The “F” Word

I am about to show you, in less than 200 words, how completely inappropriate for me this country actually is.  Here’s an article published on the NY Times website a couple of days ago:

Russia: Orthodox Leader Condemns Feminism

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, said Tuesday that feminism was a “very dangerous” phenomenon offering an illusion of freedom to women who should focus on their families and children. About three-quarters of Russians consider themselves Russian Orthodox, and Kirill has fostered close ties with President Vladimir Putin, who has portrayed the church as the guardian of Russia’s national values. “I find very dangerous this phenomenon, which is called feminism, because feminist organizations proclaim a pseudo-freedom of women that should in the first place be manifested outside marriage and outside the family,” Kirill said, according to Interfax news agency. “Man turns his sight outward, he should work, make money. While a woman is always focused inwards towards her children, her home. If this exceptionally important role of a woman is destroyed, everything will be destroyed as a consequence — family and, if you wish, the homeland.”


God forbid I should have aspirations outside the home.  What a dreadful concept!  In fact, just on Tuesday in Russian class, we learned the phrase for ‘old maid’.  Our teacher explained that whereas now it’s used to describe a woman more than ~25 and unmarried, in USSR times it could be applied to someone who was 20-22.  Man, by Soviet standards I’d be a crone.  But at least now I understand why divorce rates in Australia and the West are so much higher than in Russia—it’s due to the break-down of society, and because people get married to feminists.  Oh, oh, wait—you mean it’s higher in Russia?  (Australia: 2.52 per 1000 people; Russia the third-highest in the world, at 3.36 per thousand people.  Source) But how can that possibly be?  I’m sure it’s nothing to do with the fact that they get married when they’re still children.  Here’s a hilarious set of theories I found when googling divorce rates:

“Russians marry young. Men because they want to move out of the family home but need a 2nd mother to do the cooking, cleaning and washing. Women because they think they are in love or because the want someone to take care of them. Young Russian girls have no money.
Why do they divorce? Men divorce because they found a better woman. (They never give up their 2nd mother if they don’t have a 3rd waiting.) Women because they realize that they don’t love the man and in the divorce, they will get a pile of financial compensation. (Apartment, car, money) Women might stay with a man if she has a bad job or kids because no Russian man wants a women [sic] with kids. A single mother is a bad thing in Russia.” (Source; emphasis removed)

The thing is, a lot of this is terrifyingly true.  It more-or-less matches what my Russian friends, teachers and students have told me.  A lot of young girls are, as I’ve said before, like sharks, and have the sole purpose of biting a rich man.  People in places other than St Petersburg and Moscow get married a lot younger, and I’ve been told that if you’re 18, 19 and don’t want to get married, then your choice is to leave. That’s it.  Leave, and go to one of the slightly-more-tolerant big cities.  And as for the part about ‘second mothers’?  Absolutely true, or at least that’s how it seems to me.  For all that Russian men are portrayed as tough and hard in Hollywood movies, I generally find them like incompetent, spineless children, with about as much emotional maturity.  (And there goes half my Russian readership..)  They’re coddled growing up, and have zero life skills when they hit mating age: more to the point, they’re still thoroughly on the apron-strings.  Mothers and grandmothers form an essential part of the economy here, in that they take care of the men and any children.  On the one hand, Russian women are perceived as the weaker sex, and their role is to look after the house and deal with matters of romance; on the other, they have to be strong enough to deal with a 30-year-old child that is supposed to be their partner.  Oh, no, wait: I got mixed up with the West.  Not their partner, their charge.

Does that mean that I therefore agree with all women’s behaviour here?  Well, have a look at this video and then ask me again:

This girl’s now famous, and described in Russian as a ‘Russian miracle’.  She was all over the Russian news and internet.  How refreshing to see someone who seems so intelligent and well-cultured being idolised!  (Oh, wait.)  I think my favourite part is at the end, when she realises she’s on the big-screen at the game, and starts pouting.  Before that she was probably trying to attract the attention of the men around her; as I’ve said before, going to a sports club or a game is a legitimate way to try and meet men here.

