Viewpoint: The Russia I know

I was in Cincinnati with my family two weeks ago. It was early in the morning and we were leaving the hotel for the day. My dad asked a member of the hotel staff a question and she struggled to answer in broken English. I realized that some of the words she was saying registered in my head. She was speaking Russian. I spoke to her as best I could while my family stood around me, totally lost in the sounds of a foreign tongue as I said what they couldn’t in this woman’s native language.

I don’t claim to possess great skill and I still have a lot to learn, but this was the first time my language skills had allowed me to truly communicate with someone I would have been unable to otherwise. The degree of separation between me and this stranger should have been vast, but because we shared a common language, it became zero. She told me I spoke well and that I looked Russian, neither of which is true in my opinion, but I’d say it mattered more to her that I was someone who could understand her — at least a little bit.

I started studying Russian two years ago, and I never would have imagined that I could someday have anything close to a conversation with another person in the language. The alphabet terrified me; some letters looked familiar but sounded foreign and others looked completely alien. But, the more I learned, the more I was curious and the more I wanted to be able to speak it, not just for the purpose of understanding the language but to better understand Russia.

This is the power of Russia for me. It has nothing to do with the Kremlin or politics or who the president is, here or there. It is about being able to connect with people who I would otherwise never have the chance to speak to, and to understand a beautiful culture shaped by history, literature and art.

The noise of current events keeps many people from seeing these qualities of Russia. The scandals and dramatics seem to occupy most people, but what is in the news isn’t always the complete truth about Russia and its people.

Dr. Clay Butler, senior lecturer in the English department, and his wife lived in Russia from October 1992 to December 1993, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union. They taught English and ministered to the people in Ulan-Ude, a city in East Siberia near Lake Baikal. The city had been closed because of its proximity to nuclear facilities, Butler said, so Americans or Europeans had never casually walked the streets.

“In some ways it was kind of a sad time in Russia, but it was also kind of a hopeful time because, not having anything, they had to believe they were beginning to look for something a little more hopeful, optimistic,” Butler said.

Butler said his first impression of the Russian people was that they are cold and harsh, but the moment a person enters their home, you are family. He said stereotypes, in any case, are never true on the individual level and getting to know Russians breaks down some of them.

“I’m an American. I may even be a very typical American in some ways, but I don’t match all of your stereotypes. Individually we are always different in some ways,” Butler said.

Butler said his perception of Russia was defined by the cold war era, when bomb drills were normal in schools.

“I remember kind of being scared of them. That was the whole cold war. They were the threat. When I was a little kid we had nuclear drills, atomic bomb drills, where we would hide under out desks … that kind of gets into your head,” Butler said.

During that time, everything in the news linked back to the Soviet Union, and the conflict constantly pitted the United States against them.

“A prejudice like that, it takes a long time to overlay with new images,” he said.

Professor Eva Hruska, lecturer in the Russian department, went to Russia for the first time during her graduate studies. She studied at the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg.

“I was really just drawn to literature and so being in St. Petersburg and walking the same streets as Dostoevsky or Gogol … or Anna Akhmatova … and just being where they are … I was so just taken by it,” Hruska said.

Her second trip to Russia was with a group of educators. They started in Moscow and traveled to southern Russia, stopping in different cities along the way.

“I was so just exposed to the European Russia and to the ethnic Russia, so that was another eye opening trip for me, just really communicating and meeting different ethnicities in Russia, especially the southern Russian ethnicities… and being in their world, in their culture,” Hruska said.

Hruska taught Russian language, culture and history to the others on the trip, which sometimes meant holding classes on trains, at beaches and in restaurants.

In many ways, Hruska feels at home in Russia, but said the current political situation is upsetting because of the growing division, rather than bridging, which is reminiscent of the cold war.

She said her experiences in Russia have shown her that, though the history and culture are different, Russians are just like Americans in many ways. Russians go to work every morning, race home to make dinner for their families and want to get out of town on the weekends, just like many Americans, she said.

“[Russia] has to offer a side of humanity that is in all of us, just from a different perspective. And I think we are conditioned to view the other as the other. We are so conditioned to see only black and white and to see only differences and the good versus the bad,” Hruska said.

Butler and Hruska both describe a side of Russia which is found beyond stereotypes and generalizations. I am, and always will be, a believer in looking at other countries as they are, not as what we think they are. And along with all it’s wonders, Russia is a flawed nation, just like the United States or any other country.

It is true that I cannot completely overlook Russian politics, but the politics are not all I see. I see endless opportunities to learn about people who have been shaped by fascinating history, the chance to immerse myself in an amazing language and a nation filled with stories I can only hear by crossing geographical, cultural and linguistic barriers.