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Regular version of the site

My first month in Moscow

Johnson Chun Shing CHOW arrived to Moscow early June to study Russian, do internship and get to know more about the Russian culture. Here is how his Moscow experience unfolds

What’s Moscow? Prior to my arrival it was the heart of Russia, filled with Soviet-era memories like the Kremlin, monuments and military museums. Having studied the Russian culture and language for a while, I am not so naïve as to believe Russia is the land of only suffering and cold. However, Moscow to me is still more like a tourist attraction with facets of the last century.

Honestly, I did not like the city when I first arrived from Denmark after my exchange studies there. The Danish capital Copenhagen was comfortable while Russia drastically altered my surroundings. Suffering from a midnight flight without sleep for 24 hours, dragging a 20 kilo luggage during Moscow’s metro rush hour and getting quite mentally-depressed by modest dormitory conditions, the early weeks of my life in Russia, to put it more optimistically, were a great mental challenge. Torn between the cozy imagination of Denmark and the relatively-harsh life in Moscow, I was not sure what to do. Without companions, I had to travel alone with only occasional phone calls with parents to comfort my distress in an alien land.

Fortunately, I managed to gradually overcome the uneasiness and adapt to the brave new world. The Russian language classes offered to me by HSE are taught by teachers who are passionate in sharing their knowledge and the schedule, 15 hours for me, is manageable. At first, the lessons were a bit tough as everything was communicated in Russian. Then I realized, if I am going to perfect my language skills, it is necessary to immerse myself in the language. The lessons also urged me to write essays in Russian on mass media, politics and personal life, which my previous classes back in Hong Kong never trained me to. The new influx of vocabulary and daily interactions opened a new dimension that helps me sharpen my skills in Russian language. With the arrival of new students in the third week, my mood improved as there were more ears to listen to my feelings (rants). It is heartening to find someone from Turkey and the US who were willing to go to military museum tours with me as I slowly restored my interest. 

If there is anything that I can be proud of, it is working as an intern in the HSE Faculty of Economic Sciences International Office. Tasks like translation and design allow me to demonstrate personal interest and expertise. This internship is also more meaningful compared to some of my Hong Kong friends’ internships which they have to sit in an office all day just to work on data entry. 

The head of International Office,  Oxana Budjko introduced me to a number of events intended only for Muscovites. As a local, I attended a concert held by a HSE orchestra. I am not a big  fan of classical music and did not have high expectations. Surprisingly, the concert turned out to be mesmerizing with superb performance. When I took some photos, the performers kindly posed for my camera. 

Next time I joined a walking tour. Other than music, I am also interested in architecture. The walking tour again suggested by Oxana is an educating one. Led by a local guide, I have learnt much about avant-garde Soviet architecture by physically walking around them and listening to their intriguing history. Despite the fact that the whole tour was conducted in Russian which honestly I just understood 30% of it, the scenic sunset I encountered by chance is something to remind me of this fascinating tour.

Finally, I visited a Dumpling day at a Russian artist exhibition. Culinary culture is another facet of the Russian society. What’s better than joining family gatherings and appreciating artworks at the same time? An unforgettable blend of locals singing folk songs, handmade pelmeni (Russian dumplings) and exhibition of lovely dolls really made my day. Only if I can speak better Russian to communicate with the ladies and children!

What really caught my attention is also the human element in Moscow. Contrary to my imagination, the capital city of Russia is not a faceless, robotic city. While transportation and living can bring stress at times, Russians are far from being  cold-faced. It amazes me how traffic police, canteen waiters and security guards treat each other like friends in the same dormitory, which reminds me of the Hong Kong family TV shows back in the 80s. How ordinary Muscovites are willing to help a foreigner like me to drag his baggage and walk all the way with me just to show the correct direction convinces me Russia does have a human face, opposite to western stereotypes.

By the time this article is published, I would have been in Russia for a whole month. So if you ask me, what is Russia? To me, it is now much more than a touristic  attraction and the land of onion domes. Hopefully with more friends, I can continue to explore and find out the true meaning of Russia.  
 

All photos credit Johnson Chow Chun Shing