I should probably mention what think feminism is, as it’s clearly not just about marriage and family.  To me, it’s the idea that men and women equally have the opportunity to be what and who they want to be.  That’s it.  I don’t think that’s something that will destroy civilisations (and if it does, then those civilisations could probably use some redressing), but hey, I’m not in the Orthodox Church.  Of course, connected to this idea of opportunity is also the right to do that without being abused or suffering for it.  Do I think that feminism is perfectly implemented in the West?  Absolutely not, but I do think it’s a damn sight better there.

I remember when reading my uni textbooks about feminism and politics, a lot of which were written in the mid-90s, the Soviet Union was occasionally praised.  As in Australia following WW1, women gained a lot more rights and privileges as they’d had to step up while the men were absent, and didn’t settle back to their traditional roles very easily.  Likewise, in WW2 in the SU, Russian women not only stepped up at home, but acted as pilots, reconnaissance agents and snipers (source).  There are still intelligent, independent women here, but the Orthodox Church in collusion with its buddy the government want to make a stop to that.  Apparently, for the sake of survival.


A couple more articles on Russia Behind the News:

Russian women in charge of family finances; When will Russian women stand up for their rights; Russian women equal but only on the surface.

With love and vodka.

Okay, I’m making Jess entertain herself for a bit, so that I don’t fall too far behind on the blog.  Haha does that fall into ‘addiction’ territory?

Anyway, Jess arrived on Thursday afternoon, and on Friday morning she and I, plus my landlord, were standing in the post office, waiting to register her.  I was a little surprised to see a sign advertising that the post office was also a telegraph station.  Did I accidentally wake up in the past?!  It was fantastic.  My favourite part though, was when a man arrived to pick up (is that even the appropriate verb?!) his telegram.  How did he know he was getting a telegram at that time?  Did he get a text message about it?!?!  Hilarious.

Anyway, registering Jess took around three hours.  Afterward, my landlord remarked how fast it had been!  Being here involves standing in a lot of lines, filling in a lot of forms, and providing a loooooooot of paperwork.  I told Jess that I’d learned to just accept that things here take as long as they take, and she commented that her overbearing impression was that I wasn’t just accepting how things are in Russia, but that I am just spiritually and emotionally dejected!  That may be a little true, I’m not sure.  I know that when I went to the airport to pick her up, I was a little trepidatious—not of seeing her or anything like that, but in relation to the international airport itself.

Normally I love airports.  I find them this weird balance of entirely impersonal, and at the same time deeply emotional: they’re a place of goodbyes and returns.  But going to the international terminal in Piter reminded me that in just two months, I’ll be flying out of Russia, and I don’t even know how to process that!  I always feel like I’m just barely hanging on here, and in a way, the idea of going somewhere unknown again—even if things there are easier, or at least make some sense!—is a little scary.  I’m used to the armour now, and having to sort of re-form again just seems like an exhausting prospect.

After we’d managed to register JFord, we went to the zoological museum (everyone’s first stop in St Petersburg, right?).  It was SO COOL.  I’m not generally into stuffed animals, but this place had thousands upon thousands of them, including an entire stuffed woolly mammoth and the skeleton of a blue whale.  It was great!  We then went for a wander into town before I went to work.

Saturday was then spent at the Hermitage—where I’m outraged the lady wouldn’t accept my student ID, and charged me full price instead.  Like really, I’m overly outraged about it!—before having a bunch of people over to mine last night for some drinks.  Pretty cool thus far 🙂

Now, I seem to have discovered the magic of video.  Here’s me asking Jess some not-entirely-pertinent questions about how she likes Russia so far  (Jess, Nastya and I then recorded a fairly hilarious series of interviews at 3am after drinking, but you’re just going to have to use your imagination on that one haha!).  Enjoy!


