Where should I learn Russian and travel to in Russia/Central Asia, etc
July 16, 2009 9:47 PM   Subscribe

studying russian abroad/traveling in russia and central asia/general planning help/etc

Hi everyone! I have just finished a very introductory level course in Russian, and am leaving in the beginning of August to go to Russia for four weeks. The first three weeks are open-ended, I was thinking I would study Russian in classes for 2 weeks, travel with a Russian friend of mine for a week (maybe to Uzbekistan?) and then finish with a fourth week at work (my company has an office in moscow, so I'm working there to extend my stay a bit longer).

But my original plan- to study at MGU for 2 weeks- is falling through because apparently I can only start classes on the 10th. Maybe this can change if I take private one-on-one classes, which are still relatively affordable. So I could try to pull this off- or I could travel with my friend for two weeks, do God knows what the third week (none of the programs I know about do shorter courses than two weeks so I don't think a one week course here would be an option), and then work the fourth week.

lodging concern in moscow is money. I can't afford a hotel in Moscow for a whole month, probably even a week would be painful. If I do a two-week course then a host family would be fun and affordable. If I travel for two weeks, it'll be affordable probably because I want to go to more remote areas so hotels will be cheaper.

So I'd like to know what you think of what I should do. Do you know any other Russian programs I should consider? I'm mostly interested in Moscow, although i have fantasies of being somewhere in Central Asia. if I just travel for two weeks, then i will still be learning because the friend I'm traveling with is a Russian teacher and so he will be helpful I'm sure. I don't know if traveling with him for two weeks is a bad idea because I don't want any awkwardness between us considering he's a guy and I'm a girl- I want to respect any potential feelings he may have for me- and I also don't want to put myself in an overly compromising situation.

And where do you think we should travel? We thought about Daghestan because that's where he's from but I'm not so sure given it might give him the wrong idea if I meet his family, and also Daghestan is the neighbor of Chechnya and I don't know how safe that makes it. Also I'd like to go to Uzbekistan.

Please give any and all advice on any of these matters. Thank you thank you thank you!
posted by saraindc to Travel & Transportation around Russian Federation (12 answers total)
For longer-term stays, an apartment can work out cheaper than a hotel. I have no leads, but a good guidebook might. Also, what about a private room at a hostel? Lots of options in the In Your Pocket guides, which are great for eastern/central European cities.

Alternatively, I know you're sort of set on Russia, but have you considered studying in Tallinn, Estonia or Riga, Latvia? Nearly half the population of each city (43% in Riga, 37% in Tallinn) is of Russian descent, and many, many of them speak Russian on a daily basis. There are Russian TV stations and newspapers, and many, many people also speak English as well, in addition to Estonian and Latvian, of course. Because they're in the EU, you wouldn't need a visa to visit for just a few weeks, either, assuming you're from North America or Europe.

It's easy to find classes in each city described online - not to mention cheaper accommodation that you might find in Moscow. You may also find that one-to-one lessons might be more reasonable, and as the cities themselves are smaller, you'd perhaps have more time to study and less time spent going to class.

You also would be spared the cost of a Russian visa if you went straight from these countries to Uzbekistan, though I don't know if your Daghestani friend could join you as easily.
posted by mdonley at 1:08 AM on July 17, 2009

My advice would be do not go to Dagestan. I have friends from Dagestan and they are lovely people and Dagestan, from photographs, is clearly exceptionally beautiful, but following the news about Dagestan (or at least Makhachkala, where my friends live) one comes across not-infrequent assassinations, car bombings, etc. There was one just a couple of weeks ago. While that violence appears to be targeted, I suspect that most other problems in the area simply do not make it to the international news. Furthermore, while I have never traveled alone in the Caucasus or the south of Russia, friends who have, have reported pretty significant sexual harassment. Spending all of your time with your male friend may mitigate some of that, but even in St. Petersburg there were a few occasions where guys made some pretty nasty comments to a male companion of mine which made me speak up rather sharply and tell them that I understood what they were saying and we would now be leaving their company. And if you're worried about his expectations, you want to be careful about putting yourself in a situation where you can't really go anywhere without him-- which it sounds like you're already aware of.

mdonley is right that apartment stays may actually be cheaper than hotels in Moscow, so if you do a two-week course that definitely sounds like the way to go. A couple of years ago I stayed in the Hotel Tsentralnaya on Tverskaya Ulitsa, which was an unrenovated Soviet-era hotel block; it cost about $25 a night, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's been renovated since then-- the location was too good. There are a couple of hostels in St. Petersburg and I assume there are probably some in Moscow as well by now. Moscow has a very good, very extensive (also very crowded) metro system, so try looking at hotels that are on the outskirts of the city; they are cheaper and while transportation to classes would take longer, it would probably be pretty straightforward. Check for closeness to the metro when you're looking at places.

