One thing that surprised me about Kursk was the number of foreign students there. Kursk is the home to one of Russia's top medical schools with classes in English language. Jeevith An, the first Malaysian I have ever met in Russia in more than 10 years living here, studies at Kursk Medical University. He said it is attractively priced, about half the cost of med school in Malaysia. With the recent fall in the ruble, the school has become even cheaper for foreigners. Jeevith said he wants to be a heart surgeon and will intern back at home during the summer.
While showing me around Kursk, Ivan, a foreign languages graduate student, shared with me a memorable conversation he had with his grandfather. He said his grandfather, a native Azeri, didn't like watching WWII films because it brought back bad memories. "He told me war was pure hell, watching your friends die." Like many of his generation, his grandfather lied about his age to fight. When they were celebrating his 80th birthday a decade ago, he was actually 79.
Masha was walking back from university in Kursk sporting her London hat. She said she was studying economics, following somewhat in the footsteps of her mom, who works at a bank. She said the biggest event in 2014 was finishing high school as "it's the start of adult life. You have to become responsible, make your own decisions." She said one of toughest things about university is getting used to new classmates. She said she would like to stay in Kursk post her studies to be near family.
Dmitry and Polina, music students, were sitting on a bench on ice-covered Lenin Street on a late December night. There were few people about in this weather and late hour. I asked about the biggest event of 2014 and he started talking about the many concerts he took part in. Polina, who was sitting on his lap, then whispered something in his ear. Dmitry looked up at me and said the most important event was proposing to Polina. He said they met a year ago and will get married next year before he goes into the army.
After a 75 minute bus ride from Gus Khrustalni to Vladimir, I had 1.5 hours to walk around the historic town before my 2-hr train ride back to Moscow. I went looking for coffee and passed a colorful cafe with big windows that probably opened a year or two ago at most. Paintings were on the wall...it was a place you might find in NYC. As I sat down, I saw a young woman in a NYC shirt with pinkish-rimmed glasses. She had been reading, but was getting ready to leave and I walked over to chat about her studies and dreams. Zhenya said she was finishing her university degree and, after much thought, had finally realized what she wanted to do in life...at least in the mid-term: 'I want to draw, to create something intellectual.' She hoped to continue her studies either in Moscow or abroad, where she felt educational demands and job opportunities would be better than in her native Vladimir. Considering her artistic interests, it was not surprising to find her at home in such a cafe. Notice the artwork on the wall behind her.
I took a 3 hour train ride to Vladimir region recently to visit some so-called 'dying' villages. After getting off the train, I hitched a ride a few kilometers to a church that was halfway to my final destination. There I met Nikolai, who was chopping wood with a friend in the church yard. He said there was little money to do a proper upgrade to the church, which, despite its poor condition, still held service for the surrounding villages. Nikolai said he grew up in the area, but moved during Soviet times to Siberia near Lake Baikal, where he worked in construction. When he stopped getting paid during the economic turmoil in the 1990s, he returned to Vladimir region. He said the village he now lives in - which is located 2 to 3 km away from the church - had a collective farm that used to employ many people. Now, just a few work there. As he escorted me for a small fee to his village to find a cab driver, he asked where I was going to stay. I told him I didn't know, and asked if he knew of a place. Nikolai said he didn't know, adding he would offer me to stay at his place, but felt it wasn't in good condition and apologized. Nikolai found me the driver after a 30 min walk and I paid him what we agreed upon. He thanked me, said it was interesting to talk to an American and then headed back to the church. (For full set of village photos, see the gallery page at toddprincephotography.com)
As I planned a trip to Kursk in central Russia, I did a search on Instagram to find interesting spots to photograph and saw a few photos of a hip-looking cafe. It was still in process of being built, due to open today. I popped by and found one of the owners - Dmitry - busy working on the final touches. He said he had wanted to open a cafe for some time and was looking for the right idea. He and his friend came up with making it a coffee + donut shop and trained to learn to make donuts. He is so confident there is demand for such a place in Kursk and surrounding areas - and I agree with that assessment post my visit to the town - that he is working on opening a 2nd one and may franchise it. He is not worried about the ruble - people will trend down he says from spending money in expensive restaurants to more affordable spots like cafes.
This university student was eating some street food with two mates. I asked him if he cared about the ruble volatility. He said the ruble volatility didn't interest him as he doesn't have a source of income. His parents are state workers and he doesn't think it interests them either. He heard that the ruble drop could lead to higher inflation next year, which is a bit worrisome. He said he is majoring in philosophy because he is interested in such questions as what is man and understanding the world around him.
This Georgian sells flowers at a kiosk near a Moscow metro station with her fellow country women. There are about a half dozen of them working different stalls, which remarkably are opened 24 hours. The women call out to people passing buy, offering both imported and local flowers. Most of these women were born in Abkhazia, but haven’t seen their homeland since they had to flee during the Georgian-Abkhaz war in the early 1990s. When I mentioned I was in Abkhazia in September, they started to call out names of places in Abkhazia like Ritz Lake and Novi Afon Monastery, asking if I went there. They were keen to see photos, which I showed them on my phone. This woman, who said she was over 70, mentioned that she had traveled a bit around Europe and didn’t see any place that had better natural beauty than Abkhazia. I asked her about the flower business and she said it has been tough lately because flower prices have risen sharply. For instance, flowers from Ecuador are up 50%. I asked what she would do if she loses her job. She said she would go Georgia to live with her children.
She was working a food stand at a Moscow Christmas market in central Moscow, turning occasionally a lever to create music and attract customers. In asked her if she was worried at all about the ruble. "Of course I am, we are all concerned because prices will go up. It probably worries us migrants more than Russians." I didn't realize she was a migrant, so I asked where she was from. 'Eastern Ukraine, Kharkiv.' She said she works in Russia a few months and then goes back home in accordance with visa rules, one of the 3 million or so Ukrainians that work in Russia. I asked if the currency instability impacted her mood. She said people have been through this before. "You have to keep living regardless of whether you are in a good mood or not." At the end of the conversation, she told me she was from western Ukraine.