Добрая Девушка

It’s a fine line between ‘remembering forever’ and ‘scarred for life’, but that’s the line I tried to walk when I criticised my student’s essay last week.  Like I said, I was very upset after I read it, and knew that he would have known the effect it would have on me.  As such, it was something that needed to be addressed.

After the lesson’s warmer, I asked the students to brainstorm things that would offend a Westerner such as myself.  This was actually on-topic, as we’ve been doing some work on conflict resolution styles over the past couple of weeks.  Also, as my students are obviously learning English, they need to know how to approach the people they’ll talk to in that language.

Once they’d had some time to think, each student wrote a few things on the board, and we discussed them as a class.  We talked about which things were always offensive (eg emotional/sexual/physical abuse), which were usually inappropriate (eg racism, religious intolerance) and which were okay depending on your audience (eg swearing).  I then asked the student who wrote the essay from my ‘intolerance‘ post to stand in front of the class.

I reminded the class that the student was to have written an essay about why he should do his homework, and that he would now read what he wrote to the class.  I asked the class to identify any things which were offensive, based on our list on the board.  (I grouped homophobia together with sexism, partly because that way I’m not breaching St P’s anti-gay laws, and mostly because it’s essentially the same issue—discrimination based on what genitals you have, vs what you like to do with them).

The student then out-right refused to read the essay.  The others all wanted to hear what he’d written, as they knew it must be bad for me to lead into it like that.  I could see the kid felt ashamed, and honestly, my heart ached for him.  I let him squirm for a couple of minutes, then asked him to identify which things on the board he’d demonstrated in his essay.  He identified ‘racism’, ‘tactlessness’ and then ‘sexism’ pretty quickly, and I let him sit down.  I then said the effect that reading the essay had on me.  I’m not aiming for cultural imperialism, but it’s important for my students to be able to identify which issues they have to tread lightly around, and actually as a result of that my students are becoming more and more liberal.  They’re reflecting more and more on whether saying a particular thing is racist, homophobic, etc, and it’s interesting to see them considering their own reactions and assumptions.

The kid looked miserable for the rest of class, and then afterward came up to me to apologise.  He said that he’d had “the devil in him” that day, and that he was upset over things that had happened at school.  He said that he couldn’t believe he had written something like that, that he was very deeply ashamed of himself, and that it wouldn’t happened again.  He was fine the next lesson, so I think I managed ‘the line’ fairly well.

Actually, my decimation of this poor kid was fairly useful on another front.  One recent exercise my groups have been doing is to re-word a letter to make it more forceful.  A lot of them have inserted swearing or personal insults, with only a rare few being colder/more formal/logical, or alternately more emotive and manipulative.  After one kid read his letter out, I stopped the class and said that simply swearing at or degrading someone wouldn’t win arguments with a Westerner—actually, it would make them sound like uneducated children.  I asked them whether that’s how they’d argue in Russian (bear in mind these are teenagers) and they said yes.  I asked whether yelling insults at each other felt good, and they said “yes, if we win.”  To me, this isn’t solving a conflict, it’s just a ‘might makes right’ situation.  As such, I’m now trying to work with them to find better, non-degrading, methods of resolving conflict and disputes, with a focus on logic and on respecting other peoples’ needs and feelings.  (You know, when I was doing ‘Personal Development’ class in high school, I never would have thought it would turn out to be one of the most useful courses I did!)  I’ve even got one student reading Plato’s Euthyphro: while in it, Euthyphro comes off looking stupid thanks to Socrates’ arguments, it is very logical.  I figure the possibility to make someone else look stupid is the hook for this particular student, while the text itself will hopefully lead him to develop his analytical abilities a little more.

