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Russia Study Abroad Bridges the Cultural Divide

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 07/09/2017 | No Comment |

AS WE BOARDED THE OVERNIGHT TRAIN FROM MOSCOW and entered our compartment, I introduced my students to the elderly Russian man who was already seated. To my surprise, he looked away and said brashly, “I don’t talk to enemies.”

Since 2011, I have taken College of Charleston students for a Maymester abroad, but this was the first time I had encountered a Russian who fit so well the image portrayed by the American media of an average citizen who is hostile toward Americans. But here he was. Sitting next to him, I kept thinking how the U.S. media is trying fervently to revive the image of “dangerous” Russians with a mindset of soviet aggression and hatred—an image fostered primarily by the notion of online hackers. This man, however, had a flip phone. He was by no means a computer wizard. Russia’s government controlled media is also working hard to create a negative image of Americans, but it is an image that most Russians don’t buy into. So I was curious how this healthy, older man who seemed successful had come by his strong prejudice. I asked his name.

Drawing by Olivia Ingle

“Boris,” he snapped. I asked if he was traveling or going home, and if he travels a lot.

He replied curtly, “I don’t travel. I go where the service takes me.” I asked where it takes him. He stood up, took out his briefcase, and handed me a home-made photo album.

“Here,” he said.

I started looking through dozens of spectacular pictures of nature on Sakhalin Island in the Pacific and began asking him about it. He provided fascinating details, and after I flipped the last page I asked if I could show his pictures to my students. He nodded. I looked through the album again with Carol. She was very interested in the pictures and complimented the photographer. Then I took the pictures to another compartment to show some other students.

When I returned Boris’s album, I said, “You noticed such beautiful things in such a barren place. They are great pictures.” He grinned and looked like he wouldn’t mind talking more if I wanted to. We ended up talking about his children, grandchildren, his work, and my work. I learned that he was a senior service officer. I asked what rank.

“Very high,” he said proudly. After a pause, he added, “A soviet officer would never hurt any women or children. He is trained to protect them. There is no Soviet Union anymore, but I am still a soviet officer.”

It was getting late and so we said goodnight.

The next morning, the four of us in the compartment drank tea together. As we reached our destination, which was also his, he left the compartment first and said a friendly goodbye to each of us.

As in most instances, a little time spent with someone from another culture—even a supposedly hostile culture—had been enough to dispel the reinforced notion of “the enemy.”

It was a good lesson for us, and I think for him, too.

Coming soon: my travel notes and a video of our 2017 study abroad journey.

under: Articles, My Travel Journal, Study Abroad 2017
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