In July and August of 2014, I was studying Russian at Moscow State University. This was after Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and the US and the EU imposed economic sanctions on a variety of individuals and businesses.
I was in Moscow when Malaysian Airline Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine on July 17th 2014. The US received intelligence the missile was fired from a Russian-backed separatist-controlled area.
Meanwhile, all this is happening, and I am blissfully unaware. Well, as blissful as possible studying in a country where you can barely order food.
I eventually heard about it from a few of my friends in advanced Russian because they could understand the news in the café. I asked them what was being said and they told me Putin controlled the media.
Say no more, I thought, their media must be full of propaganda.
Wanting to see what American news outlets were saying I headed to steps above the cafeteria looking for the single Wifi sweet-spot in that entire godforsaken building.
I opened my Viber App to find several messages from my mom:
“Haley call me as soon as you get this”
“Seriously Haley where are you?”
“This is really important. Call me.”
Imagine the normal panic of seeing 7 missed messages from your mom, and then imagine you’re in Russia.
I called her back as quickly as I could. With a sigh of relief, she explained what was happening between the US and Russia. She told me the news was scaring her and that my family members were calling urging her to “get me out of there.” As if Putin’s policy to address economic sanctions is to kidnap a group of college kids.
I’ll admit, I was mostly irritated. It seemed like everyone was being dramatic about my safety.
I was going about my days without actually knowing what was going and everything seemed normal: I’d wake up and try to avoid eating mystery meats and pastries filled with dill, the usual.
Then I thought back to my criticism of Russian media, “propaganda,” I called it. I trusted American media more, the same American media that was making my family fear for my safety.
Maybe its ratings or our negativity bias, which leads us to pay closer attention to dangerous or threatening news than positive or neutral news. Maybe it’s both feeding off of each other.
All I know is that my family’s perception was completely different from my experience, so without further ado, seven things more threatening than the Russian government during my stay in Russia:
7. The Chafe
When I was leaving for Russia, everyone joked that I would be stuck shivering in a breadline.
My experience was the exact opposite.
It was hot as all hell and we walked everywhere.
Besides constantly joking about being “burnt by the sun of the Revolution,” referring to a Russian film we watched, my lady friends and I mostly waddled around Russia complaining about how the chafe was “so real” and how “a thigh-gap would come in handy right about now.”
6. The Unmarked Cab
One of the first weekends in Russia, we all went out drinking in Moscow. I, being the typical “mom of the group,” did not get significantly fucked up. However, though I may have been the most sober, I was undoubtedly the worst Russian speaker.
As we were leaving, searching for a cab, one group of my friends got in a bright yellow cab as my group headed for the unmarked vehicle bound to drive past our destination as we all sobered up to realize he had removed all the door handles from the inside of the car.
I tried to protest: “Wait, I can’t speak Russian and he’s going to kidnap us!”
My friends were already falling into the car, ready and willing for our eventual fate.
I reached acceptance relatively quickly as he pulled away from the club: “This is where I die…” I thought. I was so preoccupied looking for escape routes that I didn’t even notice him pull up to the school.
“Whoo that was close..” I thought as I handed him some money. He stuck out his hand and mumbled something I couldn’t understand, but I got the point.
I wasn’t being kidnapped but I was getting ripped off.
5. The Bus coming back from Tver
The drive was supposed to be 3 hours but we got stuck in traffic, the air conditioner broke, and the windows barely opened.
“This is where we die” Brianna said as I slipped in and out of consciousness.
I’d wake up a few minutes later, realize that I was still drenched in sweat, miserably hot, ready to jump out of my skin and decided it was best to go back to sleep.
We sat like that for 5 hours.
4. Losing the Italian Girl at the Bar
Ah yes, back at a bar in Moscow that played a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers, served margaritas, and never closed. Seriously, the bars never closed.
I was with a group of American students, 3 Italian students, and 2 British students. We challenged ourselves to stay out as late as possible.
By 5:00am, I was done, ready to get the hell out of there. I had made it late enough.
We sat outside and waited for the rest of the group when one of the Italians came over in a panic. He said he couldn’t find Ilaria.
“What do you mean you can’t find Ilaria?” I asked.
“We’ve looked inside and outside of the bar and we can’t find her.”
Panic ensued, and we all searched high and low for her completely convinced, within fifteen minutes, that she had been kidnapped.
We gathered outside of the bar clueless as to what we should do next, maybe call Liam Neeson, when Ilaria walks outside, completely unharmed and happy. She was in the bar the whole time.
We ended up catching the metro back to Moscow State at 6am.
3. Jumping into the Neva
Our last week in Russia we spent in St. Petersburg, which was absolutely beautiful. One night, a group of us went out to watch the raising of the draw bridges. This was a typical tourist thing to do, however, we got the idea that it would be fun to jump in to the Neva in the middle of the night.
I didn’t think we’d find a place that wasn’t covered by a bunch of tourists but we came across a Russian artist, Sergei. We told him our plan and he told us exactly where we could jump in “it’s right across from my apartment” he said.
We followed him to this relatively tourist-less spot alongside the Neva and everyone jumped in so I jump in. Que mom’s voice asking: “If all your friends jumped off a bridge would you?”
Apparently yes, though this wasn’t a bridge, it wasn’t exactly safe especially when I realized the dock came up way past my head and I was going to have a really rough time trying to climb out.
Also, it was freezing.
So there I was, freezing in the Neva pretty positive that this was definitely it… “this is where I die.”
Luckily, Sergei found a lower part of the dock where we could easily climb out.
“Ha not dying today Russia, not today,” I thought.
2. Going home with the Russian Artist
Just kidding… though I protested, the group decided to take Sergei up on his offer to have tea back at his place. It’s 2 in the morning at this point and I have watched way too many Criminal Minds episodes in my day.
I was paranoid the entire time.
Looking back I wish I would have been more relaxed considering that he ended up being a really nice guy, a totally legit artist, and he didn’t slip anything in our tea.
The Night Train
Ah my favorite story to tell, and I wasn’t even awake for it.
We took the night train from St. Petersburg back to Moscow a few days before we were scheduled to fly back to the US.
The director of the program, John, popped his head in my cabin where four of us were talking about whether we liked Moscow or St. Petersburg better.
John interrupted us briefly to say: “This is the best group I have brought to Russia, thank you guys for making this such a great trip.” He walked down the row and said this to each cabin filled with Pitt students.
After taking plenty of literature classes, I should have picked up on the foreshadowing.
Anyways, I passed out from exhaustion. I woke up at 3am to Tom, the most obnoxious kid on the trip, yelling in Russian from the cabin next to mine. So I get up and ask him to be quiet, and he starts yelling at me, in Russian: “You don’t speak Russian.”
“Tom, I don’t give a shit, just be quiet so I can sleep.”
I woke up in the morning, having arrived in Moscow, when Brianna bursts into our cabin.
Oh my god, I have to tell you guys what happened last night.
In the one cabin, Tom and Brian got piss drunk, which was why he was yelling in Russian. They puked all over their other two cabin mates and the cots, which isn’t funny (but it’s kind of funny). Tom and Brain passed out drunk while their cabin mates spent the rest of the night sitting in the hallway.
Then Brianna told me that her cabin mate pissed on her suitcase, which had her laptop in it. Then, he was found passed out drunk on the bathroom floor wearing nothing but his underwear.
And through all this disruption, there were Russian workers trying to sleep on the night train so they could get to work in Moscow in the morning.
If there was a time for a Russian to threaten an American, it would have been there, on the night train.