Stranger in Moscow: A Tale of German Student’s Adventures in Russia
Linda Moessler is a German student who spent her spring semester studying international relations at HSE Moscow. Despite political tensions and cultural differences, Linda managed to fit in greatly and enjoy her stay in Russia. Miss Moessler agreed to tell us about her experience as a foreign student at HSE. Her tale will surely be of great interest for those curious about how international students live in Russia.
— Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? Where did you study in Germany? Where do you study in Russia?
— I am 21 years old. I am from Germany. I study international relations; it’s a new study program in Karlshochscule, my home university. Here, in Russia, I am doing my semester abroad at the Higher School of Economics. I was able to choose different courses, so I’m taking both master and bachelor courses from international relations study programmes.
— Would you please name some things that are better in Russia than in Germany and vice versa?
— Looking at HSE - it’s such a big university, and there are so many students, and I have experienced so many professors that try to make good relationship with students. They talk to us, know our names, want to have discussions with us. I enjoy that because it is something that never actually happens at big universities in Germany, so that impressed me. Of course, you have some professors that don’t want to do that, but most professors that I have here at HSE are very kind and open to that.
What I also really enjoy is that at HSE there are so many different courses, you can choose from as an international student. It’s a confusing system because when you choose your courses in LMS and sometimes you have other systems, it gets complicated, but you have such a variety of classes and so many different professors coming all over the world, teaching different things. Especially, during a semester abroad you can also experience new parts and things you want to get into, which you can’t do in Germany or courses that aren’t offered at universities in Germany. And as my school is so small we don’t have courses to choose from. We have our study programmes and courses we must do. There isn’t many to choose from, maybe one or two courses. And that’s what I enjoy about HSE as well.
— How did you adapt, mentally speaking, to living in a foreign country apart from university?
— I think I adapted quite well as it’s not my first stay abroad. I have already lived for a year in Argentina and one semester of high school in New Zealand. So, I knew what it is to live in a foreign country. And I also knew how it is to go somewhere without speaking the language. I didn’t speak a word of Russian when I came. I was able to read it, though. I think that language is the biggest barrier. You are not able to communicate. Later I’ve learned the most important things, things like what I like to drink, how to go shopping. But until you learn these things it’s hard to communicate.
The weirdest part is when people start talking on the street, and you just don’t understand anything. What was also very different for me was the weather. I came in January; it was minus thirty degrees, so cold. And I had to adapt to that as well. Regarding the culture, I think, I’m still getting to know the culture. But as long as you are open towards people and culture, not fixed on your opinion or ideas, it’s quite easy to get along and understand. I try to be open, and if something goes wrong, I learn from it.
— Did you visit some places apart from university, cultural or social events?
— There are a lot of possibilities for you to go and I was lucky that I have a Russian friend who lives in Moscow and studies art. She has a lot of knowledge, takes me to museums and explains everything. I think it’s very nice to see how the Russian culture reflects in the paintings of the artists. I like that. I’ve been walking around Moscow, getting to know it. Right know that I’ve seen all of the touristic places, I’m trying to find out more insider places. Then I also went to Sergiev Posad with ESN. I’m planning to see many more places.
— Why Russia? It seems a bit weird for a German student to go here. The USA or the UK seems like more common choices.
— I’ve already been abroad. I went far away from home twice. I didn’t feel the need of going so far away again and decided to stay closer to home. It came down to Spain and Russia. I know Spanish, and I could have studied it. Russia was something very unknown to me, and I had no idea about it. It was jumping into cold water again, and that’s what I liked. There are some stereotypes about Russia, and I wanted to know the country from the inside, not from what others tell me. I think that for a student at international relations it’s good to know what people say, but getting to experience yourself is better.
— Regarding the stereotypes were they subverted or proved right?
— Some of them were right. Some were wrong. I had a lot of people telling me that Russians always drink vodka. That’s not true. I’ve been here for more than two months, and I haven't drunk vodka. I have also asked many people, and they said that Russians don’t drink vodka like water.
Another thing I was very confused about was that in German media when they talk about Russian politics, they mostly refer to Kremlin, saying that the politics is made inside of the Kremlin. When I entered the Kremlin, I told my mom that I was about to do the Kremlin tour. And she asked whether it was Putin who invited me. In Germany, everybody has the picture of the Kremlin being like the White House, that the president lives there. I entered the Kremlin, and a Russian girl told me that Putin doesn’t live there and most of the politics are not made there. It’s more like a representative building. It was hilarious, and I saw that they don’t give us reliable information. It’s such a stereotype.
