Samantha Long | Johnston, IA – Musical Arts, 2018
Samantha Long is a sophomore from Johnston, IA in the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. She is majoring in Musical Arts (Voice), with minors in French and Political Science. She has a received a grant to spend the month of May abroad in Russia, where she will be living and serving in the city of Vladimir. During her time abroad, Samantha will be serving in orphanages, dog shelters, and veteran homes, while also interacting and forming relationships with the inhabitants of Vladimir and being exposed to the culture of modern-day Russia.
Blog Post One:
Today was our first day volunteering. We went over to a large Vladimir preschool and worked outside for a few hours, the girls re-painting playground equipment and the boys digging holes (I never actually found out the reason?). Before we started, though, we were treated to a performance by one class, a group dance that they were performing for some kind of preschool graduation, I believe. They did a short little dance to some Russian pop music that definitely makes my ‘Top 10 Cutest Things I’ve Ever Seen.’ The painting itself was fun stuff, I got to sit and talk with the girls while painting, with the children playing outside and the neighbors nearby all looking amused by our accents. Of course, after an hour and a half I looked up to discover that my legs were absolutely covered in splotches of red, yellow, and blue, despite the fact that I had no recollection of getting paint on me at any point and was only using the red. Classic. Nonetheless, it was gratifying work, the women who helped us didn’t speak English but we were told that they were very thankful and that we were welcome back anytime.
After some delicious 4-cheese Russian pizza, we took a tour of the Golden Gates in the center of town, which were built in the twelfth century and which served as the entrance to the medieval city of Vladimir. They were built to be an impenetrable stronghold and to represent the Golden Gates in Jerusalem, the first of three other Golden Gates important to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. After sketching for a while we took a tour, which, after discussing the architecture of the monument, turned into something of a comprehensive history of Russian warfare through the context of Vladimir. The top of the tower contained a museum with numerous artifacts from the many wars Russia has been involved in, from the Mongol-Tartars through modern times, and throughout I was met with the reality of the incredible hardships the people of Russia have consistently faced throughout history. From the feuding princes, to the Mongols, to Napoleon, to WWII (the Soviet Union had the highest number of military deaths, and almost 200,000,000 deaths total), to the political turmoil of the USSR, the history of Russia seems like conflict after conflict after conflict. Coming from a nation with a relatively short history and one that has seen little violence within its own borders (relative to many others, of course), it is difficult for me to comprehend what having such a war-torn, complicated history is like on a personal level, especially since a more modern Russia has possessed (and continues to possess, as a world leader) the power to bring about significant hardship for other nations, and is hardly an innocent victim on a global scale. The history is complex, but it was certainly a very eye-opening tour, and has helped me to understand the context of this city and this nation today.
After stopping at a book store (see picture), we ended the night with a concert of folk music and dance, and it was endlessly entertaining, despite the fact that I understood next to nothing and only had a partial idea of what was going on. I expect it was what watching opera without subtitles is like: there was a lot of acting on the parts of the performers, and many of the songs and dances were stories that I somewhat caught on to, but I didn’t actually understand a word. The performance was still wonderful; Russian folk music is unsurprisingly a mix of European ideas and more Eastern sounds, with a very tribal element to it all. There were a lot of pentatonic scales and percussion instruments, and much of it was very fast-paced. The dancing got increasingly more intense as the show went on, and was certainly very gendered: the men often walked with flexed arms and strong movements while the women did a lot of twirling and handkerchief-waving. The singing was fascinating, too; held notes had lots of stylistic turns and embellishments (that occasionally reminded me of Tuvan throat singing, although there were never actually overtones; also this makes sense because of the history of Russian and Mongolian interaction) and there was never any vibrato, which is a strong argument to why modern northeastern European choral music is almost always written to be performed senza vibrato. It was great fun. Scott and Sasha got pulled up onto the stage to dance with them, which was hilarious, and I ended up being escorted home by Maia’s babushka. The night ended with a delicious meal of Russian dumplings (my first legit Russian homemade food!) and my host sister Polly introducing me to Russian rap. I am loving the cultural immersion so far, it can only get better from here!
