#SochiProblems: Russians Respond

We’ve all seen the pictures of the apparently disastrous conditions of the Sochi Olympics, and if we’re honest, many of us Westerners have laughed in glee at the “peach juice” that is actually contaminated water, unfinished hotel rooms and (heaven forbid!) separate bins for used toilet paper. The 320,000 person following of the Twitter account @SochiProblems, which, according to Sarah Kaufman is 100,000 more than the number of followers of the official Sochi Olympics account, highlights the fact that for some reason, Americans find it really amusing to make fun of the land of vodka, snow, and the gulag, as stereotypes would have it.

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Oh look, the Sochi ad in Elabuga fell down. Everyone point and laugh!

I in no way claim to be innocent of poking fun at the quirks of living in Russia. In fact, until I read this excellent article by Sarah Kaufman, titled “#SochiProblems is More of An Embarrassment For America Than It Is For Russia,” I hadn’t felt any contrition for the way I complained about not having a toilet seat in my dorm or using the line, “when I was in Russia,” as a transition to one-upping a friend’s horrific travel story. Kaufman makes the case that Americans’ gleeful reaction to less than ideal conditions in Sochi springs from “cultural misunderstandings borne out of sheltered ignorance,” which was a great starting point for discussion with my 5th year students. Since I discovered #SochiProblems, I have been curious to hear what Russians think about Americans’ snarky Sochi commentary as well as their broader perspective on the Olympics, so for газета (newspaper) class today, we discussed Kaufman’s article. Here’s what they had to say:

What do you think of Americans’ reactions to the conditions in Sochi?

One girl expressed surprise that Americans would make fun of their conditions; she had spent a summer in the US and had heard only positivity from an American gymnastics coach about the upcoming event. Her friend, who had also been in America, showed no surprise, expressing that it made sense journalists would find the place unsuitable; after all, they were used to better conditions. In fact, many students voiced understanding of visitors’ qualms at Russian conditions. The general sentiment of the class was gracious, essentially, “we are used to these conditions, but that doesn’t mean we think less of others if they are not.”

Are you offended?

Again, students were very gracious to the whining Americans, while still expressing some offense at their homeland being mocked by outsiders. They could all be diplomats! One girl loosely quoted Pushkin as saying “a man hates his Motherland, but he is offended if someone else says something bad about it.” Many students echoed this idea, and the same girl who quoted Pushkin told me, “you see, we can complain to each other about our terrible conditions, but if you start complaining to me about how horrible your dormitory is, then I will be a little offended.”

Another student added to this thought, expressing that Russians themselves perpetuate negative stereotypes about their country by constantly complaining about conditions and the government. On the other hand, she said, even Americans who rail on Barack Obama still tend to be patriotic. “As for us,” she continued, “we see the best route as a ticket out of here!” (Baba Olya, anyone?) The class laughed when she said this, but she made a great point: if Russians don’t talk well of their country, why should they expect others to?

Why do you think Americans are reacting like this?

One young man posited that Americans might view Russia as a threat, and as a class we discussed the possibility of lingering Cold War sentiments tainting Americans’ view of Russia. Embarrassingly for Americans, ignorance also may play a role. One student visited the United States, and when she told someone that she was from Russia, the American echoed heartily, “Oh, the U.S.S.R.!” I guess it’s hard to escape a Cold War mindset when you think it’s still going on.

Another girl came up with a metaphor that encapsulates what I think many of my fellow American -born Russophiles can attest to: “I think the journalists see it like a scavenger hunt. They look for what is bad, and then they write about it.”

“Why do you think they do this?” I asked.

“For amusement,” she answered.

I loved this metaphor, because I think it perfectly describes what many Western adventurers to Russia aim to get out of the experience. The first few times I went to Russia I was intrigued by the “wildness” of it, and things that would be inconvenient in the long run turned into exciting stories I could tell my friends. Part of the fuel that fed my fire for Russia, was the romanticizing of these conditions as somehow adventurous, definitely more interesting than life home in America. And it’s easier to sensationalize or make fun of conditions when you can pack your bags after being there for a week. So for all this talk about schadenfreude sparked by remnants of Cold War sentiment, I think that something simpler and more universally human might be involved as well: the longing for adventure and story.

Are the Olympics a good thing for your country?

Most students felt torn when answering this question. On one hand, as a student said, the Olympics are reviving sports in Russia, which since the fall of the U.S.S.R., have been comparatively weak. In Soviet times, she said, Russian athletics were much more competitive, but that recently, “sport has almost died in Russia.”

Many agreed that the Olympics were an important historic event for Russia, but that the costs might outweigh the benefits. Over $51 billion dollars was spent on the games, and one student quoted an estimate that if that money were divided equally among Russia’s 143 million, each person could buy his own apartment. I’ve quickly learned that when talking with Russian students, if you say the word government, a conversation about corruption is not far behind, and many voiced frustration with the financial corruption that permeates their society. Even if a gigantic sum of money was supposed to be distributed to the Russian people, one student argued, it wouldn’t get there, because pockets of corruption are not limited to big endeavors like the Olympics, but are everywhere.

One major thing I took away from our conversation is the need for Americans to stop basing their opinion of the Russian people on the actions of its government. I was impressed by the positive attitude my students had towards Americans in spite of the snide Twitter account. To be honest, if I were them , I would be doing my best to sarcastically shut down the opponent, but they didn’t seem to see America as an opponent. Rather, they were gracious towards journalists’ reactions to their homeland, that, as the poet Tyutchev wrote, “can’t be understood with the mind.”

Умом Россию не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить:
У ней особенная стать —
В Россию можно только верить

Ф. И. Тютчев

Not Much Time for Sleep!

