From movies to real-life experiences, many of you have an idea of what it means to be a university student in the States. From the interesting dorm life, to finding your own apartment, from student organizations to the greek life: the feeling of finally being free and on your own is something that you can never forget. Despite the great times I had as a student at West Virginia University, I decided to spend one year as an exchange student at Moscow State University (MSU). I had no real expectation of what college life would be like in Russia, but I quickly discovered that it was totally different from what I was used to. To be entirely honest, it took me quite a while to see the good in being a student in Moscow…
In the United States students take many things for granted: access to recreation, free internet, strong student support systems, and a host of extra-curricular activities. In Russia universities don’t put so much effort into supplying students with things to do outside the classroom. Student-run organizations are abundant in the U.S., while in Russia they are not so common. Still, they do exist! Here at MSU, for example, I have found my place in KVN (a well established organization, pitting teams against each other to be the most funny in comedy shows). On the other hand, academic facilities such as research labs and libraries are in top shape, which clearly shows where Russian universities put their focus.
Perhaps due to the high costs of studying in the States, students have come to demand more services for their money. This is why the quality of life they will be presented with at university is a factor highly valued by American students, almost as much as the institution’s academic reputation. In Russia, because the quality of education plays a larger role in student choices, universities aren’t as pressured to advance certain areas of student life. This lack of student demand for better services also leads to other more subtle differences that caught me slightly off-guard when I first arrived. The rather large and inexpensive meals from U.S. university dining halls are replaced with smaller selections at steep prices at MSU’s “stolovayas” (cafeterias), the dorms, while meeting the students’ basic needs, tend to be small and outdated, and the cumbersome bureaucracy slows down the simplest of processes.
Classroom culture of Russian universities is unique as well. Every professor, department and university is different - but Russia has some deep-rooted traditions that differ greatly from those in the States. More so than not, students’ grades are based almost exclusively on the ‘final exam,’ with less attention attached to perceived effort, attendance and homework. The exams require you to have knowledge of the entire curriculum and are quite demanding. The system relies mostly on self learning, and this can pose a challenge for some foreigners - but it’s ideal for most Russians. Student-teacher relations also tend to differ. Don’t be surprised if your professor publicly humiliates you for your poorly written essay! Many concepts considered basic student rights in the States, such as privacy, social equality, and student justice, aren’t well established in Russia and is something that “you just have to get use to,” according to one Russian student. Bribes are known to be a problem in Russian universities, and your personal standing with the professors means a lot, sometimes more than you would think. Considering that finals are usually oral exams, don’t expect your written work to back you up if you get into bad standing with your professor!
Despite struggling with some of the aspects of studying at a Russian university, however, I can’t deny that I am enjoying my time here. Life for young people is very attractive, especially in the Russian capital. Moscow can provide students with something to do at any cost and time, and transportation in the city, though congested, is very efficient. I can be downtown Moscow in 30 minutes by metro! In terms of activities, the options are endless. From a walk through the park or riding downtown on rollerblades, to visiting a local exhibition or going out with your friends, fun is to be had! With all of this work and fun strong bonds among students are bound to develop. I’ve met so many great people while studying at MSU, and they have played a critical role in making this experience great. Certain on-campus facilities may be lacking, but everything I’ve needed can be found close by, right outside of the campus (I am lucky to be only 15 minutes away from a large shopping center!). In addition, I’m receiving education at the number one ranked university in Russia, and that’s something no one can complain about! It’s definitely different, it’s Russia, and it can take some time to get use to - but I’m sure you would learn to love it as I have.
What about your experiences as a student, both in your country and abroad? Is it similar to the Russian system? The American System? Is student life booming? Or is all about the academics? What about student rights? Feel free to sound off in the comment section below!
I’ve always considered myself a funny guy. When I first arrived in Russia, however, I was completely at a loss trying to understand their humor. Almost suddenly, I wasn’t as funny as I used to be back in the U.S. I couldn’t simply role out a joke referencing George Bush or the tree-hugging environmentalist SUV owners. The “that’s what she said!” jokes seemed to have lost their meaning, and other seemingly amusing material found its way to offend many Russian citizens. I quickly learned that I needed to adapt if I wanted to get the ‘spotlight of laughter’ back on me, but how was I going to do that? That opportunity came in the unexpected form of “KVN”.