Phew.  Longest paragraph in the world!  Speaking of things getting out of control, I accidentally wrote a mini-blog post on the fb page earlier this week.  I decided to include it here as well, as all of the articles are really interesting.  I’ll write a post about the Russian economy etc soon (it’s just a matter of trying to find the time to write!), but this should keep you going in the meantime:

I watched this brilliant video about US wealth inequality, and remembered how a man in a Bulgarian restaurant had a mini-rant at me about how things are ‘crazy’ in America, how wealth is unfairly distributed to doctors and lawyers.After watching the video, I decided to look into Russia’s wealth inequality. Here’s a brilliant quote from Credit-Suisse’s 2012 Global Wealth Report:

“Excluding small Caribbean nations with resident billionaires, wealth inequality in Russia is the highest in the world. Worldwide there is one billionaire for every USD 194 billion in household wealth; Russia has one billionaire for every USD 15 billion. Worldwide, billionaires collectively account for less than 2% of total household wealth; in Russia today, around 100 billionaires own 30% of all personal assets.”

A pension in Russia is ~AU$250 a month, and the average monthly salary is ~AU$670. For the record, living costs here are about the same as they are in Australia.

Here are a couple of really interesting articles which are absolutely worth reading: Russia’s wealth gap wounds Putin; Wealth and Poverty in modern Russia

I find it interesting that, as a former purportedly communist country, Russia is so plagued with inequalities.  There’s the economic situation as typefied in some of the articles I’ve linked above, and then the social situation and mores such as racism, as demonstrated by my student.  It brings me back to George Orwell—it seems that some are still more equal than others.  I wonder how long it will stay that way?

I’d like to finish on an adorable note: late Monday night, as I was still stressing over whether I’d been too harsh with my student that day, another student sent me a message out-of-the-blue on vkontakte:

Student: “Laura, you are truly the greatest teacher, I have ever now!”
Me: “Nawwwwwww thanks name!!  That’s very sweet of you 🙂 :)”
Student: “It is true!!!”

It’s hard to have any self-doubt when they’re so adorable!  <3

Lastly, here’s a video I rather enjoyed (all in Russian, but you’ll get it even if you don’t speak it)

Intolerance (updated)

Wow, what a change a day—and a different set of marking—can make.  I was still trying to catch up on my back-log, when I stumbled upon an essay which reminded me of all the terrible, terrible things about Russia.  The topic he was addressing was “why I should do my homework”, and you can find it below.  I’ve corrected spelling errors but that’s about it:

Well, we must do our homework.  There are several reason, why should we do that.  All reasons are quiet the same, but they a bit differ from each other.  Firstly, if you don’t work at home you become really lazy, actually it is not about me.  It causes slow brain crash.  In the future it can bring a lot of huge problems like getting bad job, marrying not beautiful woman, thick children.  This destiny meets million people all over the world.  This is happening only because of not done homework, but because of democracy.It is not a secret, that Europe became a bit stupid.  Marriages between, for example, two men are against nature.  Even though, Europe is Christian, these marriages are not forbidden.  I think (actually, not only me, but many people), that it is problem of mind, something happened with them lately.

Another problem is overpopulation of people from Near East and Africa in Europe, especially in France.  These two enormous problems can make either the fascism or communism come back.  All native population want these untraditional sexual orientation people and immigrants to move from their countries.  Of course, nobody wants war or something else, everybody wants to solve this problems in piece way.  But these all happened because of people’s lazy.  So, to make lifes of people better, governments of countries all over the world must improve education system.  This is the end of the first argument.

Secondly, if we don’t do homework, we will have free time.  You may think that it is very good, but in fact you begin to play computer/playstation/xbox games.  Very few people do sport in their free time (it’s about me), but I will tell you about crowd.  That’s true that most of the teenagers play games.  They think, that it’s better to walkthrough, for example “Skyrim”, but it is not the sense of life.  The REAL sense of life is to get wel paid job, beautiful wife and born healthy children.  And most of adults followed these rules.  You can only thank democracy for it.  It gives freedom to all people, and they are more likely to born a lot of children. You must thank not only democracy, but also its education system.  This is the end of the second part.  Both parts touch doing homework at any subject, but the third one will be only about English.

