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Below is an archive of the Russian MiniLessons featured in the SRAS newsletter over the 2015 school year. Please see our FULL TABLE OF CONTENTS for a list of all lessons, arranged by subject. To subscribe to the newsletter, and receive a free Mini-Lesson each month, simply sign up

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Уничтожение Турцией российского самолета / Turkey Downs Russian Jet

On November 24, a Russian Su-24 бомбардировщик (bomber) был сбит (was downed) by a турецкий истребитель (Turkish fighter jet) in the area of the border between Syria and Turkey.

У России и Турции разная интерпретация инцидента (Russia and Turkey have different interpretations of the incident). Russian officials have said that самолет пересек границу на 17 секунд и был немедленно сбит без предупреждения (the jet crossed for 17 seconds and was immediately shot down with no warning). Russian media have stated that турецкий истребитель ждал российский бомбардировщик, что напасть на него (the Turkish fighter jet was waiting for the Russian bomber, in order to attack it). Russian officials as high as President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have said that they see злой умысел on the part of Turkey (malicious intent on the part of Turkey).

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Meanwhile, Turkish officials say that they десять раз предупреждали российский самолет (warned the Russian aircraft 10 times). US President Barack Obama, as a NATO ally of Turkey, stated that Турция имела право на поддержание суверенитета своих границ (Turkey had a right to maintain territorial borders). Many sources state that previously российские военные самолеты неоднократно нарушали воздушное пространство Турции (Russian military jets repeatedly violated Turkey’s airspace).

Currently, возможности войны между НАТО и Россией (the possibility of a NATO-Russia war) is unlikely. Turkish-Russian relations are complicated as Турциявторой крупнейший покупатель российского газа и может стать новым центром для транспортировки российского газа (Turkey is #2 in terms of buying gas and may be set to become a new hub to transport Russian gas). For many years, между Эрдоганом и Путиным тесные личные отношения, а между их режимами много сходств  (Ergodan and Putin have had close personal relations and their regimes have many similarities). In his statement after the incident, President Putin mentioned the special nature of the relations between the two countries, saying Мы всегда относились к Турции как не просто к близкому соседу, а как дружественному государству(we have always felt that Turkey was not to just a close neighbor, but a friendly state). Meanwhile, the Russian leader also used tough rhetoric, saying that the downing was “удар в спину” (stab in the back).

Although all-out war is unlikely, Russia is very upset and вводит санкции по отношению к Турции (is pushing sanctions on Turkey). Russian tours and flights to Turkey have been cancelled. Package tours purchased by российские туристы составляют большую долю доходов турецкой экономики (Russian tourists are a major part of Turkey’s economy). Other sanctions include запретить турецие помидоры из соображений вреда здоровью (banning Turkish tomatoes “on health concerns.”) Several investment projects and partnerships have been suspended. Также российские власти запретили турецким гражданам устраиваться на работу в России (кроме тех, кто уже работает в России) и отменили безвизовый режим с Турцией. (Also, Russian authorities have banned Turkish citizens from working in Russia (except for those who is already working ) and cancelled visa-free regime with Turkey. Turkey has several high-profile construction projects in Russia and some 90,000 Turkish nationals are currently residing in Russia on the basis of work visas.

While these moves are significant, they are not likely to hurt Turkey's economy gravely. Only ending energy relations between the two countries would likely do that and Russian authorities have not indicated they are willing to do that. Such a move would also gravely hurt Russia and the finances of the Russian government.  

Turkish leadership is currently trying не нагнетать обстановку (not to escalate the situation), with President Erdogan having attempted to reach President Putin by phone several times, and Turkish aircraft stopped flying near the border with Syria. While Putin has refused a moving, the foreign ministers of both countries have met to try to keep the situation contained.

Санкции России / Russian Sanctions

In response to sanctions placed on it by other countries, Russia has implemented a number of counter-sanctions. Many of these have been controversial.

The sanctions include составление списка лиц, которым запрещен въезд на территорию России (making a list of people for whom entering Russia is banned), mainly US and EU politicians who were especially arduous in implementing sanctions on Russia.

Продуктовые санкции (foodstuff sanctions) were also imposed by presidential decree on August 6, 2014. Thus, the Russian government ввело годовой запрет на импорт говядины, свинины, овощей и фруктов, мяса птицы, рыбы, сыров, молока и большинства видов молочных продуктов из США, стран Евросоюза, Канады, Австралии и Норвегии (imposed a one-year ban on the import of beef, pork, vegetables and fruit, poultry, fish, cheeses, milk and most types of dairy products from the USA, the European Union countries, Canada, Australia, and Norway). These countries had imposed sanctions on Russia.

Russia later expanded its sanctions to include запрет на импорт арахиса из США (a ban on importing peanuts from the US). Later, Russia added запрет на импорт живой птицы из США (a ban on importing live poultry from the US) after it was discovered that importers had switched from importing meat to importing live birds and then slaughtering them in Russia. Further, on June 4, 2015 вступил в силу запрет на импорт рыбных консервов из Латвии и Эстонии (a ban came into force on the importation of canned fish from Latvia and Estonia).

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On June 24, 2015, President Putin подписал указ о продлении продовольственного эмбарго до 5 августа 2016 года (signed a decree on extending food embargo until August 5, 2016). The bans were initially only to last one year.

Meanwhile, sanctions were also clarified to allow some foodstuffs to be выведены из-под санкций (removed from the scope of sanctions): биологически активные добавки, спортивное, детское и лечебно-профилактическое питание (в том числе безлактозная продукция), мальки лосося и форели, молодь устриц и мидий, а также семенной картофель, лук-севок, сахарная свекла и горох для посева (biologically active dietary supplements, sport, baby and therapeutic-and-prophylactic food (including lactose-free products), newly-hatched salmon and trout, whitebait oysters and mussels, as well as seed potatoes, onions sets, seed sugar beets, and peas for planting). These are things which, it was judged, the Russian market does not currently supply enough of and were needed in significant supply immediately.

Starting from September 1, 2014, the Russian authorities ограничили государственные закупки товаров лёгкой промышленности у иностранных поставщиков - ткани, верхнюю одежду, спецодежду, нательное белье, а также одежду из кожи и меха (limited government procurements of light industry goods from foreign suppliers - fabrics, outerwear, overalls, underwear, as well as leather and fur clothing).

However, despite sanctions, Russia did not succeed in preventing Western foodstuffs from entering Russia, largely because, as Russian officials have stated, Belarusian and Serbian companies organized the реэкспорт запрещенной европейской продукции (re-export of banned European products) by illegally changing the production labels. So, Russia imposed restrictions on food imports from Serbia and Belorussia as well. Russians joked about some instances of this re-exportation. For example, Belarus, a land-locked country, was suddenly exporting large amounts of seafood that it allegedly produced to Russia.

In addition, much produce came to Russia via Belarus без указания страны происхождения (without indication of the country of origin) or with falsified forms с указанием Турции, Сербии, Македонии и ряда африканских стран, в частности Зимбабве (indicating Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia and a number of the African countries, in particular Zimbabwe) which don't fall under the embargo, as the country of origin. In another case, a St. Petersburg port received several refrigerated containers labeled “chemical goods” which actually contained embargoed meat.

Some food suppliers found loopholes in the embargo regulations. For example, производители сыра из Европы нашли способ обходить эмбарго, ввозя свою продукцию под видом безлактозной (manufacturers of cheese from Europe found a way to bypass embargo by sending lactose-free versions of their products). According to the Federal Taxation Service, import of lactose-free cheese grew by 750% in 2014 as compared to 2013.

According to the Russian Customs Service, only about 10% of all illegal shipments were stopped. Citing this, in the fall of 2015, the Russian authorities started уничтожение ввозимых в РФ подсанкционных товаров (destroying sanctioned goods brought to Russia). Before this, any shipments were returned to the owner, at cost to Russia. The owner often then made a second attempt to export his/her goods to Russia.

RBC business news agency reports that after the food embargo was imposed, Rosselkhoznadzor (Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance) резко увеличил активность (drastically increased its activity), issuing permissions to Belarussian companies for supplying meat dairy products, and to companies from New Zealand, Argentina, and Nicaragua for supplying meat to Russia. Such licenses give Russia greater oversight of products coming into Russia. 

Some experts have been extremely skeptical about possible outcomes of Russia’s embargo. Kommersant newspaper wrote that «торговую войну» ведёт страна, составляющая 3% мирового ВВП против стран общим «весом» в 40 % мирового ВВП (a country that produces 3% of global GDP is conducting a "trade war” against countries that jointly produce 40% of global GDP), indicating that Russia is essentially fighting massively more powerful enemy and stands little chance of winning.

