Much like the great Dostoevsky, in September of 2016 I was sent to Omsk, Russia. I was sent by Fulbright to teach English at Omsk State Pedagogical University. I also had the opportunity to continue my Russian studies, travel around the country, work in schools, meet internationals, and talk about my culture. Yes Russia is cold, and sometimes gray, but in Omsk there are many splashes of color-which serve as inspiration for Omsk artistic group JVCR. Prospect Lenina, the main street, is a kind of mini Saint Petersburg with wonderful shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, and parks. In the city center you can easily see the impact of globalization; there is a Subway (sandwiches) and shops like New Balance and Timberland. If you walk 20 minutes from the center, you will see old wooden houses called izbi. Walking throughout the city, you can see great diversity in architecture: Soviet, pre-Soviet, European, modern, contemporary, etc.. Many Omskovites don’t love Omsk but they make the most of this city on the Om river.
As Fulbright is a program funded by the U.S. government, and I was sent to work in Russia, the term “soft power?” might come to mind. I was not a spy; I was an English teacher that could discuss important moments in American history and culture. As a native speaker, I was a huge asset to my students’ English language studies. I could show Russians that I appreciate their culture, like many Americans do, and am critical of my own, much like Russians happen to be. In that case we are more similar than different.
Like a spy, however, I can report my observations about Russian people to my fellow Americans. Many have heard that Russians are corrupt, cold, and drink too much vodka. The news focuses on Russia’s involvement in the current administration and the election, exacerbating negative images, leaving you with the impression that Russia is unsafe; however, I always felt completely safe in Russia. In Omsk I was surrounded by generous, polite, open-hearted, and curious people. Not always sharing the same views, I enjoyed searching for common ground and became a great listener.
I’m not saying you should take the news with as many grains of salt as our current president does, but, when it comes to Russia, try to imagine the people: sincere, hospitable, and smiling citizens. Russians ask how you are and really want to know the answer. They ask you if you’re cold, maybe a little too often. They are open and honest, like a best friend would be. Of course all Russians are very different from each other, however, it is clear that the culture in Omsk highly values love and honesty. I know the compassion, generosity, and curiosity of the Omskovites rubbed off on me, allowing me to return to America with a more Siberian heart.