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Perm Term: Durham University Students Share Their Impressions

During four months, students of the University of Durham (UK) studied Russian and history at the Higher School of Economics in Perm as part of 'Perm Term' programme (a semester in Perm). This programme was first organized by HSE in 2019 in cooperation with the School of Modern Languages and Cultures of the University of Durham. The semester came to an end, and students Phoebe, Athena, Madeleine and Eleanor shared their impressions of this experience.

- What was the first impression when you came to Russia?

Phoebe: Dmitry Kashin was meeting us at the airport, he was so friendly and lovely. I brought my skis with me and he carried them.

Athena: It felt like deepest darkest Siberia as we arrived early in the morning.

Eleanor: I’ve never seen so much snow in my life! And on the way from the airport we saw that huge golden cathedral, I was like: wow, we’re in Russia! Also I remember our first walk in the city centre. We rubbed Perm bear’s nose for good luck. But honestly there was so much snow, I was really excited and only could think of that.

- Was it cold for you?

Eleanor: Freezing! We were talking and realizing it was -9 degrees, it got us shaking. We saw the ice sculptures, it was amazing. Cold but beautiful.

- What is your major at the Durham university? What do you study there?

Athena: The degree is in Modern Languages and Cultures. So the common thing among us is Russian. And then I do Spanish, Phoebe and Maddie do French and Ella does German. So each of us studies two languages. And also Literature, History, sometimes Film about the countries, so we have Russian film modules and Russian literature lectures.

- Why have you chosen this degree?

Eleanor: I chose Durham because of music! I sing in a choir, it was very important for me. I think Phoebe and I have chosen this because of the History, because with this it is much easier to get into languages. At the university we first met Russian but it is quite rare to study in England.

Madeleine: I chose Russian also because of the history, it is quite interesting and exciting and Russian is hard to learn by yourself. And it’s very unusual.

- Is it a part of your educational programme to go study abroad?

Eleanor: Yes, that’s for the 3rd year. We’ve done 2 years of Durham, the 3rd year for language students is always abroad. 4-6 months before Christmas we all have spent in Europe practicing other languages. Also it depends on a university because in some you have to spend the whole year. But we could manage both Europe and Russia.

Phoebe: I like living abroad. A big benefit of living abroad is not only excitement of the new place but what a new place can offer you in terms of cultural aspects. It’s not just a new place, new people but completely different culture. Perms does have it in terms of museums and theatres.

- When you had you go to Russia, did you choose a university?

Athena: We had a choice, Moscow wasn’t really a choice as there are just 1-2 places there that Durham students can go plus they learned Russian before and they have to speak much better. We could choose between St Petersburg and Tomsk university, it has a long-running collaboration with Durham. Perm is a new collaboration and Perm Term is a new programme. Personally I chose it because I liked the number of contact hours, I was sure with that I could make more progress, intensity has been good. Also because of opera and ballet theatre. I’ve heard about Theodor Curentzis and that he directs here. Actually I’ve heard it from a Greek family friend (I have Greek origins as well). So, I wanted to come see him. But he hasn’t been here the whole time we’re here and I didn’t have a chance to chat with him

- What did you know about Russia before? Tell about your expectations and reality that you have faced.

Eleanor: I think a lot of my expectations were completely accurate. But only before spring. After returning from our small trip we expected to see Perm snowy and cold and grey like before. It all looked severe and scary. But we were back and saw greenery and that the sun does sometimes shine. That completely shuttered all of my previous expectations. Perm is exactly what you’d expect Russia to be. Also you expect everyone to be very unfriendly but actually people just look scary, once you speak they’re open and lovely and friendly and welcoming and not grumpy. Frankly I wonder how I would look if I saw snow every day.

Phoebe: Yeah, that’s fair enough. But Perm is really beautiful in the spring. Also we have faced bureaucracy and paperwork. 

Madeleine: When I was in France I thought I had a lot of paperwork, but here at least twice bigger.

Eleanor: Was not difficult for us. We just say “Hello, here’s my passport, thank you very much!” It’s harder for those who do the registration for us. It’s just a certain way that we are not used to. Maybe with Brexit we will have to start doing that. We are so grateful to Anna Shtennikova as she was doing it for us for hours and hours. We travelled much and she had to work for us. But that has been a real highlight for us. We’ve been able to travel: we were in Gubakha twice, in Moscow, in Kazan, in Almaty, Omsk, Nizhniy Novgorod, Yekaterinburg.

Athena: We visited several beautiful cities. We would never get there if we chose St Petersburg or Moscow because it would simply be too far.

What is different in the Russian mentality?

Madeleine: It’s very hard to get used to the fact that everyone looks grumpy and a simple smile is considered as something weird. And it also affects my mood as people look so miserable.

Madeleine: Unless you ask ‘How are you?’ After that everyone actually starts telling exactly what’s bothering them.

Phoebe: I think people here are less open. We are quite loud, open characters. Which is funny as at home we are not. At home you can’t find anyone more reserved. Some people are really outgoing. And we’ve become these people here. Since the sun has come out people became actually more open.