It’s amazing how much can happen in a week here! Here’s a quick update on what has been going on in Tatarstan.

Weekend in Kazan

Last weekend, I was invited to Kazan(the largest city in Tatarstan) by the daughter of a teacher at the Institute, who works there as an English teacher and completed her master’s degree in TESOL in the states. Kamila and I hit it off right away, and Iwehad a wonderful weekend exploring the city, drinking tea, and discussing all things language related. Kamila took me to Театр Юного Зрителя, (The Theater of the Young Spectator,) where we saw a comedy called, “Здравствуйте, Я Ваша Тётя” (“Hello, I’m Your Aunt.”) This play was reminiscent of Mrs. Doubtfire: Set in late 19th or early 20th century England, two love-struck young men ask their friend to dress up like a woman so that they can invite two girls over without a chaperone. What results is a hilarious and disastrous chain of events.

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The next day, Camilla took me to the museum of Soviet Life, which showcased realia from the institution of the U.S.S.R. until its dissolution. Let’s just say the star of the show was Lenin. Here are some pictures from the museum:

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“The Truth About American Diplomats”

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From a Soviet textbook: “Our Motherland, the U.S.S.R.”

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I learned that chewing gum was a status symbol in the Soviet Union, because it was so hard to come by.

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“Soviet Woman”

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“Soviet Pioneer Uniform”

After we left the museum, it was time for me to return to Kazan, and other than the irritated GPS that yelled at you if you made a wrong turn and the driver deciding it was a good idea to race through the breakdown lane on occasion, the trip back was uneventful.

Overcoming My Fear

One of the girls I met at the local English Club, Elmira, has been kindly helping me with my Russian once or twice a week. One day, we stopped by a store to get some water, and she noticed right away how nervous I got when I approached the store workers. “Why do you get so scared?” she said. “Then you stutter and they can’t understand you! They’re just people, just like you.”

It’s true, although I’ve studied Russian for quite a few years and can carry on conversation fairly easily with people I know, there always seems to be a barrier when I approach people in stores or cafes. My heart starts beating quickly and my tongue decides to have a seizure. I asked Elmira then, if we could go out one day and just go up to as many people as possible in an attempt to overcome my fear. She agreed, and on Tuesday, we went to the market for an adventure.

First, I went to a market to try to find a hat and gloves, and I managed to talk to the woman without too much trouble. Next, she took me to a fast food place which served a Tatarstani treat.

“You have Big Mac, we have сосиска в тесте (fried dough covered hot dogs). You haven’t been to Tatarstan until you’ve tried one.” She told me what to say, and when I ordered, the woman actually smiled at me and asked me where I was from, then started to make conversation. So not everyone is scary. We went to a few more stores, and my fear started to dissipate. I still get nervous and I know it will be a process, but I am so thankful that Elmira took the time to help me fight my fear.

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Eating сосиска в тесте in front of Elabuga’s “Big Ben”

Explaining America to Russian History Students

The next day, I had another opportunity to use my Russian, as I was invited into a history class to share about my country. In true Russian style, I wasn’t told exactly what I needed to prepare until the morning of, which resulted in lots of frantic Googling and Wikipedia searches. I may be American, but I am not an encyclopedia!

After presenting on the symbolism in our flag and great seal, students asked me questions about my country. Questions ranged from the American economic system to family relationships, and I did my best to answer them as truthfully as I could with my non-native handle of Russian. Some questions, such as those about American family relationships and why I decided to come to Russia, were easy to answer in Russian because they were not sensitive issues. However, I found that when asked questions about Americans’ view of President Obama and President Putin, it was hard to answer both diplomatically and truthfully. Concerning President Obama, I brought up that his approval ratings had dropped since he became president, and that a large percentage of Americans were not satisfied with how he acted concerning Syria.

And whn they asked me about Putin, and I felt a little cornered. The history teacher asked me, “so, what do Americans think about Putin? Because, you see, we love our President.” So really, what was I supposed to say to that? I said something to the effect of that Americans respect Putin, but of course there will always be tension between the two countries because we are both powerful and want to hold the number one spot. Then to dispel the tension, I tried to bring in some humor, fumbling for words to try to explain the funny memes we have on Facebook that portray Putin as a strong, “most interesting man in the world” type. I didn’t do very well at explaining this, and when this article came out the next day reporting on my presentation, it said that “Americans consider Putin a ‘superhero.'” Ok, so not exactly what I wanted to say; sorry America! Also, in the article, they put in some things that I never said, for example, that all American homes have an American flag. So here’s the link if you’d like to put it into an online translator and read it, but don’t take everything as my definitive view 🙂

http://kpfu.ru/main_page?p_cid=61095&p_sub=6207

Overall, it was a great experience to answer students’ questions about America. People in Elabuga are very enthusiastic about meeting an American, because unlike in larger cities, for many, I am the first American they have ever met. The local news will be interviewing me on Monday as well, so I will make sure to keep you up to date on that.

Girls Night Out

Finally, my week ended with some girls from my advanced class inviting me out to a café. Most of them are only a year younger than me, so it feels a little strange to be their teacher. It was great to be able to hang out with them outside of the classroom in a more relaxed environment. They were determined to speak English the whole time, which didn’t seem difficult, since their English is already excellent. After pizza, coffee, and desert, we strolled around the city, at which one point, two college guys started to follow us in their car. While walking down the sidewalk, they put their car in reverse and went backwards, trying to talk to us, for at least 10 minutes. They were persistent and would not give up, but we felt safe, since there were about 10 of us. Russian guys seem to be much more forward than American guys. But can you blame them? Look how beautiful all the girls in my class are:

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