Learning Russian is not the only goal that I set for myself in coming to study in Moscow. Another important goal for me was to gain “Moscow experience”. However, I set that as a goal for myself without really knowing what I meant by it. The truth is that I cobbled together this phrase as a response to all of my family and friends who asked disapprovingly why I chose to study in Moscow and not in St. Petersburg. I would say that as someone interested in Russian politics it is essential for me to gain “Moscow experience”. The phrase sounded attractive enough, and my inquisitors seemed satisfied with it, so I didn’t invest much time thinking about it further.
Now that my first semester in Moscow is coming to an end, I’ve been reflecting a bit on what I have accomplished in these first few months. Ironically enough, beyond language learning, I would list the experience I have gained living in Moscow as one of the most valuable things that I have earned this fall. Over the last three and a half months, the phrase “Moscow experience,” which I created to deflect disapproving questioners’ attention, has taken on new meaning for me.
Getting to know Moscow has been a multi-step process. The first stage in acquainting myself with the city was getting to know the layout of the city. On my first night here, my understanding of Moscow was confined to a mile strip of street. Our group arrived in Moscow in the early evening and took a bus from the airport to the dormitory that we spent our first few nights in. I passed out almost immediately after sitting down on the bus and didn’t wake up until we reached the dorm. That night our resident director took us for a walk to get some dinner and to acquaint us with our surroundings a bit. Having slept through the entire bus ride through the city, everything I saw on that walk was everything that I had seen in the Moscow. From that first night, my understanding of Moscow grew quickly. Trips on the metro and walks around downtown helped me learn the layout of the city.
The second and third parts of my familiarization with Moscow have been concurrent processes. I would describe the second stage as the transition from simply knowing where places are located to gaining an understanding of the historical meaning of those places. A good example is the White House, which is the name of the building in which the seat of Russian government is situated. The area around the White House is not only notable because of the building itself, but also it is significant as a central location for revolutionary activity during the events of 1991 and 1993. This sort of knowledge is part of the collective consciousness of Muscovites. As an outsider, gaining understandings like this helps me better interpret what I see going on in the city now.
Intrinsically linked with the second stage of becoming acquainted with Moscow, the third part of the process is characterized by the familiarization with important actors within the capital. A city isn’t just architecture and the series of spaces created between the buildings. It is an entire human ecosystem. I’ve found that getting to know Moscow better has involved who the important people are linked with different parts of the city. A good example of this is Bolotnaya Square, the place where all of the anti-Putin protests have occurred recently. Personalities like Alexei Navalny are directly linked with those events. Gaining familiarity with influential Muscovites and following what they say in the news and on social media has given me access to a new level of understanding in what goes on in Moscow.
Getting to know Moscow on all levels will continue on into next semester and as long as I continue to study the Russian language and Russian politics. Cities are constantly changing and evolving. Having built up this foundation of knowledge, however, I now observe what is going on from within the society instead of looking on from a distance. Simple things like understanding the symbolic significance of a place mentioned in the news or knowing which social commentators to listen to as events unfold makes a real difference in how much you understand a place. Cultivating this new connection with Moscow as a city is helping me build tools that promise to be important as I move forward with my studies. And when I return home for Christmas break, I can confidently tell my family that “Moscow experience” is proving to be as important as I said it would be.
By: Alden Wahlstrom
Term: Fall 2013