An American in Moscow

It’s been a few weeks since my last post. Things have gotten quite busy with travel, Rugby, meeting new people, friends visiting, and school work (yes I unfortunately have school work). Two weeks ago, I embarked on a long study tour to Moscow with my Global Economics class.

I had low expectations going into Russia. Given what we hear in the United States about how horrible Russia is, I thought Moscow was going to be rough, backwards, and uninteresting. Boy, was I wrong. Russia might have been one of the most interesting places I’ve been to in my life because of how different yet oddly similar it is to the U.S.

First of all, everything in Moscow was BIG. The streets were wider than Denmark’s streets and there was a lot of traffic. I was surprised by how much it felt like Los Angeles. But, different from L.A., Moscow has an efficient and developed subway system, which

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Moscow Metro (notice how clean it is)
we used as our primary mode of transportation to get to visits. (Fun fact: Moscow’s subway system is also one of the deepest in the world and can act as a bomb shelter if need be.) The subway stations were beautiful and so much cleaner than the New York City subway. However, they required long escalator rides and lots of walking, which made us really tired in the end.

So let’s get straight to it. Was the KGB watching us, the American students, the entire time?

No. Moscow was just like any other city. Everyday life is Moscow is actually pretty okay. Putin is not watching you every second. People go to work during the day, go back home in the evening to spend time with their families, and go out at night on the weekends.

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Putin only goes to work via helicopter. This is his Helipad.
However, that’s not to say there are not BIG problems with corruption in the Russian government. Putin gets A LOT of money and so does his friends, leaving little to the people. There is huge inequality (although if we look at the Gini coefficient statistics, inequality in Russia is the same as in American, which by the way is also BIG). Life outside Moscow, in the countryside which comprises most of Russia, is still quite harsh. Because Russia is so dependent on oil, the country suffers when oil prices dip. Yet, the situation is complicated. Russia is an ethnically diverse country, where certain groups want independence from the country. Many Russians think Putin is a good leader because he is strong and can keep the country unified despite its size.

That’s also what the Russian students said. As part of our programming, along with four other people from my class, I got to go grocery shopping, cook dinner with, and hang out with two Russian college students. We met Adelia and Maria, who study sociology at the Higher School of Economics. We went to Maria’s apartment, boiled frozen pelmeni (traditional Russian dumplings), and of course, had some vodka. It was such an incredibly fun time! I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in one night.

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Cooking dinner with Russian students
Over pelmeni, I got to hear their thoughts on Russian issues. Adelia said she liked Putin because he was strong and charismatic. On the other hand, she knows that the state television is full of propaganda. It’s hard to distinguish what is real and not. However, on the issue of Ukraine, she expressed that she “doesn’t know why the Ukrainians don’t like Russians, as Crimea was Russia’s property initially.” So, it seems that propaganda and the skewed narrative told by Putin definitely influences how people think. HOWEVER, other than having different perspectives on political issues, I was surprised by just how similar we all were. We’re all just a group of young people who go to school, who like to have some fun, and have dreams of a job with a good future. Why does the world have to be so divided?

We thought we were just going to cook dinner with them, but more surprises! Turns out that Maria is also a pro dancer (her dream is to join a dance company and move to L.A.) Her friend was a contestant in the Miss Moscow Mini pageant and Maria was a backup dancer for her friend’s talent segment. So, after being stuffed with pelmeni, the seven of us squeezed into an Uber, made a pit stop at a Starbucks, and became part of the audience of the Miss Moscow Mini pageant.

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Left: Gigantic Soviet-era monuments are magnificent and found throughout the city | Right: St. Basil’s Cathedral
We also met with other really cool people such as a journalist at TV Rain, which is an independent online television channel that takes a critical stance against the state media. Even though they are independent, possible repercussions from the state still limits what they are able to report. They are now in a small studio, as the state had shut down their large-scale productions as punishment for digging too deep. We even met with the head of the IMF in Russia and heard about his thoughts on the future of the Russian economy. Three big economic topics we heard during our week in Russia are whether Russia can diversify itself away from oil, how corruption impacts public funds, and whether worldwide sanctions really have an effect on the big players.

The United States seems similar to Russia because the U.S. is constantly fighting to be superior and also spins the narrative to favor the American point of view. We only really care about ourselves and Russia does the same. However, I can’t deny that Russia has had a Soviet past, suffers from insane corruption, and is struggling economically. But, even more clearly than before, I see that no matter where we come from, we are all just human beings who want to live a good life. Sometimes we let the big confusing things divide us and forget that we are perhaps not so different after all.

