Back to SummaryMikael Bernstein - Student Advisor Profile
My most memorable experience from Moscow is from standing on the city’s famous Red Square and absorbing the blend of tradition and modernity that Russia so uniquely represents. Still grappling with the challenges of its post-soviet transition, Russia is definitely one of the most fascinating countries in the world today. My quarter abroad was my second extended stay in the country, and the possibility to immerse myself in Russian reality again made it an extremely rewarding experience.
Studying in Russia is a unique opportunity to experience a completely different society and to validate or disprove any preconceived notions of “the East”. Unlike what many westerners may assume, Moscow is a flourishing city, with an increasingly western-minded and youthful generation at its forefront. Even since my first visit in 2007, the emerging spectrum of cultural events, nightlife-venues and restaurants (etc.) has increased at an immensely rapid pace.
During the fall I was able to study with a leading Russian and American faculty, enjoy an exciting internship at The Moscow Times, and travel to several Russian cities and former Soviet satellite states. I also participated as a student organizer in an international youth-conference for SURF (Stanford US-Russia Forum), through which I was able to listen to some amazing prominent speakers and make a great deal of good friends.
My courses focused primarily on Russia’s current economy, the history of US-Russia relations, and political aspects of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. One class – Space, Politics and Modernity in Russia – was taught together with an enthusiastic group of Russian students. Our weekly interactions with these local students helped bridge the cultural and social gap between us, and we were able to gain first-hand insight into the student-life of Russian university scholars.
The greatest cultural impact, however, came from living in a Russian host-family. My host-mother bombarded me with Russian mentality and traditional etiquette on a daily basis. Being a professional theater actress, she constantly insisted on educating me by bringing me along to traditional theater performances, ballets and operas. Back-stage tickets were always a necessity, in order for me to mingle with actors, the stage-crew, and directors. Overall, these experiences greatly helped me improve my Russian language skills, which was one of my primary reasons for going abroad in the first place.
By far the most adventurous part of the quarter was travelling through Russia and its neighboring countries. In early September, we took a night-train to the capital of Ukraine – Kiev – and thereafter did several really interesting weekend-trips to Velikii Novgorod, Kazan, Vladimir and Suzdal. These excursions were eye-opening experiences as we were able to explore rural Russia and witness the immense economical and social contrasts between Moscow and the rest of the country.
Russia is truly a country of extremes, and since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a huge spectrum between rich and poor has visibly emerged on many levels of society. Food-prices, cars, clothes and life-quality in general vary greatly between people due to existing income disparities and social inequality. This is one of the Kremlin’s greatest challenges, and a pervasive feature of contemporary Russia. Whether pursuing a major in Political Science, Economics or History (etc.), observing these problems and differences first-hand is a great learning experience.
Along with a group of friends, I also visited Georgia and Armenia in the Southern Caucasus region. To my utter surprise, both countries’ capital cities, Tbilisi and Jerevan, proved to be wonderful places with incredibly friendly and hospitable people. We explored the beautiful countryside, enjoyed excellent traditional Georgian food such as Khachapuri and Baklazhani, relaxed in sulfur pools and learned to dance Georgian folkdances. Once again, we could see the stunning layers of Soviet, Modern and Ancient history all combined.
Another highlight of the quarter was our class’s BING-trip to St. Petersburg. Around thanksgiving break, we spent nine spectacular days in the old imperial capital, visiting practically every museum, cultural highlight and sight available. From “Romeo and Juliet” at the Marinskii Theater to an extensive tour of the Hermitage Museum, we followed an intense schedule with our guiding Stanford History professors, Nancy and Jack Kollmann. It was great to be accompanied by such experts in Russian history and culture, and to explore the city in seminar-style form rather simply as tourists.
Overall, I can’t imagine a more exclusive and exciting way to spend a quarter abroad than through the Moscow program. As a western student, the opportunity to get out of one’s comfort-zone and experience such completely different societies as Russia and CIS countries is rare and should definitely be taken advantage of. My experiences were so positive that I may very well chose to return to the East after graduation sometime.