Russia: Underrated Teaching Location?

Note: Moscow at one point earned the title of World’s Most Expensive City; that’s no longer the case, but it is undoubtedly more expensive than Kazan. The information herein relates to our experiences in Kazan, rather than Russia’s huge capital.

Russia–what a storied place. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Leningrad, multi-hewed onion domes atop brick towers, Red Square. Having had time to reflect on our year in Russia, a few things really stand out about the experience.

First and foremost, it’s a country that can aptly be described as Second World. Google the phrase and you’ll find that it refers to the former Soviet countries (and a handful of others). While the term Second World is a relic of a bygone era of Cold War, it is still used to describe a country’s level of development–between underdeveloped (Third World) and developed (First World). Perhaps we’d be better off using the phrase “developing” instead of Second World. At any rate, whether we call it Second World or developing, sometimes Russia is as modern and wonderful as can be–spacious new apartment complexes, glittering towers, high speed internet, glamorous German sedans, and all the luxury you might imagine of a country that, as some say, is experiencing a type of resurgence. And yet, those glamorous Teutonic cruisers zoom over potholed pavement, suspension slamming against the stops in a most unglamorous fashion, and despite blazing quick internet, the hot water quits working for days at a time whilst undergoing yet another round of maintenance and repairs. The fancy apartment complex’s landscaping consists of tires as planters, poorly pruned trees and helter-skelter shrubberies. The newly paved parking lot has a section ripped up and poorly repaved scarcely a week after being finished. The parking garages in this complex have never even opened because they are both a terrible deal–one has to pay extra to park in them, as opposed to simply parking on the street level–and also because they are dreadfully constructed. Consequently, navigating through the overcrowded street level parking lot is sometimes impossible.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Oct 25, 2015 at 10:47pm PDT

 

It would seem #winter is ending.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Feb 29, 2016 at 9:24am PST

 

Second, it’s an inexpensive place to live, assuming that one makes an otherwise competitive Western salary. While it would be classless to share how much I was making, it was in line with a typical IB/international school salary, and included the usual benefits for those sorts of jobs. Suffice it to say that we were able to send up to 70% of our money home monthly. Cab fare using Tap Taxi would run around $2-3 for a typical middle-length ride (Kazan is cheap compared to Moscow or St. Petersburg, by the way), and while eating out could be as expensive as anywhere else if we didn’t use some discretion, we found fantastic delivery sushi, and groceries were inexpensive. During August and September, the fruits and vegetables were surprisingly fresh and delicious. We had trouble finding decent cheeses, though, and settled on Cheese Gallery offerings as usually tasting best. Home DSL internet is inexpensive. Mobile phone service is marvelously affordable–we paid around $3 a month for our MTS internet-equipped phone plans, for instance. A month’s expenses for water, gas, and electricity, as well as whatever fees the apartment complex included, cost around 5,000 rubles (the ruble hovered around 60 to a dollar while we were there).

By some measures, then, teaching in Russia is a great experience. Financially, it was very good for us. Other things made it hard, though. There’s virtually no English spoken on the street (even though some road signs feature both languages), making exploring more of a challenge. Of course, that also helps one be motivated to learn some Russian, and acquiring a foreign language is no small feat.

What about teaching itself? There is a range of opportunity available for an American to teach English. Language schools are one option, although they are basically their own animals as compared to public or private schools. I was able to get a job working at an international school, which, we shall wait and see, may help open doors to other international schools in the future. The school I worked for was brand new, and had its share of growing pains, which made the work environment a bit more difficult than it probably would have been if the school had been established for a while (there’s a good lesson, I think; find a school that’s been around for long enough to be stable, with administrators who have plenty of experience in their roles). In most ways, the work place was nice–it must be said that the new building was generally world-class; having meals (they even accommodated my vegetarianism happily) provided was super convenient; and having transportation to and from work included was a definite perk.

Coming out of the Emirates, I found Russian students to be much easier to work with than the over-privileged Emirati youth, and that was a welcome improvement. Also coming out of the Emirates, the long work days (7:45-4:45) were not a pleasant adjustment, and seriously ate into my quality of family life, while also making it harder to fit routine things like going to the gym into my schedule.

As was the case in the Emirates, and as is usual of international schools and many teaching jobs abroad, living quarters were included as part of the salary package, and the apartment we had was nice and plenty roomy. The location in the Sun City area wasn’t very convenient, which meant we relied heavily on taxis to get around (we could travel by bus, but it took forever and a day), but as I said before, taxi fare is cheap in Kazan, so that was alright. Of course, Russian taxi men are a mixed bag, and you might get a jovial driver one day, and a horrendous jerk the next. Uber has made its way to Kazan, by the way, but I never had any luck finding a car with Uber.

