I knew long before I landed in Sheremetyevo airport in August 2019 that my goals for my semester abroad were not solely academic. Of course, I was excited for my classes at MGIMO, one of Moscow’s most prestigious universities. But I was most looking forward to getting a better understanding of the people and culture – and of the similarities and differences between life in Russia and the States.
For me, the path to this understanding has been through the arts. This semester, the arts have been a way to meet people, practice my Russian, and explore unknown parts of the city. It’s my hope that this post will give you some insight into my time here and, for those studying abroad, some ideas for things you can do to push yourself out of your comfort zone and get to know a new place better.
(The arts are not a universal gateway. In my case, they made sense: I’m a music minor and am heavily involved in the performing arts in the States. However, it doesn’t matter from which angle you choose to explore a city or a people; the important thing is that you find something through which to pursue connection. A professor in the Russian department at my home university, for example, got really into bird-watching when she spent time in the Soviet Union.)
I sort my arts-related activities into three categories. First: reoccuring off-campus commitments. Second: on-campus extracurricular commitments. Third: one-time activities. Below, I’ve outlined the main takeaways of each category, including the advantages of each and tips to keep in mind.
These experiences have been simultaneously some of the most rewarding and challenging parts of my semester. I intern at the National Russian Museum of Music twice a week, assisting with translation of archival documents and organization of concerts, conferences, and other events. I am also taking private piano lessons with a Moscow Conservatory grad student. There is a sense of independence that comes along with having regular commitments off-campus – especially with my piano lessons, which I arranged myself via a contact provided by a U.S. professor. However, this independence also means responsibility, which can be stressful if overloaded. Balance is key!
- Class credit – the internship is a CIEE elective course, which means I can transfer credit from it back to my home university.
- Professional experience – at my internship, I have developed such skills as translation and event organization. The position is definitely going on my resume!
- Language development – both experiences are conducted solely in Russian.
- Get out of the American/MGIMO bubble – both experiences have been a way to ensure that I have a routine independent from other students at MGIMO/in my CIEE program.
Things to remember:
- Doing things outside of the university, especially if you organize them yourself, means you are in charge of logistics. Although CIEE staff will try to help you if you ask, ultimately communication and day-to-day interaction is your job.
- Commuting uses a lot of energy! It takes almost an hour to get anywhere in Moscow from MGIMO.
On-campus extracurricular activities
I knew I wanted to get involved with the MGIMO extracurricular scene early on in the semester, so I went to an open house event for their Cultural Center, where different creative clubs (specializing in things like hip-hop dance, poetry, theatre) gave mini-presentations to groups of students and advertised their meeting hours. Ultimately, I decided to join Proxenos, MGIMO’s classical choir. This has been a great opportunity to meet and connect with Russian peers and be exposed to Russian social life: in rehearsal, on VK (Russian Facebook) chat groups, and while traveling – in December, Proxenos is heading to Vienna for a few days. I’ve had the opportunity to perform with the choir several times, including at MGIMO’s 75th anniversary celebration, where Russian minister of foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov was speaking.
- Social experience – joining an on-campus club is a way to connect with Russian students over things that you’re all enthusiastic about. This is where you’re most likely to make friends, simply because you’ll be seeing these people a lot more than anyone in your classes. Proxenos, for example, meets three times a week, whereas classes typically meet once a week. You also never know what opportunities to meet up outside of the club may come along. If someone had told me at the beginning of the semester that I would be going to Vienna for five days with twenty-something Russians, I wouldn’t have believed them.
- Language development – not all clubs are conducted in Russian, but many, including Proxenos, are. (If you don’t have extensive Russian experience, there are some clubs conducted in English.) Clubs can be especially helpful for learning to be comfortable with slang, quick speaking, and other quirks of “everyday” speech that aren’t the focus of most Russian classes.
Things to know:
- Although involvement level for clubs can vary, Proxenos in particular requires a lot of commitment. I’ve learned over ten songs in over five different languages this semester, largely on my own (the rest of the choir knew most of the pieces already). Be sure that you know what you’re signing up for!
- Joining clubs at MGIMO can be intimidating and less than straightforward; there is no official list of organizations like there are at many U.S. universities, and no college-wide activity fair where club members shove clipboards at you asking for your email regardless of whether you're interested or not. You will need to take initiative at the beginning of the semester if you want to join a club: go to the activity fairs (smaller than those in the U.S. but still worthwhile) and introductory meetings of clubs, and talk to the organizers of those clubs that seem interesting to you. Getting a VK account and following MGIMO on Facebook can be useful.
This semester, I have attended classical music concerts at the Moscow Conservatory, stood in line at 9 a.m. on a Saturday to get student tickets to the Bolshoi ballet, and seen Anna Karenina (the musical!) and a Russian translation of the British musical “The Comedy About a Bank Robbery,” among other things. The performing arts are a huge part of Russian culture, and I urge anyone, even those who aren’t personally creative, to take advantage of the wide variety of plays, concerts, and other performances available in Moscow during a stay here. Not only will the content give you a peek into the “Russian mentality,” the simple act of buying tickets is a great way to experience another everyday interaction in Russia.
- Cultural insight – you can see and hear many Russian classics in theatres and concert halls throughout Moscow. Sometimes these will be traditional presentations, other times they will be modern interpretations (this take on Anna Karenina included electric guitar and contemporary dance).
- Affordable fun – except for some of the most renowned stages (e.g. the Bolshoi theatre), tickets for Russian entertainment are shockingly affordable when compared to the U.S. The tickets for both of the musicals I went to cost less than $15 each. Movie tickets usually cost between $5 and $8.
- Relaxing with no guilt – for those of you who recharge by listening to music or watching TV or movies, this is a good, guilt-free alternative. It’s not a highly social activity unless you make it one, and you’re still being entertained, but you’re also practicing Russian and going somewhere new in Moscow.
Things to know:
- Programs are not free. If you want souvenirs or to read anything about the performance, get ready to shell out one or two hundred rubles.
- It is culturally appropriate to leave your coat at the coat check before entering the performance hall.
- Russians do dress up for performances, especially traditionally fancy venues like the Bolshoi. That said, I went to the Bolshoi in black jeans and a nice shirt because I knew I would be standing outside for a ticket in cold weather. Although dressing up is probably recommended, don’t stress about being turned away at the door if you look presentable.
- For the Bolshoi: relatively cheap seats for the historic stage do exist (~$25). However, those seats get bought very quickly after tickets are released two to three months ahead of the performances. Students can go the day of a performance to buy standing tickets for 100 roubles (less than $2), but there’s a complicated process. You will need to stand in line and show evidence of student status at a Russian university, and tickets aren’t guaranteed, especially for popular shows. It’s worth it to try, if only for the cultural experience, but if you want to see a particular show it might be better to buy tickets ahead of time.
Although this post is by no means an exhaustive list of the arts-related activities you can get involved in around Moscow, it's the way I've approached my time here. I hope it will serve to give you inspiration – whether for exploring Moscow or any new place!