Жили были

Six years ago this month, I was teaching a course in TOEFL preparation for Russian undergraduates at a large technical university in St. Petersburg. This was at a time when terms like “Arab spring” and “globalization” still had some face value; it was OK to be optimistic. Only slightly more experienced with reading Chekhov in the original than with teaching English as a second language, I hoped to connect with students by keeping lesson plans conversational around the edges. If a reading passage about Dutch painting gave rise to a discussion about the merits of ice skating on frozen canals, I was game. If a series of arid speaking prompts inspired real thinking that outlived the 45-second cutoff, wonderful.

I can’t recall today what exercise or activity set the topic in motion. It’s entirely possible that I was the one who brought up soon-to-be-ex-ex-President Vladimir Putin; in fact, I can’t even be sure Putin came up at all, at least in name. I only remember that it was a male student–always a minority in my classes–who weighed in on the future of free speech in Russia.

“That’s why a lot of us want to take this test, so we can get to university in America,” said the student, whom I’ll call Sergei. Others in the room agreed; in fact, I’d heard the same claim made many times before.

“What’s wrong with the universities here?” I asked.

“It’s not our universities, it’s the country,” he answered, glumly fidgeting.

I made some observation about life in the Soviet Union; he shrugged it off, but vaguely, as if comparisons were neither valid nor invalid. A few of the students muttered something in Russian. “It doesn’t matter, I’m free to make opinion,” said Sergei in response to one of them.

“Well, that’s something to be glad about, I guess,” I said. “There are always people out there who want to shut down debate.”

“I’m happy they can’t,” he said. “And if they do, there will be a revolution.”

Two years later, I returned to this university, this time around more as a visitor–my wife and I were on our way to Kiev–although it had been arranged for me to do a little guest-lecturing. Two girls had been assigned to me, to see that I found my classrooms and got a hot lunch. One, Milena, was far more talkative than the other; indeed, more a talker than a listener. Like the majority of Russian women, she dressed sharply, but in Milena’s case, the edges threatened serious injury. And her English was near-flawless.

We talked about their future educational and professional plans. TOEFL came up only once; the usefulness of English was discussed.

“Personally, I am not interested in living in the U.S.,” said Milena. “Maybe for educational purposes. Maybe not. I think I can be more effective if I stay here. I think it’s not good for the country to lose people to America or Europe. Our government gave us our education, and we should give back.”

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