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Eastern Europe

The following information is compiled by a working group that exists within CGIS. Everything that has been created or curated was done so to encourage all travelers to consider their various identities as they pursue an international experience, but the research shouldn't end here. We do recognize that many of our quotes or examples have negative experiences or observations embedded within, even in the reflections that are mostly positive. We are acutely aware of how these comments can and have affected the perceptions and realities of other nations and wish to exercise caution and balance in providing an outlet for the perspectives and narratives of students and faculty. We are always available to discuss some of the narratives and examples discussed here with students or concerns they have during their pre-departure and on-site experience, and we encourage you to email CGIS should you have any questions, concerns, or would like an opportunity to contribute to the conversation.

American

“In America, it’s common practice that if people make eye contact with you, you give a soft smile. Or say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ at a convenience store. Here, absolutely no one smiles on the streets. Russians carry a serious aura in the public and often have a sour expression. And when I bought bottled water from a stand the other day and instinctively said thank you, the eyes of the woman behind the counter narrowed in on me. She knew I was a foreigner as this was not common practice.” — CGIS Alumnx

People with Eastern European accents are often the bad guys in action movies and tensions have gone up and down between America and Russia (and by extension, the former Soviet bloc) since at least the second World War. However, Americans traveling to Eastern Europe should not fear instant dislike for being American (Wanderlust Marriage Travel 2013).

Americans may find that post-Communist countries are closer to the chest about sharing personal information –– and that politics can be a taboo topic (Tim Wenger 2018). Once befriended, however, Russians can be very warm and welcoming to Americans. Students of color might find their Americanness questioned by locals, as many associate Americans with whiteness. 

As one student noted, it is more than a change of clothes that marks you as an American on your travels. However, as long as you make the effort to interact with locals and are open to having conversations about your American identity, this can be far from a bad thing (Nataleah Small 2016).

Disability

“Prague is one of my favorite places on Earth, but fair warning, it’s considered only moderately accessible for wheelchair users. It’s also one of those great European cities paved almost entirely in ankle-breaking cobblestone. So if you’re hyper-mobile or walk with a cane like me, the city becomes decidedly less walkable and decidedly more hobble-able with copious breaks. But it is one of the most beautiful cities on Earth.” — Sick Girl Travels review on Prague, Czech Republic 

Physical accessibility is a barrier in many areas of Eastern Europe, where historical areas have unruly cobblestones and, in general, the infrastructure to make accessible cities just isn’t there. For example, Prague’s Old Town is paved in cobblestones and can be difficult to traverse in a wheelchair or with a mobility aid (Jen Lloyd 2020). The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of course does not apply in other countries, and often Eastern European countries have a much lower standard of accessibility than American students are used to seeing.

The stigma associated with disabilities is common in Russia, although there is a greater understanding of disability there than in years past (Andrey Tikhonov n.d.). Still, individuals with visible disabilities have been told to leave stores and keep away from others (Ilaria Parogni 2015) Stigma and barriers to access also exist in Hungary (Penn State 2018). 

For students with food restrictions, this can be challenging in certain locations as recognition of dietary restrictions can be difficult to translate into the local language and cultural context. However, it is not impossible. It is important to have a reputable translation of dietary restrictions that the student can provide to restaurants so they can better understand the student’s needs (Gluten-Free Traveller, n.d.). For gluten-free individuals or vegetarians/vegans, the bread-and meat-heavy diet of Eastern Europe can be challenging at times. Students may want to bring staple snacks from home and research how other travelers with similar dietary needs eat abroad (Gluten-Free Passport, n.d.).

Finally, issues with pollution are not highly noted in Europe, except for places like Bosnia (Gov.uk, n.d.). However, individuals with asthma and other lung disorders should note that smoking, especially indoors, is much more common and accepted in Europe than in America, with Europeans leading the world in tobacco use (World Health Organization, n.d.).   

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Gender

“Gender norms in Russia are different and there is a lot of emphasis on a woman's physical appearance. Men are also much more open when it comes to approaching women. I had a lot of incidents where men would catcall me or my uber drivers would just be super creepy and comment on my looks the entire ride. It wasn't a terrible experience, it just took some getting used to.” — CGIS Alumnx

Students may be surprised to see a stronger prevalence of gender norms in Eastern Europe than in the U.S. A Pew Research Center poll surveyed European populations on whether they favored gender equality. While most people said gender equality was “very important” or “somewhat important,” Eastern European countries had the lowest “very important” ratings, with only 54% of Russians saying it was “very important” compared to the 91% of people in the U.S. (Pew Research Center, 2019). 

Unsurprisingly then, Russia has more extreme views on gender norms than peer nations. In a holdover from the Soviet Union, Russia had long banned women from roughly 450 job types and only just removed the restriction on most of them, still preventing women from holding 100 of them  (Fred Weir, 2020). In the Czech Republic, women are often treated as the “weaker” sex with gendered expectations on them to be mothers and wives (Government of Canada, n.d.). Women are similarly expected to play a bigger role in the home in Bosnia, and a female student going to the gym might not see local women in abundance (Katie Wells, 2014).

