Once Upon a Time in Russia: Italian Perspective

Francesca Alfieri, an international student from Italy, talks about Russia. Learn about her journey and tips on living in Moscow.

Once Upon a Time in Russia: Italian Perspective

Dear Francesca, please tell more about yourself and how you ended up in Russia.

I’m 19 years old and I’m from Italy. I speak Italian, English, Russian, and German. I’ve just started learning Chinese. I went to study in Russia via Rossotrudnichestvo, the organization that helps foreign students to get into Russian universities on a free basis. Since I’ve learnt Russian for six years now, I decided to come here and experience Russian culture and master the language. This is not my first visit to Russia as I came here as an exchange student several years ago. After that year I realized that I want to finish school in Italy and then get a degree in Russia.

Why did you decide to study in Russia and HSE in particular?

I like Russian educational system. Surely, Italy has one of the best education systems in Europe, but you can learn a lot here in Russia, too. There are plenty of disciplines and the way they are taught is different. I found out about HSE through my Russian teacher in Italy. She sent me a link to the website with the best Russian universities and HSE caught my eye. I started exploring the opportunities which HSE provided and realised that I actually wanted to get a degree there. By the way, I didn’t rely on Rossotrudnichestvo solely. I also passed the entrance test. Another reason why I decided to come here is the recent events. I had a feeling that many countries were trying to isolate Russians. I believe that during a crisis you should not isolate a country, but, on the contrary, try to dig in, to explore the situation yourself. If you cut off the country, then what’s the point of diplomacy? I want to become a diplomat and I think it is essential to be able to put yourself in the other fellow’s shoes. 

Do you remember your last day before you left Italy? What was it like?

Yes, I remember it vividly. I got up early, took a Covid test, and packed my things. Then my family and I went to a restaurant together and ate pizza. By the way, it was the last dish I ate in Italy. I went to bed early because I had to wake up at 5am. I remember that my mom cried a lot, though I didn’t. I cried a week before the departure, but on my last day I had a lot going on in my mind. I was even a little bit nervous.

Many foreign students have to deal with culture shock when they come to Russia. What was your experience like?

When I first visited Russia several years ago, it was challenging. I hardly knew anything about Russian culture. This time it was much better because I knew what to expect. Though there still were some “little“ culture shocks. One of them was that Russians never say anything directly. They are somewhat reserved and they rarely express their opinion explicitly. And sometimes when they say “yes”, I feel like they kind of say “no”. I think you have to guess what they are actually thinking about. Also, they are not as emotional as Italians. We use gestures, intonation, and we speak much louder. One more thing is that the whole concept of going out is different in Russia. In Italy you say: “Let’s go to a bar,” and you go to drink coffee and talk. Russians go to a bar to drink something else and have fun. When they say: “Let’s go for a walk,” they often mean not literally walking but going shopping, going to a park or a café.

I have one funny story about such differences. When my study group and I went to a bar, we played the game called “crocodile” (you need to explain words without naming them). I warned them that I can explain something wrong but they said: “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be fine.” I got lucky as I needed to explain a simple word orange. I was explaining it for hours, and no one could guess. Then I gave up and said: “An orange fruit which grows in winter is an orange, what is so hard about it?” It didn’t occur to me that in Russia oranges grow in summer, not in winter, like it is in Italy. 

What was your first month at HSE like?

During my first month here, I was getting acquainted with the city and the university. I came here a week after the beginning of the semester. On my first study day there were many classes and I was really shocked. At first you don’t know how to organise your day, but then you get used to things and figure out what to pay special attention to. Now I can say that I even have some free time.

You have been in Russia for quite some time now. What differences did you notice between Russia and Italy in everyday life?

One thing is Uber and Yandex Taxi. Sounds strange, but we don’t use these apps often, especially in small cities. We call taxi by phone. Also, the way Russian banks operate is amazing. Italians use cash a lot and it can be inconvenient. In Russia, you can do everything online. Education system is different, too. At HSE study groups are small, about 30 students. In Italy there are 100 or 200 people in a group. That is why it is easy in Russia to go to a bar with your group or to celebrate someone’s birthday, we all are close like a family. Also, there are no seminars in Italy in a way it is accepted in Russia. In Italy seminars are lectures and Q&A sessions with some experts, but here you need to read articles and texts and talk about them.

What do you miss the most about Italy?

