Michiel Timmermans in Moscow, Russia
For me personally, Moscow represented the most fascinating proposal for spending a semester abroad. I had a couple of other options, but what struck me most was the notion of an opportunity to explore this fascinating city. It felt challenging, edgy even. I managed to justify my choice to everyone, particularly my parents, even though at the time it was a complete mystery to me. Apart from Putin's face making its daily appearance in the newspapers and beyond the notion that everyone apparently knocks back a couple of fingers of vodka at all hours of the day, I couldn’t really imagine what being there would actually be like. Add to this the mind boggling idea that the city and its greater region is home to as many inhabitants as the whole of the Netherlands is!
I of course knew that Russia is the origin of a great deal of very special art and literature, that it has a complex history and that the country harbours numerous gems, such as Lake Baikal and the beautiful city of Saint Petersburg. However, the thought that such a crammed metropolis could open up for little me, a philosophy student from Nijmegen, was a great incentive.
I arrived to a winter welcome of -18. I was prepared with my warm winter coat, scarf and shoes, some extra thermal wear and a hat. So that turned out fine. The cold is something you get used to, since it’s rarely very windy. Moscow in the winter is a special place. The most vivid images I retain are the first few days after arrival, walking the broad streets and avenues and the squares with their enormous buildings with the snow swirling around it all. The severe cold makes everyone stoop forward and look down and the snow obscures the view, which imparts a lyrical atmosphere to the street scenes. The conditions sound less attractive than the impressions it leaves, making this an unforgettable city. Particularly when you see the Kremlin at night during snowfall, or the impressive Stalin towers. What I did forget to bring along though were summer clothes. Once the snow thaws in April, May quickly turns hot, with temperatures nudging 25 to 30 degrees.
I was studying at the Higher School of Economics, which in addition to a solid economics and finance side also has an excellent humanities faculty (if you are interested in international politics, the courses here are certainly worth checking out!). The faculties are located in buildings throughout the centre, meaning you are often in the city and get to see quite a good deal of it. With education in Russia, the emphasis is somewhat different when compared to most European universities. We are used to critically reflect upon the subject matter, while at a Russian University more emphasis is placed on performance: actively taking part during classes, rounded off with a medium-sized essay and a presentation (few written exams are demanded). It’s not very challenging, and foreign students are often liberally assessed. Keep in mind though that the subjects don't deliver much in the way of ECTs (3 to 4). Luckily, many subjects are taught in English and there are plenty of opportunities to learn Russian at a range of levels.
The HSE offered me a place in a dormitory. You usually end up in an international dorm, which can be great fun (just use your imagination…). The students here are quite literally from all over the world: from Scotland to South Korea, from New York to Slovakia, from Brazil to Myanmar. There are sports facilities, you can cook there and WiFi is available, all for just 20 euros per month. Yes, you read that right the first time: 20 euros PER MONTH! Be prepared though, you will probably be expected to share a room with someone.
The most work involved arranging things before you leave concern your visa. The HSE International Office however has a number very helpful and experienced staff, who know exactly how to arrange things and will answer your emails in minutes. When you arrive you are immediately immersed in the everyday flavour of Russian bureaucratic soup, but with a buddy things become easier, and it often throws up plenty to laugh at later for those with a keen nose for the ridiculous. These 'buddies' arrange all sorts of trips to other cities, take you on expeditions (such as through disused metro lines) and parties. Moscow also has a fascinating nightlife; it boasts cool cocktail bars (NOOR bar), classy skyline lounges (Sixties or White Rabbit), community bars (LGBT bar Propaganda is a must) and rough but stylish underground parties (ARMA/Outline festival) which can go on for 32 hours at a stretch. In general, food is cheap, but drinks are more expensive: you can get a three course meal for around 8 to 10 euros, drinks are between 3 and 6 euros.
Russia is a big place, the kind of place you could spend the rest of your life exploring. Georgia and the Caucasus for example have an amazing natural environment and introduce you to the wide ethnic diversity that makes up Russia and the former Soviet Union. Saint Petersburg is absolutely stunning and an entirely unmissable cultural experience for any Western traveller. Siberia will leave you empty-lunged in awe. I recommend you take the Trans Siberia Express (if you have the time). If that’s a bit extreme for you, there are always some beautiful cities within the Golden Ring, such as Vladimir and Suzdal, where churches and kremlins are still pretty much as they would have appeared in mediaeval times.
The city itself has taught me a great deal; about the Russian people and about myself (just try to get your head around a city of 13 million souls). The fellow students I met were to a person all interesting people, as were most of the Russians. The city broadened my horizons, simply astonished me and continued to do so up until the day of my departure. So yes, certainly a challenging choice, but entirely the best one I could have made.