A Russianist abroad

The ‘year abroad review’ type article can very easily fall into the trappings of cliché; and I promise now that I will do my utmost to avoid it. Perhaps I bear an overly inflated sense of exclusivity in studying Russian, but I honestly believe that past year abroad, has been one of the most eye-opening and informative experiences of my life. Oh look, I’ve already broken my promise.

Unlike many of my peers, I have had the privilege of visiting Russia proper. Scratch that, I had the privilege of living in Russia. The summer of 2019 was, for many reasons, one of my best; this was mostly owing to my dearest tetya Katya (my sort of “Russian aunt”) who, upon learning of my bizarre intention to study Russian at university, took it upon herself to drag me to St Petersburg for six weeks (I use ‘drag’ in the affectionate sense of course). Living out in the sticks, using the dacha as basecamp, I spent my summer exploring all of St Petersburg’s rich cultural offerings by day, and it’s not-so-cultural by night with my best mate, Ivan. Having the luxury of a quasi-family from St Petersburg itself is, admittedly, a bit of a cheat code in the endeavour of wrestling the unforgiving mistress that is the Russian language, but from this endless summer under the dazzling white nights of the north, I was hooked.

The vision I had fostered when approaching the year abroad at Oxford was one imbued with the overly Romanticised musings of an impressionable 16 year old, drunk on the intoxicating prospect of returning to St Petersburg, and picking up the threads of my summer three years prior. This was destined not to be as we all are so poignantly aware, after the events of February 2022; the designs I had on my year were abandoned. It is now that I must, regrettably, return to reality, as, while I sit here writing this paragraph on a Sunday night far too close to the lay in, I find my mind wandering, brooding over the year that never was; the year I still mourn.

I look back on that time in early 2022 with a sort of disbelief; plans collapsed and the faculty, who were understandably more concerned with more pressing issues like extricating the Russianist contingent from a besieged Ukraine and Russia the aggressor, were sadly not of immediate help. Planning became a process of picking up the pieces of tattered plans and adapting to rapidly evolving circumstances. From this haze of uncertainty, I happened upon Narva, Estonia’s easternmost city and Russian speaking exclave.

I spent three months in the Soviet relic that is Narva – incidentally, three of the coldest months in their calendar, as I was later helpfully informed by a local – but I have written about this peculiar outpost at length before. With that in mind, I’ll offer only the abridged edition of my Estonian exploits:

Point one, Estonian train conductors are not friendly: avoid interacting at all costs. Should you be unfortunate enough to incur their wrath on a particularly icy day – inclement weather is directly proportional to Estonian/Russian disposition, I find – offer your sincerest of apologies and hastily vacate the first class seat you didn’t pay for. Point two, when, after several litres of vodka consumption, former soldiers employ your services to venture into the bitter cold and fetch more – you are contractually obliged as the youngest, it’s the law – get one of them to pay for it. Admittedly, two litres of Nemiroff from the offie in Narva is not going to break the bank, believe me, but certain heavy drinkers have a taste for the stuff and harbour no moral qualms at getting the British kid to buy their booze. Point three is the most important. If you’re planning on heading to visit the 60,000 ethnic Russians in Narva, and intend on doing so for more than a weekend, BUY A PROPER COAT! I did not, and I suffered despite the Carhartt number I so naively donned.

With Narva in the rear-view, I enjoyed a brief interlude back on Merseyside for Christmas, though it was straight back to pulling strings and trying to recoup some semblance of structure that, with a bit of luck, might actually help me speak a bit of Russian. Funnily enough, what I decided on – a six month stint in the middle Baltic state, Latvia – meant that my festive homecoming had been essentially futile (aside from the delight that is spending two idle weeks couped up with your three younger siblings, of course). The far east of central Asia didn’t appeal much, and Black Sea border countries like Georgia and Armenia wasn’t really what I was looking for. So, Latvia it was.

I think my most striking observation about arriving in Latvia might have been regarding my first Latvian taxi driver who, for the low low price of six quid will traverse the ten kilometre journey from Riga airport arrivals to the train station drop off. I’m pretty sure I’ve paid more than that for a sandwich in Stansted airport, so Latvian taxi travel certainly can’t be faulted for its (lack of) expense. The quality of the roads however, can absolutely serve victim to my reproach. Even with all the help German automotive engineering can muster, the journey was a far cry from comfortable; the driver’s distinctive perfume of Ukrainian fags and last night’s liquid courage, did nothing to put my mind at ease either.

The train journey from Riga to my destination of choice, another Russian speaking exclave, Daugavpils, was not much better in terms of comfort. In spite of their somewhat ill-natured workforce, the Estonian train network is modern and, vitally, heated. The Latvian network leaves a lot to be desired. The great diesel trains are straight out of the 60s Soviet era Latvian Republic. Boarding is an interesting process that involves hoisting yourself and 6 months’ worth of cold weather clothing from a poorly lit icy platform up three feet through a set of not-so-automatic double doors. Not to mention, this process takes place in the January snow endemic to this area of Europe and the pitch black that’s equally as frequent in the early months in the Baltics. Oh and did I mention, as well as focussing on not losing your own footing, the charade is further complicated by navigating the fine line between causing offence and offering help to the ranks of less nimble elderly babushki who are engaged in the same endeavour. Alighting at the other end is worthy of an article in itself…

The road and rail network notwithstanding, my time in both Daugavpils and Riga elicited a profound effect. I was pleasantly surprised at the frequency with which I had to deal with situations in my chosen language. From refusing the endless requests for free cigs off locals to dispelling pyanitsy (drunks), intent on irritating foreigners who so audaciously elect to occupy the pavement outside their language school, the range of ‘colloquial’ vocabulary I managed to absorb proved remarkable.

The year abroad I had envisaged four years ago is but a distant, unfulfilled pipedream. I never roamed the Petersburg-ian prospekty, and never got to visit the many people in Russia I hold dear. With the stagnation the conflict has reached now, my future prospects of returning to Russia look equally bleak. My Baltic escapades did however provide an outlet for my frustration and yearning for Russia however, a luch nadezhdy (silver lining) of sorts. I bore witness to the immediate response to the War in Ukraine, befriended an assortment of eccentric characters (I still have several standing invitations to Kyiv) and did, between the ample vodka-fuelled evenings, manage to learn a little bit more Russian. Studying Russian abroad is not what it once was and, sadly, I don’t see that changing any time soon. But future Russianists fear not! The Russianist’s year abroad is still very much possible.

Image description: A sunrise in Latvia

Image credit: Patrick Groves