the embassy in South Korea, but that was for an event with high officials and politicians, not for people shopping at a mall.
As for the fact that I thought people felt more subdued and even dressed the part…. That view is also changing with time. As I am absorbing more of the society and each day seeing more details that I missed in past days, I realize that the way Russians also express themselves in many ways Americans do, but more subtly. Look carefully and you will still see the teens wearing the newest weird styles that make the babushkas roll their eyes. Look carefully and you will see a group of school girls giggling and being louder than most. One common thread is that these outward expressions I see tend to be by the younger generation. My generation. The generation born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the generation that is the face of a changing and globalizing Russia. When I see how they carry themselves on the subway now, I find it interesting that I ever thought that people felt serious and did not smile. I’m getting used to the social atmosphere here slowly. It will be interesting going back to New York City after this semester. I will probably feel that the subway is full of a ton of crazy, loud people.
CHANGE 3: I have, of course, improved in Russian. Without a doubt, I have learned more Russian in the last 8 weeks than I did in the last year. I still make mistakes ALL THE TIME and have to find ways to rephrase what I originally wanted to say because I either lack the words or did not explain it in with appropriate grammar. You can tell when you meet a Russian who has had previous exposure to English-speakers learning Russian. For instance, my host grandmother could not understand me very well the first few days, even though her granddaughter understood me 90% of the time. My host is 85 years old and hard in hearing, but also is not used to a foreign accent or to the common grammar mistakes we might make. But, I can tell that she is either getting better at understanding me or that I am getting better at Russian to her. Most likely, a mix of the two.
The interesting thing about the U.S. is that because it is such a melting pot of cultures and immigrants I am very good at understanding most accents. I’ve had teachers from Japan, Scotland, China, and Russia all with very thick accents. But I could understand them and did not lose focus of what they were saying when they messed up on a word.
What’s even more interesting is that when a Russian does not understand what I say, chances are an American classmate understood my botched up Russian. We make the same mistakes and are probably thinking of the same methods to translate our ideas in our minds from English to Russian. It’s an interesting dynamic, that I also experienced in South Korea and France. It’s like foreigners (or new speakers) of a language have their own version of that new language that even locals do not understand. Along that line, however, my Ronglish? Russlish? Russian-English? is getting too good for my well-being and the American students often speak Ronglish with each other.
So those are a few changes for you guys. I hope you enjoyed!
P.S. Spring needs to come fast. It’s March 24th and snowing today. Although I will miss the little kids in their full marshmallow-puffy-snow outfits and hats with little cute pom-poms. Often the kids also get pulled/pushed on little toboggan sleds too, which is WAY cooler than normal strollers.
P.S.S. One thing that Moscow does way better than even New Hampshire or northern cities (like Burlington, VT) is clearing the snow. They have little armies of snow clearers come out and even clear snow on roofs. The snow can build up to giant icicles on roof edges so I will not miss having to look up where I am walking to make sure I am not walking below icicles that could fall (our director is insistent that people die from icicles falling off buildings everywhere).
I brought my L.L. Bean boots anticipating heavy snow (although I think NH still gets more), but have NOT used them a SINGLE time because the roads are cleared so well here. And the boots are so heavy and take up so much room in my suitcase. So, tip to future: don’t need to bring heavy snow boots to Moscow. Simply not needed here. Save that suitcase space for souvenirs.
P.S.S.S. I’m full of thoughts and cannot shut up, so last thing….. I went to the Jewish tolerance museum this past Friday and it’s so far my favorite museum in Moscow. So well done and interactive. I was there from 10:30am to 4:00pm when it closed. I was actually using headphones at a certain exhibit and so did not hear that the museum was closing on the intercom. The staff had to come tap me on the shoulder and ask me to leave. Oops. I was so engrossed in what I was reading that I did not realize that practically the entire museum had cleared out. Will have to return another time.