Russia’s Cab Drivers: My Linguistic and Cultural Journey

Authored by:
CIEE Alumni

CIEE Alumni

By Liya Wizevich from the United States
(CIEE Study Abroad, Moscow, Russia, 2016)

Their amazing patience with my broken Russian and their fascinating lives made each and every trip not a wait for the destination, but a real journey in itself. 

When you think of intercultural dialogue and exchange, you expect formal classroom discussions or at least parties with fellow local students. While I was lucky enough to experience a plentitude of these, the most valuable experiences I found came from an unlikely and usually overlooked place – a taxicab.

I chose to study in Moscow to learn about international relations, most specifically Russian-U.S. relations, a vital topic in both countries today. Studying at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Moscow State Institute of International Relations with CIEE, I was surrounded by experts that opened my mind to new theories and prospects for world geopolitics. But at the end of the day, the classes were over and I would be heading out from the university.

Perhaps I was returning home from a weekend trip in Russia and I would be in the back of my cab or Uber. I would confirm my drop-off location. Their head would turn slightly trying to place my accent. There would be a pause. Then would come, “Where are you from?” “I’m from the U.S.,” I’d reply, and that set off a series of friendly inquisitive questions. Why was I in Russia? For how long? What were my impressions? I would struggle to find the Russian words to answer. It was always a mixed bag of responses.

The cab drivers would talk about the United States, their lives, their jobs, their dreams, and their other passengers. They criticized my Russian, they offered advice and they complimented me. It is a stereotype that Russians are closed and unfriendly to those they do not know. I found that stereotype to be far from the truth. I learned more about Russian society from interacting with people who had no connection to America. They taught me more on my mini journeys than I learned in whole courses back at my American university.

I saw a Russia not reflected in the news. I saw the people.

I was in a cab with an older gentleman who had visited Atlanta back in 1992 as soon as he could after the Soviet Union collapsed. He spoke of America fondly, reminisced of his sightseeing and asked about my travels. He turned out to be a hockey fan and spoke in depth about the NHL, which he follows online and declared his favorite team to be the Capitals, thanks to Russian player Alexander Ovechkin. As a hockey player myself, I found myself having a debate about teams, and finding Russian sports vocabulary that I hadn’t the chance to use before. He dropped me off then headed to his Tuesday night pick-up hockey league.

On an independent trip one weekend, a fellow CIEE student and I found ourselves in a taxicab in Yekaterinburg, a city in the Ural Mountains, nearly halfway across Russia, and two time zones away. The journey took us to a completely different side of Russia. We saw monasteries where the Romanovs were buried, the new presidential center for Boris Yeltsin, and a concert of the Kazakhstani singer Jah Kahlib. What I remember fondly, however, was that this taxicab was driven by a young local man who had never met an American before. He asked me about New York City. What was it like to live there? Why don’t I stay in Yekaterinburg? “It’s the New York City of Central Russia,” he said with a smile. We then spent a good while trying to figure out what he was asking. The phrase was not familiar to us and he was somehow talking about Arizona. When we realized he was asking us if we had ever seen a cactus and what it was like, we laughed. He had seen a documentary on the American southwest and was fascinated. This man from frigid Siberia and I, a native New Englander, were in a car on the outskirts of Russia’s fourth largest city discussing the drought in California and different kinds of cacti.

One of my last rides was with a man from Kyrgyzstan. He was here to support his family, he told me. He talked of his children. He told me about his other foreign passengers. He told me to speak up, stop pausing, and be confident! He criticized my grammar. But, when he dropped me off, he turned around and said “You have excellent Russian, I am so glad you came to Russia. When you’re home, practice. Do not forget what you learned here.”

And I will not forget what I learned here. I learned more about Russian culture and everyday life than would have been possible sitting in a classroom back in America. I saw a Russia not reflected in the news. I saw the people. Their amazing patience with my broken Russian and their fascinating lives made each and every trip not a wait for the destination, but a real journey in itself. I was grateful to listen and learn, to share my America with them, and for them to share their lives with me, if only for those 15-minute drives home.

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