Cam Duval, checking in from Irkutsk, Russia! Internet has been scarce, but as of Monday this week my host family has a WiFi router and posting should be easier. I wrote a few emails to my parents and my girlfriend, so this first blog post is a bit of a compilation of those plus a little extra that covers our first week of being in Russia. I’m here with a group of eleven other Union College students on a Spring term abroad. We arrived in Russia last Saturday, and since then we’ve been studying at a linguistics university and working at different internships. Some of us are here specifically for environmental studies, but we’re all here to study the language.
So, a little about the university. It’s the Irkutsk State Linguistics University, but it’s being micromanaged from Moscow so they recently changed the name to the Moscow State Linguistics University. A lot of people are upset about that because, as one of the top linguistic universities in the world, it’s one of only a handful of things that make Irkutsk stick out on the map. I’ll refer to it as ISLU. The university itself is only three or four buildings that appear to have been connected (pretty poorly, walking around in the place is like asking for a twisted ankle). Most of the students are from Russia, but many are from Mongolia and China as well. We met the other two Americans, here from different programs, last Friday. The twelve of us Union College students stick out pretty easily and attract a lot of attention from the other students. Apparently the word got out that we were coming and the administration thought we would be staying in the dormitories, so rumors started to spread about needing to move other students around just to accommodate us. We learned all this from Brian, an American studying here through a program in South Carolina.
My class is taught by a younger teacher, who is apparently the nicest out of our three groups. The three other students in my class and I are having a pretty good time; the class is taught entirely in Russian since our teacher doesn’t speak English (but she can translate single words), and when we say something completely wrong and foolish we all have a good laugh. The other classes don’t have it so easy, I guess one of them is taught by someone a little more strict (think Tina Fey’s commissar in the new Muppets movie) and the lowest level class is still going over the distinction between genders and how that effects grammar after a week of class. Homework is relatively easy, and we have Russian class from noon to 4:30pm Tuesday through Friday which leaves plenty of time to do other things.
A lot of that time in the mornings is going to be spent on internships, which we’ve just figured out. Pat May and I are working together for the Decembrist Museum translating pamphlets and signs into English, as well as working for the tourist branch of ISLU doing similar things. He and I have been taking Russian together since the beginning of last year, every term, along with Mary Locke. Pat and I, along with Mary and a few other students who have been studying Russian for up to two and a half years, are among the best here in terms of grammatical skills, and I’m happy to say that my accent (which I was really proud of last year but that I thought I’d lost over the summer) is coming back. Two students here have only been studying Russian for five months, and I cannot imagine how that is going for them. As for internships, other students are working with the Baikal Wave and the Great Baikal Trail organizations, both of which are aimed towards preserving the environment of Lake Baikal.
Things are incredibly modern in some areas of the Irkutsk region and incredibly behind in others, which honestly reminds me of rural areas in Maine mixed with the bustling city of Quito, Ecuador, which I visited in 2006. Most everything outside of the city is rural and undeveloped except for a few scattered factories and some outlying towns, which brings in a lot of mud on cars as the winter thaws. The mud turns to dirt which turns to dust on the streets of Irkutsk, and buildings that could be incredibly beautiful are tarnished and dirty. When I was asked what I thought of the city by a local, I responded, “I like it.” He said to me, The only buildings free of this are the Soviet-style “brutalist” administrative buildings near the city’s center square, which is actually where ISLU itself is. Maybe this is why the buildings were built like that, to give an air of modernity and functionality while being able to hide the soot. I find these buildings to be some of the most interesting in the area, they’re really something you can’t see anywhere else. The regional government building is side-by-side with Siberia’s oldest stone church, a big building with two spires that was built around 1710. There’s a big statue of Lenin with his arm outstretched towards Moscow on the corner of Lenin and Karl Marx streets, and just down the street from that is a knock-off Starbucks and a Chik-n-Burger. Russia, because it’s so massive, has always had a history of finding difficulty modernizing. It also has a history of leaders who very quickly and modernize it (Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Lenin and Stalin). Soon after it’s on-par with the rest of Europe, it falls behind again and waits for the next leader to accelerate it up to the same level as the most modern nations. These transitions are often brutal and confusing for the Russian citizens. Sometimes I’m impressed with what I see in Irkutsk, and other times I’m taken aback. I’m excited to see what Moscow and St. Petersburg are like at the end of our trip.