Welcome to the Land of Ice and Snow!

25 January 2019

Brian O'Connor studies an International Masters in Economy, State and Society and is at the Higher School of Economics in Russia for the year. Read on to discover some of his weird and wonderful experiences so far!

Brian blog 1

I arrived in Moscow in the last week of August, disembarking from my Air Moldova flight to join the eclectic mix of nationalities waiting in line at Domodedovo International Airport’s passport control. At this point I’d had almost three years to drunkenly hone my language skills in the bars of Ukraine, Moldova and Kazakhstan, plus UCL’s own Phineas, and managed to successfully navigate my way out of the airport: whereupon the WiFi signal immediately cut out, leaving me to haggle with a circle of golden-toothed taxi drivers standing an appropriate distance away from any law enforcement agents. Happily, nine months of mumbled banter with Kazakhstani taxisti (as taxi drivers are called) prepared me, and I got a ride for less than daylight robbery.


After a long, long drive in which I did my best to befriend Sergey, the driver (so that he wouldn’t subject me to an actual robbery), we got to the centre of Moscow and proceeded to hunt for the hostel. So, Sergey and I plunged into multiple buildings, basements and lofts, pounded on doors after midnight, interrogated passer-bys and had one affronted middle-aged couple threaten to call the police on us (Sergey was a bit rough around the edges). The wife even hissed at us. Still, we got there, and after bidding Sergey farewell I was able to crash onto a mattress ahead of my first real day in Russia.

This a story I’ve told maybe a dozen times. Since that night, I’ve had a lot of experiences in Moscow that have challenged and reinforced some of the stereotypes I came with. The Moscow metro, for instance, rather than being a collection of Soviet-era, rusting deathtraps on wheels, is actually larger than the Tube (14 lines/200 stations); cleaner (the rodents were purged); more spacious, and with more frequent trains. Shopkeepers have actually smiled, and pedestrians have been quite willing to give directions and engage in conversation. Two of the greatest shocks have been the prices, which match London’s (*sobs*), and the fact that shops stop selling alcohol after 11pm (*weeps*). Similarly, the weather is generally awful, Russian bureaucracy is literally hell (pedantic is a compliment in Russian) and there are bears everywhere.

The chaos is worth mentioning. For the first month, coursemates and I ran from building to building across the city collecting documents, getting them signed, stamped, signed again, copied, signed again, doused in holy water (you see where this is going) and jumping through similarly elaborate hoops in order to not get deported. In the dorm itself, the £16 per month rent is offset by “gyms” that should have a tetanus warning on every dumbbell; security cameras that mysteriously no longer work when someone’s laptop has been taken (or when a drunk guy has mistaken a cupboard for a toilet); red taps that run cold and blue hot; and visits from the dreaded babushki (grandmothers) IN charge of enforcing discipline.

To paraphrase one visit:


Babushka: Why you not clean kitchen?

Me (lying): I cleaned the kitchen.

Babushka (staring into my soul): Was not clean.

Me (poker-faced): I cleaned.

Babushka (distinctly unconvinced): Next time not clean…(dramatic pause) I come with pistol! This is RUSSIA! Hahahaha!

Yeah, that’s actually a true story. I am honestly not exaggerating.

Still, it’s the chaos and the strangeness that make life here so memorable, and which I’m already so keen to explore for future blogs. This is Russia, after all. Messy, but beautiful.

By Brian O'Connor