¨Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.¨
Teaching English as a Foreign Language Stories From My Volunteer Experiences in 1990s Russia
My favorite travel stories come from my time as an English teacher in Kaliningrad, Russia, including the following. (Note: I was in Kaliningrad from 1994 to 1995. In the intervening 24 years, life in Russia has changed dramatically; I doubt these stories would happen in the same way today)
In the Classroom
- During my placement, I taught at a small business college called Kaliningrad Commercial College. The student body was 90% female of ages 17-19. (Most males of that age in Russia had to do army service). The students took courses in a variety of subjects including restaurant management (which, translated from Russian, is mass nutrition), pre-law, computers, and commerce. Teachers (who received only $60 pay per month) had to work additional jobs to make a living. As a result, the school was unable to maintain a stable schedule. Every day, I would find out what classes I would teach the next day. I had some groups of students for forty hours in a semester and others for six hours a semester. The school had a surprisingly advanced computer lab financed by a grant from Sweden. My classes had between 8 and 35 students each.
- On the first day of class, I asked the students what they like to do in their free time. One of my female students tested me by answering to “have sex.” Wanting to remain calm, I replied that most women prefer to “make love” since “having sex” referred to the physical act while “making love” was more romantic with champagne and roses. She replied, OK, I like to make love.
- Russians on the very first day of school have a special party to open the year. During this celebration, the teachers are introduced to the students. The headmistress of the school, introduced me by saying that “Paul is from America, he is single, and I hope he finds a wife here.” When I married one of her students nine months later, a radio program interviewed the headmistress. She advised potential students to come to her school because they might marry an American.
- Some of my student responded to my class activities in a very entertaining manner. One time, I had my students try to act out a crime. In one scene the criminal had to appear in front of judge. The criminal pleaded that ¨he was a helpless victim of society. ¨ Oner student once told me he had a seance and conjured up the vision of Marilyn Monroe. Another student played Lenin and the student asked Lenin questions. When one student asked Lenin if he had a wife and children, the Lenin character replied something like ¨I do not have time for all those bourgeois concerns¨.
- During my first month teaching, I gave the students several short paragraphs to write. The best student in each class, invariably named Natasha, would turn in the paragraph on time. Her paper usually required several corrections. As time went on over the next month, I would get the rest of the students’ papers. As sure as clockwork, the papers got better and better as time went on. Usually, the best paper came from the worst student.
- After a couple of assignments, I asked the other teachers why this happened. They told me that during communist times it was essential that teachers could show the authorities that all their students mastered every topic (most students had 25 classes or more per semester) and the only way to do so was to allow one or two students to do all the work for the rest of the class. Those students would be paraded in front of the authorities during inspections to show how skilled everyone was. As a result, most students early on developed one or two subjects where they excelled and the rest of the time, they slid by.
- Russian men and women acted different from each other in the classroom. Even though 90% of my students were female, my male students did most of the talking in the class. One day one of the other American volunteers, Kelly, invited me to visit her seventh-grade English class. All throughout the class the boys talked and fidgeted, and the girls remained still. The moment Kelly asked the class a question, every boy raised his hand to answer. Most of their answers were wrong. After one of the boys tried to answer the question, Kelly asked one of the girls if she knew the answer. Without fail, the girl student knew the answer.
- When I first went to Russia, our group of volunteers sat in on a class taught by a local English teacher. She spent the whole time gently chiding her students. We all thought she was too harsh. However, we often found ourselves criticizing our students at some point during our teaching. My turn took place about three months into my assignment. It was a cold; dreary day and I was just beginning to get a bit of a culture shock. I had one class where the students did not seem to respond to anything I did. Exasperated, I finally said, “I am tired of teaching you. I will get the school director to talk to you unless you shape up.” The next time the students met with me, they were all energetic and pleasant. I thought it was weird that after so little prompting they changed so much.
- A couple of days later I asked them what they wanted to learn from the class. They replied that they would like to learn about holidays in the USA and Russia. So, I started a lesson. It seemed to be going well so I asked them to write a paragraph about the holidays to be read aloud two weeks later. I realized this was a mistake when all but the best two or three students started reading paragraphs from textbooks. (They wrote them out so that it was not obvious.)
