Our editor-in-chief, Russell Valentino, is writing a series of posts from a trip across Eurasia via ferry, plane, and Trans-Siberian Railway.
The first time I went to Russia, it was 1987, Gorbachev was barely into his third year as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, perestroika and glasnost were sexy new words, and my exchange-student compatriots and I had to be prepared in a three-day orientation held in Helsinki, Finland before crossing the border. There were lots of rules. Do not sit on tables, do not skip class, do not spend nights outside the accommodations provided, do not make phone calls from the lobbies of hotels or dormitories, do not sell or trade your belongings with Soviets, do not smoke hash or marijuana, do not see a doctor on your own, do not take part in political demonstrations of any kind, do not leave the group during excursions, do not venture beyond a forty-kilometer limit outside the city, do not change money on the black market, at least not with strangers on the street, and, if you do and worst comes to worst, do not forget the following phrase: “Ya imeiu pravo pozvonit’ v amerikanskoe posol’stvo”—I have the right to call the American embassy. I think they told us to write it down, memorize it, and then swallow the paper.
Our orienteers related horror stories of student arrests, nights spent in the drunk tank, inconvenient, often painful hospital stays, interrogations, and life-altering, albeit infrequent, deportations. They were of course attempting to curtail the behavior of their rambunctious charges by reflecting, perhaps in part unconsciously, the society in which those charges would soon be immersed. They wanted neither complete disappearances nor public spectacles, but rather well-behaved, courteous cultural ambassadors, polite Americans, if you will. Better known, in some circles at least, as Canadians.
What this meant in practice was that, in contrast to the many variations on studying abroad in, say, England, France, Italy, or elsewhere in Western Europe, American experiences of the USSR tended to be as alike as two Socialist Realist placards. Pretty much everyone studied the same subjects with the same textbooks and the same teachers in the same classrooms term after term, year after year. We all saw the same sights with the same guides and their same, theoretically incognito, KGB escorts. We all stayed in the same two tightly controlled dormitories with the same floor monitors, the