Athena: And here in Russia when someone wants to get to know you hospitality is the key. We felt really welcome here.

Madeleine: People are really curious about us because they have never met English people before. Some students in the dormitory where overwhelmed and giggling in the beginning seeing us. But we come from such a diverse place where there are so many people from different countries so that kind of reaction was new to us.

- Were you happy with the conditions that HSE had offered you: dorm, transport, etc.?

Phoebe: Absolutely, that’s because of the type of people we are because no one of us is princess. And it’s a beautiful chance to get to know each other. We were all together 24/7. For our age it’s quite difficult to live in a room where there are many people. But it’s a benefit that we all get along with each other so well. But you don’t have any personal space. And there’s no communal space in the dorm where you can just go and chill and speak to Mom by the phone with no one listening. So that would be very challenging for people who don’t know each other that well.

Eleanor: In a lot of European cities there is quite a strong Erasmus group. In classes we always interact with students with other majors so it’s easy to meet new people. So in Perm there isn’t so it makes it more difficult to find extra friends. And also as there’s no communal area it’s a bit difficult to make friends with people who live in the same building with you. We got along very well with the boys who we share the corridor as we cook at the same kitchen. So we managed to meet only a few people instead of being able to meet the whole dorm. We are also good friends with Nastya and Alina. Absolutely god sent, our buddies, they been amazing, really lovely and so helpful. And also they have made some kind of an integration with the Russian students a lot easier. So the buddy system is brilliant.

Phoebe: Yeah, they helped us to find new friends. That’s why it’s so different to our university in England. We all have hobbies. I usually join any sports clubs and that’s how I made most of my friends in England.

Eleanor: And I made lots of friends in Germany just joining choirs. We used to be singing 5-6 days a week. Athena does drama. But our current level of Russian wouldn’t let us join societies so easily yet.

Phoebe: The university system is so different from one in England in a lot of positive ways but also it feels for me more like school. Because there’s a lot more structure, there’s a lot more discipline. In England universities you are more encouraged to be independent and to live your own lives and you are being forced to be an adult.

- What would remain the highlights of your stay in Perm?

Eleanor: We’ve seen quite a few operas. That was amazing. We also had a chance to see Russian opera done by real Russians just the way it is supposed to be done. Eugene Onegin was really good, it was something that we couldn’t ever experience in England with the proper Russian voice which is completely different from English voices. And the tickets are so cheap! Usually to see this kind of performance you have to pay around 80 pounds in the UK, but not here! It’s been amazing. I think for me ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ will be my highlight of Perm.

Athena: It was, we were both crying. When there’s a good show at the theatre there’s almost electricity in the air, we haven’t witnessed that before. It was profound, the voice, the whole audience completely matched, beautiful! : It was nice to see the international collaboration on that. There are subtitles if the opera is foreign. So theatre breaks all the boundaries.

Madeleine: We had an amazing Russian proper banya experience in Gubakha. It’s absolutely one of the highlights. We were hit with the sticks and everything. In England people say: if you go to Russia, you’ve got to do the banya, you’ve got to try it. And we did it!

Phoebe: I enjoyed my skiing and hiking but it was completely different that I had before. It’s fascinating because normally you don’t ski through all these pine trees. I couldn’t miss the chance to ski in Russian in winter time!

Eleanor: in Khokhlovka we played all those funny Russian games. It was really cool to see some Russian folk side, that we wouldn’t catch in Moscow or St Petersburg. We made candles, we had blini for Maslenitsa, that was great. But we should mention all this after telling about our study at HSE. Being taught Russian history by Russian teachers we found really interesting because we have heard a different version of certain things in England, not opposite though.

Madeleine: We always saw Russia from a western point of view, but it’s is priceless to find out how actually things were here for the Russian people and in the Soviet Union. It’s exciting to see how Russia deals with the past and memories of Soviet Union. We would never learn it in England.

Athena: History was the first lecture we had. We were listening to it so blankly because we didn’t know what the teacher was saying. We just couldn’t stop, and think, and translate. We had to get used to that and try to try to get the meaning on the spot. All the lectures were so useful because they definitely improved our listening skills.

- What other subjects you enjoyed?

All: Translation!

Madeleine: We had several translation teachers and they were really great. It was fascinating to translate nonsense once though it is important. The teachers asked us what we want to do, so we could choose and have some influence.

Eleanor: And the class size has been the best thing for me, we wouldn’t improve our Russian anywhere else. So it’s just four people in the class. All of us are English, all of us are relaxed and not scared to make mistakes speaking Russian.

Madeleine: It’s such a contrast to when I was in France when the seminars classes had 40 people at once. We were just listening and there was no opportunity to speak or ask questions. So this semester had improved my Russian a lot more than the semester in France had improved my French.

- Was in difficult for you to study here?