Another thing that proved right is that Russians are hard on the outside but soft and loving on the inside. I’ve experienced that. If you walk through the metro and watch people, they don’t smile unless they’re in a group. If they are traveling alone, they mostly never smile. And something that proved right as well is when you get invited in Russia they give you food till you can’t eat anything at least for a week.
— Did you get any emotional support from HSE officials or students upon arrival to Russia? If not from the university, whom did you get it from?
— All international students got a buddy. There's a website where you can register and pick yourself a buddy that you want to based on gender and languages you know. All of these guys I got to know, they do everything. I don’t understand how they manage it. If I had a problem, my buddy was always by my side. He picked me up from the Aeroexpress, and he told me what I had to do and took me to my dormitory. We rely on them for all logistical and emotional support. My friend’s buddy does much for other international students and was present at all of the ESN events. Then there was International Office, at the very beginning they said that they always have an open door.
— What use did you get from a semester abroad?
— First, you grow as a person. Then, of course, you get another perspective on your studies. A lot of people see a semester abroad as a holiday, while I’d advise going to the courses and give your best and listen, particularly in the university like HSE with its brilliant professors.
I am now learning a new language. Russian is not easy. All languages are hard, but, for example, English or Spanish are easy at the beginning. With your level of speaking the language, the hardness grows as well. With Russian, I think, it’s harder to begin. If you figure out the beginning parts, it’s more about vocabulary, not grammatical structure. You’re more motivated to learn the language under these conditions. I’m not the only international student, so I get to know not only the Russian culture, but you can build up your network of friends all over the world. That’s just amazing!
— What courses did you visit in Russia? Which teachers? Would you like to mention someone specifically?
— I haven’t done too many courses yet, the majority of my subjects will be in the fourth module. Recently we started a master’s course on human rights in Anglo-Saxon societies. What I enjoy about it is that there are people from so many different cultures, including people from Africa and Asia, Russians, Norwegians, Americans, Italians, everybody. The conversations and the discussion we have are interesting. The professor also encourages us to reflect and be critical. Also, human rights are not an easy topic. We discuss whether human rights could be adapted or should they. It’s a very tense issue as well. We also had a sociology course I greatly enjoyed as well.
— Was it easy for you to communicate with the Russian students? Are they different from the German ones? Have you noted any major differences between the students of our two nations?
— Of course, it’s easier for me to communicate with German or English-speaking students. The communication with every Russian student who speaks English was perfect, and they were very nice, and I got along with them, which is very cool. Some of them don’t know English, so there is no possibility for communication between us. That’s what makes me sometimes sad because I would like to communicate more. I wouldn’t say that there is much of a difference between Russian and German students.
— Could you mark some major similarities between your alma mater and HSE?
— What is also different, apart from the size, is that HSE has buildings all over Moscow. As an international student, I have to travel a lot. I may have a class from 10-30 to 12-00 and another from 12-00 till 18-00, but they are like an hour apart from each other. The professors know about it and are supportive. That will never happen at my university since we only have one building. I also very enjoy that, since this way you get to see various places in Moscow. Regarding the approaches, I have to say; they are rather similar. HSE is an open-minded university, a western one and challenging as well. Just like mine. I’m very happy that HSE has an open approach, especially in regards to my program.
— Were there any major problems apart from communication?
— I wouldn’t say major problems. Sometimes I don’t know the processes and how things are done. I was sitting on a lecture on globalization. I knew it, so I wasn’t listening too much. And the professor suddenly said to get our papers out and write an essay for a mark. I knew the topic; there was no problem for me. But that’s just one of these moments when you don’t know what’s going on. In your country it’s different. I started laughing, and then I wrote the essay, but things like that frequently happen. Aside from that, I had some problems in the bank, trying to pay for my visa. The people at the bank didn’t speak English and thought that I wanted to open a Visa account. We had a conversation going in two different directions. It was very long and it was a real problem. That was one of these moments when my buddy was by my side. There were six of us, international students, at the bank – three from Germany, two from Korea and one from Mexico. We didn’t know what to do. The buddy said that she would be there in ten minutes and she did that. You always find a way out. I had a bit of trouble in the subway as well, lacking five rubles to pay for my ticket. I only had a card, which didn’t work on the machine since my card doesn’t have a pin-code. No one knew English, and I didn’t speak Russian. I couldn’t have walked all the way home. It was such a minor problem, yet so serious. In the end, one man lends me these five rubles. Problems happen, that’s OK, and you solve them.
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