When I was a junior in college, I chose to spend a semester studying abroad in one of the world’s harshest climates – geographically and, maybe in some cases, emotionally. St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, is much further north than you might realize, and is surrounded by water. These two factors ensure a very long and very wet winter. Everyone is familiar with the common stereotypes: Russia is freezing cold all the time, everyone wears fur hats, drinks shots of vodka with breakfast, and there are bears everywhere! Etc.
I believe there’s a grain of truth to most stereotypes, so yes, I’ll confirm that it’s really damn cold almost all the time, and vodka definitely holds great cultural importance. Fur hats are everywhere. But I never saw a bear. Then again, I wasn’t in Siberia, and I hear that’s where they’re all hanging out.
Though the weather was harsh for 80 percent of my time there (I arrived in late January), it did warm up enough to feel absolutely magical in May. I actually extended my study abroad and remained in St. Petersburg for the summer session. And what I experienced abroad changed my life pretty much irrevocably.
Like I said, I studied in St. Petersburg, the most “European” of all Russian cities, in that it is the closest major city to Europe and was actually modeled upon other famous European cities in both layout and architecture. Known for its palaces and museums, St. Petersburg also serves as Russia’s unofficial “cultural capital”; art, music, dance, and theatre are main attractions there, and I was lucky enough to have an artistically-inclined host mother who kindly let me tag along on her frequent visits to exhibits, performances, and plays all over the city.
Due to visa restrictions, we were not allowed to leave the country, and though this put a damper on any plans for European travel, I had the opportunity to focus on Russia and its vastness. In the final month of our program, a group of fellow students and I took a 40-hour train ride to explore some of Russia’s major Southern cities and regions. In one city, we had the opportunity to actually cross a bridge and set foot in Asia, which was simultaneously a major bucket-list moment and a little anti-climactic. A few days later, we traveled to Karelia, an entirely Buddhist region in Russia. Later, we camped for a night on the Great Steppe, a region of temperate grasslands that extends thousands of miles.
Being the biggest country in the world (it spans something like 11 time zones), Russia is, in some ways, too big to unify. Visiting different regions of Russia gave me the feeling that this country was very fragmented. Dialects, language, and customs differ nearly everywhere you go. And yet, there is this overarching feeling of “Russianness” that rises above the conflicting opinions and ways of life that I encountered. Throughout my eight months in Russia, I found that this country totally embodies that famous Winston Churchill quote, that Russia really is a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
Some of you reading may wonder why I chose to study in Russia in the first place. My mother is Russian, and much of my family lives in Russia now. I also majored in Russian in college, so it made complete sense for me to study abroad there, not just because of familiarities, but also because I was learning to speak the language with some kind of fluidity and consistency. I was a great student of Russian at Bucknell University, but actually going to the country and speaking it – wow, I was not good anymore, I was terrible, and it was incredibly frustrating.
It took about three months of serious, intensive study for me to start feeling comfortable speaking a language I’d been studying for almost three years. I lived with a host family who spoke almost no English. Being unable to communicate the most basic things imaginable in the beginning was very difficult, but the struggle paid off in the end. I was forced to speak Russian during most waking minutes of my day, and after a few months, it started to feel natural.
My study abroad experience not only altered my perspective on just about everything around me, but also noticeably affected how I understand myself and my own identity. During my eight months in Russia, I was able to connect with a part of my heritage that I’d never been able to incorporate into my life previously, which has impacted me in ways that I’m still trying to evaluate.
Studying abroad in Russia is definitely not for the weak of heart. Or people who hate cold weather. But, if you’re looking for an experience completely different from anything you’ve ever known, consider Russia. You’ll meet amazing people, you’ll learn about a complex and colorful national history, you’ll struggle with but learn to love a tough but fascinating language, and you’ll see a major part of the world from a completely different perspective.