What I Learned Coming and Living in Russia

With personal stories, Daniel shared the ups and downs of living in Russia as an international student.

What I Learned Coming and Living in Russia

14th September, 2022 was the day and 1.20pm was the time. My first international trip as a student.

Immediately our flight took off from Murtala Mohammed Airport, in Lagos, Nigeria, it became clear to me that I'm leaving behind the life I've known for a long time. I was happy, and at the same time, I was sad. I remember the love in my family—mornings spent a little longer on bed; pressing my phone, looking out through the window to see those fetching water from the well, listening to them play music and hushly gossiping about their parents, and evenings, spent with my big brother, Agozie and my aged father, talking and laughing and arguing. At that moment, I felt I shouldn't leave again. But I had to leave. I have to leave not because I was forced, but because I worked hard to be admitted into HSE University through Global Scholarship Competition, after my first admission application was rejected because of scoring lower in History.

At the last moment before taking off, I video called my friend, Obumneme, on WhatsApp, and in those still small and fleeting moments of longing and saying goodbye, we were looking and looking and looking at each other, saying nothing, but almost weeping, my friend in Onitsha, myself in Lagos, miles away. The reality of the possibility of not seeing each other again for four years made us both emotional. He had plans of seeing and spending time together before my trip, but it didn't work as planned. He wrote to me, "Danny, this is my last message to you here in Nigeria, I sincerely love you."  He said I should not reply, but I wanted to. I wanted to tell him that I love him too, what I've always told my friends; Ebuka, Obum, Seun, Edwin and Ifeanyi, and I wanted to tell him to be a good man and to work hard. As I was typing my response, we were cut off from the internet connection, because we were already in the air, flying from Lagos to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia from where we'll take the next flight to Moscow, and I didn't upgrade my ticket to use WiFi in the airplane. I encouraged myself ahead of the challenges I'll face.

Danny, this is my last message to you here in Nigeria, I sincerely love you.

I arrived in Moscow the next day, exactly 7.10am Moscow time. My first perception about Russia and Russians changed suddenly at the airport, as the passport control officers were warm and ebullient, against my thoughts of meeting cantankerous, hard to please officers, who would not hesitate to rob it on your face  about how undeservedly lucky you are to enter their country and won't hesitate, at the slightest mistake to send you back to your country and ban you from reentering the country for years. Those women were nice. The lady who was attending to me, checked my passport, had it screened, photographed me after asking me to remove my glasses and nose mask, and handed my passport over to another officer, who took it inside and within minutes, came back and gave me my passport. I was issued my migration card. And at that moment, my experience of a new country and lifestyle started. And I started seeing what I didn't know ahead of time —some of them positive and some negative and I'd like you to take notes about those things that no one will tell you about Russia and Russians.


Before coming to Russia, I've listened to many YouTube videos about Russia and the Russians, read articles and watched English subtitles of Russian movies. I, to some extent, can tell what Russia is all about. How the people don't smile and how everyone walks in a walk-run mode. But I decided to forgo all I've known and learnt about Russia and allowed Russia and Russians to happen to me. But how can you analyze your stay so far? Well, it's been good but not perfect. Be open to see individuals and not objects of your views. Be open and accept people as they're. Do not complain so much about the cold weather, if you're coming from a warm country, like Nigeria. To complain over the littlest thing is to be insensitive to the biggest things which you'll not be able to see. Do not romanticize your culture so much against their culture, it is childish and will make you critical of the smallest human mistake.


Whether you're planning to come to Russia or already in Russia or you just stumbled upon this article on HSE website, being responsible is a virtue you must cultivate. Be responsible to realize that university is a phase that will pass after a few years and that what you do and you're doing within those years will contribute to your placement later in life. If you're an international student like myself, do not forget why you're in Russia. Will you just spend that much only to spend the rest of your time having fun? Do you realize that leaving home to go to university is an indirect way of telling your community "I'll be part of the solution to the problems we're facing currently." I wake up every morning with this encouragement. And whenever it feels that I'm getting down, I'll listen to those mentors who are already living the kind of life I want to live and I'll allow them to encourage me and make me to be more responsible. I'm not antisocial, but before that leisure, make sure you've started doing or have done what is more important.


