Two weeks ago, several of us got the chance to travel to Murom, a small city about a 4-hour train ride from Moscow, in order to teach a class to English students at the university there. In order to go, we had to create a presentation on an aspect of American culture. Since I’m interested in food and took a class on Russian culinary history last term, I wanted to present about American foods. My professor, Diane, suggested I talk about peanuts and peanut butter, and make peanut butter sandwiches with the students from Murom. At first, I was skeptical. Peanut butter (and jelly) sandwiches are an iconic part of American childhood, but I overestimated the exposure of Russians to peanut butter and figured that they would have encountered it before. Diane assured me this was not the case, and I purchased my peanut butter (for a price that would be unthinkable in America) and bread at a grocery store in Moscow before hopping on the train to Murom with my comrades.
Sure enough, the next day when I presented to a class of freshman English language majors at the Murom Institute, only one student out of eighteen had sampled peanut butter before. Having tried a lot of new foods during my time here, and at Russian department events back at Carleton, I was excited to return the favor and help expose the other students to an unfamiliar flavor. (However, I did momentarily worry that someone in the class might have a yet-undiscovered peanut allergy and we’d have a medical crisis on our hands.)
It was really fun to watch the students from Murom pile a little mound of peanut butter onto a slice of bread or an apple slice and tentatively touch the tip of their tongues to it, then almost universally smile, announce it was good, and help themselves to some more. In some ways, I think the nearest analogue to this experience coming from the opposite direction was when I was first introduced to using condensed milk as a condiment in Russian Club as a freshman at Carleton. I had literally only encountered condensed milk as an ingredient mixed into pumpkin pie custard on Thanksgiving, and I had never even tasted it by itself. When I was passed a full jar of the stuff and told to put it on my blini, I was initially cautious, but soon embraced the sweet, rich flavor and gooey texture. The mix of confusion and curiosity surrounding unfamiliar foods—both prepared recipes and simple ingredients like peanut butter—is fascinating, and often the process of trying new things yields rich rewards.
Being in Murom was one of my favorite experiences on the trip so far, because the students there were so excited to see us and so open. Murom doesn’t get very many foreign visitors, and according to one of the professors who sponsored our trip there, we were the first native English speakers most of these students had interacted with. Coming from Moscow where foreign tourists are everywhere and many residents speak very good English themselves, it was very different. Carleton has had a long-standing relationship with the Murom Institute, and students from the Carleton study abroad program have been coming here regularly since the 1990s. A Carleton graduate also worked at Murom Insitute as an English language teaching assistant with the Fulbright program a few years ago. Both the professors and students were incredibly welcoming and excited to learn, and the students were full of questions about our country and our lives back home. Everyone wanted to compare experiences, find common ground, and examine things that were different and why.
Murom is experiencing economic recession, and, as in many cities outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, there are few job opportunities and many run down buildings. Even at МГУ, a student originally from Volgograd remarked to me that Moscow and St. Petersburg are the only cities the government really cares about—and maybe Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod, she conceded. Students in Murom had some of the same attitudes—many told us they wanted to move to Moscow, or immigrate to America. There wasn’t much to do in Murom if you were young, we were told, and no money to earn. At the same time, in many ways the students were proud of their city. They guided our tour around the town, and were very enthusiastic about proud monuments or moments in Murom’s history. Murom has Russia’s oldest monastery, and is the birthplace of the inventor of television. They wanted to show us favorite spots in a local park, or a place down by the river, or a bakery they liked. We were told several times that Murom is what “real” Russia looks like, and that “real” Russians live in places like this one, not in Moscow or St. Petersburg. This reminded me in some ways of the attitude of many Americans in flyover states, who have some degree of resentment of the greater amount of attention paid towards coastal cities. The mix of boredom, a sense of stagnation, and hometown pride is common, in my experience, in places like the small Minnesota town where my mom’s family is from. Obviously, real Americans live in New York City as well as small-town middle America, just like real Russians live in Moscow, and Murom, and rural Buryatia. But the sense of being left behind in many ways by economic and cultural growth in your country is real. While many of its buildings are more ancient, Murom has some of the same feel as a small Rust Belt city in America.
If a traveler to America visited only Manhattan and Los Angeles, they certainly wouldn’t know that much about the lives of millions of Americans, and the same goes for someone who visited Russia and only saw Moscow and St. Petersburg. For that reason, I was glad to be in Murom and see some of the diversity of experiences in this huge, beautiful country, as well as to engage with these wonderful, enthusiastic students and get a chance to teach as well as to learn.