Phoebe: Everyone speaks just Russian so you don’t have choice, you need to react quickly otherwise you can get frustrated. And when we come to dorm we could chat with the students in Russian and practice not in a lesson contest but what we’ve learned that day not wasting our time. But at the end of the day we can have those basic conversations on a bus, in a coffee shop, at he gym or canteen, etc. And for the exchange students from Tajikistan who came to Perm same semester Russian is their second language so they were not that critical. Perhaps that’s why we made friends as we knew that they try their best to speak fluent Russian too. So it’s more challenging when you talk to a Russian students and you feel uncomfortable making mistakes.

Madeleine: Some Russian student told me that my Russian wasn’t that smooth, but hey, we both studied to learn the second language from scratch, you know exactly how difficult it is. But when you have been studying English for a decade, I’ve spent only two years doing that with Russian. Of course I want to be fluent, that’s why I’m here. So few people speak English here which is good. This would not be the case in Moscow.

Phoebe: We were travelling around, we needed to organize things and buy train tickets and bus tickets and all that so it made us use a lot of useful vocabulary. You would never remember it sitting in a classroom unless you use it every day.

Madeleine: It was very satisfying when I went to Nizhny Novgorod I had to book a hostel, the flights and other stuff. After I was happy that I could deal with any situation which definitely I wouldn’t be able to do by myself before the Perm Term.

- Where there some funny stories?

Athena: We went to movies once to watch ‘the Avengers’. I didn’t understand a word as it all was in Russian. But the Durham cathedral was in the film, it’s literally where I live. Last year all of the actors, directors, cars where there for around three weeks. So fans from all over the country were hanging there to see the celebrities. I thought then that I would go watch the film. So this happened in Perm.

- What will you do when you go back to Durham?

Eleanor: We have one more year before getting a Bachelor’s degree. We’ll write a dissertation. We will still study both languages. Then Athena goes to auditions for drama school. I think I’ll do the Master’s. Phoebe goes to Canada to ski.

Madeleine: Actually I want to teach English as a foreign language. After the fourth year I want to go live abroad, I don’t know where yet, by my diploma would allow me work in any place.

- What other opportunities does your diploma give you?

Eleanor: It’s a big question… The good thing about the language degree is that it’s really versatile.

Phoebe: And also it is considered that if you can learn Russian then you can learn another difficult language, for example Chinese.

Madeleine: And this means that you are quite hardworking person so employers may consider that.

Eleanor: I love singing and languages so probably I can combine it. If this fails I’ll come to Russia, live in Siberia, get a goat. But frankly it is absolutely possible that we can return and live somewhere in Russia.

- Were there any insights after the program?

Madeleine: What I think is that at home many things we take for granted. Here people make jokes about feminism, gender and other things. But people in England are so progressive with their ideas.

Eleanor: I think we it was interesting to see how privileged we are at home but here people are still fighting for what they think and believe in. But everything was so exciting we are so lucky we could check all the differences. Like in culture, the Orthodox religion, etc.

Phoebe: Definitely this made us more confident. And now I think I feel sort of free within any conversation because I have a lot to tell and to share and comparing many things I’ve worked out some certain point of view.

Eleanor: We’ve got a lot of genuine life skills. Life in Russia is more difficult that it is in Europe. Also it has taught us to be patient to each other. To deal with situations with are not ideal is so important and valuable.

Athena: In Europe it’s coo-chi and comfortable. I know people in England who have everything handed them on a plate from the young age. And life is not about being comfortable all the time. You need a challenge to see the progress.

- Have you made new plans while living in Perm?

Eleanor: Yeah, I want to bring my choir To Russia and Kazakhstan. I just want to show people how different life can be. Mostly people go to Europe or America maybe but I don’t want them to miss such an incredible opportunity. And I could again practice my Russian. It’s a win-win.

Madeleine: This experience made we want to do more traveling. Seeing more places, meeting new people, I really love this idea. I become more confident traveling.

Eleanor: True, I remember our first experience at the airport, I was struggling ordering a coffee or a sandwich, it was a torture. But now so easy! Such a progress.  

- Have you learned anything new about yourselves?

Eleanor: I never thought I’m a sports person. But here I was going to the gym every day. Also I’m very surprised by my capacity to improve in such a short time. I see how significantly my Russian has improved and I almost can’t believe this is real.

- Would you recommend to other Durham students go choose ‘Perm Term’?

Madeleine: Absolutely. But with a group not smaller than ours.

Phoebe: For some people this can be too much and I know people who wouldn’t be able to spend a semester in Perm. But if you are doing a language degree and you choose Russian – Perm is a perfect place! St Petersburg and Moscow can’t offer that.

Madeleine: For me the understanding how far from home I am was a little bit challenging so I would advise to get used to that idea to those who plan their overseas studying. I enjoyed that Perm is actually real Russia. I am happy I came here.

Athena: And no matter how much time you spend somewhere you get used to the place, to the people and everything so it is a very emotional moment to leave the place where you’ve spend so much time. But it all was worth it! We started to feel very comfortable in Perm and definitely it’s sad to leave the place. Thank you so much to everyone who helped us. You have made a huge contribution to our development!