Cold Way of Integration

Esther Chinonyerem Ajuzie

Esther Chinonyerem Ajuzie


My name is Esther and I'm an international student at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. Just like every international student coming to Russia for the first time, nervousness and anxiety were the order of my day. It is well known that the first day in a new country has a huge role to play in your general and long-lasting perception of the said country. A student’s comfort with the culture of their new home greatly influences their learning speed and experience.

My first day in Russia might not be quite similar to the first day in Russia of most international students, but there are lots of peculiar similarities. Coming from one of the hottest countries of West Africa, Nigeria, it was indeed unbearable to cope with the dead cold of Moscow’s winter, as I had arrived during December, which is undoubtedly the peak of the winter season. Well, as I remember vividly, the world was barely getting out of the Covid 19 era that had put the whole world at a standstill for almost a year, hence most international students from countries like mine had to undergo an intensive medical examination, quarantine, and thorough check-ups.

Before my arrival, I had tried learning a couple of Russian words and phrases (like “спасибо”, “хорошо”, “да”, “нет”), hoping they would come to my aid once in the country, but the jokes were on me, as the Russian language was wider than I envisaged. Starting from the airport, the immigration officers asked me tons of questions in the Russian language and this gave me a headache, as I was desperately hoping to hear at least one of the words I had learned, all to no avail. 

Not all international students had someone to help them upon arrival, those that did, are the few lucky ones, the rest, however, had to survive by themselves. 

Next was the taxi man who had to take me to my dormitory, requesting twice the usual amount, because he realized I knew nothing about the Russian currency or rates. I eventually safely got to my dormitory and there was another set of the hustle and bustle, as I had lots of documents to provide, offices to go to and other things to be done. After all, was said and done, I was given a 2 man's room, which was indeed in a very funny state, so I had to spend over three hours putting it together. 

The day was still young, so I figured I'd step out to go get some of the necessary documents I'd be needing to proceed with my registration as well as do some sightseeing before nightfall. With the help of the Yandex map on my phone, I found myself at the supposed nearest mall, which was nothing close to being near… I walked for almost an hour. It was indeed a mind-blowing sight, from the beautiful houses to the “not so busy” roads, everything seemed so breathtaking and I couldn't help but take random photos. 

Having arrived at the mall, I was able to buy some necessary utensils and groceries that should aid my survival for a while. I also got myself a sim card and immediately reached out to some older friends from other cities in Russia. I was also able to get my health insurance without so much trouble. After over two hours of back and forth, in and out of the mall (because I kept losing my way), I finally decided that it was time to head back home, as darkness speedily took over the sky. 

I was still wondering how I'll survive the one-hour walk back to my dormitory when my phone suddenly tripped off. No one told me the cold weather could easily drain my phone battery, and that was one major shock I had. This however was the twist in my own experience, as I had to do almost everything by myself. Not all international students had someone to help them upon arrival, those that did, are the few lucky ones, the rest, however, had to survive by themselves. 

Being with a dead phone, unable to speak nor understand the language, was devastating and got me scared to my bones. But there's a popular saying that goes thus: “When life gives you lemons, you should turn them into a lemonade”. So I decided to just trust my instincts and walk back through the same routes I came from. Needless to say, that was futile, because I found myself coming back to the same spot over and over again, and this, in the dead cold of winter.

However, during this very short ‘merry-go-round’ journey, I discovered some major culture shocks. Well, what better way to get integrated into Russian culture than to identify and embrace cultural differences? My first culture shock was the fact that people were walking so fast (young and old, alike), I could equate their speed to that of light. They walked so fast that I barely had the opportunity to stop anyone and ask them if they understood English, to enable me to find my way back home. After a while, I figured they were walking that fast because of the cold.

Where I come from, everyone walks slowly and gently, because, the faster you walk, the sweatier you get, and that'll be messy.

The second culture shock I had was the fact that the Russians were not smiling as they walked past. In Africa, precisely in Nigeria, everyone puts on a smiling face because that's our way of communicating and interacting with strangers and also acquaintances. Well, I also blamed that on the cold, as I figured that smiling a lot in the dead cold might cause their lips to get dried out and eventually break out.

having been enclosed for a very long time, during the USSR regime, it's understandable that the Russians find it hard to accommodate other people from different cultures and spheres

My third culture shock was the fact that almost everyone smoked. This is a personal choice, quite alright, but coming from a nation where smoking was prohibited and highly punishable by parents, older family members, etc., it wasn't seen as an option for anyone. But that again led me to the conclusion that Russians respect each other's life decisions and do not impose so much on their citizens, as what or what not to do. This conclusion, in turn, led me to the acceptance of my last culture shock for the day - kissing on the streets. As funny as it may seem, an African child would rather not be caught kissing on the streets, because the consequences will not be pleasant.

These were very distinct cultural traits that I discovered on my first day in Russia. After hours of walking around the same spot, I walked up to some people who luckily could speak and understand English, and I told them I was lost and I just needed to find my way back home. They were kind enough to book me a taxi back to my dormitory. And this goes against the popular notion people have about Russians not being nice and welcoming. 

I would say that Russians indeed reciprocate the same energy and attitude you give to them. They are very nice and welcoming people. But having been enclosed for a very long time, during the USSR regime, it's understandable that the Russians find it hard to accommodate other people from different cultures and spheres.

I eventually got to my dormitory and headed straight for my room. However, I had forgotten how to locate my room, as my dormitory had different wings and sections. With the help of some students who were sitting in the hallway, I finally found my room and I was indeed overjoyed. I laid back on my bed for a few minutes, trying to regain all the energy and strength I had lost on my mini-tour. Luckily, I had bought some groceries from the mall, so I did not need to cook that day. I had freshened up in no time and lay on my bed to have a nice rest from the hustle and bustle of the day.

My first day in Russia might not be as similar to that of many international students, but each of us had to face certain challenges, culture shocks, missing our ways, etc. But this is part of the integration into the Russian system, in my opinion. Higher School of Economics, however, made my adherence to the university community quite interesting. Everything I needed to have a very good and smooth learning experience was made available to me. It's safe to say that an international student's first day in Russia goes a long way in molding their perception of the country and their ability to adapt to their new "home".

Text by

Esther Chinonyerem Ajuzie