- Many of these students did not read the text first. As a result, they read paragraphs that were written before the fall of communism. (Nearly all the textbooks were old). So, several students started reading texts about the joys of celebrations on collective farms and how young people throughout the Soviet Union wanted to act just like “Uncle Lenin.” I listened to these texts and decided to let it go and use this as a reading aloud exercise. (This is good for pronunciation development). However, the brighter students in the class all started to have fun with these texts. During the reading the brighter students would make comments in Russian like “I didn’t know that we still have Pioneers in Russia” and “I am surprised that you still love Lenin so much.” The students reading the paragraphs at first looked amazed and then asked, “Is that what I read?” To which, the other students said, yes, and then they sat down with embarrassed looks on their faces.
- For two months before my classes in Kaliningrad, I took Russian language classes in Saint Petersburg. My first teacher was an old lady who was still a bit stuck in Soviet times. One day, she asked me as an exercise, what would you do if a genie told you he would grant you one wish but that whatever you asked for your neighbor would get twice as much as you? ¨. I responded that I would ask for the end of war. She said that is not a very Russian answer. A true Russian would ask to have one of his eyes gauged out so that his neighbor would have no eyes. I thought this was an odd answer, so I asked the same question to my students, their replies were much more normal: they wanted things like a big house or a rich boyfriend, etc.
Life Outside of the Classroom
- Kaliningrad is a small enclave of Russia on the Baltic Sea sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. At the time I was in Kaliningrad it had only been open to foreigners for four years after the fall of the Soviet Union. In Soviet times, it was a closed military base. (Kaliningrad is Russia´s only warm water port). I was there as a volunteer through World Teach. There were anywhere from 8 to 25 volunteers and eight Mormon missionaries. Those were evidently the only Americans there at the time.
- The city before the war was part of Prussia (called Konigsberg). It was quite a beautiful city before the war. Little bits and pieces of its former glory remain today. (You can see what it used to look like by visiting the reconstructed old town in Gdansk, Poland -named Danzig before the war)- which used to be a sister city of Konigsberg). When I was there, Kaliningrad was mostly drab Soviet area concrete apartment blocks. Recently I watched a travel video on YouTube about Kaliningrad. It appears so much more modern and European than 1994 Kaliningrad.
- For a month, I lived with one of the most interesting people I have ever met, Alexei Nikolaevich. About a month after I started teaching, I went into the small cafeteria in my dorm to order something to eat, and when I went to leave the restaurant, I found that I could not open the door. I looked around and noticed that one of my students (Nina, who later became my wife) was holding the door so that I could not leave. Nina, who I think was a little drunk at the time, told me that it was her birthday and that she wanted to introduce me to an old man, Alexei Nikolayevich. Alexei, who was born around the time of the Russian revolution.
- When I met Alexei, he was an old, blind gentleman. His father lived under house arrest for most of the first years after the Russian revolution when Alexei was a young man. His father talked to Alexei every day in a different language. One day he would speak English, the next French, the following day Russian, then German, and finally the local Siberian language. As a result, Alexei could speak many languages, nearly fluently. Since he had few opportunities to speak English to a native speaker, he could talk to me very fluently and intelligently. But he could only understand about 50% of what I said in response! Alexei became a math professor. He preferred social studies and languages to math but taught mathematics to avoid politics. Otherwise, he was afraid he could face the same problems as his father had with the Communist authorities.
- One day I was talking to one of my students who worked as a waitress in a restaurant for businessmen. She told me that she hated her job because her customers were always grabbing her in inappropriate places. A couple of days later I told this story to one of the American volunteers who had been in Russia for two years and spoke nearly fluent Russian. She told me that young Russian girls were often groped. Then she said that most ads for employees even requested employees “without complexes,” which, according to the volunteer, was code for “willing to sleep with the boss.”
- A couple of months after I stopped teaching, I got a part time job teaching English to a young computer guru who worked for this very wealthy man. We met for his classes in one of the nicest apartments in the city. I noticed after a while that the apartment looked unlived in and asked the student about it. He told me that Russian businesses often kept apartments around the city where men could take their mistresses and that it was necessary to maintain such an apartment to attract clients
- I was in Russia on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. I turned on a popular TV talk show, called Mbi (Us) hosted by Vladimir Posner. He interviewed many young people who said that they wished that the Germans had won the war because Germany was so wealthy, and Russia today is so poor. Most of them had no idea that Hitler would have made them into slaves and when the elders in the audience expressed this sentiment, the young people just shrugged their shoulders. I felt sorry for the older people in the audience. Russia in many ways saved the world from the worst dictator in history. Millions of people died in the war and the young peoples’ reactions flew in the face of the tremendous sacrifice made by Russian people.