When it comes to safety for women, places like the Czech Republic are considered pretty safe to go it alone (The Curated Collective, 2018). Though travel at night is not recommended, especially alone, is also considered relatively safe and in fact, a Global Peace Index found the Czech Republic to be one of the safest countries in the world (Wandertooth, 2020). Most of the region is considered quite safe, excluding less safe Bosnia and Russia (Vision of Humanity, n.d.). However, another female traveler remarked that she had little difficulty in Russia and never felt unsafe there (Her Packing List, 2016). 

And as in America, women may encounter everyday sexist acts, such as this CGIS Bonderman Fellow experienced in Hungary: “From an older Hungarian man cutting me in line at the supermarket to a fellow volunteer micromanaging my every move while I am on my shifts (even though I’ve been here weeks longer than him), some small form of sexism occurs almost every day” (Abigail Kennedy, 2020).

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Heritage Seekers

“We are in-betweeners, caught between one world and the next. I did not have to fight to survive as he did, but I am proof that he made it. I carry parts of him, even the pieces he thought he had to leave behind. To be part of a diaspora is to be homesick no matter where we are in the world, but at least we can be lonely together. This was our secret, a truth only people like us have the language for.”  — Tyra Bosnic, speaking in Al Jazeera about her and her father, who fled Bosnia during the war

Students of Eastern European descent may wish to return to their roots and discover where their families lived. 

Jewish heritage seekers should expect to find their families’ former homes and neighborhoods largely bereft of a sizable Jewish population. In Lithuanian capital Villinus, once called the Jerusalem of the North, public recognition of its once large Jewish population is scant (Jonathan Steele 2008). A similar experience can be found for descendants of Polish Jews, though there is hope for better remembrances of the Jewish past in Poland and room for present-day Jews than in Lithuania (Joseph Berger 2015).  Regardless, there is a valuable history to recognize and connect with across Eastern Europe once you know where to look for it (Madison Jackson 2020).

Additionally, students whose families fled from the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia during the long decades of suppression may wish to connect to their family roots. However, it can be a challenging experience (Tyra Bosnic 2020).

The best thing a heritage seeker can do prior to departure is consider what kind of experience they hope to gain there, and consider how their status as both an “insider” and “outsider” might impact their time abroad (Diversity Abroad 2019).

LGBTQ+

“Poland has become [a] neutral place for me to transition. No one knows who I was before: the little boy who was afraid to cry. No one knows anything about me; Poland is a chance for me to build the life I want to live. There is a power in anonymity, and for me, this is a time to explore what my gender identity means to me, what it means to be trans, and who I want to be after the dust has settled. This is the time to understand what I want, and how I am going to accomplish this. These really aren’t different than anyone else’s reason for studying abroad. Embarking on a program like this is an opportunity to understand yourself a little better, whether you’re trans, cis, gay, straight, ace, gender non-conforming, or non-binary. This is an opportunity for all of us to ask the question: ‘Who do I want to be, and how am I going to get there.’” — Cassandra Kazimierza, USAC student

The acceptance and safety of LGBTQ+ individuals varies throughout Eastern Europe. While homosexuality is decriminalized region-wide, no country in Eastern Europe recognizes same-sex marriage, and only Croatia and the Czech Republic recognize civil unions (Equaldex, n.d.). For transgender individuals, legal gender changes are allowed in most of Eastern Europe, though many will not recognize it as legal without surgery and/or sterilization (Transrespect Versus Transphobia, n.d.).

The Czech Republic is often touted as more liberal than its eastern neighbors, and Prague has gained a reputation as a queer-friendly tourist site (Frommers, n.d.). On the other hand, places like Poland and Russia have, particularly in recent years, gained an opposite reputation. In early 2020, a third of Poland was declared an “LGBT free zone.” Many Poles have protested that LGBTQ+ individuals are a “foreign import” whose identities don’t align with Poland’s “Christian values'' (Ciobanu 2020). A 2020 survey of Russians stated that one in five (20%) wanted LGBTQ+ individuals ``eliminated” (Kuhr 2020). 

The European Union has worked to increase acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals in EU member and candidate states, with mixed success. While LGBTQ+ individuals have lived more openly in the last decade, fears around discrimination or homophobic attacks still persist

(European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 2020). 

While these attitudes and laws do not convey whether individual students will be met homophobic sentiment, in these countries LGBTQ+ students may need to be cautious and be okay with traveling ‘in the closet.’ As with everywhere in Eastern Europe, attitudes may be more accepting in urban versus rural locations.

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Mental Health

“Don’t assume that there is a certain experience you should be having. There is not. Unfortunately, you can’t leave any problems you have with mental illness back home. But you can make sure they won’t stop you from experiencing the growth and wonder that studying abroad can provide.” — Sarah Healy, WU-Madison student who studied in Prague, Czech Republic

Mental health can still be a challenging topic to address publicly in Eastern Europe. This stems in part from communist rule, where negative stigma prevented individuals from disclosing with others about their mental health (Katka Krosnar 2008). During the Soviet era, counseling and psychological services were scarce, and mental health issues were often treated just with medication (Anton Ivanov 2016). Indeed, mental health diagnoses were at times used to suppress views counter to the ruling party. Due to stigmatization, students may find it difficult to speak openly about mental health and therapy in Russia, as well as other former communist countries.

