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Brazilian Student Comes to Russia to Realise His Dreams

Brazilian Student Comes to Russia to Realise His Dreams

Brazilian student Vicente Giaссaglini Ferraro has been interested in Russia since childhood, when he started learning Russian on his own. He is now studying in the Higher School of Economics’ Applied Politics master’s programme. In an interview with the HSE News Service, Vicente discusses what drew him towards Russia, why he chose HSE, and why he is happy when it is cold.

I started dreaming about Russia when I was 13. For us Brazilians, Russia is something exotic. We don’t have snow and our climate and culture are completely different. Overall, I think that the more different a culture is, the more interesting it is to get to know the culture. And Russia is the kind of country that is most different from Brazil.

Why did this dream arise when it did? It was right after the September 11 terrorist attacks, which really disturbed me. I wanted to understand why people would do this, and this gave rise to my interest in international relations. Then in our history lessons in school we touched upon the Cold War, and I saw that textbooks show Russia how it is possibly shown in the U.S. – that everything’s bad and scary here. I didn’t believe this and decided to study Russian in order to learn about the history of this country from Russians themselves.

I looked at Russian websites and became intrigued by the language – I thought the alphabet looked really beautiful. Then I went to a second-hand shop in the small town my aunt lived in and I stumbled upon some excellent Soviet textbooks. Unfortunately in Brazil, I really didn’t have anyone to speak Russian with. I remember only on one occasion when a Russian guy from Khabarovsk did an exchange programme in my city (San Vicente). He helped me, but we didn’t have a lot of time.

Two years ago, when I was 23, I went to Belgorod. Belgorod State University has a preparatory faculty for Russian language, where I studied for eight months. There’s a company in Brazil – a Russian-Brazilian alliance that organises student exchanges. They give you the opportunity to come study in Belgorod, Kursk, or Moscow. If we are talking about studying in a master’s programme, I would chose Moscow, which is exactly what I did. But I was more interested in studying Russian at a preparatory department in the province. 

Around the world, political experts are well versed in politics, but sometimes forget that there is the dark topic of economics. Money is needed in order to carry out political programmes

Now I have an impression of the Russian capital and of what life is like in average Russian cities – it’s completely different there. I celebrated Maslenitsa in both Belgorod and Moscow, and it seems to me that this is done in a more ‘Russian’ way in Belgorod; the national traditions and ceremonies are more evident there. I went under the freezing water for the traditional christening, and I felt like I became a little Russian.

Everyone always asks me about the climate: ‘You’re from Brazil? You have to be really cold here…’ But the problem isn’t the cold, but that in the winter, and even more so in the autumn, there’s not enough sun. Actually, when I look at the forecast on my phone and see that there will be frosts, I’m happy because this probably means that there will be sun. This is like a holiday for me.

Alternatively, in the summer I feel like this is the best place on earth. I really enjoy the 11 p.m. sunsets and 3 a.m. sunrises. The length of the day in Brazil doesn’t change much; even in the summer, the sun sets at around 7 p.m. and rises at 7 a.m. Another natural phenomenon that really surprises me is the Indian summer.

In Belgorod, I lived in a dorm with other foreigners, which was also a very interesting experience. We had a really good advisor – Daria Khalyavina – and we were sometimes treated like kindergarteners. I even felt that I had been reborn and was growing up in a Russian school. It was great.

The most curious difference between Brazilians and Russians that is difficult to get used to is the fact that Russians are very honest, while Brazilians prefer to be polite and tell you what you want to hear. Let’s take clothing for example. If you’re not dressed very well and you ask a Brazilian about it, they’ll still tell you that you look great. A Russian on the other hand will tell it like it is – you have awful clothes. This might be offensive. Initially, when I lived with other foreigners in Belgorod, I wasn’t offended by Russians’ directness – I took it as an unusual cultural experience. But when I was in Moscow around Russian students, I started getting offended from time to time. Both behaviours have their plusses and minuses though. I’ve become more honest here, but I’ll need to be more careful in Brazil or I might offend someone.

Another thing I had to get used to was the rules for greeting people. In Brazil, a man greets another man with a handshake, but he kisses a girl on the cheek. This is what I did my first few weeks in Belgorod. Girls were of course puzzled by my behaviour, and I myself understood that I was doing something wrong. But when my friend saw what was going on, he warned me about the way I greeted people.

I made another mistake when I was invited to someone’s place. In Russia, when you’re invited somewhere, an entire banquet is arranged with a ton of food and drinks, and guests usually come with a gift of some sort. I didn’t know this, however, and went to a friend’s place without anything, like we do in Brazil. Now I follow the tradition and buy something.

