WILMINGTON — Every day in the news, we hear certain words being used to describe Russia: “aggressive,” “menacing,” “corrupt,” etc.
While Russian politics are at the front and center of our nation’s attention, the vast majority of us know relatively little about Russia as a country.
As a junior at Wilmington College — albeit one who spoke Russian decently, had spent large chunks of her life surrounded by Russians, and in general considered herself open-minded and logical — I found myself nervous when given the opportunity to intern for the summer at a Quaker humanitarian organization in Moscow.
Would I be safe? What would I eat? Could I wear Nike sneakers without marking myself as a foreigner?
All of these questions swam through my head (and my Google history) in the months leading up to summer. I came to realize that, although I knew many people who could answer questions about Russia’s history and politics, I could find precious few answers about daily life in Russia in the year 2017.
Nevertheless, I had a job waiting for me, my visa was approved, and I was granted travel money from the college’s Isaac Harvey fund. So despite my doubts, I found myself on a plane descending into Sheremetevo Airport just a week after the spring semester ended.
In retrospect, I can’t help but be amazed by the way media treatment of political news (and its echoes in popular culture) shapes our opinions of the world. The U.S. and Russia have had a far from friendly relationship in the past century, and it’s reflected in our popular culture – most of us grow up thinking of Russians as Bond villains, mad scientists, and stone-faced Olympians.
In reality, Ivan Drago depicts an everyday Russian as much as Indiana Jones depicts an everyday American.
Within an hour of arriving in Russia, my perspective had already shifted. I saw just as many iPhones, just as many Nike sneakers, and just as many people willing to give helpful directions as I would in any western city.
Although it can’t be denied that there are significant cultural differences between our two countries, it’s worth noting that Russians are often portrayed in news, in films, and in stereotypes as being fundamentally “different” from Americans in character and nature – this is a complete fabrication. The overwhelming majority of the people I met in my three months in Russia were kind, generous, funny, and open-minded – a far cry from the “aggressive” and “secretive” nation described on my daily newsfeed.
It’s hard to sum up my experience in a short article, as I could write endlessly about the beautiful metro stations, the 4 a.m. sunrises, and the many times I made a fool of myself attempting to use Russian slang.
My most meaningful experience in Russia was undoubtedly my role as an intern for Friends House Moscow — founded and operated by Quakers, FHM works to provide financial backing to projects in Russia that promote nonviolence, equality, and social justice.
Working in coordination with a British branch that accepts donations from supporters worldwide, FHM seeks to build peace in Russia’s highly militarized society. They also serve as one of the only resources for Quakers in Russia — in working with their library archives, I never failed to be amazed at the number of authors I came across who were alumni of Wilmington College, five-thousand miles away.
I now have a far deeper appreciation for the role that my school and the Wilmington community itself play in the global Quaker community.
I would like to extend my thanks to the college’s Isaac Harvey committee for making this experience possible, to my wonderful coworkers Sergei Grushko and Natasha Zhuravenkova, and to Johan Maurer for connecting me with Friends House.