In my article, I'll elaborate on my struggle to go to college, but one big challenge that international students are having is related to finance. Those on scholarship aren't finding it funny, despite receiving stipends, which can only pay for accommodation. So ask questions and don't rush to do things because you have money at the arrival. This is Russia and not your country and will not want to keep disturbing your family about money. So ask questions, don't be ashamed. Ask for help to know the cheapest grocery store around you, if you're coming from a family that doesn't have a lot of money. When I entered the Russian Federation, I realized that just health insurance, COVID-19 PCR and medical insurance is over ten thousand Rubles. And all I've with me is very small. Because of asking questions and asking for help, I was able to do everything with five thousand Rubles, saving five thousand Rubles. As my Igbo proverb said, "otu aka ra  Nwanyi, ka ọ na atukwasi dị ya." Which translates to, "do things according to your size." Don't live big when you don't have what it takes to live big.


This metro card is cheaper and allows you to minimize your money. As you've free one hundred trains for a month and unlimited bus usage. Can you imagine? So, ask your study office about your ID and register at the nearest metro station. I don't know if all Russian regions have metro stations, because I am in Saint Petersburg and the transportation connection is superb here. You can easily jump from one train to another with just a small amount. Like that, you'll save a little money for your feeding. 


It may be the norm in your country to exchange mobile contacts, but it is not that easy here. You'd be asked for a telegram or VK username. The student that helped me with my load the day I entered the dormitory, was welcoming. When I asked for his contact so as to appreciate him well later, he referred me to VK. I was a bit embarrassed that I asked. My Russian roommate did the same, when I asked for his contact information. Since then, I stopped asking. This may not be a general rule and I am not saying that those guys are crazy, but don't ask to exchange phone numbers.


I don't know why, but I discovered that Russians will not talk to you unless you talk to them, and it doesn't mean they're hostile. They don't just do that, except a few. So, if you're interested in socializing, be willing to start the conversation and they'll respond and with time, you'll have friends with whom to hang out with. Some may ignore your greeting, because of individual differences and mindsets, but treat different individuals differently. Don't close the door of seeking for friends, because the first five people you meet are hard to crack nuts that don't want to associate with you for reasons best known to them. But in seeking for association or who to hangout with, do not forget to do things you'll be happy that you did. You can spend the rest of your life correcting mistakes.


This advice will help you to shift aside the fact that you're the best in your High school. University isn't your High school. Everyone may not be at the top of their classes but everyone has passed through something, in which they made decisions. So, be humble and respect your classmates. Even if you're a potential Global Rhodes scholar, before seeing your classmates' academic prowess or their skin color or their accent, first see their humanness and that is enough to relate with each of your classmates and get the needed help that you can. Dear Russian student, learn to also recognize that it took so much effort for international students to come to your country, especially those from families that don't have a lot of money or material things. Dear freshman, be humble to ask your curators and tutors for their help in order to settle in on time.


Russia is big and developed, but you'll have to do many Yandexes to be safe. (Smiles.). There's YandexGo, Yandex Metro, Yandex Map and others. It'll make your journey safer and also less expensive. I'll not tell you the bad experience I had with the cab that took me from the airport to the train station. It'll be a story for another time. All these Yandexes can be downloaded on Google play store and you can do that with the dormitory or university WiFi. Do not exhaust your mobile data monthly tariff trying to download apps. 


Make sure you've done the compulsory registrations and other things that require money, before buying the latest gadgets. If you refuse to do the Compulsory State Medical Examination, and prefer to buy an airpod. Both you and the airpod will be fined or deported or banned, depending on the government decision. Remember your visa renewal, keep the money for it. Your stay in HSE University or any university you're studying in The Russian Federation will be good, but make good decisions.


Do not forget to reach out to your family. Your family may not be as supportive or as lovely as mine, and may not be as rich as Bill Gates, but they're yours and that is what you've. Love them. Call your siblings and hear from them. I love my siblings: Sunday, Agozie, Chukwuka and Onyinye and I speak with them. I love my friends and I am reaching out to them. Now, I'm not trying to make a rule, as culture differs, but my point is this: do what you can, to let your family and friends know that you love them.

These are the ten things that no one will tell you about Russia and Russians. I hope you enjoyed it and will make use of them? My next article will be about how hard work and consistency can help anyone become what they want to be. It'll be interesting and from my personal story. 

I'd like to end by thanking my Vietnamese roommate and big brother, Quang, the name is pronounced as 'Kuan', a student of International Bachelor's in Business and Economics of the Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg. Thank you, man. I love you.

Thank you for investing your time to get this article. I love you. See you in the next article.

Experience shared by

Daniel Onyekachukwu Akabueze