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Foreigners in Small-Town Russia

April 19, 2010 at 8:00 am
By Denis and Karl

The feeling of being a foreigner is a common theme among travelers and writers the world over, and one we all felt rather strongly this past weekend.  Our travels took us outside of Moscow for the first time, on a weekend excursion to the cities of Vladimir, Suzdal, and Murom.  Living in Moscow, we’re surrounded by millions of people, including migrants, students, and tourists galore, so being a foreigner here isn’t really that noticeable, and very few people take an interest in those they do notice.  Getting out of the big city, though, being a foreigner, and especially being an American, really becomes something remarkable, and much more visible, both to us and to Russians.

We spent a good amount of time at the American Home in Vladimir, where Russians of all ages are taught English by native speakers (some of which are Carleton graduates). The house itself is strikingly different from its surroundings, both inside and out. It seems to have been transplanted straight from suburban Minnesota into ancient Vladimir. The two-car garage, clean brick structure,  roofing, and even the style of the doorknob all added to the American effect. Upon entering, you are very Russian-ly asked to remove your footwear; but nearly every other aspect of the interior is American as well. The flowery sofas, wooden kitchen-cabinets, magnets on the refrigerator, slender light-switches, and fluffy curtains seemed especially American in style.  It was like home, but the fact that it was smack in the middle of a completely different culture made it a little surprising as well.

While being at American Home was the surprise of seeing home in an unexpected place, going to Murom was the surprise of being the clearly foreign guests in a new place.  When we got to Moscow, Diane and our host families were the only ones who brought us in—to everybody else, we were just more people walking around town.  When we arrived in Murom, though, we were greeted by several dozen students and faculty of the Murom Institute (an offshoot of Vladimir State University), and after thirty minutes of meeting and greeting, we were ushered into the school’s auditorium to enjoy a talent show and presentation about the school put on by many of its students.  We were then fed in their cafeteria, including a brief amusing misunderstanding about when we, as guests, should eat—in Russian culture, the guests are served first and are expected to eat right away.  After eating and some conversation, we were presented with several gifts about Murom, and even interviewed by a post-grad with terrific English for the local television station.

After all these festivities, we proceeded to tour several locations of the ancient city with many of the students, learning about the history of Murom (which is one of the oldest cities in Russia), as well as just talking with our new acquaintances.  Murom Institute students take English as well as many other courses, and those with us were glad to have a chance to practice speaking in our language.  We ended the day with delicious dinner in a local pizza place, and were waved back onto the bus to Vladimir when the time finally came to go.

We were in Murom as foreigners, but perhaps more strikingly, we were Americans in a city that was closed as a military base to all foreign access until the mid-90s.  In fact, one of the first things we saw on the way into the city was a military equipment barracks—quite the sight for tourists.  This served as a great introduction to the cultural differences that we were to experience all day, the most striking of which was simply our reception.  Having lived and studied in Moscow for three weeks, we’d become accustomed to a certain metropolitan indifference to non-natives.  Coming to Murom was a very pleasant surprise: all of a sudden, we were honored guests, and were presented with a performance, gifts, food, and lots of interesting questions about ourselves and our country.  In addition, we learned a good bit of history, including the story of Ilya Muromets, and the fact that the television was invented by Vladimir Zvorykin, a Murom resident.

Perhaps the greatest thing that we got out of our weekend excursion was a new perspective, not only on being a foreigner in Russia, but also simply on Russia as a country.  Being only in Moscow and claiming to have seen Russia is like being in New York for a week and claiming to know America.  Russia is much more than the pervasive impersonal and megapolitan personality of Moscow—there are plains, there are small towns; there is a lot to see, to understand, and to grow to love.