I got my bachelor’s degree in international relations at Pontifical Catholic University in São Paulo, where I took part in research on social and political relations on Brazil’s border with Paraguay and Bolivia. I really liked this work, and I often conducted field research, interviewing locals, teachers, doctors, officials, and politicians. The most interesting thing is that there aren’t any barriers there – you can cross the border by just walking across the street. Plus, everyone there speaks two languages – Spanish and Portuguese – and they often mix them.

But I felt like I should have chosen a more specific topic to study in my master’s programme because international relations cover a lot of themes without delving into each of them individually. I thought that the most interesting thing to study would be political science in order to understand how relations are built between countries. It’s important to learn what’s going on in their domestic affairs as well, as foreign policy is a reflection of domestic policy. And what could be more interesting and beneficial than studying political science in a country that I love?

Closer to finishing the preparatory faculty in Belgorod, I started looking at master's programmes in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and I got into two – HSE and a university in St. Petersburg. I went to Moscow and Petersburg to learn more about the universities and programmes. Both of the universities told me about everything, but HSE did it in a way that made me feel like it was actually interested in my studying there. That is, it wasn’t just me who wanted to study at the university, but the university wanted me to get in as well. This was my impression from interacting with Irina Mossakovskaya. I’ve already said that I had an advisor in Belgorod who almost became a second mother to me, and I jokingly call Irina my Moscow mom.

A very positive aspect of HSE is that you can choose courses from other faculties. On several occasions, I opted for courses in economics because this is HSE’s strongpoint. Around the world, political experts are well versed in politics, but sometimes forget that there is the dark topic of economics. Money is needed in order to carry out political programmes.

Once at a club, my Brazilian friend got into a bad situation. These guys were about to beat him up, but when I said that we’re from Brazil, they started talking to us instead of fighting

My friends who study at other universities in other cities say that the instructors there are not very accessible to students and keep away from them. But I haven’t seen a huge difference in the way teachers and students interact at HSE compared to Brazil. I’ve only encountered one ‘Soviet professor,’ as they say, for whom it’s important to just memorise something and regurgitate it. We have a different approach in Brazil; it’s not important to memorise something, but instead be able to discuss it. The instructor expects to hear your point of view. It seems to me that the majority of instructors at HSE take the same approach.

There are things that I studied in Portuguese in Brazil that I never understood. But here I finally have instructors who are able to explain them in Russian.

I'll never forget my first class at HSE with Boris Makarenko. He discussed Russian politics is so much detail and so convincingly that I decided on the very first day that I wanted him to be my academic supervisor. We still keep in touch, and I did two internships in his Centre for Political Technologies. I’m writing my dissertation, comparing how the federal executive branch, the legislative branch, and regional leaders in Brazil and Russia interact. Now is a very interesting time for me as a political scientist in Russia. Interesting, but not very pleasant due to talk of war, sanctions, and unfriendly relations.

I feel like I'm in a safe place. I’ve heard several stories of foreigners being attacked in Russia, particularly those who don’t look Russian. People often tell me that I look like I’m from the Caucuses. One time a girl even tried to speak Armenian with me. But when I’m in the metro people still come up to me to ask for directions, so many don’t see me as a foreigner. It seems to me though that Russians take well to Brazilians. When I say I’m from Brazil, people invite me over. Once at a club, my Brazilian friend got into a bad situation. These guys were about to beat him up, but when I said that we’re from Brazil, they started talking to us instead of fighting.

But that's the problem – I realised my dream about Russia, and I haven't yet found another one

When I was getting my bachelor's, I dreamed of working in the foreign service. I have several friends who are diplomats in Moscow, and I once helped them organise an event at the Brazilian embassy connected with a possible BRICS football tournament. It’s an interesting life – traveling, a good salary, big events – but I don’t think it’s for me. I see myself in academia. I’m thinking about doing a post-graduate degree in Brazil or Europe. I initially thought about the U.S., but I want to continue studying Russian relations, and to do this it’s necessary to be close to the country. If I study in London, for example, I’ll be able to come here to conduct research or just meet friends. Another route would be government work. I want to serve my country and see how my work helps change something in politics.

My family has always supported me. This is why I want to give my mom a trip to Russia. I want her to come to my graduation in June. She has only been abroad once in her life, and it wasn’t very far from Brazil. Now she’ll have the opportunity to learn about a completely different world. She says herself that she never before thought that she’d ever come to Russia. I didn’t walk at my undergraduate graduation in Brazil, and my parents complained about this. But now I understand that a graduation isn’t only for us – it’s for our parents and for our families too. I was egotistical at the time, but now I want to fix that.

When I dreamed about Russia, I imagined Red Square, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and Saint Basils Cathedral, and now I study literally 150 meters from Red Square on Ilyinka Street.

But that's the problem – I realised my dream about Russia, and I haven't yet found another one. Well, I have dreams, but they aren't as far-reaching as traveling to Russia.

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