At the same time, the foodstuff embargo does not significantly damage the EU countries’ economies, Kommersant reports, because экономика Евросоюзаo мало зависит от экспорта сельхозпродуктов, их доля в экспортеменее 5 % (the economy of the European Union depends very little on export of agricultural products, their share in export is below 5%). Furthermore, экспорт продовольствия в Россию составляет менее 1 % общего экспорта Евросоюза (export of the food to Russia is less than 1% of total exports of the European Union). Many experts assume that Russia was hoping that the disproportionate political sway that farmers have in the EU would help force a dialog on sanctions.  

President Putin and others in the Russian government have claimed that the sanctions will give impetus to the development of Russian agriculture and to замена импорта (import substitution). Economists have noted growth in Russian agricultural production and economic activity. However, if this growth would be continued after sanctions are lifted and Russian products once more compete with foreign products is debated.

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Санкции в отношении России (Sanctions on Russia)

Sanctions against Russia have been a complex and ever-changing US-led effort. Some other countries, most prominently the EU, have also enacted sanctions, but there is not a single set of sanctions that everyone is following. The US, however, does have the power to use economic pressure (by pressuring banks from making sanctioned transaction with Russian banks, for instance, by potentially excluding them from transactions with US banks) to try to enforce sanctions on a wider basis. Likewise, the US can use diplomatic pressure to help enforce sanctions. Countries that have some form of sanctions enacted against Russia include the US, Canada, Japan, Moldova, Iceland, Montenegro, Ukraine, Australia, Georgia, Switzerland, Norway, and French Guiana.

On March 6th, 2014, экономические санкции против России были введены (economic sanctions on Russia were imposed) after President Obama signed an исполнительный приказ (Executive Order) which объявил чрезвычайное положение (declared a national emergency). The emergency was described as such: “действия и политика людей – включая людей, которые взяли в свои руки власть в регионе Крыма без разрешения правительства Украины…” (“actions and policies of persons -- including persons who have asserted governmental authority in the Crimean region without the authorization of the Government of Ukraine…") "составляют необычную и чрезвычайную угрозу национальной безопасности и внешней политике Соединенных Штатов (“constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”).

By Executive Order 1360, были введены ограничения на въезд в США и на пользование находящимися в США финансовыми средствами определенных лиц (restrictions were put in place on entry to the USA and froze the US-based financial assets of certain individuals).   

On March 17, the USA, European Union and Canada additionally ввели санкции по отношению к России (imposed sanctions on Russia) a day after референдум о статусе Крыма (the referendum on the status of Crimea) and референдум о статусе Севастополя (the referendum on the status of Sevastopol) were held, where, according to the official results, more than 80 percent of Crimean voters agreed on вхождение Крыма в состав России в качестве субъекта Российской Федерации (the integration of Crimea with Russia as an entity of the Russian Federation). The vote was criticized abroad for the speed with which it was organized, the fact that Russian military were on the ground at the time, and other reasons.

  Countries that have passed sanctions are shown in red. EU countries that voted against sanctions are yellow. Blue countries have discussed enacting sanctions. Click here for the original, full-size image from gazeta.ru.

The EU and Canada запретили въезд на свою территорию определенных лиц (banned certain individuals from entering their territories). These individuals, according the sanctions declaration from the EU and Canada, "были ответственными за действия, которые подрывают территориальную целостность Украины" (were responsible for actions which undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine).

“Черный список США (the US black list) included 27 people - депутаты Госдумы, сенаторы, бизнесмены, два лидера новой власти в Крыму (Duma deputies, senators, businessmen, the two new leaders of Crimea's two districts). The EU black list included 33 persons, some are the same as in the US list, but also included Russian TV host Dmitry Kiselev and more people from Crimea’s new government.

Japan also soon объявила санкции против России. These were diplomatic declarations that calling for the приостановку переговоров относительно военных вопросов, космоса, инвестиций и требований к визам (suspension of talks regarding military matters, space, investment, and visa requirements).

On the 19th of March, the Australian government ввело целевые финансовые санкции и запреты на поездки (imposed targeted financial sanctions and travel bans) on some Russian individuals.

From March – early April, Moldova, Albania, Iceland, Montenegro, and Ukraine imposed the same restrictions and travel bans issued by the EU on 17 March. 

All this was just the first round of sanctions. A second round followed on 28 April. The US объявило о том, что оно расширяет санкции (announced it was expanding the sanctions) and added seven Russian officials, including Rosneft President Igor Sechin and TV host and Duma Deputy Alexei Pushkov, and banned business transactions with seventeen Russian companies.

On the same day, the European Union issued travel bans against fifteen more individuals and made a statement that "санкции не являются карательными, но нацелены на создание изменений в политике или деятельности страны, на которую они нацелены, предприятий или частных лиц (sanctions are not punitive, but designed to bring about a change in policy or activity by the target country, entities or individuals). Both the USA and the EU stated they would not issue export licenses for products destined for Russia which может помочь российскому военному потенциалу (might bolster Russia's military capabilities).

The third round of sanctions commenced on the 17 July when the United States ввели первые санкции в отношении ключевых секторов российской экономики (imposed the first sanction on the key sectors of the Russian economy), imposing sanctions on major Russian companies such as Rosneft, Novatek oil company, state-owned banks Vnesheconombank and Gazprombank, as well as on  a number of  предприятия российского оборонно-промышленного комплекса (enterprises of Russian military and industrial complex), such as Kalashnikov Concern and Almaz-Antei Corporation (which makes anti-aircraft systems). Soon, in July, the EU expanded its sanctions to an additional 18 individuals and 21 entities, including imposing restrictions on all major government-owned Russian banks and to the Russian energy and defense industries.

On August 6, the USA запретили поставку в Россию оборудования для глубинной добычи нефти (prohibited supply to Russia of equipment for deep water oil drilling), as well as equipment for разработки арктического шельфа и сланцевых запасов нефти и газа (development of Arctic shelf and shale reserves of oil and gas), alongside banning supplies of other advanced technologies in oil and gas drilling.

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In July-August, 2014, Canada, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, and Ukraine imposed sanctions on their own list of major Russian oil and gas producing companies and state-owned banks.

On September 12, the USA imposed further sanctions on oil major oil and gas drilling corporations in Russia, such as Gazprom, Lukoil, Transneft, Gazpromneft, Surgutneftegaz, Novatek, and Rosneft. Американским компаниям запрещено поставлять им товары и технологии, необходимые для освоения месторождений нефти на глубоководных участках и арктическом шельфе, а также в сланцевых пластах. (US companies are banned from supplying them products and technologies which are required for development of oil fields in deep-water areas, and on Arctic shelf, as well as in shale formations). Also, on the same day, был введен запрет (a ban was introduced) on giving loans to major Russian banks such as Sberbank, Bank of Moscow, Vnesheconombank and Rosneft and Gazprom companies - американским гражданам и компаниям запрещено покупать облигации этих банков и корпораций со сроками обращения свыше 30 дней, а также предоставлять им кредиты (US citizens and companies are banned from buying bonds of these banks and corporations with a maturity date of more than 30 days after purchase, as well as giving them loans). RBC agency states that таким образом, санкции США затронули более 90% российского нефтяного сектора и почти всю российскую газодобычу (thus, the US sanctions affected more than 90% of the Russian oil sector and almost all Russian natural gas production).

The US again expanded sanctions in December 2014 by запретили вывоз, реэкспорт, продажу или поставку из США или гражданами США каких-либо товаров, услуг или технологии в Крым (prohibited the shipment, re-export, sale, or supply of any products, services or technology to Crimea from the USA or via US citizens). Canada and the EU enacted similar sanctions.  

Некоторые санкции были сняты (some sanctions were lifted) over the last two years. Some have been simply redefined to exclude certain things. For instance, the first round of US sanctions caused widespread confusion in the business community. It was feared that any transaction with any entity even partly owned or controlled by the individuals named was now sanctioned. Among other instances, Visa and Mastercard shut down operations with numerous Russian banks, leaving Russian consumers without access to ATMs or point of sale transactions. The backlash from the Russian government and public was swift and loud and the US quickly clarified that such commercial transactions could continue. In September 2014, Canada исключила два российских банка из санкционного списка (excluded two Russian banks from the sanction list). The USA отменили санкционные ограничения (cancelled sanction limitations) on Turkish DenizBank owned by Sberbank in October 2014. In 2015, after banning all transactions in Crimea shut down Visa and Mastercard there, sanctions were clarified to allow some bank transactions for residents of Crimea. At that time, Crimeans were also allowed to use American social networks (which had also shut down in Crimea because of the broad sanctions). 


Русская душа - (The Russian Soul)

Many well-known people from various countries have acknowledged that Russia and the Russians have unique features that can be difficult to explain. For example, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said that Россия - это головоломка, завернутая в тайну внутри загадки (Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma). A part of this mystery is the "Russian soul," which Russian poets, writers, philosophers, and scholars have been trying to define for centuries.