Everyone always asks about the weather. In short, the temperatures only got extremely cold for about a month around January, and only about 2 weeks were truly frigid (-25 c or more). August sucked–it was cold and dreary, but September was made great by Indian Summer–beautiful and clear–and snow fell and stuck from October. In general, after that, winter arrived and it was an overcast crap fest with terribly short days, especially in December, making the arrival of spring and frequent blue skies most welcome around April. May was okay, and June quite nice.

There isn’t much of an expat scene in Kazan. “Single women we knew had a particularly hard time making any kind of connections outside of work,” Jenia says. There are a few small gatherings, there’s a little Western church homegroup that meets regularly, and with coworkers at the school, we had a bit of a social life, but nothing like the thriving one that we experience in Abu Dhabi. But then, as our world-traveling fellow expat-teacher friends the Casales once observed, it is incredibly easy to live in the UAE as an expat. Russia, or at least Kazan (Moscow and St. Petersburg have larger expat populations), doesn’t make it easy to be an expat, although as I said, that does have some benefits, including making it easier or at least more necessary to acquire some language skills. There are lots of events going on, though, with concerts, sports events, and more happening frequently, if one can just navigate enough Russian to figure them out (a task much easier these days with the mind-blowing Google Translate app).

Travel within Russia is inexpensive. We’d recommend visiting the Caucasus–it’s drastically different from the plains which dominate the rest of the Russian landscape.

#Dombay #Russia #Caucasus #caucasusmountains #skiresort

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Apr 3, 2016 at 2:41am PDT

A final observation is what Jenia calls spotty but inexpensive healthcare. There was only one hospital in all of Kazan, with its 1.2 million people, willing to allow me into the delivery room when our youngest was born, for example. This private hospital, Ava Kazan, did generally offer a Western level experience. “It differed dramatically from doctor to doctor,” Jenia says.  Ava had English-speaking staff, too, which was great, but even they couldn’t get Western-made vaccines (Russian ones don’t have a very good reputation).

Where we spent the last couple of days. #Kazan #россия

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Nov 28, 2015 at 1:02am PST

 

So is Russia an underrated teaching destination? In some ways, probably so. If you value a place where your dollars stretch a long way, then Kazan is certainly a place where they do. If you don’t need to be surrounded by a large community of Westerners, and if you value the chance to be immersed in Russian (and in the case of Kazan, Tartar) culture, then it’s a neat place to spend some time. So find an established school with experienced leadership, and give it a shot.

A White Christmas and Tales of Leningrad

The chances of a white Christmas have gone up exponentially.  We are in Russia right now.  It’s been six years since I, Shon, have been here.  Jenia’s been gone a long time, too; nearly three years have elapsed since she’s been home.  But here we are.

When we got off the plane at Sheremetyevo and headed for our train Tuesday morning, we were greeted by frigid -21C weather.  If I remember right, that’s -6F.  You know what?  That makes for quite a shock when you’ve just come from Abu Dhabi.  Before long, we were whisked southeast to Ryazan, where the temperatures have remained a little less severe (but have still hovered just a few degrees above zero most every day).  The cold isn’t all that’s news here, of course.  In fact, that’s really not news at all.  It’s winter in Russia; what else would it be, if not mighty chilly?

This trip is about family.  To that end, we’ve been coddled and fed delicious home-cooked meals.  Borsch (we’ll leave off the puzzling letter “t” that often gets included in the English translation of that word), vareniki, mushroom soup, apple pie, and much more.  And it wouldn’t be Russia without a whole lot of tea drinking.  “Cheorniy ile zeloniy?”  I’m asked: black or green?  “Zeloniy, spacibo.”

Speaking of tea, this afternoon we visited Jenia’s 90 (almost 91) year-old grandmother.  She is an animated 5’1″ or so, a little stooped, quite slender, with a ready smile and a characterful face.  Naturally, we settled down to tea and sweets before long.  While the ladies were visiting, I probed the apartment with the camera.

Apartment

Conversation

The apartment and its decor speak about Babushka Anya’s life.  Sitting atop an old inkwell on the desk there is an icon which she had with her at all times, even through the Soviet years.  Hanging on the wall there is a gilt-framed painting which once, prior to WWII, belonged to a German household.  It came back from Germany with her when she returned from WWII.  The painter bears a name that must not be famous; one of her grandsons tried googling it recently for her and got no hits.  Above one of the doors is a pair of antlers from a saigak, a souvenir from her son’s time in Kazakhstan.

Desk

Painting

Somehow, the topic of her wartime experience was raised.  At only 19, she was pressed into service in Leningrad.  Just a girl, she was placed in charge of a pharmacy in a mobile medical detachment which sat just behind the front lines.  As a pharmacist, she mixed and prepared medications.  Her equipment included a vat that had been taken from the Germans.  “It was non-stop work,” she said.  “When there was fighting, the wounded didn’t stop coming.  We went without sleep for days.”  In fact, she and the other paramedics were so exhausted that they took naps while traveling–by foot.  “We would walk like this, one on each side, arm-in-arm,” she said.  “And we’d say, ‘I’m sleeping now,’ and the others would carry us along as we slumped.  Then we’d wake up, and the next one would go.”

