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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Curiosity Attracts Young Russophiles

When Gabriel Coleman announced his plans to spend a semester in Moscow researching the gulag culture of the 1950s, his relatives thought he was crazy.


"My grandparents were all gloom and doom," he said of their reaction before his departure to Moscow. "First they told me that I'd probably have a miserable time, I should go someplace nice, like Vienna. Then, when that didn't work, they got more subtle and started sending Moscow weather reports."


Coleman was undeterred. Braving sub-zero temperatures and his relatives' tepid reactions, the junior from the University of Rochester reached Moscow in January and has been doing research and taking classes with five other Americans at the Russian State University for the Humanities.


Sitting under the grandiose colonnades of the university's packed central dining hall, Coleman, 21, related that none of his grandparents' grisly predictions came true, but there are still a few aspects of student life in Russia that he finds hard to swallow. "The food at the dining hall isn't bad," said Coleman as he tore vainly into fried cutlet with a pair of forks "the thing I don't understand is why they haven't got any knives here."


An estimated 10,000 students come to Moscow from undeveloped countries on scholarships; then there are students like Coleman. They come not out of necessity, but out of curiosity. They study at places like the University for the Humanities, which, unlike Patrice LaMumba Friendship University, is not crowded with police and drug dealers. And unlike the African students at LaMumba, Coleman and his peers are not repeatedly stopped by police. These students are fortunate to come from affluent countries mostly for the adventure of Russia and to improve their language skills.


According to Gabriel Kophoff, director of Moscow's Foreign Student Association, roughly 500 North American and 1,000 European students came here in 1995 to study.


"Americans and Europeans keep coming to Moscow because they want to perfect their language skills or just get acquainted with the country that they will be doing business or research in," he said.


The problems these students face are the kind that any Westerner in Moscow faces. For the English and American residents living in the dormitory at the University for the Humanities, the past week has been a lesson in patience. Two rooms on Jill Haywood's hall are under remont, turning what was once an abode of learning into a rubble-strewn construction site. Despite the constant noise, the 20-year-old modern languages major from England said she's been making steady progress since arriving in January, and last week something inexplicable happened.


"I started talking. Everything just began to click. I don't feel like I'm in a totally foreign country anymore," she said. "But I still haven't gotten up the nerve yet to tell the workmen to quit the awful racket."


In a quieter room in the university's main building, Lydia Berezovaya gives a lecture to a group of Americans and one Japanese on the Russian intelligentsia. According to the history professor, who has been teaching foreigners since last year, the tribulations and uncertainties of dorm life are all part of the lesson.


"These shortcomings can be a big inconvenience, but I think that they develop a healthy sense of humor, and that's absolutely necessary for understanding Russian culture," she said. "There's a line from a poem by Tyutchev that says one will never comprehend Russia fully with intellect alone. It's a good line for students to reflect on while they're here. If they come away from the course understanding that, I think its been a success."


Khadine Letendre, a native of Panama, is a junior from Drake University in Iowa. She says she can relate to the poem. She says the Russian postal system has been quirky at best in delivering letters from her boyfriend. According to Letendre, 21, a student of international relations, a long- distance relationship can be daunting.


"How do you make up for so much lost time?" she asked as she reflected on the sporadic arrival of faxes, letters and e-mail from the States. "Phone calls are for the rich, you need a computer to do e-mail, and faxes don't always go through."


So how do students beat the e-mail, no hot water for weeks, noisy workmen blues? Sometimes splurging at a cushy restaurant helps take the edge off of dorm life. But most of the time students take refuge in the dorm lounge, where cards, cigarettes and the day's adventures are exchanged to the distant warbling of a Bob Dylan tape played through puny, portable speakers. The conditions may be discouraging, but they do inspire camaraderie.


Last week, Kevin, a 40-year-old graduate student from Boston, organized a pasta feed for American and Russian students. Ten showed up, and after the spaghetti was disposed of, a Russian guest produced a book of poetry and read to the group.


According to Christopher Magnus Smith, a student from Florida, the best way to calm down after a bad day in Moscow is to simply take a walk. "If I walk long enough, I inevitably run into political demonstrations by people even more upset than me. It puts things into perspective."


Having left the dorms for good, Clark Roanoke, a 23-year-old from California and recent graduate, lives and studies in a flat with an American roommate who is in Moscow on business. Roanoke, who is doing research for a paper comparing Anton Chekhov and Edgar Allen Poe, has noticed huge differences between being a student and working in Moscow.


"As a student, you're in a unique position. You have free time, you can reflect on the culture, think about what's going on, and make more connections with Russians. If you're here on business, though, you're probably schlepping around in an office all day. It's a different way of life." Despite Roanoke's misgivings about being a professional, he will be coming back to Moscow, after a summer sojourn in the States, to look for work. "Moscow is the place I want to be right now, even if that means getting a job."