As regards going to more remote areas and the lodgings being cheaper, this is probably true but I would definitely advise close investigation of the actual cities you have in mind. Some cheap hotels in the former Soviet Union are cheap because they're basically not fit for human habitation; others basically just resemble ugly dorms (see Hotel Tsentralnaya, above). You definitely want to know which you're getting before you show up there. I would also advise taking a look at a guidebook to figure out travel times. It looks like a train from Moscow to Tashkent takes more than two days, which I would definitely not recommend. Were you planning on flying? If you just want to spend a week traveling around, my advice would probably be to stick to Moscow and surrounds. You could check out the Golden Ring cities (Yaroslavl, Tver, etc.) or head up to St. Petersburg for a few days. I think you will find more than enough to keep you interested for a couple of weeks.
posted by posadnitsa at 4:08 AM on July 17, 2009

I studied for 6 weeks at MGU a few summers ago, and like you got there after a program had already started. They just put me in private lessons until I had caught up to the other class. The thing is, the private lessons were a lot better than the group class - you might want to just stick with that.

I lived with family, but I think MGU can help you find accommodation while you are studying there. Good luck!
posted by milagu at 5:17 AM on July 17, 2009

The Liden & Denz schools in St Petersburg and Moscow are the most internationally-respected Russian schools in Russia. The St Petersburg I think is the only one of the two that's been added to some kind of European accredited language-school list, but I'd assume that the newer Moscow branch would be just as good with the same coursework, etc. I'm pretty sure they can arrange or help arrange lodging, dorms, or homestays with families. I don't know how it would fit into your budget, though.
posted by thebazilist at 7:28 AM on July 17, 2009

Do you know any other Russian programs I should consider? I'm mostly interested in Moscow, although i have fantasies of being somewhere in Central Asia.

Here is a Russian language school in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; I can't vouch for its quality, but it does have the evident merit of being extremely cheap.

About Bishkek's safety -- a guy I talked with who lived in Bishkek in 2006 got into several physical fights and seemed to think the place was essentially a state of nature, although my impression was that he wasn't necessarily taking certain precautions others might be inclined to, e.g., not going to street protests. On the other hand, a woman I talked with who lived there in 2004 mentioned no safety problems or feelings of unsafety. I'm not sure what the situation is like now. As you may know, there was a mostly nonviolent revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, and it's possible that instability in the immediate post-revolution period was responsible for the first guy's problems; if that's worked itself out, things may be better there now. I'm just speculating, though, and there may be or have been other major issues I don't know about. One other thing I can mention is that there are recurring energy problems, which were especially bad in the winter of last year, but I wouldn't think they're an issue during the summer, when demands on the power grid are less intense (again, this is just a guess, though). Hopefully MeFites who actually know Bishkek through recent experience will happen by! Otherwise, if this school interests you, I would find Westerners online who currently live there or did recently -- CouchSurfing is a good resource for this. I quickly Googled and found this blog by a woman who taught English at the school in 2008 (in addition to Russian and Kyrgyz classes for foreigners, they also offer English classes to locals).

A friend of mine who's a native speaker of Russian and a budding expert on the region traveled in Central Asia just last summer, including Uzbekistan; if you decide you want to travel there, I can ask him any questions you have.

Good luck planning your study and travels! I am really envious. :-)
posted by Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh at 9:06 AM on July 17, 2009

I've been to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (traveling on my own as a tourist by land) with no Russian language skills. Send me a message if you want any direct advice about traveling in any of those countries or a link to my travel blog where I wrote about it.

I travel very cheaply and found hotels in Uzbekistan expensive for the region. However, I was there during tourist season and would often arrive at night and find all of the cheap options booked. There are definitely $5USD rooms available but you might have to look around a bit.

Overall Kyrgyzstan seemed the most Western to me and also had the most Russians and Russian-speakers. It has gorgeous landscapes and hiking. Uzbekistan was the most hostile to foreigners and Russian culture but also has the most amazing sites/architecture/history. Tajikistan was amazing in that there's almost nothing to see there but the Pamir region (in particular, the Wakhan Corridor) is gorgeous but hard to get to and a bit expensive since you will end up having to hire a jeep. Tajikistan probably has the least amount of Russian spoken out of the three.

I spent 2 months in Central Asia so I'm not sure how much you can get out of 2 weeks. You could certainly see some great things if you focused on Uzbekistan for 2 weeks. I'm a pretty brave traveler and used to roughing it but I got by fine with no Russian and traveling alone as a female (which can be good & bad in Islamic cultures).
posted by Bunglegirl at 1:01 PM on July 17, 2009

In response to violence in Central Asia (didn't see that before I posted), as long as you don't go out drinking a ton and stay away from drunks I think you're fine. I saw people drinking bottles of vodka on the street as early as 9am. I felt really safe in Bishkek and even walked around at night with no fear. I also follow the travel blog linked to above and remember she had some problems with electricity or water shortages but I think those are confined to the winter.

The only place I felt a bit threatened was in Uzbekistan when a man grabbed me, then followed me down the street and none of the 100 people standing around helped me. I also got yelled at in Nukkus for people thinking I was a spy or journalist. Nukkus is a weird, out of the way place though and I can't imagine most people visit.