Paramedics

Babushka Anya shakes her head, and says, “I can’t even imagine how we did it now.”

Among her army decorations is the equivalent of the Purple Heart–for she was wounded more than once.  One of those times was when a German airplane spotted the three medical tents, even the one that she was in, which had been set up with one side against a high river bank, making it much harder to spot (and probably saving her life).  The plane was audible long before anyone could see it.  Finally, alarms were sounded and the tents were emptied, doctors helping patients out and to other locations.  Anya had a wounded man she was helping, but they couldn’t make it out of the tent in time.  She huddled by the exit behind a stack of crated supplies, but couldn’t feel at ease about it.  There were stretchers leaned against that side of the tent which was next to the bank.  She and her injured patient lay length-wise there, seeking cover.  And it was a good thing, too, for the German plane accurately strafed all of the tents.  The one that she lay in was destroyed.  The stack of boxes she’d sheltered behind at first was annihilated.  The supporting tent poles were shot to pieces and the canvas collapsed around them.  The patient siezed her in his grip as he was struck.  When all was quiet, she was grimy, wounded by shrapnel, but alive–and her fellows on the ground were thrilled when she rose alive.

“There were so many times when I couldn’t understand why I lived,” she said.  “It had to be the grace of God.”

Anya met her future husband on the frontlines–he worked in a neighboring medical squadron.  Their story is a great romance that lasted the entire war, even as he was shipped East to fight the Japanese in Mongolia, and she went to Germany.  One of the photos she showed us, of her wearing an immaculate uniform, stretched out on the grass before a lake in Austria, bore the legend, “To George, to remember.”

In Austria

The immaculate uniform was something that she was always careful to keep on hand.  She kept her white collar and cuffs clean, and always wore them.  “I was an example that the officers used for others,” she said.  “There was no reason not to be neat.”  This is one of the reasons she doesn’t like WWII movies.  “They’re unrealistic,” she says.  “Everyone’s always dirty, and that’s not how it was.”

My perceptions of the war having been partly shaped by viewing films like “Enemy at the Gates,” which depicts Russian troops being ordered into battle despite having ranks mostly unarmed, I asked her about weaponry.

“The first two years there was no shortage of weapons,” she said.  “Then they started to get old and fall apart.”  But salvation was arriving.  “The Americans had sat back and watched to see who was going to win–the Germans or the Russians–and when they saw that we were, they decided to help us.  So they gave us Studebakers, which helped a lot.”  Before the arrival of the American trucks, everything was moved about by horses.  The pharmacy that Anya ran included a two-wheeled cart that she was responsible for pulling or pushing when the squadron moved.  Besides the influx of American equipment which made life much easier, heavy artillery began arriving, and that made a big difference in the war effort.

These days, most of Babushka Anya’s fellow soldiers have passed away.  “It used to be there were people I could talk to about it, that understood, and knew what it was like.  But now there’s noone to talk to.”  Her face darkened as she thought about this.  “When Georgiy [her husband, who was a military pediatrician before and after the war, and a GP by necessity during it] was alive, he never drank vodka.  But on Victory Day, he would ask me, ‘Anichka, can I have fifty grams?’ Then he would raise it and address her, saying, ‘Dear Senior Lieutenant, to our victory.'” Remembering this, her face warmed and happiness tugged gently at the corners of her mouth.  Georgiy, tragically, lost his life in an ice-fishing accident when he was 70.

Our tea long-since finished, Jenia’s grandmother apologized suddenly.  “I hope I haven’t bored you,” she said.

Hands

“Not at all,” we both assured her.

“I’ve never been through it, and,” I added with a grin, “I hope to never go through it, so hearing your stories is very interesting.”

“Thank God you haven’t,” she said with an earnest chuckle, “And hope you never will.”

Table set

We made to help her clean the table–the cups and saucers, the utensils, and so forth–but she stopped us.  “I have nothing to do,” she said.  “Leave them.  Then I will have something to keep me busy.”

Fam

Besides the stories that the decor tells, the apartment itself, in size (which is one room, other than the kitchen and bath), color, and appointments, tells what Russian living is often like.  The kitchen is large by local standards, but the stove is tiny, and the counterspace extremely limited.

Fridge

Kitchen

Stove

After a bit more small talk, we took our leave, out of the cozy apartment, and into the cold.  Outside, we made our way along the road, slick with packed, icy snow.  The danger of slipping and falling is ever-present in this country, where only a few sidewalks are ever cleared of snowfall, and driveways seem to never be.

Pathways

And so, with Christmas right around the corner, we expect a white one, and we will be happily celebrating it with the company of family.