At 6 a.m. Nov. 15, 33 sleepy Cornellians left their "American bubble" in Ithaca for a one-day Russian immersion experience in New York City's Brighton Beach with its concentration of Russian émigrés.
"This is a unique opportunity to expose students to the living Russian language and culture outside the classroom and language lab," says Raissa Krivitsky, a senior lecturer in the Department of Russian who has organized the trip for the past seven years with help from administrative assistant Doreen Silva. "Brighton Beach has its own Russian infrastructure, and there are signs in Russian everywhere." In fact, the area has the greatest concentration of Russians from diverse ethnic backgrounds than anywhere else in the country.
"The students can practice ordering meals and talking to people in the neighborhood," Krivitsky adds. One year, she says with a laugh, the students were mistaken for natives and were scolded by some matrons for using English with each other instead of Russian.
Each year, Krivitsky plans the trip around a central event. One year, it was the St. Petersburg Ballet on Ice's rendition of Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty"; another, a visit to the Guggenheim Museum to see the world's largest Russian art exhibition outside Russia.
This year, the group saw the highly acclaimed Russian National Folk Dance Ensemble. "The choreography was amazing," says Liana Harutyunyan '13. "The performers were so energetic and upbeat you had no choice but to love it."
Whenever possible, Krivitsky fits in a stop at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a National Historic Landmark filled with ornate icons, frescoes, elaborately decorated religious objects and "a very serene and pious smell," says Jiecheng Zhang '12.
Each trip also includes time to browse through the Russian shops. Max McCullough '12 calls the Russian stores "a riot, filled with all kinds of books and little kitschy odds-and-ends." For Harutyunyan, the stores were a microcosm of Russia, full of "very stoic people and annoyed employees." She adds, "There's a lot of the Russian culture that you can discuss in class as much as you want but until you see it (or taste it) you really don't know what it's about. This was kind of a sneak peek into Russian culture we wouldn't have otherwise gotten."
The stop at Café Glechik introduced the students to Russian cuisine, such as borscht, and ambiance. The restaurant, says Krivitsky, is "very colorful, decorated with Ukrainian embroideries and bright tablecloths, with food served in clay pots." The servers delight in speaking Russian with the students and willingly store the students' leftovers in their refrigerator until the end of the day.
This year, the café played a special role in the trip. When a mishap with the bus engine delayed the group's departure, the restaurant staff went "above and beyond," says Yuliya Neverova '10, "cooking our pelmeni (a traditional Russian dumpling) so that we could have it right then for dinner."
For McCullough, waiting for the bus to get fixed proved a highlight of the trip, giving the group a chance to bond. "A language class is more fun when you know the people who are in it with you," he explains. "Sitting in front of the café eating Subway or borscht, drinking water and kvass, and talking in Russian was a relaxing and enjoyable end to a busy day."
The trip cost each student only $30, thanks to support from the Department of Russian and the Institute for European Studies.
Linda Glaser is a freelance writer in Ithaca.