English.  The language of Shakespeare and Nyton, Byron and Elizabeth the Second, Jeremy Clarkson and Steven Gerrard.  Britain.  IT uses to be a great empire and all traditions are saved.  Half of the world speaks English.  You must learn it.  Doing homework is a very big part of learning foreign languages.  If you don’t do it, it means that you don’t learn properly.  So you will write such a stupid and illiterate essays, like this one.  I could finish on these warm words, but, unfortunately, there is about two hundred words left.  I have already become despair, I ran out of words.  So, I will tell you a jokes.  Once Vovochka asked his father-“Can you sign with closed eyes” – “Yeah” – “Can you sign in my register :)”. I know that’s not funny.  So you must do any homework that is given to you on time.”

My feedback—”This is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read: do you really believe this hate-speech?  Furthermore, it’s a very bad piece of work.  You show no understanding of the topic, you obviously haven’t planned, a lot of it doesn’t make sense, your ‘arguments’ are unconvincing and illogical.  I’d ask you to do it again but you clearly have no interest in improving your academic skills.”—Ok, I was a little emotional after reading..

When I arrived to work today, I firstly spoke with another native speaker at quite some length about this essay, and about the racism and backwardness endemic in Russian society.  The outspoken racism and backwardness.  I then went to a meeting with my Centre Director.

“Laura,” she asked me, “I know you like to be organised and planned.  It’s now March, so we have March, April, and May until contracts usually finish.  Do you know what you’re doing?”

Me: “There are things that I like and dislike about Russia.  Whenever I finish uni for the day, I love it and I feel like I never want to leave—but then other things happen.  This morning I read an essay by one of my students, and it reminded me of all those other things.  So no.  No, I don’t think so.”

Her: “Well this doesn’t come as a surprise, I know you’ve had a lot of ups and downs.”

So there you have it.  Screw my visa, I’m finishing the academic year then leaving EF.  I don’t know what I’ll do exactly—maybe see if I can switch to a student visa and study until my money runs out, or head back to Sydney and get a real job again.  Who knows.  But I’m not taking any more shit, and I want a job that uses half a brain.  Exciting times ahead, as always!


Update: I sent this post to my lovely friend Nastya, and she sent me the below.  I thought it was fantastic, and asked permission to add it to this post.  So here goes:

I read the post and got quite emotional 🙂 So I wrote this in the comments. But then it got too long and I decided to PM it to you  here it is. :)Well, there’s something in that essay which is true: the education system has to be changed. I am sure that in every country it’s criticized and no matter what measures are taken in order to reform it – there will be a crowd of unsatisfied people. Russian education system is a special case, and there are reasons for that.Firstly, the country (I mean the Russian Federation, which is confused with the USSR quite often) is relatively young. The Soviet Union collapsed, and its republics had a very blurry idea about what kind of values they would like to fight for. They needed their independence, they got it. And then what? While the leaders were trying to decide who will take over, the education system was still in action, almost untouched after the Soviet times (probably just the History of Marxism-Leninism was removed from the curriculum). And it lead to the situation when high school students split into two distinctive groups: those who hated Russia for the shitty reality they had to experience, and those who were expressing some sort of patriotism by trying to prove that all foreign people are dumb and Russia is “cool” because you can do anything here without the fear of punishment. Both groups though had a certain type of aggression that greatly contributed to Russian total intolerance.

Secondly, our education style doesn’t teach analytical thinking at all. It doesn’t teach to question, to challenge other ideas. It teaches to “read and retell”, “listen and repeat”. And if you ask a teacher at school why you need to do that, the most probable answer will be “Stop asking stupid questions and keep doing what I told you to”.

