Foreign Students in HSE: Baron Hans Dominik

Dominik talks about his first visit to Russia, education at HSE, friends, and activities during his spare time.

Foreign Students in HSE: Baron Hans Dominik

Hello Dominik. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Dominik, I am 26 years old and from Germany. I obtained a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Leibniz University Hannover and am currently enrolled at the HSE's Master's Program "Comparative Politics of Eurasia". Here I am studying already in my second and final year.

Baron Hans Dominik

Do you remember the time when you decided to come to Russia?

I remember that time rather blurry. When I decided to go to Russia, I was in the process of finishing my bachelor's thesis. I was thinking about what to do afterwards and realized that I should seize the opportunity to continue my studies in a master's program to go abroad. Everyone in Europe knows countries like Italy, France and Britain, but only very few people know Russia - though, of course, it is difficult to "know" a country. Anyway, I wanted to see this huge country with my own eyes and when I made the decision to go to Novosibirsk to learn the language one sunny spring morning, my family didn't really know what to make out of it, I guess. In that sense, the day I made the decision to go to Russia is memorable, yes. By the way, it was before COVID, so it feels strange to think about that time.

What were the main reasons for you to come to Russia?

Experiencing this country on my own, besides what one gets to hear and see in the news or, albeit rarely, travel magazines. My decision to come to Saint-Petersburg cannot be understood without my experiences in Novosibirsk and my previous decision to go there. Whether it is on the internet or from Russians personally, everyone says that Moscow and Saint-Petersburg are not “real Russia”. I, however, wanted to see and experience this ominous “real Russia”. Spoiler warning, I am not sure, if I found it. This country is just too diverse, I guess. Anyway, since I obtained some Russian language skills in Novosibirsk, I wanted to be able to further improve and use them in my daily life. I never really wanted to go to Saint-Petersburg explicitly, it was just that the HSE offered a lot of English-language master’s programs, which brought me here in the end. Coming to Saint-Petersburg, I did not feel quite ready to take up a master’s program in Russian, so this was the only viable option for me at that point.

How did it feel to visit Russia for the first time? Can you share your impressions about Saint-Petersburg?

It was interesting. The city center is very beautiful, for sure, but the way the districts differ from one another is what really fascinates me. For some reason, I really love Kirovsky rayon, for example. Slightly different from Kirovsky rayon is Moskovsky rayon. While Kirovsky rayon is a mixture of business and living spaces, Moskovsky is more for the latter, in my opinion. The rayons of Petrogradsky and Primorsky are beautiful and, especially the latter has a very maritime flair to it. Vasileostrovsky rayon is special in many ways as well, though I do not really like it. That is Saint- Petersburg for me – a combination of unique districts, which make this city as a whole unique as well. One can just travel three stations by Metro and enter an almost completely different environment. Therefore, I really suggest anyone to not only stay in the center of the city, but to look around.

Was it difficult for you to adapt to Russia?

Not at all. From my experience, universities in Russia are really helpful and trying their best to make foreign students feel comfortable. Of course, the bureaucracy is intimidating at first, once it has been settled, life is just like anywhere else. For one’s daily life, knowing a bit of Russian helps a lot to get accustomed even further. In Saint-Petersburg this is maybe even more helpful than in places like Novosibirsk, where life felt more relaxed than Saint-Petersburg, which is pretty much just like any other European metropolis.

Did you experience any culture shock?

In my opinion, many foreigners before coming to Russia tend to have some prejudices about the country, its culture and people, and they all have their own perception shaped by various circumstances. In this sense, keeping an open mind is helpful, I guess. With that said, life is approached differently in Russia in many ways. It is rather difficult to describe them in words, so this can be considered a recommendation for everyone to see this country for himself. It is definitely worth it.

Are there any stereotypes about Russians that you witnessed or maybe refuted?

Rampant alcoholism is not a thing in Russia – at least not where I have been. Not drinking alcohol, myself, it was a pleasant surprise to get to know Russians better over a cup of tea than over a bottle of vodka. Ironically, it has always been the foreigners that were drinking alcohol.

What was the first landmark that you saw/visited in Russia?

It probably was the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater. An impressive and beautiful building situated in the heart of Novosibirsk. As far as I know and if I remember correctly, it is the biggest theater in Russia with a dome that is the largest self-supported dome structure in Asia. Also, I remember the time when I came to Saint-Petersburg and met some friends of mine with whom we walked along the canals in the city and visited astonishing sights like St. Isaac's Cathedral, Kazan Cathedral, and the Church on Spilled Blood.

Now I would like to talk a bit about your student life in Saint-Petersburg. Could you please tell us how is your education in HSE going?

It is going quite alright. During the first year we had a large variety of courses offered by the university. They helped a lot to diversify my knowledge about the developments in the Eurasian region. It has been a challenging but at the same quite interesting journey so far. As for our second year, it was amazing as I had a chance to meet my friends and classmates in person, visit Russia again and attend some offline classes. Also, we have recently finished our internship and I do not have classes anymore. So, I have more time to work on my MA thesis now.

How does it feel to meet your classmates in person after spending a year online?

It was strange to see all these people without a monitor around them. Unfortunately, they put the monitor back on again rather quickly since the entire situation surrounding COVID made it necessary for the university to go completely online again. However, there is a lot of opportunities to connect also outside the physical or virtual classroom. I am very grateful for meeting them and they are a great bunch of people.

How do you spend your leisure time in Saint-Petersburg?

I love watching sports – though I should better start practicing them again as well. So, naturally, I love to go to all the available hockey and handball matches taking place in Saint-Petersburg. Sports, as cultural activities in general, are very accessible and inexpensive in Saint-Petersburg. Besides going to sports events, Russians love to take walks. Together with friends I am taking strolls around the different districts of Saint-Petersburg or, of course, the historic center quite often. I am still thinking about visiting every district and Metro station of the city. It would take a lot of time to do so, but I am quite curious what the districts I have not seen so far look and feel like.

What would you recommend to foreign students visiting Russia for the first time?

Do not forget warm clothes. That would be my first thought. Other than that, to keep an open mind and approach the country and its people without thinking about the news about Russia one might hear in one's home country. Coming here is an adventure, an experience and, in my opinion, very safe.

Intreview by

Khatai Huseynov