Justine in Russia: Fighting Insecurity

I am still playing a bit of catch-up with my posts, so I am still talking about things that happened about three weeks ago. After our trip to Moscow, we all had a week of break. I decided to go to Kyiv and Astana (alone) during my break. I think what I have appreciated the most about my experience in Russia (along with Ukraine, and Kazakhstan) is that people are very patient and grateful if you speak even a bit of Russian. I do not really want to talk too much about my travels, but more about what I learned while traveling.

My first stop was Kyiv, Ukraine. Since there are no direct flights from Russia to Ukraine anymore, I had to take a flight with a layover in Minsk, Belarus.

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Flying out from Zhukovsky Airport in Moscow, which only had ten flights operating out of the airport on a Sunday.

I was a bit sad because it’s my dream to go to Minsk, but flying between Russia and Belarus is still considered a domestic flight. I would need a visa to enter Belarus, which is also complicated because I am not in the states right now. Flying through Minsk International Airport was an adventure since I had a one hour layover and I had to literally run through the terminal to our next gate. When I was going through security a second time, the customs woman was asking me questions in English, but I was replying in Russian because I was very stressed about missing my flight. She then asked me whether I spoke Russian and I said not really. She thought it was really funny that I was responding to her in Russian. I made it to our gate in time, but it was a whirlwind experience. Once I landed in Kyiv, I was staying in a hostel where all the staff spoke English. However, I spent the entire trip alone and spent my time outside speaking Russian. Kyiv is a very English friendly city since they get many tourists.


Courtyard of the hostel I was staying in.

Even though I spoke very little (not so great) Russian, people would never switch to English on me and were extremely friendly to me. The only time I used English outside of the hostel was when I forgot Ukrainian alphabet differences while ordering food at a cafe. The Ukrainian and Russian alphabet are very similar, but a few letters are different and I was aware of the differences. However, I forgot them at this very moment.


I ordered black tea, a brownie, and a chicken pesto sandwich. The word for brownie in Ukrainian is “Брауні” and “Брауни” in Russian. These words both read and pronounced as “brownie.”

The next item on this receipt is, “сандвіч з куркою і песто”, which is a sandwich with chicken and pesto. The first and last word are both English cognates of the word “sandwich” and “pesto”. In Russian, it would be “сэндвич с курицей и песто.” As you can see, these words are almost the same and only then I realized how confused I must have been because these are just English cognates.

I felt really comfortable with communicating because many places in the world will likely switch to English on you if you are a foreigner and try to poorly speak their language. However, this gave me a bit more of a language experience since Ukrainians were very warm and welcoming when it came to speaking. There were times that souvenir vendors praised me for being “able to understand them”, which felt nice at times since there are moments I do get confused since my vocabulary is still pretty limited. I was staying near a very touristy street and most vendors spoke English, but did not try to do so if I asked questions in Russian. Even museum workers and guards were very warm with me when I asked dumb questions in Russian. One thing I struggled with was that sometimes, people would respond to me in Ukrainian and I would just have to reword my question until I understood one of their answers in Ukrainian. One of my last days in Kyiv, I visited the Kyiv Perchersk Lavra, a Orthodox Christian monastery.


Entrance to the Kyiv Perchersk Lavra.

I had to visit very quickly because I had to return to my hostel and register for classes. On my way out, I asked the security guards in Russian whether a ticket was only valid for one entry or the whole day. I have no idea what he said because he started speaking Ukrainian to me and I could not identify the verbs he was saying. In the middle of this interaction, a tourist asked me a question in English and I helped her out. So, I was still confused and reworded my question into whether I could only enter one time or many times. Even though he heard me speak English and I heard him speak English to the tourist, he was still responding in Ukrainian. However, this time I figured out that I was able to reenter the monastery for the day. Language is all about trial and error!


I stayed in Kyiv for approximately three days and then went my way to Astana, Kazakhstan. Astana was a lot more difficult because most people do not speak a lick of English. However, people were very patient with me and confused when I did not really know much Russian. At the hostel I stayed at in Astana, I befriended a receptionist and he told me I was the only person staying there who was not from a post-Soviet republic. He said that when he first saw me, he just assumed I was Kazakh. So when I did come up to a reception and asked them a question in English, you could see how confused the receptionists were.

I won’t say too much about my travels because this blog post will go on forever, but Astana has been one of my must-visit destinations since I was around sixteen. It was really surreal to be able to go there alone and experience the “post-soviet, architectural-confusion world” (is what I like to call it). There was a mix of very Soviet buildings and new architectural buildings that created a strange juxtaposition of old and new.


Pictured is the Bayterek Tower and the buildings surrounding it.


Imagine arriving on an airplane, where the area around the airport is still 90% dirt roads and going to the city center and seeing this pyramid of a building. This is the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. It serves as an event venue. When I took a tour of this building, there was a Kazakh(?) boy band rehearsing for their concert later that week.


About 70% of the population in Kazakhstan are Muslim. This is the Khazret Sultan Mosque, which is also the biggest mosque in Central Asia.


Expo 2017 was held in Astana, something the locals were very proud about. This gigantic building was built southwest of the city for Expo and now is a museum of future energy.

I think this trip helped me a lot with getting over some of my insecurity with speaking Russian. I really hate trying to speak English to people and I never try to, but sometimes I feel very stressed to go into some restaurants because I feel like I say any of these food items correctly. Since I came back from my break, I have been a lot more comfortable in attempting to say new words when it comes to ordering food or trying to read off of a page. What I will miss the most about being in this part of the world is that I do not feel like too much of an outsider. I often get asked directions and I usually am just stunned that someone thought that I seemed local enough to answer their question (not just in Saint Petersburg, but this happened in Astana and Kyiv too). People don’t stare here nor have I been verbally attacked like the few times I have been back in the states. I am just a little sad that I am finally getting over my insecurity in language and I have less than four weeks left here.

However, I know I will be back someday.


До следующего раза (until next time)

Justine G.

Жюстин, usually Джастин, Жастин, or Жустин.

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