***Molly will be hosting a briefing on travel to Kyiv on Dec 10th! This will be followed by info sessions on study abroad and language study abroad on the 14th and 17th, respectively. Sign up here.
In 1993, I embarked on my first journey to Ukraine. At the time, I worked for an organization which provided volunteer opportunities for students abroad. They placed me with a family in Kharkiv, a city located in northeastern Ukraine. It was the first capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1919-1934, at which point the capital was moved to Kyiv.
Kharkiv is still fairly large and well developed, but the 1990s were difficult years in Ukraine. We had to save water to be able to bathe twice a week, food items were scarce in the stores, and inflation was out of control. People were struggling to feed their families. Despite these challenges, the family and the friends I made during my stay were always very kind and generous to me. We took a long weekend and traveled by train to Kyiv. We visited a lot of museums and landmarks, but my fondest memory is going for a run in a forest just outside of Kyiv and discovering a small pond to jump in.
Fast forward to the present. After a temporary closure for COVID, Ukraine reopened its borders in October and I bought my ticket! I worked with our partners at NovaMova to plan where I would study Russian, work, and live in Kyiv for three weeks. I would experience firsthand what our students experience when studying Russian at NovaMova and integrating into life in Kyiv. I would also scout out what travel would be like for our students when traveling with COVID precautions in place.
Living and Studying in Kyiv
I decided to do both homestay and apartment so that I would have personal experience with both choices that students can make in Kyiv. NovaMova has homestays all over the city. Some are in the center and some outside the center, requiring public transportation to reach the school. They are diverse and NovaMova will try to place you with a family that will be the best fit for you. I visited several and really enjoyed my time with them and especially loved all the home cooked meals! Public transportation is inexpensive, efficient, and a very good way to experience daily life in the city. When I moved to the private apartment, I was located a pleasant 45-minute walk away from the school. I loved starting my day off with a nice walk and watching the city wake up and come alive. Public transportation is also an option, of course.
NovaMova is a language school that teaches multiple languages: Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish, English and more. Being primarily a language school allows them to fully concentrate on language acquisition. They offer flexible programs and students are there for differing periods of differing lengths. I was amazed when I walked into our classroom on the first day, and our teacher handed me a textbook and started the lesson as if I had been in the class all along. This is the beauty and success of NovaMova. They know exactly how to teach Russian to students and don’t miss a beat with a new student joining. We did 3.5 hours of lessons in the morning and then in the afternoon I spent time with a NovaMova peer tutor. Students should do this at least twice a week. Their peer tutors are amazing. If possible, they will not speak a word of English to you, instead encouraging you to use the words you know to explain and speak about anything. I chose to spend the time with my peer tutor visiting museums, churches, historical landmarks, and just walking the city and learning about hidden art, galleries, and coffee shops.
Experiencing a Mix of Culture and Language
The number one question students and educators ask is: “Why study Russian in Ukraine instead of Russia?” While it may be surprising, SRAS students who study in Kyiv often make some of the strongest advances in their language abilities. NovaMova’s teaching style is obviously a great draw for bringing students to Kyiv. It is also absolutely possible to get around the city with only Russian. While most of the city’s signage is in Ukrainian, most of the people speak both languages and are quite helpful.
It does add some challenges, though, which is why we also offer a crash course in Ukrainian to arriving students. This helps them to understand the signs, for instance, and also when they are hearing Ukrainian and when Russian.
Russian and Ukrainian have similarities but not as many as you might think. Many things are totally different. As a student of Russian, the Ukrainian alphabet will make you do a double take at everything written on storefronts and public transportation. Even the common bilingualism of the area can add a challenge through what is known locally as “surzhik” (суржик). This is a word that refers to bread baked with a mixture of flours, but is used colloquially to refer to the local “Spanglish,” a mix of Ukrainian and Russian that is common to the area. This language mixing is common in bilingual areas.
I came to love the challenge of picking up a little Ukrainian. Also, seeing how the two languages interact freely was a fascinating part of my stay.
It would be too difficult to pick out my favorite moment or experience but our banya day would definitely be in the running. We went to a banya on the banks of the Dnieper. We took our time in the banya before the banshik, the banya worker who takes care of the banya and its clientele, got to work on us! A gentle lashing with a bundle of birch tree branches, or venik, is excellent for the body and the soul. It opens the pores and enlivens the spirit. The first snow of winter began that day and that just called for us to jump in the Dnieper, providing the “contrast” that Russians and Ukrainians both believe “hardens” the body, and improves the immune system. I have done banya all over Russia but this was the best banya experience of my life. It was literally magical.
Traveling with COVID Precautions
What was it like living, traveling, and studying during a pandemic? It was different for sure, but the world and life is different now. I chose to do a rapid COVID test the morning of my flight and therefore was not required to do one upon arrival in Kyiv. There is an area at the airport where you are otherwise required to get tested and quarantine for 48 hours while you await the results from that slower test. Masks are required in stores, public transportation, and in any public area. NovaMova also takes very serious precautions to keep their students safe. Temperatures are taken as your enter and masks are worn. Speaking Russian with a mask on definitely adds another challenge, I found. Lastly, as cases were on the rise in Ukraine and the world, they began weekend shut downs while I was in the city. You could still visit parks, go for walks, and groceries stores were open, but a lot of other things were closed. I was thankful this happened at the end of my stay. I never felt unsafe during my travels and I am so glad I was able go during this time and see what our students might experience when they begin traveling again.
I have so many takeaways and lessons learned but mainly I have the upmost respect for Ukraine and its people. Language wise, just three weeks at NovaMova is like a semester at home; you will progress quickly with your language. Kindness and generosity were extended to me in so many ways. I hope I can show the same to my Ukrainian friends one day. I am now committed to learning more about Ukrainian history and by the time I next visit I want to know more basic Ukrainian. I always considered myself a “Moscow girl” but I might be a “Kyiv girl” now.