It may sound weird, but there is one thing that I have noticed recently. In Italy there is a lot of churches. I used to wake up with the sound of church bell. After some time in Moscow I realised that there is something missing, and it’s those sounds. As for Russian food, I got used to it, but it’s better to eat Russian food rather than Italian here. Recently I have tried pasta – it’s not even close to Italian. In Russia it is better to eat traditional food, such as pelmeni or vareniki. Also, there are many parks in Moscow, but it is not compared to Italy where you live in an hour drive from mountains, forests and seas. When I was in Italy, on Sundays I would jump in the car and drive to nature. 

Please, describe your normal weekday and your weekends for those who want to sink in Italian atmosphere.

On weekdays, I got up at 6 am. I would have breakfast and head for school. I had classes from 8 am to 1 pm. Then I went home, had lunch and studied. At 5 pm I used to go to the gym. On Sunday, which was my only day off, I would sleep until 11 am. Then I would study, prepare lunch with my mom, relax. In the evening we would go to forests, to the countryside, or to mountains.

Living in Europe, did you travel a lot?

Thanks to my parents, I got to travel a lot. They told me that one should first know their own country well and only then travel abroad. We visited many places in Italy. Then I went to the UK and to South Africa to practice English. I have been to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the USA. On my senior year at school my classmates and I went to Barcelona.

How did you learn Russian so well?

I studied it at my school in Italy. I tried to speak Russian as much as possible, watched and read in Russian a lot. I think these are the only ways to practice the language when you do not talk to natives or live in that country. If you have an opportunity to talk to natives - do it! What I realised is that even if you think that you already know everything (like I did after my first visit to Russia), I can say for sure that you don’t. You can always be better. What helps me is to see the process of learning a language as a game. If you don’t like the language or culture, you’re bound to fail. I love Russian, that’s why I put a lot of effort to learn it at school.  

What are your favorite places in Russia?

In Moscow, I like Park Zaryadye. I’m also fond of the south of Russia. The Crimea, Yalta, and Krasnodarskiy Krai remind me of Italy. And I love the architecture in Saint Petersburg.

What are your plans for the future? Do you consider staying in Russia after graduating from university?

It is hard to make any plans now. I would like to get a master’s degree in Russia and become a diplomat. If it doesn’t work out, I will think about something else. Actually, I like living in Russia, so I would be really glad to stay here.  

Let’s play a little game. I tell you some of the most famous assumptions about Russia and you tell whether it is a myth or there is some truth in it.

1. So, the first assumption is that no one in Russia smiles.

It’s true, especially to strangers. But all my friends smile a lot and they actually are very amicable. My groupmates seemed so serious at first, but after we started talking more they turned out to be very open and friendly. I think Russians seem cold and withdrawn on the outside but it’s different on the inside. 

2. It is very cold here.

Yes, that’s true, especially for an Italian. 

3. It’s not safe on the streets.

It’s a myth. It can be dangerous anywhere, so it’s a universal myth. Actually, there are more policemen in Russia than in Italy, so I feel protected here.

4. Everyone plays chess.

My dad always says: “If you want to play chess, you’re in the right place. Russians are chess champions.” But I haven’t seen a person playing chess here yet. So, it’s partly true. 

5. Russians have a bad sense of humour.

That’s true. I never understand jokes of my Russian friends, though they do not understand mine either.

6. Russia is expensive to live in.

Now I would say yes. Clothes is expensive, so is transport, unless you use the social card.

To sum everything up, let us compile a to-do list for a foreigner in Russia.

1. Deal with bureaucracy in advance. Please, mind all the deadlines. Otherwise, the consequences are really bad, including being expelled from the country.

2. Spend more time with Russians. Meet, talk, integrate. You need to be the one who takes the initiative. I think it would not be nice if I spent all the time with Italians while living in Russia. You come to this country to study, to meet its people, and to speak its language. I can guarantee that your groupmates will be glad to see you trying to integrate, and they will be more open and friendly. But of course, at some point you might feel like you are falling behind on your first days here. That is why I studied more in the evenings and tried to be active in classes to fit in the group. 

3. Explore new places. In Moscow, there are lots of interesting sights apart from the Red Square. Try to take advantage of the opportunity and explore the city. You can google some guides on the Internet and find out about new places there or you can ask your Russian friends to go for a walk together.

Interview by

Kate Orlova