- However, I cannot be sanctimonious about the anniversary either. On the anniversary, my girlfriend Nina and I got in a little spat in front of an older woman who was selling fruit. The vendor said, “How can you act this way on such an important day. Do you realize how much we suffered in the war?” Justifiably chastised, I demurred and stopped arguing with Nina.
- Russia (when I was there at least) had a double pricing structure for foreigners and residents. While this pricing system is common in many countries, it is nowhere near as prevalent and unfair as Russia. It cost 20-40 times as much for a foreigner as for a Russian. The fees for Russians were among the lowest in the world. For foreigners, these fees were among the planet’s highest fees. This discrepancy angered me to no end. One day I went with Nina to a church in the Kremlin. She paid 40 cents and I was charged $7.50. I blew up at the little old lady ticket taker. I told her that this was not fair. I had lived there for a year, made a Russian wage, etc. She would not budge. Nina looked at me and said, “Paul, calm down, there is nothing you can do about it. t may be unfair, but you are making a fool of yourself.” I thought about it for a few minutes and realized that she was right. After that day I tried to negotiate with vendors and accepted whatever they said. Most of the time I paid the Russian fee. Yet, I will never get angry at the double standard again.
- During my stay, many people made money buying things at this huge outdoor market in Warsaw, Poland and selling them in Kaliningrad. (Many vendors from other parts of Russia also came to Kaliningrad to buy things from these vendors). Most of the vendors carried a large amount of money with them. As a result, rings of thieves in Poland would hijack the buses. To keep the vendors safe, the Polish police offered to protect the passengers for a fee of about $5 each. The police officers wrote down our passport numbers and names for their files. When I presented my passport, the officials told me I did not have to pay. The women sitting next to me complained and said ¨Why does he get special treatment; he has more money than we do. The official replied, ¨He is Americans. We like Americans¨. I was extremely uncomfortable until I heard the same conversation taking place about a Lithuanian later.
- One day I had a nice cashmere coat that I wanted to have cleaned at a dry cleaner. The dry cleaner would not let me give them the coat for dry cleaning until I had the buttons removed. (I hired someone to take off and sew on the buttons). I also had to handwrite and sign in Russian a long disclaimer in case they damaged the coat before they let me bring in the coat. (Other than all this bureaucracy, the coat came back clean and all in one piece).
- Most of the goods in the grocery store were behind the counter. Each item had a price tag on the shelf., and I had to go to a cashier and tell her the price of the item and pay. Then I would take the receipt to the counter and the clerk (usually dour) would give me the item. This was a daily struggle at first. It was hard for me to remember and then say the number correctly. At the time, Russia had remarkably high inflation and the prices were extraordinarily complex and precise (like 4091 rubles). (Note: In Soviet times, prices were precise because there was no profit, and accountants would calculate the cost of the item and charge that exact price to the customer)
- You never know who you’ll meet. One day in Tallinn, Estonia, I went to a homestay agency to find a place to stay the night. After a couple minutes of interviewing me to help determine the best place for me to stay, she said, “I have the perfect place for you. They are an older Estonian couple with a lovely apartment in central Tallinn. I don’t often place people there, because they don’t speak any English or German and they are uncomfortable with guests they can’t talk to. However, since you speak good Russian, they’ll be happy to have you there.” Armed with their address, I went to visit this couple. The apartment was lovely. The room was the most comfortable room I had stayed in during my four months (up to that point) in that part of the Earth. The arrangement included a breakfast which the couple put in a lot of time and expense to make. I even went with them to their dacha in the countryside. Toward the end of my stay, I looked at the bookshelf in their front room (Hint: I noticed a tourist book to Pyongyang, North Korea. I asked them about it and they told me that when they were in the Russian military, they were stationed in North Korea for two years. I was excited; I had never met anyone who had everl ivedin North Korea before. I asked them what it is like. The woman replied “It was the worst place I have ever been and I was in Angola in the middle of a war zone. I never met any Koreans the whole time I was there. No one would talk about anything other than their love and admiration for Kim Il Sung (North Korea’s president). Even in the depths of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, people talked about things like where to find cheap bread or gossiped about who was sleeping together. n two years, I never had a normal conversation with anyone. I was even afraid to talk to my husband about life since we were probably wiretapped. It was awful.”
Want to Read More Travel Stories?
- My Crazy Top 26 Favorite Stories From Teaching English as a Foreign Language Volunteer in the 1990s in Kaliningrad, RussiaProbably my favorite travel stories come from spending a year and a half as a volunteer English as a Foreign Language teacher in Kaliningrad. It was a wild, once-in-a-lifetime experience that shaped a lot of who I am today.
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