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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

Nathan Stowell

first arrived in Russia (and the USSR) in 1990. I was fortunate enough to have been selected for a month-long exchange program to Moscow during my last year of high-school in the US. It was one of the first programs where foreign students were allowed to stay in their host family’s apartment. I stayed with the family of Misha, a friend who had stayed with me a few months earlier in my dormitory room at boarding school.

My Russian teacher of two years (who is, coincidentally here in Moscow some 20 years later) had prepared us for some of the cultural differences we might expect. One of his warnings was that we would most likely not experience too many restaurants as dining out was frequently not a pleasant experience. As my teacher explained, waiters didn’t work on a tip-based compensation plan, and so they weren’t usually interested if you came back a second time; they probably would have preferred it if you hadn’t come the first time.

This, combined with some of the other stories I had heard when growing up about the Soviet Union, made me think that Misha, despite having to stay in my dormitory room and not at home for a “family experience” was nevertheless, still getting the better end of the stick.

Upon arrival in Moscow at an advertisement- free and stern Sheremetevo 2 airport, my fellow classmates and I were met by our Russian counterparts and their parents, and several teachers from the school we would be studying at in Moscow (a school that still exists today, to the best of my knowledge, behind the Moskovskii Univermag on Leninsky Prospect). I saw Misha approach me accompanied by several adults in what looked rather severe and important military uniforms. Visions of airport stripsearches and Russian jail-time began to fill my head, until Misha introduced me to his father, the Soviet Minister of Civil Aviation.

Nathan, second from left in back row

I lived in Misha’s enormous six-room flat for a month and had a chauffer-driven limousine take me to school every day. Misha’s father took various trips around the country to inspect regional airports and from each of them returned with a gift bottle of that region’s best alcohol (Armenian Cognac, Georgian Wine, Siberian Vodka, etc.).

On top of the luxury of living with a government Minister, the price differences were shocking. I went to the Pushkin Square McDonalds a month or two after it had opened (waiting for over an hour in a line that stretched around Pushkin Square twice) and ordered what probably would’ve been enough for three people all for the price of 9 roubles (with a street exchange rate of 15 or 20 roubles to one dollar) or 60 cents. A litre of milk was 33 kopecks (2 cents). Misha and I laughed when we calculated that the few hundred dollars in spending money I’d brought over was more than Misha’s father earned in a year.

I think that had I not experienced those times and lived with the family I’d lived with, my desire to return to Russia later on would never have been so strong. And, after living here for 16 years, I’m still quite confident now that Misha got the short-end of the stick.

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