Besides, when Russian people started more or less freely going abroad on holidays, the first “explorers” were those who could afford it (not so hard to imagine what kind of people could afford it during first post-soviet years). Consequently, those people “successfully” created an image of a Russian for foreigners, and brought their aggressive attitude back to the country, telling stories about the stupidity of all those нерусские people.

Now, laziness. It is described in lots of Russian folk fairy-tales. The examples of Hope for a miracle or a magic animal, or someone else who will come and do your work for you. It is a part of the mentality. People do see it as an obstacle on the way to their achievements, but they are too lazy to do anything about it.

When I came back to Russia after my first summer in the States, I experienced a real “anti-cultural shock”. The reluctance of people accept differences is enormous! When I told some of my friends/acquaintances/classmates about how things can be different and how exciting it can be, I got lazy reaction like “Okaaaay…but I bet they don’t have this and that (something typically Russian) and they don’t know how to do this and that (again, something Russian). And if they do things in a different way, they’re most probably just stupid”.

The truth is that most of Russians are aggressive and unhappy. And they survive thanks to the talent to find happiness in whatever they can get.


Well, I’m in a fever-governed land of psychedelic goats right now, so it seems the appropriate time to write a blog post about medicine in Russia.

A few months ago, I was sick, completely lost my voice, and went to work to teach anyway.  In the middle of last year I broke my arm on Saturday afternoon and was at work Monday morning.  So, if I call in sick to work, I’m sick enough that I expect people to just believe me.

I realised by midday Thursday that this particular sickness was settling in, so emailed work to ask what I do if I need to call in sick.  My centre director called and said that I had to get to a doctor for a medical certificate straight away, and I basically straight-up ignored her: there was no way I was going to be able to leave the house in the condition I was in.  She said that maybe I should call a doctor to me then, but I have no idea how that works, and was far too ill to be motivated.  (On the topic of calling things to oneself, ambulances are free in Russia, so it’s normal for people to call an ambulance for just about anything, from actual life-or-death situations to a common cold.)

After a lot of emails in which I described rather graphically how ill I was, the HR manager called me yesterday afternoon and said that she believed I was ill, and gave me the details of a medical centre if I got any worse.  Hurrah.  Of course, the likelihood of my seeing a doctor here (barring actual problems) is pretty low.  Partly because of the price, and partly because of the quality.

I have no idea what the doctor costs for a normal Russian, but if you’re Western then they basically gouge you, as they assume you can afford it.  I’ve said before that the medical profession is one of the worst-paid in Russia, so not only will you be overcharged if possible, but doctors over-prescribe diagnostic tests and things as they make commissions from referring patients.  As my friend Lana put it, “10 thousand rubles?  I figured I’d just get better.”  (Also, Lana brought me a care package on Thursday = legend).

As far as quality, well.  Lana told me a couple of weeks ago how a non-Russian couple at her workplace are pregnant, and are staying in Russia to have the baby.  I started laughing uncontrollably, as it’s one of the worst ideas i’ve ever heard.  Maternal and infant mortality death rates are of course higher here than in the west, and moreover the experience is… complicated.  One of the Russian families I know in Australia emigrated specifically to have children, as it’s so dangerous here (this was ~15 years ago though, so things have improved somewhat).   It’s not just the danger that made me laugh at this couple though, but the sheer difficulty they’ll face: not only will they be gouged, they’ll have to deal with Russia’s constant contrariness, and they don’t speak Russian.  Worst.  Idea.  Ever.

As I said in my New Years’ post, a guy I know here woke up in hospital one morning after a big night at the staff party.  The way he described it was reminiscent of the prison in Shantaram: there were around 30 guys in this 6-bed room, one toilet to share between all of them (it apparently involved wading through faeces to get there), nurses who were rude to the point of cruelty, filth, and did I forget the bars on the windows?  When he awoke, he wasn’t sure if  he was in prison, an asylum, or a hospital, though he thought it must be one of the first two.  Not a place I want to be..

Ok, that’s about as much coherence as I’m capable of today, so I’m back to bed.  Woot.