Russian Immersion

Oxford students Arun Denton and Joseph Scull talk about studying in Perm, trips around the Kama River Region, volunteering and friendship.

Tell me how the idea to study in Perm came about.

Arun: Joseph and I are studying Russian at Oxford University. In England, when you study a foreign language, you spend your third year in the relevant country, and Oxford and Perm have developed good twinning links. Several of our friends had been to study at Perm State University and told us how much they had enjoyed the experience. We decided it was a great option and came to Perm.

Did you have any difficulties organising the trip?

Joseph: Everything was straightforward. We had to get visas, but that was standard procedure.

Arun: We were actually quite lucky with the timing of the trip to Russia. It was mid-September and at that time the government had lifted the compulsory two-week quarantine. After a negative PCR test we travelled to Russia with no problem.

Why are you interested in the Russian language? When did your interest start?

Arun: In the English school system, at age 14 you choose a foreign language to study, and I thought: why not study Russian? Joseph and I are from different places: I’m from Manchester and Joseph is from a small town Sherbourne in the Southwest, and it was fortunate for both of us that Russian Language was one of the options available. In the English education system, the principle is that you gradually reduce the number of subjects you study: usually, ten or eleven up to age 16, three or four between 16 and 18, and one or two subjects at university. We always chose Russian Language and Literature.

What are your studies like? What differences are there compared to studying in Oxford?

Joseph: At University in Perm there a lot of compulsory lectures compared with Oxford. At Oxford University, the main emphasis is on students working independently and individual tutor meetings are very important.  But in this respect, Oxford differs from other British universities, where the system is closer to what we see in Perm.

Arun: At the moment, because of the pandemic, general sessions are taking place online, but lessons in Russian language are being taught individually at the university. These sessions are very effective and useful, of course.

Have you been able to socialise with other university students?

Joseph: Naturally, the pandemic hasn’t made it easy, because we are only attending individual sessions at the university. But in Perm we are being hosted by Irina, a teacher in the geography faculty, and she has introduced us to her students. We meet up quite often, and they are very friendly and helpful.

How did your parents and friends react when you told them you intended to go to Perm?

Arun: None of them had ever heard of Perm before. The twinning was very helpful in that respect. Thanks to Karen Hewitt, a professor at Oxford, the link is long established, and people can see that the contact hasn’t come out of nowhere.

Joseph: My parents and friends think that coming to Perm is a good opportunity for me. In Moscow and St. Petersburg there are a large number of foreign students and you can speak English. Here, it’s just Arun and me, so it really is Russian immersion.

How did your preconceptions of Russia and Perm match the reality?

Arun: If I’m honest, I didn’t really have any idea of what to expect. I didn’t know much about the city other than reading up about the history of Perm. So, we are forming our opinion whilst we are here.

People often say that Russians are quite private people. Have you encountered this?

Arun: It’s true that in the street they really do look closed and unemotional, but when you start chatting everything changes. We talk to the people we are living with, with students and with the people who work in the cafe we go to. The conversations are really interesting, and the people of Perm ask us things in return. Almost everyone is open and happy to chat.

What do you do in your spare time?

Arun: We have been travelling around Perm Kray. We have been to Kudymkar, Kungur, Ilinsky, Chyormoz and Khokhlovka, and have been as far as the Usvinsky Pillars.

Not even the locals have visited that many places in the region.

Joseph: Yes. We are lucky. As I said, we are living with Irina and Aleksandr. Irina is a teacher in the geography faculty and Sasha is a tour guide, so the trips around the area are very interesting.

Are there things which you really miss in Perm, maybe pubs, English football or Scottish haggis?

Joseph: Not at all! I’m really glad there isn’t any haggis in Perm! (He laughs) Actually, we don’t really miss anything. Our day-to-day life is really well organised. Russian food is different, but we like it. Pubs are really important in England, but there are good bars in Perm. Talking of football, we have been to see the matches of the football club Amkar twice, and we went to the match of the  hockey club Molot. So everything’s good. We don’t get bored.

I heard you took part in some volunteering in Perm. Tell me a bit more about that.

Arun: Yes. We joined the Territory of Respite and took part in the Meals on Wheels programme. The programme gives the homeless and people in poverty the chance to have a hot meal. We helped distribute food first in Zakamsk and then in one of the streets in Perm city centre.

Are you planning to return to Perm after your studies?

Joseph: We would like to travel across Russia on the Trans Siberian. That would be great. In Perm itself, we have got on really well with Irina and Aleksandr where we’ve been staying. I think we will definitely come to visit them.

What do you think you will do in your future career? Will it have something to do with Russia?

Arun: I have always wanted to speak fluent Russian. It would be great to work in Russia or to do a job which involves Russia.

Joseph: After our year studying in Russia, we will have another year studying in Oxford, so we have time to decide.

You said that you have got to know about Perm because of the twinning link with Oxford. How much do you think that partnerships through twinning are a good way to foster contacts between cities?

Joseph: I will tell you a little story. Arun and I met some students at No.7 School in Perm and told them about England. Suddenly, I saw a poster on the wall with information about my hometown – Sherbourne. It turns out that No.7 School is working with the grammar school in Sherbourne, and my sister was here as part of an exchange programme. Imagine that! Unfortunately, these exchanges are not happening at the moment. But we must bring them back. People make contact and get to know each other and about each other’s lives and culture, here in Perm, in the real Russia.

Arun: The links between the universities are also really needed and useful. Every year, students from Oxford come to Perm to study or for internships. New knowledge is gained, and new are contacts made. This is all really important in today’s world.