Jeremy is a fourth-year student from France. At his home university in France, he is majoring in Political Science and studies various social disciplines such as: history, sociology, economics and law. Additionally, he is learning the Russian language. He spent a year at St Petersburg University as an exchange student, dividing his time between the School of International Relations and Russian as a Foreign Language courses.

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During the interview, we talked with Jeremy completely in Russian. He noted: ‘If a year ago I had been told that I could be interviewed in Russian, I would never have believed it.’ During his one year stay in Russia, he immersed himself in a new reality and managed to improve his language proficiency significantly.

Why did you decide to learn Russian?

It’s a pretty long story. My father works in the public service. In 2010, he had mission to carry out in Kiev, and he moved with the whole family, including my three sisters, to Ukraine. I was 10 years old then. I attended a French school, where I studied English and Russian. I really liked Ukraine! I liked the atmosphere, I liked the people. They lived simply, they were open and considerate, unlike the French who are constantly arguing. That’s why I wanted to continue studying Russian when we returned to France. But I wasn’t actively learning. I knew only simple words and I could not speak well. At some point, I realised that I wanted to speak Russian fluently and understand everything, and that’s what happened eventually.

You mean, you decided to come to Russia primarily for language practice?

That was the key factor, yes. Besides, I was not daunted by the prospect of living in Russia. I didn’t have culture shock, I felt like a fish in water. I had already been to Russia twice before. The first time I came to Moscow in 2014 for a gymnastics exchange. The second time I visited Russia with a friend during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It was great! We watched the match in Moscow, and then travelled to Vladimir, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan.

Why did you choose St Petersburg?

When I had to make a choice where to go for the exchange programme, we were offered Ufa and Belgorod. At that time, I knew nothing about these cities and I had some doubts with regard to whether it was worth going there. A week before the deadline, however, my home university signed an agreement with St Petersburg University. I had very little time left to decide where to go. I chose St Petersburg, and I have never regretted it. I love St Petersburg!

Please tell us about your impressions of St Petersburg? How did you spend your time there?

As soon as I arrived I immediately got down to visiting architectural landmarks and historic places. I bought a guide book to learn about the best historical sites and monuments to choose where to go and what to see. I visited the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Hermitage Museum, Kazan and St Isaac Cathedrals – I walked around the city centre. The Hermitage reminded me of the Louvre in Paris – all the rooms are simply magnificent. I was astonished by the amount of gold in the interior and the quality of the restoration. During the lockdown, I rented an apartment in the city centre near the Liteyny Bridge, and I really liked this neighbourhood. When the weather was fine, I loved jogging in this part of the city.

Did you feel homesick? Was there anything that you particularly missed in Russia?

Yes, I missed French food and especially cheese! It’s difficult to find French cheeses in the local shops. I could not get used to it. French people seem to have a thing about cheese. When I came back, the first thing I ate was fresh bread and cheese. Apart from that, at first I had some problems with communication. I wanted to speak freely with people, but I could not due to my insufficient level of language proficiency in Russian. Later everything worked out well.

There is a number of orientation events offered by the University to international students during the so-called Introduction Week. I wonder if you were able to take part in these events?

Yes, I’m glad I was able to take part in these events! It was a nice surprise that such events were held for us. Some of my friends from my university in France participated in academic mobility programmes in different countries, where there were no orientation events organised. For this reason, they communicated only with French people and found it difficult to meet students from other countries. We were fortunate – we had the opportunity to live in a dormitory with other international students. Before starting our studies, we participated in various cultural, sports and linguistic activities together each day. It was a great experience. For instance, we had a Speed Friending event, evenings of international cuisine, and a language tandem programme for mutual learning of Russian and foreign languages. Thanks to these activities, my knowledge of the Russian language improved and I made a good friend, with whom we still keep in touch.

What do think about the curriculum? How was the educational process organised?

I had two major courses of study – the Russian language and International Relations. The issues in international relations that we discussed in class seemed to me rather generalised. For example, we talked about democracy in general, and not about any specific problems. I was expecting to learn more about the Russian administration or Russian foreign policy, but the professors suggested that we make presentations on similar topics about our home countries. In the second semester, I started attending classes taught in Russian and my experience improved significantly. Besides, I noticed how Russians study. I was amazed at how freely Russian students speak in class, it differs from France. Also, in Russia, teachers value students’ time and always finish classes on time.

Concerning Russian lessons, I found them wonderful. At first, I was assigned to a lower level group than I would have liked. I got bored there and I asked the teacher to transfer me to a higher level group, because I really wanted to learn Russian. Everything was far more serious there. During the lockdown, the classes continued via video conferencing.

During the lockdown amid COVID-19 pandemic, you decided to stay in Russia. Why did you make this decision and what was this experience like for you?

One of the main reasons for me to stay in Russia during the lockdown was that I did not want my experience of independent living in Russia to end. Besides, I met a girl, we got on very well and I did not want to return to France yet. My parents, however, and my university wanted me to come back to France. Air traffic was already disrupted at that time, and the virus was spreading at high speed, so I preferred to stay in Russia.

On 16 March, I moved out of the student hall of residence into a rented apartment and lived there until my departure. In fact, it was at this time that I especially strongly felt that I was in Russia. I went shopping in Russian stores, watched TV in Russian, lived in a Russian apartment and talked to my girlfriend in Russian.

Could you name the three key points that your experience of studying in St Petersburg taught you?

The first point would be self-discipline. My goal was to learn Russian, and I was constantly practicing every day: I read newspapers, watched videos, forced myself to speak Russian with people, and even in the metro I studied Russian using a mobile application. The second point is the skill of independent living. This was my first experience when I had to cook, wash my clothes, etc. Thirdly, I realised that I want my future career to be related to international economic relations and communication in different languages. In addition to Russian and English, I am studying Spanish and also tried to learn Ukrainian and Chinese. I would like to work in international business. All in all, studying at St Petersburg University was beneficial for me. I grew up. I realised that I can give up the things I don’t like and focus on my own interests.

Do you have any advice for students who are coming to Russia?

You should definitely visit St Petersburg. It is the most beautiful city in Russia, and maybe in the world. Don’t judge people by their appearance – just talk to them. We often hear that Russians never smile, but when you get to know them better, you realise that they are very kind and hospitable people. They are happy to invite you home. You should not believe in myths about Russia, most of these stories are not true. I try to speak to people about Russia, to help fight the stereotypes. Russia is a special country, people should learn more about.