By Isabel Rodriguez
In January, I temporarily left Tulane to participate in a language immersion program in Moscow, Russia. When I arrived in Moscow in late January, everything was so new and strange to me. Being able to see the places that I had learned about in my courses at Tulane was an exciting experience. The first two weeks in Moscow were a whirlwind. Between trying to adjust to a new culture and dealing with the plethora of logistical problems that were presented, I didn’t get the opportunity to really settle in until the third and fourth weeks of the program. Unbeknownst to me, the fourth week would be my final week in Russia. In the third week of the program, Russia invaded Ukraine after more than a month of amassing troops at the Russia-Ukraine border. Everyone in the program was shocked by this turn of events. We had been repeatedly told that Russia would not invade Ukraine and that all of this was just politics. The program staff in Russia assured us that we were safe and that we would not be evacuating.
Within a day of the invasion, Western countries started imposing economic sanctions and banning flights in and out of Russia. Our program director emailed all of the students and told us to go to the banks and try to withdraw money to keep us comfortable for a month or two. When I went to the banks, there was no money. The banks were running out of all of the main currencies used in Russia (U.S. dollars, rubles, and euros). At one bank I visited, they were shuttering the bank right as I had entered. I had tried five or six different banks that day and every single one was slam packed with people who were panicking and trying to withdraw money from their bank accounts. The U.S. dollar was in high demand due to the ruble collapsing. For me, this was a huge issue because my host mom wanted to be paid rent in dollars. Eventually, I managed to withdraw all of the rent money for the next month.
Even though all of these new developments were occurring, I never felt like my safety was at risk. The weekend immediately following the invasion of Ukraine, we all spent the Sunday at our program director’s dacha. Dachas are small homes in the countryside that Russians use to get away from the city and for vacation purposes. That Sunday was probably the best day I had had in Russia since arriving. That evening, we all sat around and spoke about how the only reason we would leave Russia was if we were forced to leave. None of us would have left on our own free will. The very next day, my credit and debit cards stopped working because of sanctions placed on Russia, which limited American card holders in Russia. That was the first time since I had arrived in Russia that I actually felt panicked. Without my cards, I couldn’t withdraw money for rent, I couldn’t top off my metro card, and I couldn’t pay for any other necessities. Later that evening as I was heading home from a nigh time class, I received an email from the program director that the program had been suspended and that we were responsible for securing our own transportation out of the country. Within 48 hours of receiving that email, I was on a plane home.
The flight home was more or less a nightmare. Before leaving Russia, I checked my airline’s COVID rules and the testing protocols for re-entering the U.S. Emirates’ website said that I needed a COVID test done 24 hours prior to flying. When I showed up at the check-in desk, they said that my test was invalid because it had to be done the day of the flight. I had to rush to the testing center at the airport and then wait 1.5 hours for my results. Once I got the results, I rushed back to the check-in desk, got my tickets and then ran to passport control and security. By the time I made it to my gate, they were already halfway done boarding. My adrenaline was pumping so hard that my hands were shaking, and I was sweating from the stress and running through the airport. In total, my flight was 34.5 hours long, with two layovers in Dubai and New York. The flight from Moscow to Dubai was roughly four or five hours long, with a two-hour layover in Dubai. The flight from Dubai to New York was 14.5 hours long, but I got a free upgrade to premium economy, so it wasn’t all that bad. My layover in New York was nine hours long, and I had to fight to stay awake the whole time. By the time I got on the plane to New Orleans, I was so exhausted. The only thing I remember from that flight was briefly waking up so I could rest my head on the food tray. Next thing I knew, the pilot was announcing that the plane was going to be making its initial descent. I’ve never slept on a plane in my entire life, simply due to the fact that I can’t sleep upright. Hands down, that was the quickest I’ve ever fallen asleep in my life.
One of the most eye-opening things I saw during my time in Russia was how the government responded to the anti-war protests that were breaking out in the city. On my way to the airport on my final night in Russia, I saw an entire square barricaded off by OMON, Russia’s riot police. On the streets bordering the square, there were armored trucks used specifically for holding detained persons involved in protests. On the square, groups of OMON police were stopping small groups of citizens and asking for documents and questioning them. As upset as I was to be leaving Russia, I took that as a sign that it was time to leave. At the end of the day, our safety was more important than anything else.
The hardest part about leaving Russia was leaving my host mom behind. Her savings account was no longer accessible to her because it was in euros. Me leaving meant that she would no longer have extra income to support herself. Our goodbyes were teary-eyed, and we both weren’t ready for this abrupt change in plans. I was lucky, in that I had a host mom who didn’t support the war in Ukraine or Putin and the Kremlin. When the war started, we watched international news (specifically the BBC, which was still running in Russia at that point in time) and state-run media. While I never got the chance to ask that many locals about their opinions on the war, I got to speak to my professors about the situation that was currently unfolding. All of them vehemently opposed the war and held the belief that Putin should no longer be in power. However, I recognize that their views are largely shaped by the fact that they are educated and part of the younger generation of Russians, who tend to be more “Western-minded.” The unfortunate reality is that most Russians support the war and see the sanctions as a way for the West to try and make Russia weaker and embarrass them on the global stage.
While my study abroad experience was unfortunately cut short, I managed to learn a lot while I was there. The final two weeks were eye opening for me because I got to see a side of Russia that nobody really ever gets to see. In the last two weeks, I saw the beginning of an economic crisis and the people’s response to it. I also got to see, first-hand, the government’s response to anti-war protesters and those who don’t want to see Russia invade Ukraine. I got to witness Russian state media’s response to the war in Ukraine and tried to understand their perspective on things. By the time I was getting in my taxi to go to the airport, numerous independent and opposition outlets had been shut down completely.
Since I’ve been home, things haven’t really felt completely normal. The rug got pulled out from under me so quickly that I feel like I am still trying to properly comprehend what happened. One minute, I was living the dream that I had worked so hard to achieve for four years; the next, I was back home with my family in Madisonville, Louisiana. Being in Russia for almost a month prior to the invasion and a week after the invasion made me realize just how differently Russians think, compared to Americans. Statistically speaking, more Russians are in favor of the war than those who are not. In the states and most Western countries, the opposite is true. It also made me realize how truly free our press and speech are here in the states. I know people in Russia whose jobs and safety now rely on them being completely silent about the war.
If there’s one thing I took away from my time in Russia, it’s that not everyone supports the war, and that Putin isn’t a completely accurate representation of Russian values and beliefs. I encountered many people who were, in general, anti-war and pro-world peace. My biggest fear is that, from here on out, the world is going to associate Russia with Putin so strongly that they will refuse to believe there are any good people within Russia. This is simply not true. Through my daily interactions with locals, I can very much attest to the fact that there are many good people there who don’t deserve to be labeled as anything other than good people. However, I will never defend Russia’s actions in Ukraine. What the world has seen unfold is nothing short of an atrocity. I stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and hope for an end to the destruction of their country and their homes.
Isabel Rodriguez is a graduating senior at Tulane majoring in Russian and Homeland Security studies. This semester studied abroad in Moscow, Russia through Middlebury College. She enjoys learning about different, countries and their languages and cultures. Going to Russia helped her better understand how Russia is a key player in Eastern Europe and the world as a whole.