More than ever in this divisive global climate, let’s not forget that the Russian, the Syrian refugee, the Turkish immigrant, the African American woman, and the Asian lady who doesn’t speak English – are all just labels that divide us and let us loose sight of the humanity that we have in common.

One Month: Opening My Eyes

I spent last week traveling to western Denmark with my Global Economics class. As part of the DIS program, everyone gets to travel with their core class twice in the semester, first on a short tour near Denmark (which I just did), then later on a longer tour to a different country (I’ll be going to Moscow in March).

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Visit to Arla (ft. free yogurt)

After a four hour bus ride, we finally arrived in Jutland, the western most island of Denmark. The next few days were spent hearing from Danish companies and professionals. We got free yogurt and learned about the milk business from Arla, the largest dairy company in Scandinavia; heard about the strong possibility of the EU’s collapse at Jyske Bank, the third largest Danish bank; and saw the production of missiles in action at Terma, Denmark’s largest aerospace and defense company.

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Snow in Skanderborg

While bustling about in business attire on the tour, I also experienced my first Danish snowfall. The snow here is different. Each snowflake flutters and falls gently, spreading a soft cover over the landscape. On our second night, we were introduced to snobrød, a Danish tradition where you roast dough on a stick over a campfire. Amused by this s’mores alternative, my classmates and I huddled around a fire and slowly roasted our rolls of dough as the snow dusted over us. Despite its unforgiving cold, the beauty of Scandinavia’s landscape and traditions continues to captivate me every day.

 

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Snobrød

Finally, we ended the week with a panel at the Copenhagen Business School on the consequences of Anti-globalization. I’m continuously surprised by how my mind is being opened by simply engaging in discussions about issues that are happening in real life. Just a month ago, I was living in my own safe bubble. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I couldn’t see how problematic inequality was in America, whether for Democrats or Republicans. I didn’t want to talk about issues related to race and discrimination. I was afraid to touch anything controversial. I will probably always be in a bubble, but I am trying to break it away piece by piece.

This may be cliché, but I am truly feeling that the more I learn, the more questions I am left with. Throughout my time abroad, I hope to continue to question and seek answers. Some questions that I have been pondering and that I will leave you with:

  • How can we help people of opposite opinions listen to each other and find a solution?
  • Should we continue to talk about the economy in terms of growth and productivity? Is it realistic to expect human beings to become increasingly more productive?
  • Have institutions of higher education lost their educational value if much of our studies are just about the regurgitation of information and building a façade of prestige rather than learning to discuss critical issues?

 

Beyond the Books

I love my classes here.

When my professors teach, their eyes sparkle with excitement, and they exude an infectious passion about the subjects they teach. Why is that? Perhaps it is because Mette, who teaches Photojournalism, is actually a freelance photojournalist currently working on a photography book about Las Vegas. Or because Kristian, who teaches Equality in Scandinavia, has worked at the European Union and for a former Danish Prime Minister. Many of the professors at DIS actually do what they teach.

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Visiting the Danish Parliament

Birgitte, an interior designer and my New Nordic design teacher, doesn’t waste her breath. Every word she uses has meaning. Every sentence is painted together beautifully like a poem. It’s clean, comforting, and beautiful all at the same time. Just like the Denmark I’ve encountered in these first weeks. Tomorrow, we will be visiting the Royal Danish Armory Museum together to learn about authenticity in design.

Speaking of field trips, yesterday I had my first field study. I visited the Danish Parliament with my Equality in Scandinavia class and heard a member of the Social Democrats speak about the welfare state and issues on immigration. It was eye-opening to hear that although Denmark is perceived as “liberal,” certain issues such as immigration are still quite controversial and conservative. According to him, people fear that the welfare system will break down because there are too many refugees, many of whom cannot work and contribute to the system. I was a little taken aback and am still processing my thoughts about some of the things he said (and the current state of our world), so stay tuned. But now I know from an honest point of view, the opinions of some Danes, which I wouldn’t have by simply poring over textbooks.

One of the best parts about classes here at DIS is that we go beyond the books. I not only feel the material first-hand from the energy of my teachers, but I also see the things I learn about in the classroom on the nearly weekly field studies. It’s such a rare experience, and I hope to take in as much as I can while I’m here.