The concept is, of course, a mixture of ideals and stereotypes. It is something that is different for each individual but also something that helps bind the Russian nation together – a common cultural narrative and a common explanation for who the Russians are and why Russia is as it is and why Russians are as they are.

The Russian Soul is idealized for hospitality, beauty, and a connection to nature. It is also known, however, for its extremes, lack of planning, and frequent incomprehensibility.

Perhaps the most powerful belief is that Russia is comprehensible only to those that live there. One of the most successful in his attempts to describe the Russian soul was nineteenth-century author Fedor Tyutchev, who wrote a famous poem about it:

Умом Россию не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить:
У ней особенная стать -
В Россию можно только верить.

(literally translates as:

Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:
She stands alone, unique –
In Russia, one can only believe.)

The concept of the Russian soul is also heavily permeated in ideals. Many famous Russian writers, such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, describe an ideal of нравственное, героическое поведение людей (people’s moral, heroic behavior), or освещают проблемы праведников и праведной жизни (tell of problems faced by righteous people and righteous lives). At the same time, Dostoevsky, Gogol, and many other writers depict the misery faced by poor people and life’s many injustices, expressing a неприятие зла и несправедливости (rejection of evil and injustice). 

Yet the concept is also rooted in the practical and physical. Many scholars point out that the Russian soul was formed under the influence of Russia’s seemingly бескрайние просторы (unlimited space) and суровый климат (severe climate). In Russian, there are verbs that denote that space “stretches,” almost without any limits: простираться, тянуться. Philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev wrote in his book, Russia’s Destiny, that, on one hand, российское пространство определяет широту русского мироощущения (Russia’s space determines the breadth of Russians’ perception of the world) and, on the other hand, determines the бесформенность русской души (анархия) (shapelessness of the Russian soul (anarchy)). Because they live in such a vast land, Russians were long used to living with very little interaction with the government and generally living by their own wits or by village/community rules.

In terms of the severe climate, due to the short summer, Russians are used to чрезмерное кратковременное напряжение своих сил (working excessively hard for a short time) followed by a долгое время отдыхать (long period of relaxation). Although often that "relaxation" can be in close quarters, with few resources, and mandadated by the extreme weather. Likewise, in their behavior, Russians can demonstrate a lot of крайности (extremes), because the русская душа is a combination of pronouced, sometimes несовместимые (incompatible) character traits: доброта (kindness) and грубость (rudeness) or even жестокость (cruelty), and because it combines рационализм (rationalism) and фатализм (fatalism), and поверье (superstition/popular belief) with both практичность (practicality) and религиозность (spirituality).

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Perhaps also due to the extreme weather and lack of regulation, another peculiar feature of the Russian soul is непредсказуемость (unpredictability). The famous French writer Maurice Druon said that «русская душа принимает все, что с ней происходит, и способна терпеть очень много и долго. Но в один прекрасный момент она взрывается, происходит революция, а потом душа снова попадает в свое русло и продолжается обычное течение жизни» (“The Russian soul accepts everything that happens to it, and it is capable of enduring a lot for a long time. But at some point, it explodes, a revolution occurs, and then the soul gets back on track, and the usual routine of life continues”).

This also manifests itself positively in a unique Russian phenomenon that is very difficult to translate into English: знаменитый русский «авось» (Russians’ notorious blind trust in sheer luck). Когда положение становится практически безвыходным, когда исчерпаны все разумные способы решения проблемы, русский действует на авось и часто добивается успеха (When one ends up in a deadlock, when all reasonable ways to solve a problem are exhausted, a Russian puts his faith in sheer luck and often succeeds). Because of the dominance of both unpredictablity and luck in the Russian psyche, Russians are also prone to отсутствие планирования (a lack of planning) and simply acting based on instinct.

Although the Russians value their vast lands and know that they number in the millions, Russians generally prefer to keep their close social circles small. They like deep affection in friendship; in friendship, a Russian person will выворачивать друг другу душу наизнанку (lay bare his soul before another person). This explains the roots of ностальгия (nostalgia) experienced by Russians in other countries: they suffer because of a потребность в общении, родственной душе (need for communication, for a kindred spirit). At the same time, there is a spiritual and almost physical connection to the land of the родина (homeland). Many Russian abroad will remark that на родину тянет всегда (they feel perpetually "pulled" towards the homeland).

Emotion, then, is seen as something to give only to special people. Thus, Russians do not appear like they are kind or happy to strangers on the street or in public places because they don’t smile. Улыбка не является признаком вежливости (a smile is not a sign of politeness) in Russian culture; rather, a smile should reflect genuine happiness and a relaxed face is the default. Russian culture has a proverb that expresses a negative attitude towards laughing, which does not exist in most other cultures: Смех без причины – признак дурачины (Laughing without any reason is the sign of an idiot).  

Another major component of the Russian national identity is that they are able to выживать в суровых условиях (survive in severe conditions) without much food. Russians are known for their самопожертвование (self-sacrifice), they are able to пожертвовать своей жизнью во имя других (sacrifice their lives for others), which has allowed Russia to be victorious in wars against powerful enemies. Especially strong is the Russian concept of "наш." Although the Russian language often avoids assuming ownership, which one can argue also reduces personal responsibility, when a Russian refers to a group of people as "наш" (ours), that means that anything must be done for those people. Many times, this will be one's immediate family and close friends, but often, especially during times of war, "наш" comes to encompass all one's countrymen.  

Much of this boils down a sense of individualism within the Russian identity. An interesting and often difficult to understand aspect of Russians is their неприятие каких-либо рамок и ограничений (rejection of any limits and restrictions). The only limit they accept is собственная совесть (their own conscience).


Социальные сети - Social Media

There are many different things you can do on социальные сети (social media). One of the first things you do when creating a social media account is to set your настройки безопасности и конфидентиалности (security and privacy settings), then обновить фотографию профиля (change your profile picture) and редактировать профиль (edit your profile). When you meet someone new, you may want to добавить их в друзья (friend them) on Facebook or ВК, or фолловить/подписаться (follow them) on Твитер (Twitter). On the other hand, if you’ve lost touch with someone, you may want to удалить из друзей (unfriend) or отписаться (unfollow) that person, or if they’ve really offended you, you can заблокировать его/её (bock him/her). Социальные сети are also a great way to установить деловые контакты/налаживать связи с людьми (network with people). 

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In Russia, the most popular social networking site is ВКонтакте, often abbreviated as "ВК." Many Russians may also have a Facebook account, but ВК is by far the more dominant site. You can do all the same things on ВК as on Facebook; you can опубликовать что-то (post something), нравиться статус/фотография (like a post/picture), написать комментарию (comment on a post), or поделиться статусом/фотографией (share a post/picture). It's also possible to отметить/упомянуть кого-то на фотографии (tag someone in a picture) or to скачивать фотографию (download a picture) that you like. If you take a lot of pictures, you may want to создать альбом (create an album) for them. ВК has also long allowed users the possibility to добавить видеозаписи и аудиозаписи (upload movies and music). This has led to several lawsuits against it by media claiming that the company is enabling people to illegally share copyrighted music and even full-length feature films.

Russians also use Твиттер (Twitter), where you can делать пост на Твитер (make a post on Twitter) or твитнуть (tweet). Another popular site is Одноклассники, where you can search for old classmates. This site is slightly more popular among older generations than Millennials. The idea for the site came about because Russians once typically went to school together in the same class from kindergarten through graduation. Today, however, Russians are much more mobile and thus the site has less appeal for younger Russians.

Whatever site you prefer, when you входить в систему/залогиниться (log on), you’re taken to the home screen, which often contains the лента новостей (news feed). From here, you can обновить/опубликовать статус (update your status) or check your уведомления (notifications). Someone may have пригласил тебя играть в какую-то игру (invited you to play some sort of game), or you may have a личное сообщение (private message) from someone. In writing a message, you may want to прикрепить документ/фотографию (attach a document or photograph), or add in a few смайлики (emoticons).

Many terms related to computers, technology, and social media have come to Russian directly from the English. This had been somewhat controversial among Russians who view this as an invasion on their language. Many have proposed Russian equivilents for the adopted English words - such as those in the graphics below.




День независимости США - America's Independence Day

Note: the following is written for those students who may be interested in discussing with Russian friends the meaning and history of one of America's most important holidays.

День независимости (Independence Day) is celebrated in the United States on July fourth, and is therefore sometimes called simply "четвёртое июля" (the Fourth of July). This holiday celebrates подписание Декларация независимости в 1776 году (the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776). It served to объявить тринадцать колоний независимыми от Великобритании (declare the thirteen colonies independent from Great Britain). The Declaration of Independence was signed by some of the most famous отцы-основатели США (American founding fathers), such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, who were members of the Второй Континентальный Конгресс (Second Continental Congress).