Blog Post Two:
Wednesday through Friday of our last week we spent most of our time in Murom, a city about two and a half hours from Vladimir whose university was connected with Vladimir State and the American Home; Murom is smaller and somewhat less historic, but we had a good time with the students all the same. We had to stay with brand new host families, which was a very sudden change, but my host sister (a 20-year-old public relations student named Tanya) was wonderful and we had a lot in common. We did various things around town, but most of our time was spent either attempting to socialize with the first-year English students (all of whom were very shy, it definitely challenged our communication skills), helping out with their English class, or hanging out all together with our hosts. They were all college students, so we spent Wednesday night out exploring the town with them and on Thursday night, Courtney, Leah, and I accompanied our host siblings to an ‘anti-cafe,’ a cool little hangout spot that had a bunch of couches and board games and various rooms for different activities. We got to hang out with Courtney’s host brother’s group of friends, all of whom were very friendly, for most of the night, and we had a great time playing games and getting to know them. Friday morning was spent writing example papers for the university’s English class, and after killing some time walking around the city center, we boarded the bus for the ride back to Vladimir.
Friday night was wonderful and far more emotional than I could’ve anticipated. We went out to a beautiful dinner at a restaurant overlooking the forests surrounding the city, had a great time at our last meal with Alexei, Gallina, Olia, and Sasha, and later met the university students we’d befriended over the course of our stay. Finally our host families met us at the train station, and we had a chance to say a tearful goodbye to everyone. Vera, Lera, and Pollina all showed up (with my horribly heavy luggage) to see me off, and the four of us spent the majority of the time at the station talking away from the group. Words cannot express how thankful I am for this family and everything they’ve done for me; they welcomed me into their home, cared for me, taught me that you don’t need to speak the same language to communicate and bond, rolled with our group’s schedule changes and miscommunications, and made me feel loved the whole time while in Russia. I surprised myself a little with how much we all cried at my leaving them. Vera made me promise (through Lera’s translation) that I’d bring my family to visit theirs one day. I hope I’ll be able to do just that.
After finally tearing ourselves away from all our Russian friends we were hurried onto the night train and, a hectic hour later, fell sound asleep, exhausted after a long and emotional day. The remainder of our trip will be in Saint Petersburg.
Now, I absolutely love cities. Something about millions of diverse people living together in a center of commerce, art, and culture gives me energy no matter which city I’m in. Saint Petersburg, ‘the Venice of the North,’ was no exception. It is absolutely gorgeous, with enormous canals and gardens every few blocks, and is incredibly filled with history. The scenery was absolutely incredible; Peter the Great’s personal project, Saint Petersburg is one of the few cities of its size that was completely planned from its inception, and as a result, all the architecture is as beautiful as it is functional and the luxurious taste of the Tsars is evident everywhere, from the many palaces to the ornate bridges to the frequency of art museums and huge cathedrals. Getting the opportunity to explore the city, visiting the castles and art museums, and the ballet we saw (which was astonishing) all made Saint Petersburg one of the biggest highlights of this trip; however, the coolest experience we had there occurred in St. Petersburg State University. Nina Petrovna, a teacher of foreign language students, survivor of the 900-day blockade of Leningrad, and close friend of David’s, met with us and described her incredible life. Fluent in German, Russian, French, and English (all of which are languages I wish to learn as well), Nina told us the story of how her grandfather taught her to sympathize with rather than hate the German war prisoners even during the awful blockade, and how her interactions with them as a ten-year-old girl inspired her to travel the world, learn languages, and work with foreign students. Her take on life was incredibly positive and she was certainly one of the most fascinating people we interacted with throughout the entire trip; speaking with her on our last full day was a perfect summation and conclusion of this incredible experience. I am endlessly grateful for the opportunity to travel to Russia, I have grown incredibly in my independence and communication skills, and I will forever value the relationships I’ve built here. These people have inspired me and widened my perspective, and I cannot wait to go back!
Thanks for reading,