Scout Mills ’16, a self-designed Russian major at Lewis & Clark, spent the summer of 2014 in Kazan’, Russia, on the prestigious Critical Languages Scholarship program.
September 01, 2014
Toward the end of her program, she gave the following written interview to Rebecca Pyatkevich about her experiences. She is currently on her study-abroad program in St. Petersburg, continuing her Russian adventure.
When did you first know you wanted to study Russian? Why?
I knew when I was about five years old. Of course it was most likely a matter of a little kid seeing a huge country on a map and choosing it at random as the place she wanted to end up, but I like telling this story because there is a part of me that believes in fate.
When I officially decided that my five-year-old self was correct was when I first picked up Russian literature. The depiction of struggle as something one can embrace and find beauty within was so eloquently and powerfully depicted by Russian authors that I decided I needed to learn the language to read the books in their original forms.
How has the reality of your experience in Russia intersected with your vision and understanding of it from before you came?
I honestly thought it would be much more difficult. I thought I would be paralyzed by fear everywhere I went, unable to function and do simple things like buy toothpaste. Despite the understanding that I preached and my knowledge of Russian culture, I still think a bit of the red scare was engrained in me simply by being in the Western environment raised by a family with no connections to Russia. Thankfully, Russia is nowhere near as scary as I imagined. Sure, it has it quirks, and there are certainly frightening, shocking aspects about it—but at the end of the day it’s just another place.
I don’t fall in love with places based on infrastructure or the amount of catcallers—to me, cities are much more than that. I will admit that there was times when I felt underwhelmed, being the romantic that I am, but the greatest moments came from the feeling of wholeness after realizing being underwhelmed meant that I could adjust to the new culture.
You’ve just spent about two months in Kazan’, on the Critical Languages Scholarship. What was the most unexpected thing that you discovered in Kazan’?
Tatar culture. I knew it existed—I mean, I read the brochure and all—but I had no idea what to expect. Tatar language, food, music—it’s amazing! Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan and the culture is so engrained in the city that sometimes it’s hard to see where the Russian culture ends and where the Tatar culture begins. I absolutely love it. Tatars are an ethnic group in Russia and I think about half of the people is Kazan speak Tatar. Most of them practice Islam.
Russia’s relationship with the US is undergoing some changes at the moment, and some would argue that Russia itself, judging by current events, is undergoing a kind of tumultuous period right now. Have you felt that this situation has impacted your experience? If so, how so?
It definitely affects dinner conversation. I am aware that supposedly there are people that have anti-American sentiment, but I haven’t really seen any. There is a huge percentage that distrusts and opposes the American government, but they don’t automatically associate Americans with their government. Most of the people I’ve met here love Americans and are very interested as to why they are in Kazan and not, say, Saint Petersburg or Moscow.
In a way, I’m fortunate to be here right now—Russians love friendly arguments and Russian politics and culture right now makes for some pretty heavy and fascinating topics. That being said, it’s really hard sometimes. It’s hard because you have to learn where to draw the line between contributing and being a cultural imperialist. I think it’s always important to listen first. It’s not your country, and no matter what people are saying you’re still the guest and you’re there to get perspective on how they live their lives.
Can you describe a particularly meaningful, revealing, unforgettable experience or event?
There have been so many! A stranger taught me how to tango in a bar, a man selling knives and furs at a market told me I was “a true Russian with true Russian eyes” (I do not have a drop of Russian blood in me, so that made me go back to the whole fate idea), I became friends with a waitress who loves Mayakovsky and wants me to teach her English…I couldn’t pick just one.
If I had to, however, I think there are two that strand out: the first is the 4th of July. It was a running joke with all of us because we never really celebrate in the states, but we decided to celebrate in Russia. One of my friends stole an American flag from a barber shop and we went to a bar and met up with some Russians friends—tutors and random people we had recently met. The whole night was filled with shenanigans, but what was incredible was that we switched from Russian to English and sometimes even to Spanish and taught each other new words and slang from our respective languages. We talked about literature and I got the Russians to start calling me by the name of the protagonist in my favorite novel. The second was our excursion on a teplokhod. I have no idea what translation does it justice, but basically it’s a large boat for river cruises. I wish I could describe a teplokhod, but we always say: it’s not just a boat, it’s a state of mind.
Can you describe a particularly challenging or disturbing experience or event?
Fortunately nothing too disturbing has happened to me here. There was one time when a few young men came up to me and harassed me about my appearance and about politics—fortunately it has a funny ending in which I blurted out that I was from Germany to avoid saying I was American. Why I didn’t say the UK or Australia I will never know. I got out of the situation by simply saying that I didn’t want to talk to them and leaving.
Aside from a bunch of Russian, what have you learned from your experience living and studying abroad?
I’ve learned that Russians are the kindest human beings that I could have ever imagined. When you meet people here, they remember you forever. I have so many friends that I have met on the street. People hear you speak English and they get excited and want to practice theirs or ask you why on earth you would want to come to Russia, and then suddenly you have a best friend.
So, basically, I’ve learned that the truest way to debunk stereotypes is to see them debunked. I always knew that the whole “Russians don’t smile” thing was never that simple, but actually seeing and experiencing Russian people and culture truly opened my eyes. This culture is one of honesty—if a food product it bad, the shopkeeper will tell you. They aren’t trying to sell you on lies.
What will you miss once you’re back in the US? Any particular foods? Any particular places?
Chak chak!! It’s a Tatar desert made from honey and…I honestly have no idea. It was the first thing I ate in Russia and it took me a little while to fall in love, but now I’m addicted. I mention that first and foremost because I’m returning to Russia in September, but not to Tatarstan, which is the only place you can find chak chak. As far as Russian food goes, I will miss Russian soups like schi and borsch, piroshki, kasha every morning with a buterbrod… [sandwich] I’ll definitely miss the Volga (river), Bauman street (the main pedestrian street), the fact that everyone has a handful of poems memorized, my professors…everything. The richness of everything, the spontaneity, and the honesty.
And, of course, the fact that the most important question in our vast universe is not “what is the meaning of life,” but rather: “chai budesh?” [“want some tea?”]
You can read more about Scout’s experiences on her blog: http://scoutdoesrussia.tumblr.com