The Thousand and One Russias

I was just in Moscow for my mid-year Fulbright Seminar. It’s a time when all of the Fulbright grantees in Russia come together for the better part of a week to give presentations on our experiences and connect with one another. I think both I and many of the other English Teaching Assistants thought it would be kind of like our orientation in September, which was mostly about teacher training and answering questions. This was more about just being together as a cohort. In some ways I think that was precisely what many of us needed. Everyone in my cohort is so different and has had such different experiences of Russia.

“There are a thousand different Russias,” began one of my fellow ETAs in his presentation, “and I’m going to tell you about the one that I’ve been living in for the past three months.” When you apply for a Fulbright ETA grant to Russia, you don’t know what city you will end up in. The program materials say “not St. Petersburg, not Moscow”, although those distinctions are hazy: addresses in Pushkin are written as Pushkin, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation. Russia is the largest country on earth by land area: when you apply for a Fulbright, you could end up anywhere from Europe to East Asia, from the arctic circle to the central Asian steppe. Before you get your placement, you can’t really imagine what it might be like. The closest I ever got were some vague thoughts of cross country skiing, banyas, and babushkas. What I learned last semester is that you can’t even really imagine what it might be like even after you get your placement. I ended up in the former village of the Tsar (before the revolution, Pushkin was named Царское село, literally “Tsar Village”), and so I imagined the cosmopolitan and genteel side of Russia I saw when I studied abroad in St. Petersburg: cute cafes, hip people with artistic ambitions, lots of exciting activities, huge amounts of creative energy.

What I’ve actually seen is closer to something out of a Bulgakov or Sorokin novel. Tiny stamped pieces of paper are paramount for reasons no one can describe, requests are denied without explanation, people are moved around in apparently pointless ways, schedules are changed without warning and often without concern for whether the changes are actually followed through on. A friend of a friend put it well, that it’s more important at my university (and this is also true of the dorm run by the university, where I’ve been living) to be able to indicate on a piece of paper that you did something than that you actually did the thing. In order to get anything done, the students create their own system beneath the official dysfunction, forming networks of help and support for resolving issues that fall on deaf official ears. No heat? Sleep in a friend’s room. No access to a washing machine? Find someone who does have access and come to an agreement with them. Mold in your room? Have friends help you move the furniture or put up new wallpaper. Teacher’s lessons don’t make any sense? Find a classmate who can explain the material to you.

I’ve spent a lot of time feeling really bitter about and frustrated by this Russia. Why did my contact in the international office not care when I had bed bugs? Why did she say “that’s not in my authority” when I asked her for help setting up my Russian lessons for my CLEA grant, even though that is precisely one of her duties? Why have I been forbidden from travelling within Russia even though there are no legal prohibitions against it? Why do some of the guards in my dorm still not know that there is a foreign teacher (me) living in the dorm, who does not have a student ID? There’s definitely been a part of me that’s been very disappointed that I’m seeing this Russia instead of a quainter one, that my life is full of irritated bureaucrats instead of sweet babushkas, full of prohibitions instead of invitations.

My head prior to the mid year seminar was full of visions of everyone else in my cohort having the best year of their lives in their host cities. I imagined them all having some vague idealized notion I have of the Fulbright ETA experience, full of invitations to homecooked dinners, bonding with old women, doing winter sports, going to the banya, getting students excited about American culture, hosting Thanksgiving dinners, etc. To return to a perpetual theme of this blog, that’s what I would characterize as the neat, travel-writing edition of being a Fulbrighter: it’s the story that sounds emotionally good when you tell it, the one that’s easier to sell to friends, family, and people who fund international exchange programs. Those stories inevitably depress me, because I inevitably wonder why my life doesn’t feel like the story does, and I think some of my mid-year blues were related to feeling like something was wrong with me because I wasn’t having an ideal experience.

Actually talking to my cohort at the mid year seminar gave me a lot of perspective. I don’t think anyone’s experience has completely conformed to the tidy travel writing version. We’ve all had so many problems, and we’ve all chosen to deal with them in very different ways. We’ve also all had a lot of successes, even if for many of us our successes didn’t feel very successful at the time. I felt like only getting 2-5 people to come to my English club every week was a failure until I heard that some people in my cohort can’t get anyone to come to their English club some weeks. I felt like the pumpkin pie my students and I made for Thanksgiving was a failure because it wasn’t a full Thanksgiving dinner, until I heard I wasn’t the only one who didn’t succeed in putting together a full Thanksgiving feast. I thought that the fact that my students didn’t seem to be getting that much out of our lessons was a failure until I learned that some people in my cohort have had trouble getting the opportunity to even teach a full courseload every week.

I very much agree with the idea that there are a thousand different Russias. Sometimes, it’s hard to determine where one ends and the next begins. Sometimes, I think several different Russias exist simultaneously. I can walk from my University and get to the Catherine Palace, going from a place of Soviet-style dysfunction to a place of glittering historical reverie. I can get yelled at by the guards in my dorm, and then smiled at by a woman coming to visit her daughter. I can wade through piles of dirty slush and then go ice skating. Like Scheherezade’s stories in the Thousand and One Nights, where one Russia ends another immediately picks up, and like the King who listens to Scheherezade, foreigners can’t help but be pulled in, almost against their better judgment, keen to find out what happens next.

Even the Russias that are less than pleasant, like my current bureaucratic brick wall, are worth experiencing. My experience of dealing with difficult bureaucracy is far from unique in modern Russia. Fulbright tries to do a good job of picking host institutions that will shield Fulbrighters from some of the red tape, rather than adding more red tape, but for many people in Russia, both Russians and foreigners, endless meaningless bureaucracy left over from the Soviet system is the norm. That will impact how Russia continues to develop over the next several decades; to use the terms of the Scheherezade comparison, this story will impact the stories that come after it. It’s knowledge of Russia that’s worth having.


That said, I am moving into an apartment so that I no longer have to live in this dorm. I’m sure the apartment will have its own challenges, but it will also give me a lot more control over my living space. No more metaphorical meatballs getting stolen out of my metaphorical pocket.