MSU is decidedly not Carleton. Of course, you have the obvious differences. Московский государственный университет (МГУ, or Moscow State University/MSU for you Westernizers) is home to approximately 47,000 students, undergraduates and postgraduates. Carleton, small but mighty, enrolls around 2000 students. To put these numbers in perspective, the building/dormitory in which we’re living at МГУ, Главное здание, houses roughly 4600 students, more than twice as many as Carleton’s entire student population. Granted, it is the tallest educational building in the world as well as one of the gargantuan Seven Sisters scattered throughout Moscow, but still, this stark contrast is pretty mind-boggling to me as someone who grew up in rural Minnesota and attends a college smaller than many high schools in the US. At Carleton, I’ve grown used to grabbing some grub from the dining hall a couple of times a day and seeing the same people over and over again, but here, at МГУ, it’s a different set of people each trip to the столовая (I think; I’ve only been here two weeks, after all).
Then you have setting. Carleton, situated in picturesque Northfield, Minnesota, land of Cows, Colleges, and Contentment, has the small-town feel many of us know and love. Oh, it’s worth mentioning that the city of Northfield’s population of around 20,000 also pales in comparison to the nearly 50,000 students at МГУ. And МГУ obviously calls Moscow home. Living at МГУ, we’re a quick metro ride away from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Saint Basil’s, and, most bewilderingly, the Kremlin. Carleton, for its part, offers a number of charming destinations. Thanks to its proximity to downtown Northfield, one must walk no more than 10-15 minutes to reach popular spots like Hogan Brothers’ Cafe, The Hideaway, and my personal favorite, Just Food Co-op (if you need kombucha suggestions, let me know). You can speculate all you want as to which locations are superior, but it is undeniable that there’s a key, pretty amazing difference between Northfield City Hall and the Kremlin, the political nucleus of the largest country in the world.
On a more personal level, it’s not difficult to spot differences in everyday life. Walking around campus and elsewhere, you’d be hard-pressed to look around at almost any time and not see security guards walking around, manning entrances to buildings, etc. It’s strange that I’ve grown used to this so quickly. A relatively minor annoyance comes in the form of purchasing plastic bottles of water. Beyond the waste this creates, I’ve found that I can’t simply run to a drinking fountain down the hall, as I can at Carleton. I have to walk to a place where I can buy large bottles of water and pay money to stay hydrated (thankfully, there’s a little shop within Главное здание, but it seems to be closed every time I need to replenish my stores). I guess we do have utility bills to pay in the US, but we also take for granted easy access to clean drinking water, which is pretty important to me as a self-proclaimed H2O guzzler.
One more thing I’ll mention is the prevalence of smoking at МГУ. Prior to arriving in Moscow, I’d heard and read that young Russians don’t smoke. Instead, they work hard and think about their future. The perception seems to be that young people have replaced smoking with more serious life activities: getting a degree, finding a respectable job, taking better care of themselves than the generations before them. I should have realized that this opinion was espoused by older Russians, for whom smoking was an essential part of life, a given. Everywhere I look, I see a great many students smoking cigarettes (and in some cases, vaping): between classes, walking around campus and the city, and even at 1:45 in the morning, as I noticed coming back from a midnight Orthodox Easter service late last night/early this morning. Perhaps they smoke at less extreme rates than their parents, but these young people really enjoy their cigarettes. From what I’ve seen, these students haven’t replaced smoking with other things; perhaps they’ve merely found a way to grow up and, at the same time, rationalize the use of tobacco. At any rate, smoking is clearly deeply ingrained in Russian culture, and, despite recent proposals to ban cigarettes, probably will be for a very long time.
For the sake of relative brevity, I’ll end here, but to reiterate: Carleton and МГУ really are worlds apart.