Kids in a 4th of July parade in a America.  

Independence Day is the самый патриотический праздник (most patriotic holiday) in the US. The атмосфера (atmosphere) on the Fourth of July can be compared to the atmosphere on День Победы (Victory Day) in Russia. Independence Day is a национальный праздник (national holiday), so most businesses не работают (are closed) on that day. Because it происходит в середине лета (falls in the middle of the summer), many traditions related to Independence Day occur на открытом воздухе (outdoors).

Since Independence Day is such an important holiday, many Americans decide to украшать (decorate) their houses with лентами, шариками, или американскими флагами (banners, balloons, and/or American flags). The most common colors for these decorations are, or course, красный, белый и синийцвета американского флага (red, white, and blue—the colors of the American flag).

Many towns begin their celebrations with a парад (parade) in the morning. These parades almost never feature военная техника military hardware. Instead, they tend to focus on celebrating the local community – schools, businesses, and local organizations will often contribute "floats" (decorated trailers usually pulled by trucks – Russian parades and the Russian language have no equivalent for this) that are usually meant to be fun and call attention to the sponsoring organization. In the afternoons, there may be a концерт (concert), or family and friends собираются на пикник или барбекю (gather for picnics or barbeques). Traditional foods for the day include Хот-доги (hot dogs) and гамбургеры (hamburgers) cooked over a grill and eaten with картофельный салат, яичный салат, запеченная фасоль (potato salad, egg salad, and/or baked beans) and other regional favorites.

A very important tradition in the evening is to пускать фейерверки (set off fireworks). Салюты (fireworks displays) may take place in a городская площадь, парк, или ярмарочная площадь (town square, park, or fairground), or families might decide to set off their own fireworks. People often поют патриотические песни (sing patriotic songs) during or after fireworks displays. Those community displays will often be timed to songs that will play on a specific radio station that people can tune into for the event.


Потерянный багаж - Lost Luggage

There are many potential problems you might experience when traveling, and one of the most common is потерянный багаж (lost luggage). Если багаж потерян (if your luggage is lost), you should обратиться к сотрудникам службы розыска багажа (notify the baggage attendants) до выхода из зоны прибытия (before leaving the arrival area). Вам будет необходимо заполнить специальную форму (you will need to fill out a special form) to begin the поиск потерянного багажа (search for lost luggage). If you traveled on different airlines on various этапы поездки (legs of your journey), you should notify the airline that took you to your пункт назначения (final destination).

When filling out the lost luggage form, you will need for a местный адрес (local address) where your luggage can be sent. Sometimes you will need to come back to the airport to забрать (pick up) your suitcase, but you may be asked for a местный адрес, just in case. You will also need to know your номер рейса (flight number). In addition, you should have a багажная квитанция (luggage receipt) on the back of your посадочный талон (boarding pass) that you received when you сдал(а) чемодан (checked your suitcase) at your пункт вылета (point of origin). Airline personnel will need the information on this tag to отслеживать (track) your luggage.

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In your discussion with airline personnel, they will ask you to описать (describe) your lost baggage. For instance, do you have a чемодан на колесах (suitcase with wheels) or a большая спортивная сумка (duffel bag), is your suitcase жесткий или мягкий (hard or soft), and is it тканевый или пластиковый (cloth or plastic)? You should also describe the color, and whether it has any узор (pattern), such as в горошек (polka dots) or в полоску (stripes). You may also be asked about the приблизительный размер (approximate size).

Each airline has its own specific policy towards bag searches. With Aeroflot, for example, the search for lost luggage производится в течение 21 дня с момента получения заявления от пассажира (is carried out within 21 days after receiving the lost luggage form from the passenger). If the luggage is not found within 21 days, пассажир может предъявить перевозчику письменную претензию (the passenger can present a written claim to the airline). Решение о денежной компенсации и ее размерах (a decision about the amount of monetary compensation) will be made in accordance to the airline’s policies.

It helps if you have a багажная бирка (ID tag) on your luggage when you travel. This way, you can be sure that no one will случайно (accidentally) take your bag, since the majority of suitcases are black and look very similar.

It’s also possible that you forgot something on board the aircraft when you выходить из самолета (deplaned), which you didn’t realize until you already left the airplane. In this case, there is usually a phone number you can call for информация о забытых вещах на борту воздушного судна (information about things forgotten on board the aircraft). For Aeroflot, this number is +7 (499) 500-6552. You should be able to find the number for other airlines by checking their site.


День Победы - Victory Day

День Победы (Victory Day) is праздник победы советского народа над фашизмом (a celebration of the victory of the Soviet people over fascism). It is one of the most important holidays in Russia and чествует ветеранов (honors veterans) of Великая Отечественная Война (the Great Patriotic War – the name World War II is referred to in Russia).

День Победы в Европе (Victory Day in Europe; where it is often known as "V-E Day") празднуется (is celebrated) on May 8 or 7th. This date marks the surrender at Reims on May 7 (or its delivery and announcement on May 8th), which ended the war in Western Europe.

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День Победы в России (Victory Day in Russia) is celebrated on May 9th. Stalin had a separate капитуляция подписана (surrender signed) in Berlin on May 9. Stalin wanted a surrender to be delivered to Soviet Forces, since Soviets contributed the most support to разгром нацистов (defeating the Nazis), and he believed it should be signed in Berlin, центр нацисткой агрессии (the center of Nazi aggression).

America doesn’t really have a major holiday that directly corresponds to Victory Day. Memorial day is also celebrated in May (on the last Monday), but that чествует погибших солдат всех войн (honors all fallen soldiers for all wars) and was originally started to honor those dead from Гражданская Война в США (the American Civil War), which was самая кровопролитная (the bloodiest war) ever fought on American soil.

WWII was the bloodiest war ever fought на российской земле (on Russian soil). Russia потеряла больше людей, чем любая другая страна (lost more people than any other country) – some 21-28 million soldiers and civilians.

One of самые сильные стороны (the biggest strengths) of the Soviet army was its seemingly endless снабжение людскими ресурсами (supply of manpower). Other nations had более развитые военные технологии (more advanced war technologies): танки (tanks), современное вооружение (advanced weaponry), тактика боя (battle tactics). However, the Soviet Army didn’t ever seem to run out of soldiers to resist the advancing enemy armies it faced.

Советская Армия (the Soviet Army) fought Nazi Germany on the Восточный фронт (Eastern Front), while other European countries and the US fought in the West. In the Soviet era, the role of the Western allies was sometimes diminished, (as was the role of the Soviets in Western histories). However, the supplies of military equipment from the USA greatly contributed to the success of the Soviet Army in the critical periods such as битва под Москвой (battle of Moscow) in 1941. Likewise, had not the Soviets tirelessly worn down the Nazi army with incredibly bloody battles such as Сталинградская битва (The Battle of Stalingrad), it's likely that the Nazis could have conquered and held Western Europe.

The St. George ribbon (orange and black) is featured in most May 9th decorations and celebrations. It is now generally associated with Russian patriotism.

May 9 is celebrated all over Russia, the former USSR, and Eastern Europe. There are парады военнослужащих (parades of servicemen) where ветераны приглашаются (veterans are invited). In earlier years, veterans participated in parades. However, currently most of the veterans are about 90 years old or older, and so they just sit and watch parades. Самый известный (the most famous) parade происходит (occurs) in Moscow on Red Square, but cities all over the country have their own parades also. There are концерты и представления (concerts and performances); церемонии (processions) such as возложение цветов (laying flowers) at могила неизвестного солдата (the grave of the unknown soldier) in Moscow and at war memorials throughout the country.

In Moscow, there is a tradition that on May 9 veterans gather in front of the Bolshoi Theater. This started as a way to hold a sort of reunion, but it is now also a tradition that many younger Russians participate in, arriving to the area to greet the veterans come, give them flowers and благодарить (thank) them for their service. 

In recent years, many Russians have started wearing the black and orange stripped ribbons that have formerly been associated with May 9 year-round as a general sign of patriotism. The ribbon is called Георгиевская лента (The Ribbon of Saint George). The ribbon colors and pattern were part of many high военные награды (military decorations) awarded by Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union and in many awards granted by the current Russian Federation. These awards include Орден Святого Георгия (Order of Saint George) and the Soviet Орден Славы (Order of Glory). The ribbons have been displayed on May 9th as знак памяти и уважения к подвигу солдат в годы Великой Отечественной Войны (a sign of remembrance and respect to the heroic deeds of soldiers in the years of the Great Patriotic War).

