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Studying Russian Abroad: What Are the Choices?

Let’s face it…Russian is a difficult language. Not to take anything away from more commonly studied languages like Spanish and French, but Russian grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary make it significantly more tricky for the native English speaker. Like every language, Russian also has its fair share of cultural and regional differences that can cause minor confusion for a non-native speaker. These factors make  it even more necessary for Russian students to study abroad and experience the language outside of the classroom.

Besides the difficulties of learning the language itself I, personally, feel that there is a bit of a stigma or mysteriousness about the Russian language. Despite the fact that millions of people travel to Russia for work, tourism, or family every year, when you tell someone you are learning Russian or studying abroad in Russia, you WILL get a perplexed look. To make that confusion worse is the recent tension between the West and Russia over its annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine. So, with everything going on in the former-Soviet Union, where is the best place for you, as an everyday student of Russian, to study!?

Russia

Obviously, Russia is an excellent choice! Despite the tensions between the West and Russia, the country is definitely still open for study! Many study abroad trips stick with the normal places of study, such as Moscow State University, Russian State University for the Humanities, St. Petersburg State University, or one of the many private Russian language schools throughout the country. The same rules apply in Russia as in other countries: the further away you get from the major metropolises, the quicker you will learn the language. Moscow and St. Petersburg have the perks of being European cities with countless thing to do. But with capitals comes tourism…and by the transitive property, people who can speak English. If you want to really improve your Russian and experience the “real” Russia consider choosing a school outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. I know people who have studied Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Kazan, and other cities across the country.

When I studied abroad in Russia, my university had a partnership with Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow. While it was a bit easier to speak English around Moscow, there were/are certainly plenty of opportunities to use Russian.

Ukraine

Another great place to learn Russian is in Ukraine. I don’t think I have to say that a major section of the Russian speaking part of Ukraine is now inaccessible for students of Russian, but don’t fret! Kiev is a fantastic city to study Russian. Kiev is an interesting city, as the majority of the population is totally bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian. It’s not uncommon to hear someone ordering food in Russian and the server speaking to them in Ukrainian, or vice versa. Some people frown on learning Russian in Ukraine, mainly because of the Ukrainian accent in Russian. However, if you go to a university or language school, you won’t have to worry about your teachers speaking with a bad accent and ruining your perfect Muscovite accent 😉 It is true that the Ukrainian accent takes a little getting used to, but it is not extreme. After a couple of days you’ll be understanding it as normal as you would anywhere else.

When I lived in Kiev I studied at a language school called Nova Mova (Novy Yazik, in Russian) where you could learn Russian or Ukrainian. In fact, Nova Mova is a very well regarded school. It is used by the U.S. government to help train its students at the military academies (West Point, Naval Academy, and Air Force), DoD personnel, and others. Chances are if your in an upper-intermediate level class, you’ll meet a cadet who is studying abroad in one of your classes. The teachers here are top notch.

There are obviously other school that you can learn Russian in Kiev and in other cities. However, be aware that the further west you go in Ukraine, the less Russian is spoken (as a generalization). I wouldn’t recommend learning Russian in L’viv (L’vov, in Russian) for example, as most people in L’viv speak Ukrainian as their first language. Also, did I mention…you don’t need a visa to study in Ukraine!

The Baltic States

Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, learning Russian in the Baltic States as become exponentially more popular. First of all, it should be pointed out that Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians aren’t Slavic people, nor are their native languages close to Russian. However, as a consequence of history, there are hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russian in the Baltic States who speak Russian as a first language. Moreover, a large chunk of the population of these countries speaks Russian as a second language.

The one thing you have to keep in mind if you decide to study in the Baltics is to pick your school and city carefully. Since the fall of the USSR many ethnic Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians stopped speaking Russian, more or less. When you walking into a store in Tallinn they will greet you in Estonian and often, if the worker is young, may not even speak Russian. However, there are certain cities with large Russian populations where you can practice your Russian as if you are in Russia.

Riga, Latvia – According to the 2011 Latvian census, 37% of Riga’s population are ethnic Russians. Of the three Baltic capitals, Riga is by far the best place to find Russian speakers. And along with Russian speakers comes Russian language schools. There are numerous schools to attend if you are looking to come to Riga.

Daugavpils, Latvia – Daugavpils has become an increasingly popular place to learn Russian since the conflict in Ukraine started, as over half of its inhabitants are ethnic Russians. Many university programs have begun coming to Daugavpils University for their Russian programs as the university is pushing to make itself a premier place to learn Russian INSIDE the E.U. I know that my alma mater, Virginia Tech, has switched from Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow to Daugavpils University.

Narva, Estonia – Narva is another great city to study Russian. Located right on the Russian border, over 90% of Narva’s inhabitants are Russian speakers. There are numerous language schools in Narva, including the Narva campus of University of Tartu, which is a world renowned research university based in Tartu, Estonia.

You’ll probably notice that I didn’t mention any schools in Lithuania. Despite the fact that there is a small ethnic Russian population in Lithuania and speakers of Russian as a second language, Lithuania has largely abandoned Russian. Even during the Soviet period Lithuania had the least amount of ethnic Russians of the three Baltic States. There are still Russian language schools in Lithuania; however, when it comes to using Russian outside the classroom, it is probably a better choice to go to either Latvia or Estonia. Finally, like Ukraine, you won’t need a visa to study in the Baltic States if you’re an E.U. or U.S. passport holder!

Good luck with your study abroad adventures!

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