For some reasons that I still do not understand, I was dreaming of a longer stay in Russia for some years. Thanks to ERASMUS+, I had the possibility to take part in the EVS program in Yoshkar-Ola making my dream come true!
When people in Vienna, my hometown, were questioning me about the city of Yoshkar-Ola, I could only answer this city is supposed to be very close to Moscow. By train from Yoshkar-Ola, you will reach the vibrant capital of this endless and still unknown country within 15 hours. In Austria you can travel between the two cities farthest from each other within some hours, people have another understanding when it comes to distance. However, distance is not the only point where opinions differ.
When I arrived in Russia, in Yoshkar-Ola, in Opora, I did not have a clear idea about what my project was going to be. My original intention was to focus my project on sport activities. Using sport as a tool, my aim was to bring people from different realities closer and make them understand each other better. With this idea in mind, I went twice a week to an inclusive school to practice sports with children with mental and physical disabilities. Here I had to adapt my speech to make me understood among those children. I felt that the children trust me and gave me the feeling of being useful. Their welcoming attitude helped me a lot to feel that I belong to the Russian society.
Beside the time I spent in the school, I took part in an already implemented project, a cinema club “Kinoklub Yoshkar-Ola”. All EVS volunteers of OPORA agreed on continuing the project together. I was in charge of leading the debate after the film. Even though I was already able to communicate in Russian, leading the conversation turned out to be a big challenge for me. A challenge, which was a great opportunity to develop my understanding of the Russian culture and to take some distance from my Eurocentric worldview.
Stereotypes about Russia are deeply rooted in Europe, but here I could get a glimpse of what the Russian soul is. If you just walk on the street watching people and trying to figure out obvious differences in their behaviors as they are shown in the media, you are likely not to find what you were looking for. Average Russians are struggling with the same issues and fears as Europeans do. Everyone is wearing sneakers, everyone is using a smartphone and checking their Instagram a little too often. Here I learnt a lot about myself and discovered that: 1. banya is not made for me; 2. I fell in love with all the typical Russian winter activities (including chachliki under the snow) 3. I became an expert in the art of Russian becherinki!
Digging a little bit deeper, being part of the Russian society thanks to Opora and my friends here and sharing their lives as a foreign volunteer, I got an insight into the much-quoted Russian soul.