The ribbons have been раздаваться (distributed) in Moscow since 2006 via an initiative of RIA-Novosti (a state-run news agency) and Студенческая община (The Student Society; a state-supported NGO). The ribbons are often worn on a jacket lapel, tied to a backpack, or to some part of an automobile (the radio antenna, rearview mirror, or door handle being most common). The ribbons were once somewhat controversial in Russia as many, particularly older Russians, considered handing out the ribbon to everyone a degradation of the honor signified by the decoration in the state awards. Some also complained about it being tied to cars where it often became dirty and ratty. However, since Russia incorporated Crimea, the ribbons have become an accepted and generally unquestioned display of patriotism in Russia.

Налоговая система в России - The Tax System in Russia

There are many отличия  (differences; singular: отличие) between the American and Russian системы налогообложения (taxation systems).

The equivalent of the US Internal Revenue Service/IRS in Russia is the ФНСФедеральная налоговая служба (FNS – the Federal Tax Service) of Russia which has offices in every region and district of the country.

Similar to America, most Russians who file taxes подают декларации через специализированную службу (file taxes via a service). Подавать налоговые декларации онлайн (filing taxes online) is becoming more and more common in Russia, especially for businesses.

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In Russia, taxes were generally децентрализованы (decentralized) in the 90’s, with very ненадежное регулирование (loose regulation); local authorities had the power to create their own taxes. Some taxes were abolished and then reinstated several times. Налог с продаж (sales tax) was introduced and abolished in Russia twice, and currently the government is proposing to allow Russian regions to instate a 3 percent sales tax as a way to compensate for падающие налоговые поступления (falling tax revenues) during the current economic crisis. Today's Russian tax system is much more централизованы (centralized) with most taxes dictated and collected by Moscow and only then redistributed to the various regions.

Although налог с продаж (sales tax) is common in America, налог на добавленную стоимость or НДС (value added tax or VAT; also commonly known in Russia as НДС) is used in Russia. This is basically a tax on production and is thus paid by businesses rather than directly by individuals; НДС is already included in the price paid by the consumer, so Russians платят на кассе (pay at the till) exactly the same price which is specified on ценники (price tags). Many Americans in Russia find this odd, just as many Russians are often initially shocked when a store clerk in America attempts to charge them more than the listed price. VAT is just one aspect of the Russian tax system that keeps Russian citizens insulated from directly interacting with that system.

Another aspect of this insulation and another major difference between US and Russian taxes is that, in Russia, налоги рассчитываются и платятся (taxes are calculated and paid) primarily at the employer level. Only in specific and relatively rare instances do Russians need to подавать налоговую декларацию в налоговые органы (file with the tax authorities). Americans must брать на себя личную ответственность (take individual responsibility) to платить налоги (pay taxes) each year – and are supposed to file even if they ничего не заработали (didn’t earn any income).

In Russia, two categories of people have to file with the tax authorities: зарегистрированные индивидуальные предприниматели (registered individual entrepreneurs) and люди, имеющие несколько источников дохода (people having several sources of income), получают доход из-за границы (who receive income from abroad), or имеют доход от инвестиций (have income from investments).

For most citizens, налог на доходы физических лиц (personal income tax) or НДФЛ for short is charged at 13 percent and is paid by the employer each time salary is issued. Most often, wages advertised in job ads are чистый доход (net earnings); if the job says it pay $2000 a month, that's what you receive and the employer pays tax on top of that – although Russians will generally ask for confirmation of this during job interviews. Also, while in the USA there is прогрессивный налог (progressive tax) - people who make more money pay higher rates, personal income tax in Russia is плоский (flat).

Other taxes due on earnings are also paid by the employer. Налог на фонд заработной платы (payroll tax) is a term that, in Russia, includes НДФЛ and единый социальный налог (unified social tax; approximately equivalent to social security tax in the US). Единый социальный налог includes отчисления в медицинские фонды (contributions to the healthcare funds) and отчисление в пенсионный фонды (contribution to the pension fund) and отчисление в фонд социального страхования (contributions to the social insurance fund).

The единый социальный налог is a регрессивное налогообложение (regressive tax system): the higher the payroll amount, the lower the tax is. This is done as incentive for companies not to утаивать зарплату (conceal payroll). In total, налог на фонд заработной платы for most Russians totals around 40 percent of earnings – although, again, most don't pay this amount directly.


Taxes on доход от инвестиций (income from investments) are fairly rare for Russians. Only about 10% of Russians владеют акциями (own stocks), for instantce, and, in fact, only 70% имеют сберегательные счета (have a savings account) at all, much less a retirement fund. Most Russians general expect that their retirement will be taken care of by the state and/or their family. Also, after so many banking collapses in the 1990s, many people still do not trust banks. Thus, taxes on interest and dividends affect only a small percentage of Russians.

Some forms of income are taxed at higher rates. Lottery and gambling gains as well as income made from renting real estate, for instance, are taxed at the rate of 35 percent and would require fillings. This is a major reason that many landlords in Russia will try not to have a formal contract with tenants – so as to avoid the tax.

Many индивидуальные предприниматели (individual entrepreneurs) use the state's упрощённая система налогообложения (simplified taxation system). This is available to small businesses and requires подача налоговой декларации (filing a tax declaration) once a year and paying 6 percent tax. Some companies such as сельскохозяйственные предприятия (agricultural enterprises) also have a специальный налоговый режим (special taxation mode), with lower and less complicated taxation.

Some налогоплательщики (taxpayers) in Russia, like everywhere taxes are paid, look for налоговые лазейки (tax loopholes). Russian companies are notorious for having регистрация оффшоров (offshore registration) which allow them to уклоняться от налогов (evade taxes). The Russian government is currently undertaking a quite public effort to encourage деофшоризация (deoffshorization) by offering tax amnesty and other measures.

Taxation in the two countries generally reflects the very different structures of the US and Russian economies. In Russia, taxes from oil and gas companies account for 50-52 percent of the federal budget revenues, Minister of Energy Alexander Novak said in a Rossiiskaya Gazeta interview in January 2015. Other resource extraction companies working in coal, metals, and other fields, account for another approximately 20 percent of Russia's budget revenues. In contrast, Russian salaries are generally quite low, with about $2000 a month being considered a solid middle-class income in Moscow. Salaries make up a much more significant portion of GDP in America.

Oil companies pay relatively high taxes in Russia. Экспортные пошлины (export duties) of 4 USD are paid on every barrel of oil and an additional tax of 65 percent of the price of each barrel beyond 25 USD is also charged. Resource extraction companies (including oil companies) are also subject to налог на добычу полезных ископаемых (mineral resources extraction tax) which is related to price and amount of resource extracted, and налог на прибыль организаций (corporate profit tax on companies’ profit). 

Some companies will try to abuse налоговые списания (tax write-offs) or their ability to претендовать на налоговый вычет (claim a deduction). In this case, tax authorities may decide to подвергнуться проверке (conduct an audit) on that taxpayer.

Most налоги in Russia are федеральные налоги (federal taxes): НДС (VAT), акцизы (excise taxes), единый социальный налог (unified social tax); налог на доходы физических лиц (personal income tax), налог на прибыль юридических лиц (corporate profit tax); взносы во внебюджетные государственные фонды (payments to state-owned non-budgetary funds), таможенные пошлины (custom duties).

There are also региональные налоги (regional taxes) such as транспортный налог (transport tax; paid on some types of cars), налоги на имущество юридических лиц (corporate property tax); налог на игорный бизнес (gambling industry tax), дорожный налог (road tax), and лицензионные региональные сборы (license regional tax), for example.

Местные налоги (local taxes) introduced by the authorities of towns and districts can include земельный налог (land tax), налог на рекламу (advertisement tax), and лицензионные местные сборы (local license fees).

There is no налог на прирост капитала (capital gains tax) in Russia. Instead, налог на прибыль (profit tax) is applied to Russian companies and foreign companies operating in Russia. This tax amounts to 20 percent of the profit, with 2 percent зачисляться в федеральный бюджет (being credited to the federal budget) and 18 percent – to the budget of the respective region. 

In summary, the tax systems are different in large part because the respective economies and histories of the two countries are very different. In Russia, it is юридические лица (corporations) and работодатели (employers) who pay most taxes with физические лица (individuals) assuming little to no direct responsibility and relatively little direct contact with the taxation system.


Поминальный обед - Funeral Lunches

The following was written by Caroline Barrow, a former SRAS Home and Abroad Scholar now working in Kazakhstan. Through an acquaintance there, she was invited to a traditional Russian funeral lunch - and shares her experience here.

Each culture has its own way of honoring those who have left this world. Russians do this in their on unique way. In addition to a funeral, family and friends gather for several Поминальные обеды, “Funeral Lunches” throughout the year after someone’s passing. There are four of these lunches on specific days—9 days, 40 days, 6 months, and one year after the passing. I had the privilege of being invited to one of these lunches, honoring a woman named Svetlana.