The Balkan states (such as Bosnia and Serbia) are uniquely different from the rest of Eastern Europe. Related to the recent Balkan/Yugoslav war in the 1990s, locals report a higher rate of poor mental health, specifically related to PTSD and depression (Maya E. Lee 2019). There is limited infrastructure in the region for supportive healthcare and there is a general lack of acknowledgment of the collective trauma this region faces (Sarajevo Times 2020).

There is movement on this issue. In 2019, a greater focus was put on preventative measures and moving toward more outpatient facilities available for individuals in need (Czech News Agency 2019).

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Religion & Spirituality

Religiosity and spirituality vary quite a bit throughout the region. However, during Soviet rule, many countries throughout Eastern Europe had their religious practices severely restricted. The Soviet Union promoted atheism in large part to suppress the political power of organized religion, in particular the powerful Orthodox Church (Zubovich 2018). Religion was not outright banned during communist rule and at various moments the Orthodox Church was used as a tool of the government, though the private practice of religion was often considered suspect. 

In present-day Russia, the majority of the population identifies with Orthodoxy but the majority also does not attend church (Pew Research Center 2014). Russian President Vladimir Putin often invokes the Orthodox Church in speeches and uses its doctrine for justification of policies such as the invasion of Crimea and laws against homosexuality (Mrachek 2019).

Poland, a majority Catholic country, is one of the most religious countries in Europe (Jonathan Evans and Chris Baronavski 2018). Poles rallied around the Catholic Church under communism and religious imagery was common at anti-communist events during the 1980s (Brian Porter n.d.). It’s also very religiously homogeneous, with 99% of Poles baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. 

By contrast, the Czech Republic along with Estonia reports very low religiosity with under 10% of the population reporting as “highly religious” (Jonathan Evans and Chris Baronavski 2018). Different from their Polish counterparts, the suppression of religion under communism had lasting impacts on these countries’ interest in religion.

For individuals who practice Judaism and Islam, instances of religious discrimination have been on the rise throughout the region. Xenophobia and Islamophobia heightened during the initial refugee crisis, demonstrated in a 2015 statement by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, “I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country” (Al Jazeera 2015). Muslim travelers may have difficulty practicing Islam openly and may be targeted for wearing symbols like the hijab.

For Jewish individuals, attacks and threats of violence have become more common in the past few years. When European Jews were polled in January 2019, “89% of those surveyed said anti-Semitism had significantly increased over five years” (Vivienne Walt 2019). Efforts are being made throughout Europe to combat antisemitism, but Jewish students should be aware of anti-semitic attacks and sentiment in Eastern Europe.

While navigating Islamophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment may be part of Muslim and Jewish students' experience in Eastern Europe, it does not total it. For Muslim and Jewish travelers, finding community in their host cities and while traveling to different parts of Europe can be very rewarding. With the mission of connecting Jewish travelers with local communities, KAHAL can be a great plan to start for Jewish students. Even if you don’t speak the local language, celebrating high holy days with fellow practitioners can bring students closer to their host country and embrace faith in a continent that is increasingly atheist.

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Students of Color

“As an Indian woman, I was pointed at on the bus and called the slur ‘Gypsy’ while I was in the Czech Republic. I wish I knew this prior to arriving in the country. I was told by [program] on the second day that this might happen, but it would have been more helpful if I knew before arriving at the Prague airport.”  —CGIS Alumnx

Many countries in Eastern Europe are quite racially homogenous and students of color may face challenges of feeling singled out from the local populations. This can be compounded by the fact that students of color may be one of the only, if not the only, student of color on their program (Zainab Bhindarwala n.d.). 

In this majority-white region, it is important to make note of the largest ethnic minority population in Eastern Europe: The Romani people. Romani, or Roma, individuals largely live in poverty and are heavily discriminated across Europe (Yasmin Mills 2019). Students mistaken as Roma may face discrimination and harassment from locals in places like the Czech Republic, Romania, and Hungary (as seen in the above student quote).

On a similar note, individuals who are or appear of Middle Eastern descent are likely to face more overt discrimination in line with the rise in Islamophobia in recent years (Keno Verseck 2019). This is particularly prevalent in Hungary, where the Hungarian government has increasingly been xenophobic and racist (Carla Bleiker 2015). Women who wear the hijab may also find themselves targets of Islamophobia, especially in more prejudiced countries like Hungary.

Students of color may find it difficult to get ethnic beauty products or find salons that know how to work with kinky hair and may need to maintain their hair without a salon (Jacqueline Bailey-Ross 2011; Travel Noir 2019). Additionally, Black students who wear their hair naturally may see increased attention.

However, for the most part, students of color in Eastern Europe are considered a curiosity more than anything else. Experiences shared below often state that overall the students or travelers of color had positive interactions with locals. When negative interactions occur, they may manifest in stares and slurs, or inappropriate comments toward students of color (Cultural Insights: Government of Canada. n.d.-a; Cultural Insights: Government of Canada. n.d.-b)

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