KVN, or “КВН” in Cyrillic, stands for “Клуб Весёлых и Находчивых” (Club of the Funny and Inventive). In late October, I was approached by a Russian friend, who asked me if I was interested in playing with him and two of his friends in ‘a comedy game show.’ Long story short, this is how I found myself accepting to play in the Moscow State University KVN tournament. At that point I began to research what KVN exactly is.
During my research I uncovered that KVN originated in Soviet Russia during the 1960s. Since then KVN has became one of Russia’s most popular competitions and longest running TV shows. There are many leagues, both on and off the air, with different teams competing in various parts of the world. From businesses to schools, from clubs to professional leagues: everyone in Russia seems to enjoy KVN! Although the game was banned for some years in the USSR for political reasons, its resurgence during Perestroika brought it to a level of popularity never experienced before. Currently, KVN has about five million spectators annually (an impressive feat, if you think about it!) and has become a cultural phenomenon that is present in almost every corner of Russian society.
The gist of the game is as follows: a panel of judges determines a score for each team, combining performance scores from a variety of activities. Our particular tournament included team-created sketches, an impromptu skit using a given plot line, and a round of question answering. No matter how much a team has prepared for it, the game ensures that the people playing aren’t simply actors; the impromptu section puts the pressure on players to make a room full of people laugh, with no time to think about what to do.
Here is a video from one of our performances to give you an idea of what a KVN game looks like.
As you might have noticed, our team name is “American Boys” - playing off of the fact that I am an American. The video is in Russian, but even if it was in English, many foreigners wouldn’t be able to comprehend the jokes. Russian humor relies heavily on popular culture, social conventions and requires a deep knowledge of the Russian language, something that can be an obstacle for non-native speakers. Inside, and outside of this competition, I have also realised how important black humor, word play and dry humor are to the Russian culture. It truly makes it something unique, not meant for everyone. Take the following joke, based on word play:
Птицеферма у нас есть,
И другая строится.
А колхозник яйца видит,
Когда в бане моется.
[Here we have a chicken farm,
The hens keep busy hour by hour,
The only “eggs” the farmhand sees
Are between his legs in the shower!]
“Eggs” is a slang word for testicles in the Russian language. I am afraid not many people abroad would find such crude humor as hilarious as the Russians do.
I thought that the funniest and most unexpected moment of the show was when I went to answer one of the impromptu questions. I nervously walked up to the microphone to answer the judges’ question; one of them said that she had read in a magazine about a crab, which scientists discovered doing a specific type of dance along the beach. “Why did it dance like that?” she asked. I slowly answered, “I also read this article, and the crab danced differently.” I took a short pause and, before I could begin to dance wildly and say “He danced like this!”, the whole crowd burst into laughter. Why was this first part of my answer so funny? I’m still not entirely sure… Perhaps it was the fact that I answered the question in a completely irrelevant way, with a straight face, and implied the judge was wrong? Whatever the answer may be, this is the type of humor that thrives here in Russia.
Our team did win the first round of the tournament and will be playing again in late March, but I still am learning about the comedy side of the Russian culture day by day. The longer I’m here, the more I find myself in that ‘spotlight of laughter’ I love so much. Sometimes I may direct a room full of awkward stares toward me, but it’s all part of the learning process.
I encourage you to check out KVN - give it a Google or YouTube search. There is plenty of information in English out there, which may just get you interested! It’s unique, different, and definitely Russian! Even an American like myself enjoys this game show that seems to be so distant from the “Western world.” Despite my mediocre Russian, I find myself laughing more often than not!
Before ending this blogpost I’d like to share with you one more Russian joke, which is very popular with children:
“Маленький мальчик нашёл пулемёт — Больше в деревне никто не живёт.”
[“A little boy found a machine gun — Now the village population is none.”]
Now you can see why it takes some time to adjust to Russia humor, right?
My team on stage….
…and celebrating our victory!