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We met for our lunch at the столовая (cafeteria) in the factory where Svetlana worked. When we sat at the table, it seemed to be full already. There were свежие помидори и огурцы (fresh tomatoes and cucumbers), колбаска и сыр (sausage and cheese), хлеб (bread), блины (Russian pancakes), конфеты (candy), and печения (cookies). For drinks, there was компот (stewed fruit juice), vodka for the men, and cognac for the ladies.

Interestingly, I noticed that there were no вилки (forks) on the table, only ложки (spoons). This is so that there is nothing sharp on the table. The first thing we ate was three spoonfuls of a tasty dish: кутья, a sweet sticky rice with raisins. Кутья is that is typically found only at religious observances. It is also traditionally associated with Christmas and Easter.

Officially, the Orthodox Church disallows alcohol at поминальные обеды. In practice, however, alcohol often plays a prominent role in the traditions common to these lunches. Before the waitresses brought us the первая блюда (first course), we took a shot in honor of Svetlana. Before we drank, we said "Царство Небесое." Literally translated, this means “Kingdom of Heaven,” but the meaning in this usage is closer to “Rest in Peace.” In honor of Svetlana, a рюмка водки (glass of vodka) stood on the table throughout the lunch.

After that, the первая блюда arrived—a healthy serving of борщ (borsch). Following that was the вторая блюда (main course) which was котлеты с картошками (pork cutlet with potatoes). The last thing they brought us to eat was каша (porridge). This is traditionally eaten last at these lunches.

This tradition is a lovely way for friends and family to gather and remember whom they have lost. In doing so, they support one another and grow closer together.  To find out more about Russian funeral traditions, click here.


Очки и окулисти - Glasses and Eye Doctors

An eye doctor is called an "окулист" or "офтальмолог" in Russian, or, sometimes and informally, a "глазной врач." While the word оптика (ophthalmologic optics) is a common name for an eyeglass store in Russia, there is no exact Russian equivalent to the English word “optometrist,” which can be loosely translated as специалист по подбору очков

One can записаться на прием к окулисту (make an appointment with an eye-doctor) to проверить зрение (have/get your eyes checked) or для проверки зрения (for an eye exam). An eye doctor can выписать рецепт на очки (write a prescription for glasses). Regarding prescriptions, the system is the same as in other parts of the world, such as in the US: for example минус пять (-5.0), плюс четыре семьдесят пять (+4.75), etc. in increments of 0.25. You can say у меня очки на минус (I have glasses for nearsightedness) or у меня очки на плюс (I have glasses for farsightedness).

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Like in English, Russians can use a slightly brusque expression, четырехглазый (“four-eyed”), to refer to people wearing glasses. Teasing bespectacled people is common at schools, which is why many teenagers are стесняться носить очки (ashamed to wear glasses) and prefer to wear контактные линзы (contact lenses) to disguise that they are близорукий (nearsighted) or дальнозоркий (farsighted). In addition, in recent years Russian TV has created the image of a «ботаник» в очках (nerd wearing glasses), which is a нудный человек (boring person) who is good at studies, but helpless and awkward in practical life. 

For eye exams, an оптометрическая таблица с буквами (eye chart with alphabet letters) is used. In Russia, this chart is called таблица Сивцева (Sivtsev’s Chart), named after the Soviet ophthalmologist that developed it. Interestingly, this chart has only seven letters from the Russian alphabet: Ш, Б, М, Н, К, Ы, И. There is another chart, which is usually placed to the right of Sivtsev’s chart, named таблица Головина (Golovin’s Chart; in English it is often known as a Japanese Vision Test). It consists of кольца Ландольта (Landolt Rings), which are rings with a gap pointed at various positions, usually left, right, down, up, and at 45° positions in between. The examined person must determine where the gap points.

An окулист might ask the following questions to a patient: “Какую самую нижнюю строчку Вы видите?” (What is the smallest row (of letters) that you can read?), or В какой линзе лучше видно?” (Which lens is clearer?). In the process of getting an eye exam, you may be asked to: “Прислонитесь лбом к верхней части и положите подбородок на опору(Put your forehead on the top part (of the machine) and your chin on the chin rest); “поморгайте (blink); “посмотрите вниз/вверх/налево/направо (look down/up/left/right); “посмотрите прямо на меня (look directly at me); or “посмотрите на стену за мной" (look at the wall behind me).

When заказывать очки (ordering glasses) in an оптика, you should choose your оправа (frames) first. Then, линзы (lenses) will be created according to the рецепт (prescription).

If a person needs контактные линзы, he/she might also need to buy физраствор (saline solution) and a контейнер для линз (contact lens case). Contact lenses can be одноразовые/мягкие (disposable/soft), which you wear for a day then throw away, or постоянные/ жесткие (permanent/hard) which you use for longer periods – from several weeks to several months.

Unlike in America, you can get glasses in Russia without a doctor’s appointment in Russia (although most shops will recommend that you see the doctor anyway), you just need to know your prescription. In larger cities, you can get contact lenses from торговые автоматы (vending machines).

The most common Russian eye chart (click for larger image)

Посещение врача (a visit to the doctor) is likely to be much cheaper in Russia, but the glasses might actually be about the same cost as in America. Particularly for люди с астигматизмом (people with astigmatism), the lenses импортируются из фабрик за пределами России, часто из Японии (are imported from factories outside of Russia, often from Japan). For this reason, специальные линзы для астигматизма (special lenses for astigmatism) are pretty expensive in Russia.

In addition to needing a prescription for glasses or contacts, a patient can have the following проблемы с глазами (problems with eyes): сухость и раздражение в глазах (dry, irritated eyes); зуд в глазах (itchy eyes); плохо видит или видит вещи расплывчато (bad or blurry vision), инородное тело в глазу (foreign object in eye), покраснение глаза (red eyes), боль в глазах (pain in eyes), or слезятся глаза (watering eyes), which can be caused by закупорка слезных протоков (blocked tear ducts). Or you may have a problem with some other part of your eye: зрачок (pupil), радужная оболочка глаза (iris), белки глаз (the whites of eyes), роговая оболочка (cornea), слезные протоки (tear ducts).

In the Soviet era, contact lenses were not used, but there was a good system for children’s eye exams and preventing eye problems beginning at an early age. All schoolchildren had obligatory eye exams. To this day there are schools for children with eyesight disorders. These schools have shorter lessons and a curriculum extended to 12 years instead of 11, with special eye exercises in class and regular doctor check-ups.


Студенческая жизнь в МГУ - Student Life at MGU

The following story is written by Theordore Merz, an undergraduate student from England who is currently studying Russian at MGU and working as a writer/journalist while there. It originally appeared as a seperate article on our site in 2007. It has been relocated here in an on going effort to consolidate our language-focused material.

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The main building of the Moscow State University (Moskovskii gosudarstvennyi universitet - Московский государственный университет - also known as МГУ, MGU, or MSU) is massive and cosmopolitan. Situated in a green area in the south of the capital, it can house, at full capacity, 30,000 students – in addition to the office, classroom, and meeting hall space there. The students who call it home come from all over Russia, the former Soviet Republics, and from every continent. The building itself, one of the Stalin-commissioned Seven Sisters, is either the most striking structure in the city or a faceless monstrosity, depending on what you make of Soviet architecture. Either way, with thirty-six stories plus a two hundred and forty meter tower topped by a twelve-ton Soviet star, it's impossible not to be impressed by its scale, especially when you approach it front-on from Sparrow Hills (Vorobyovy gory - Воробьевы горы), which provides an unobstructed view of the massive building for several hundred yards to the north.

Coming here as a foreign student for a short time, you're immediately struck by the similarities and differences between the Russian students and their western equivalents. I wondered what everyday life must be like for the young people who live and study here, often spending five years – the length of most standard degree programs – in a place like this.

As a westerner, the first few days of my life in the dormitory (obshezhitie - общежитие; also known among students as "obshaga" - "общага") felt extremely strange under the different levels of surveillance and security that the main building (known as "glavnoe zdanie" - главное здание) features. Not only do federal police (militsiya - милиция) guard the four main entrances that can only be passed after showing your student ID (studencheskii bilet – студенческий билет), there are private security guards (okhraniki - охранники), in the lobby of each dormitory sector (sektor - сектор). These guards have to be shown a separate paper pass (propusk - пропуск). On every floor – each sector has nine – there is a "person on duty" (dezhurnaya – дежурная), whose main tasks include issuing keys to new students, issuing clean sheets and towels once a week, and coordinating the janitorial and maintenance duties needed on each floor. However, it can seem that they spend most of their time watching TV, breaking up parties, and staring disapprovingly at the food you're cooking for dinner.

