From the snowy peaks of the Uralsto the depths of Lake Baikal to the intricate splendor of St. Basil’s Cathedral, Russia has something for everyone. Though many have tried to conquer it, this tenacious land has always pulled through and is a place of many cultures, languages, histories, and traditions. It is an old country that also offers the many perks of an emerging nation. Life in Russia brings to life tales of tzars, Faberge eggs, and interesting traditions such as never shaking hands over a threshold or giving flowers in even numbers. Time spent in this vast land is sure to create an unforgettable international education.
Geography & Demographics
As the largest country in the world, Russia has many neighbors. Ukraine and Belarus lie to the west, Georgia and Armenia to the southwest, Kazakhstan to the south, and Mongolia and China to the east.
The land is mountainous in the central and southern regions. The northern area is covered in thick forest known as taiga that is predominantly made of trees like spruces, pines, and birches. Expansive steppe, an arid, level, and treeless landscape, covers the south.
The country also includes almost 23,000 miles of coastlines. It is made up of many bodies of water including the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea which is classified as the largest lake in the world although it is salt water. Others are the shallow Sea of Azov, the Baltic Sea, the Arctic Sea, the White Sea, and the Pacific Ocean.
Russia’s climate offers extreme changes in temperature. It is generally a pleasant place to visit in the summer, with its endless daylight hours and white nights in the northern half, though the winters can be quite harsh and dark.
Food & Culture
Nearly all of Russia’s 142 million plus population speaks Russian, an East Slavic language. However, there are over 100 languages spoken throughout the country. The second most popular language is Tatar, which is spoken by the 5.3 million descendants of Batu Khan and the Mongol Golden Horde. Though many people find Russian harsh and are intimidated by the Cyrillic Alphabet, it is certainly a manageable language to learn for adventurous students.
Russian culture is a hybrid of the many cultures that exist or have historically existed within its borders. For instance, borshch, a popular soup of a beets, potatoes, and cabbage, is actually a Ukrainian dish. Additionally, the famous and colorful St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow was likely influenced by Italian Renaissance architects.
Russian culture incorporates many aspects of Byzantium, the area currently known as Istanbul, with its Orthodox religion, and Germanic architectural influences. The city is known as Peter the Great’s “Window to the West,” which is representative of his goal to make Russia a more modern country.
Russian food, like its culture, includes tastes from the many regions of its former empire. Pelmeni, Siberian in origin, are dumplings usually filled with meat, mushrooms, or a mix. Other favorites are shashlik, which are Georgian shish kebabs. Students should be sure to try uzbek plov, a staple dish which originated in Uzbekistan. The hearty rice dish has many variations but usually includes carrots, onions, coriander, cumin, and lamb.
The Russian currency is the ruble whose exchange rate is favorable for students from the United States. It consists of both paper bills and coins and has no official symbol.
Russia is generally a safe place to visit but having street smarts is always helpful. Try not to speak very loudly in public, especially if you are speaking English. Most Russians don’t speak very loudly in public and if you are, it may draw unwanted attention from pickpockets. Additionally, St. Petersburg is well-known for more than its grandeur and cultural riches. There are also neo-Nazi elements that you need to be aware of, especially if you do not look like a white European. Though they don’t normally frequent tourist hot spots, it’s important to be aware of their presence. They typically wear either track suits or military-esque clothes and New Balance sneakers.
Things to Do
There are many activities and holidays, new and old, that take place in Russia annually. Maslenitsa is a pre Lenten festival with pagan roots that is comparable to Mardi Gras. At this festival, visitors gorge themselves on plenty of bliny, big crepes, and burn large hay figures to ward off the winter. Orthodox Easter is another interesting holiday in Russia. After the lengthy night church service, people bring baskets filled with meat, cheese, salt, cucumbers, eggs, and kulichi, a type of Easter bread, which the priests bless. Some Soviet holidays have survived to the present day such as International Women’s Day on March 8th. Most of these holidays are big events for families that include plenty of food, drink, and frivolity.
Studying in Russia
St. Petersburg is the most popular city for study abroad. Most programs offer students the choice between living with a host family or living in a dorm. This is almost without exception, unless you study in smaller cities like Vladimir or Yaroslavl, where dorms are not an option.
The decision to live in a dorm versus a family is entirely up to you but living with a family usually allows for more exposure to culture and history. On the other hand, living in a dorm can allow more personal freedom and space, because Russian host families incorporate students as a member of the family, for better or for worse. Whichever is chosen, you will acquire more language skills and cultural experiences than you ever could while studying Russian in your home country.
The visa system in Russia applies to most foreigners, including citizens of the US, Canada, and most of Europe. To get a visa, contact your local Russian consulate in your home country or in the foreign country in which you are registered. Once you arrive in Russia, you will also be required to register within three days of arriving in any city. Usually, your hotel, hostel, or study abroad program will do this for you. Additionally, it is important to carry your passport and registration papers at all times. Policemen are known for stopping random people and asking for their documents. Travel within Russia is normally done by train. When buying tickets or traveling this way, you will need to present your passport to the conductor or ticket salesperson.
Several masters programs are offered through St. Petersburg State Polytechnical University. The institute has earned a stellar reputation in the fields of engineering and economics. Programs typically last two years and the school often finds quality internships for their students so they can find a job after graduation. Students can earn international masters degrees in fields such as business development and energy technology while being immersed in Russian culture.