Personally, if I were to live in central asia I'd choose Bishkek. If I were to visit and want to experience culture and architecture for a short time (ie 2 weeks) I'd choose Uzbekistan.
posted by Bunglegirl at 1:08 PM on July 17, 2009

Bunglegirl, that's heartening to hear about Bishkek. I hope the situation there has indeed improved and it's not just your bravery responsible for your feeling of safety. :-) To expand a bit on what the first guy I mentioned speaking with, who lived there in 2006, told me, according to him most of the long-term expats had already left by the time he arrived or left while he was there, fed up with increasing violence; he didn't know anyone who'd been there longer than six months who hadn't had some sort of safety incident, usually a mugging; and he said the police were incredibly corrupt, illustrating the situation with the following anecdote. There was a serial killer on the loose while he was in Bishkek, and the cops were going door to door to warn people and hand out informational fliers. But they had a big problem with this -- because locals would not open their doors to talk to the police.

Now, saraindc, I recount this guy's experience definitely not at all to try to dissuade you from going to Bishkek, should the school appeal to you, nor because I think all aspects of this guy's evaluation of the situation in 2006 necessarily ought to be taken as gospel truth (for example, maybe there was a failure of cultural understanding related to the police anecdote, and in the context of ordinary practices of door-opening in Kyrgyzstan the fact that people wouldn't open their doors for the police isn't so weird; I couldn't say), nor because I am claiming that the situation in 2009 is probably the same. My point is just, since there's at least a somewhat good chance that Bishkek was at least somewhat dangerous as few as three years ago, to encourage you to talk to as many people as you can about it who have recent experience (like Bunglegirl) if you're interested in going so that you don't have any unwelcome surprises upon arrival, and are as prepared to cope with any possible challenges as you can be. I certainly hope that Bishkek is safe these days, as I'd really like to go there myself.

(Incidentally, Bunglegirl, would you mind MeMailing me a link to your travel blog? I'd love to read it.)
posted by Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh at 3:49 PM on July 17, 2009

Okay. When I studied in Saint Petersburg in 2002 - 2003 I learned from my Russian language teachers and from the woman responsible for the foreign undergrads on the program that one could not rent an apartment in Moscow unless one was a Russian citizen and received a stamp on one's internal passport approving the ability to rent in Moscow. Renting an apartment could prove to be difficult --- there are always ways of doing it, of course, as many people and institutions and business have done it. But I don't know how as someone not associated with any on this trip (or so I gather from your post) how one could accomplish finding and then renting one. (Though if your Russian friend is in Moscow, then that is a possibility.)

Second. As I recall from my experience in Saint Petersburg, there are many little hotels and guest houses that do not appear on the internet. Have you asked your Russian teacher friend where he or she would recommend you stay? I know we had someone put up in a hotel in a building that you would never imagine was a hotel or a guest house and the only way to find out about it was to know someone who was aware of such a place. I betcha you can find a way to stay in Moscow for a month if you find a place to stay other than through the standard use of the internet and google.

Third. I was not a fan of Moscow. I just could not get behind it. I love, love, love, love Saint Petersburg with such passion and am sad and ashamed I have not been back since June 2003. If you are in Russia for a month and do not visit the Hermitage....well, I can't imagine going to Russia and not visiting the Hermitage. I really can't.

As for programs to consider, I don't know if you are an undergrad or not, but my alma mater has an amazing program in Saint Petersburg for semester or year long study. You really should consider it if you are an undergrad and would like to study in Russia for more than a month in the summer. The credits are 100% Bard credits and should transfer more easily to your home institution than a normal study abroad program.

Oh, how I am nostalgic!

And: Всего хорошего!
posted by zizzle at 5:31 PM on July 17, 2009

Dear all,

Thank you for your stunningly insightful answers. They've all been very helpful. And that school in Bishkek looks awesome- I wish Id known about it earlier so I could've done the 2 weeks russian study followed by 2 weeks horse trekking program. i am hoping to start off learning a more polished russian- hence the classes in russian- and then I will feel more comfortable indulging in longer trips to central asia, which is what I'm more passionate about.

I did some 'negotiating' with the school in Moscow, and so it looks like I can study there the first two weeks after all. At this point, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan look the most interesting options for the 3rd week but I'm also starting to think of just exploring more of Russia- I really just want to see more 'eastern' areas and muslim post-ussr areas, so I can still get that in Russia. I'm feeling overwhelmed by all the great ideas and having to decide.

Also, for what it's worth in terms of safety, I would fit in reasonable well in all of those eastern areas, I've passed for Turkish/Azeri/Georgian/etc, because of my features, I'm actually a bit more worried about being in Moscow in terms of physically sticking out in a way that might bring me harm

any other suggestions are great. thanks again!
posted by saraindc at 7:29 PM on July 17, 2009

oh, and also- any suggestions for what i should get for gifts for future host family in russia who i haven't met and also don't know who will be ?
posted by saraindc at 7:35 PM on July 17, 2009

I should clarify, I was last in Bishkek in 2006. I am in contact with the girl who served as a translator to me at one point (to get an Uzbek visa) and she brushed off the revolution like it was nothing. A friend just passed through there last week with no incidents. I think any city can be dangerous if you wander into bad areas and don't watch out for yourself.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:39 AM on July 19, 2009

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