Coming from the quite liberal education system of my native England, these features of the university made me feel surveyed and nannied, like a child who can't be trusted to be left alone. However, the native Russian students view the set-up very differently – almost with an ingrained banality. One I talked to about the militsiya presence couldn't understand why I found this odd, telling me, "It's a common thing for Russia, we have militsiya everywhere." When I asked why there needed to be an attendant on every floor, another student explained, "That came from the Soviet Union. We're used to it, I don't even think about it." Over, the consensus was that things had always been the way they were and there was no need for further explanation.

  A dorm room at MGU - TV and telephone do not come with the room.
An MGU dorm room - small but liveable. Note that TV and
telephone are not standard.

Each floor of the MGU dorms is equipped with a communal kitchen.
Each floor of the MGU dorm 
has a communal kitchen.


Students playing soccer, volleyball, and basketball outside of MGU's main building.
Students playing soccer,
volleyball, and basketball
outside of MGU's main building.

  The main building is one of Moscow's most recognized landmarks among locals.
The main building is one of Moscow's most recognized landmarks among locals.

Students hold a picnic in one of the dorm's many communal spaces.
Students hold a picnic in one of MGU's many communal spaces.

Russian oddities aside, the dormitories have the same sort of problems as most inexpensive accommodation everywhere. Heat is the main issue: the rooms are invariably too hot – either because of the lack of air conditioning in summer, or because the radiators (baterei otopleniya – батареи отопления) are turned up too high once the temperature outside drops (they are centrally controlled). Add to this is the fact that the windows have to be kept shut for most of the time - to keep flies and mosquitoes out in the summer and snow out in the winter. The interior in general, with polished wood and marble must have been wonderous in its Stalin-era heyday. But now a combination of dampness and general wear has honestly given it a run-down, tired feel.

Like universities everywhere, the canteen (stolovaya – столовая – "cafeteria" in American English) is a focal point of social life during the day. They serve a surprisingly tasty range of food for ridiculously cheap prices, and most students, it seems, eat in them for at least one meal a day. For breakfast, I highly recommend their hot cereal (kasha – каша), hough you should get there before 9am to be in with a chance of there being any left. At lunch and dinner, the stolovi serve cold salads, soups, and hot main courses, including a range of traditional Eastern-European dishes that even most foreigners quickly grow to love – like borsch, shchi, shashlik, and plov (борщ, щи, шашлык, плов). A three course meal with a drink won't normally set you back more than 100 rubles, the equivelent of about four US dollars, so you can easily eat there for every meal of every day and stay on a tight budget.

In the evening, students have several options open to them. If they're not studying, many head to bars and clubs in the city centre, as there are a limited number of night-spots in the university area (raion universiteta – район университета). However, it's not necessary to leave MSU to let your hair down: small parties (vecherinki - вечеринки) can be found somewhere on the university grounds almost every night, sometimes in rooms, communal spaces, or (in the summer) outside in the courtyard (dvor – двор). In the summer, the university also has lots of green spaces to stroll and relax. You can also walk down to the brand-new, massive shopping center on Vernadskovo Prospect, which houses a large Ramstore supermarket, coffee shops (kofeini – кофейни), countless clothes shops, as well as a food court and a multi-screen cinema. In terms of how they spend their leisure time, I've found that all that I've described here seems to take up most of their time, making students in Russia fairly similar to their counterparts in the West.

The principal difference seems to be their workload and their attitude towards it. Whereas English arts students can expect as little as 10 hours of lessons a week, undergraduate students in Moscow can have lessons and lectures in a near-solid block from nine until six and they study up to six days out of seven. And while most bachelor degrees in England last three years, in Moscow the average course lasts for five; though Russians do have less time in education pre-university than American or English students. One student, who has studied in both Russia and America, told me that Russian undergraduates "have more subjects and therefore less time (to pursue non-academic interests)."

What can be expected after university also seems to differ. In England, many arts students – especially of languages – find employment in careers more associated with science graduates, such as finance and banking. In America, arts students also end up practicing some aspect of business as well. However, in Russia the choice of subject or subjects seems to have a more direct influence on employment in later life, and many people I have spoken to are taking courses in subjects they have relatively little interest in because they believe that the small differences in their transcript will directly influence the type of employment they will be able to find.

In many ways, the students I've come across at the MGU have a good mix, both studying hard and enjoying the free time they have, especially in the first years of their courses. I suppose that students are students everywhere, with roughly the same combination of irresponsibility and maturity, adolescence and adulthood. However, as a western student in Russia, everything here can feel new and strange and even a bit oppressive and overly-monitored even as the thousands of students that I call my neighbors are so friendly and in many ways similar to me.


Как русские живут - How Russians Live
Part 2: Дача - Dacha

Дача is often translated into English as “summer residence/cottage,” but the best translation is simply a transliteration to English: “dacha.” This is because the dacha is truly a культурное явление (cultural phenomenon) specific to Russia with no direct counterpart in the West.

In a different epoch, дача had a special meaning. In the 18th century, дача was царский подарок (czar’s gift) to high-ranking members of nobility. There is a theory that the word дача actually originated from the verb дать (to give). In the 19th century, a дача often doubled as a светский салон (high society salon) where кипела культурная жизнь (cultural life was in full swing), with intellectuals gathering to discuss poetry, the arts, philosophy, and technology.

After the revolution of 1917, дачи (dachas) were изъяты (seized) and предоставлены для отдыха рабочему классу (made available to the working class for recreation). On average, 50-70 people would stay at one time on these former noble estates – enjoying the fresh air and escape from city life. During the Stalin era of the 1930s-1950s, the large, private дача made a comeback as a привилегия избранных (privilege of the elite), given to such светила/знаменитости (luminaries) as авторитетные ученые, знаменитые композиторы, признанные властью писатели (authoritative scientists, well-known composers, and writers recognized by the authorities).

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In the 1960s, in the Khruschev era, the authorities decided предоставить людям право самим выращивать себе еду (to give people the right to grow food for themselves). Массовое строительство дачных домиков (large-scale construction of dacha cottages) took place at that time. People разбивали грядки (laid out seedbeds) and высаживали фруктовые деревья (planted fruit trees).

The authorities later сняли запрет на размеры домов на садовом участке (lifted restrictions on cottage sizes in the garden plot), and более зажиточные горожане (wealtheir city residents) started constructing two- to four-storied brick cottages instead of small wooden cabins. Meanwhile, the individual plot could not exceed six сотка (100 square meters – common measure for plots in Russia).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some wealthy people constructed дворцы, замки (palaces, castles) and even крепости (fortresses) as their dachas, some with mini-zoos and swimming pools. However, for residents of large cities in Russia, the дача is a common indication of being middle-class; the average modern suburban dacha now has more than one floor, водопровод (running water), электроэнергия (power supply) and канализация (sewage) – even if just a септический резервуар (septic tank) and a отдельная скважина (private well). Dachas nowadays are still generally used for small-scale садоводство (gardening), mainly by older people, and younger people prefer to use dachas for отдых (recreation).

Russia’s Земельный кодекс (Land Code) of 2001 set out that people who had dachas in the Soviet era, were entitled to own them for free, but they have to pay for official registration of the title papers. Many people still haven’t privatized their dachas because the fee is fairly high – about 10,000 rubles (which until recently had been worth about $300), and the procedure is complicated, with many steps taking, in total, about nine months if everything goes right.

Even President Putin is aware of the issue. In his Address to the Federal Assembly of 2005, the President requested the Duma "помочь гражданам легализовать в упрощенном порядке принадлежащие им … садовые дома и соответствующие земельные участки" (to help citizens legalize, in a simplified manner, dachas...belonging to them and the respective plots). However, neither the parliament nor the government has yet offered a way to do this. Some dacha owners privatized their dachas through the current expensive and complicated procedures, others have done nothing, and some have свидетельства о праве частной собственности (title certificates) issued to them by local authorities in the 1990s. Dachas with these свидетельства can be inherited, but the law does not allow them to be sold.

There are also complications with the term “принадлежащие им” (which they own) as the приватизация (privatization) that has taken place is based on the old Soviet documentation. This documentation sometimes only granted use of the land, but gave no express right to build housing. Sometimes the land was actually granted to a factory, which then allowed its workers to use it – but ownership was not legally left with the individuals on the land. People protesting the demolition of the dachas – usually by developers that had gotten rights to the land under them – are still a common sight on Russian TV, although cases have quieted signifcantly in Moscow since former Mayor Luzhkov left office.

A modern dacha settlement outside Moscow.  

Today, for those who wish to construct a new dacha, there are pitfalls in the gaining the rights to suitable land. At first glance, получить землю под застройку нетрудно (getting land for development is not difficult). An applicant goes to the local municipality and пишет заявление (writes an application) that he/she needs a plot for development. Then глава администрации (the head of (the relevant) administration) принимает постановление (issues a resolution) о выделении земли (about allocating the land) с оговоркой (with the reservation) that вы выкупите эту землю через определенный срок (you will buy the land after a certain period). You also have to поставить землю на кадастровый учет (set up the land for cadastre registration) and pay relevant taxes for the land.

This procedure is still common as most land in Russia is actually owned by the government. While apartments were privatized, for instance, the land under the buildings is still often owned by the city administration. Much of the land outside of cities, especially undeveloped land, is owned by either the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Defense – which can make obtaining land there especially difficult.

The current procedure for obtaining land from municipalities has been complicated recently. A new law has made it mandatory to have cadastre registration for all land, no matter what its purpose, and there are so many people now willing to become land owners that кадастровые палаты городов не справляются с потоком заявлений (cadastre chambers can’t cope with the flow of applications). For this reason, it is usually recommended that people приобретать землю под застройку на вторичном рынке (purchase land for development in the secondary market; ie, purchase it from a private owner rather than receive it from the government). Such land should have a permit for residential development if it will be used to build a dacha.

After people build a house, they need to построить инфраструктуру (build the infrastructure). While in America, subdivisions are usually built with everything already in place before owners begin building, in Russia people usually construct their homes and then, together with their neighbors, decide how to add such basic necessities as access to the electrical grid and city sewage systems.

This is a costly procedure – connecting to gas pipeline costs about 150 thousand rubles, (until recently worth about $5,000 dollars) and connecting to running water and power comes to about 400-500 thousand rubles ($13,000-17,000) in official fees.

The process is also extremely complicated, and a full description would take several pages.

In brief, to connect to the power grid, the dacha owner has to obtain технические условия на подключение (technical requirements for hookup) from the local электросеть (power grid). Then, design plans for a residential power supply are ordered from a licensed design company.  Then, the design is approved by региональное Управление электроснабжения (Regional Power Supply Administration) and by the Главный инженер Энергосбыта (Chief Engineer for Power Sales). Then, the dacha owner has to set up an электрический счётчик (electric meter) and сделать заземление (ground the system).

Officially, Электросеть covers the expenses for connecting to power supply only up to the private property, while setting wiring around dacha is covered by the owner.

After the power supply is connected, Электросеть takes measurements of the current and issues a document called Технический отчетом по электроизмерениям (A Technical Report on the Electric Power Measurements). The owner must take this to the local office of Ростехнадзор (Rostekhnadzor; the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Nuclear Supervision Authority). Ростехнадзор must make a decision to approve the system within one month, and then the electric meter needs to be запрограммирован (programmed) and опечатан (sealed).

After that, электросеть и электроприборы проверяет сотрудник Регионального управления электросетей (the power grid and electric devices are checked by an employee of the Regional Power Grid Administration), who issues an Акт проверки и доступа в эксплуатацию (Act of Inspection and Ability to Utilize). Then, the accounting office of the local Электросеть should issue a справка об отсутствии задолженности (Certificate on the Absence of Debt), indicating that all fees have been covered by the applicant. Next, Энергосбыт (Power Sale administration) signs a Договор по электроснабжению (Power Supply Agreement).

Finally, an электрик, лицензированный Электросетью (electrician licensed by the power grid company), подключает электричество (connects the power).

Similarly to the offices for obtaining land, the local power grid is often known to drag its heels on issuing new hook ups when it knows its current capacity has been nearly maximized. Especially in large cities, power grids have had trouble keeping up with demand.

Similar procedures exist for connecting to water and sewage. Thus, like owners of apartments, the owners of dachas tend to form governing societies – although for dacha owners this is often less formal. They will decide how to collectively take on these tasks, often naming a retired member (who will have more time to devote to the process) as the head person to tackle the bureaucracy. This society then decides the terms on which new arrivals can connect, watches for older arrivals unfairly “sharing” their services with neighbors, how to maintain the streets around the dachas (which are usually left to the private home owners as well), and more.


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Как русские живут - How Russians Live
Part 1: Многоквартирные дома - Apartment blocks

Russians were not aware of the word приватизация (privatization) before 1991 when был принят новый закон (a new law was passed), and стало возможным превратить все общее и государственное имущество в собственное имущество (it became possible to turn all common and state property into private property). Квартиры, которые были выданы гражданам в советское время, были приватизированы бесплатно (apartments [the use of which was] given to citizens in the Soviet time, were privatized free of charge).

A fairly common example of a larger Soviet-built apartment block in Moscow.

Privatization was a довольно трудоемкая процедура (quite tedious procedure) which could take several months. About 15 documents were necessary to submit for приватизация жилья (housing privatization). Such privatization resulted in some unfortunate трудности (difficulties/complications), most notably, the appearance of homeless people, many of whom had been обманным путем лишены жилья (fraudulently deprived of their housing). Many of these people were elderly or mentally disabled people and taken advantage of by criminals.   

There were also difficulties in consolidating communal apartments. The Soviets took many large apartments and divided them among several families, effectively creating roommate situations. In this case, during privatization, one received ownership of the room in which one lived with other spaces (kitchen, bathroom), moving to communal ownership. If собственник комнаты в коммунальной квартире (the owner of a room in a communal apartment) wanted to sell that room, he/she was required to sell to his/her соседи (neighbors/housemates) first. They had первоочередное право на покупку (priority right for purchase). Only if the neighbors refused, was the собственник allowed to sell it to another person.

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Many communal apartments are now fully privatized, although some still exist under this private/communal ownership structure. In many larger cities, former communal apartments have become a favorite purchase of hostel owners who then convert them into temporary housing for tourists or migrants although the legislative environment for doing so is still shaky.

Nowadays, although most apartments have private owners, certain areas remain common property. Such общие помещения (common areas) include лестничные площадки (stair landings), лестницы (stairs), лифты (elevators), лифтовые шахты or лифтерные (elevator shafts), коридоры (corridors), технические этажи (service floors), чердаки (attics), подвалы (basements) c инженерными коммуникациями, обслуживающими более одного помещения в данном доме (with the engineering communications servicing more than one premise in the building), принадлежат собственникам квартир как общая долевая собственность (belong to apartment owners as common property).

This common property is maintained by government-sponsored agencies that can trace their roots back to Soviet administrations. These modern agencies include ЖЭК - жилищно-эксплуатационная контора (Housing and Utilities Administration) or by ЖСК - жилищно-строительный кооператив (Housing Cooperative) or ТСЖтоварищество собственников жилья (Housing Owners Association) which hire an управляющая компания (service company) for maintenance. There are also such common areas and utility infrastructure such as венткамеры (ventilation chambers), водомеры (water flow meters), щитовые (switchboards), помещение охраны (guard-room) or вахта (“watch room”) where, in some buildings, a консьержка (concierge) sits.

Трудности have been experienced with the privatization of common spaces as well. Stories about legal disputes of подвалы (basements) being privatized via questionable methods and turned into commercial space are fairly common in the Russian news. Собственники can also try to privatize and annex unused communal space adjacent to their apartments. These spaces can include чердаки (attics) or smaller spaces such as лифтерные, which were built into many larger apartment blocks to house the equipment and personnel that serviced the building elevators. Most often, лифтерные are now largely unused. However, they can only privatized with the approval of all those who own apartments within the building and there have been cases when the privatization was challenged after the fact.  

Although people own their apartments, the land under the building is usually owned by the city government and, most often, the electrical and plumbing systems of the building are still considered the city’s responsibility. Thus, собственники can call государственные услуги (state-sponsored service) for ремонт электропроводки (repairs of electrical wiring), сантехнические работы (plumbing works), often for just the cost of any new material, with the technician paid for by the city.

The управляющая компания (service company) is in charge of двор (yard) as well. If apartment owners want to благоустроить (make improvements) in the yard at the government’s expense, such as build игровая площадка (playground), place лавочки (benches), or посадить деревья и цветы (planting trees and flowers), people have to hold an общее собрание собственников (general meeting of owners) and проголосовать за благоустройство двора (vote for the yard improvement) with an estimated budget. Then the owners пишут заявку в районную управу (write an application to the neighborhood council), then the neighborhood council receives authorization from the district council, and, if all approvals is made, специализированная организация проводит работы по благоустройству (a specialized company will install the improvements).

If similar небольшое благоустройство (minor improvements) will be made за счет собственников (at the owners’ expense), then after a general meeting of the owners, they have to согласовать (get authorization) from a number of government organizations such as Роспотребнадзор (The Sanitary Authority), Департамент природопользования и охраны окружающей среды (The Environmental Protection Department), Комитет по строительству и архитектуре (Committee on Construction and Architecture) and others before constructing the improvements.

In some regions of Russia, state-sponsored programs for благоустройство дворов (yard improvements) are underway. Owners can apply to be included in these programs which help provide funding and expedited requests to build playgrounds and other improvements. Under these programs, for instance, Moscow and St. Petersburg have seen rapid improvements in residential areas over the last two or three years.

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