Four years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Russia with a youth group through the Miami Valley Episcopal Russian Network. This trip allowed me to visit Saint Petersburg, Novgorod and Sablino, where I toured and volunteered, making connections with students that have stood the test of time. We spent one week in Sablino where the group worked at the youth center, helped with the children’s summer camp, experienced Russian Orthodox services and went on home visits. We also spent a week touring historic cities. I instantly fell in love with the complexity of Russian culture because of the pure beauty I experienced during my first trip.
Just over a year ago, I applied for the Foreign Language Academy at Kent State University where Ohio funds an immersion program for high schoolers to learn critical languages. For me, the choice between Chinese and Russian was simple because I was already fascinated by Russian history and culture. For one month, I was immersed in learning the language, an experience that proved to be very helpful to my learning style. I subsequently transitioned into an online course for the remainder of my senior year.
After high school, graduation money and saved paychecks from my job allowed me to fund a personal trip to Russia. Because I desired to practice the language in an immersion environment once again, I contacted Dr. Igor Tolochin who helped me get my visa application as well as to communicate with Father Nikolai Aksenov (rector of St. Nicholas Church in Sablino, Russia) about making a three-week trip to northwestern Russia. Once again, MVERN was instrumental to my accessibility to such travel and because of my connections and friendships in Russia; I was able to have a very fulfilling journey. People from MVERN and St. Paul’s helped me plan and organize the trip, molding this crazy idea into something that worked out extremely smoothly.
I spent most of my time at the St. Nicholas youth center in Sablino, which was busy with their annual summer camp, teachers in training from Moscow, resident workers on the school’s exterior, and ever-occupied cooks. This allowed me to practice speaking Russian more than ever before. The people who were living at the school were so welcoming that it was amazing how much I learned from them. Grisha, Father Nikolai’s youngest son, came to visit me at the school often. We went on many excursions to Saint Petersburg by train, where we explored the city by foot, saw landmarks, toured St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Russian Museum, and saw Dostoevsky’s The Idiot at the Maryinsky Opera. We also were able to spend two days exploring Pushkin and Pavlovsk, small towns on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg where Alexander Pushkin grew up, Catherine the Great’s palace is located, and where Fr. Nikolai’s family lives. I was honored to stay at the Aksenov home and share meals with the whole family. I also was grateful for the help from friends and the Aksenov family, whose support made it possible for me to do everything I really wanted to on this trip and more. The last week of my visit, Fr. Nikolai organized a special tour of the Peter and Paul Fortress for me and my friend Dasha. We were able to climb very high into the steeple of the cathedral to listen to a young woman perform the carillon bells, which was a completely new and awe-inspiring experience.
I also was able to return to Novgorod with my two closest friends, Dasha and Lena, whom I met four years ago while they were attending the youth camp in Sablino. We explored the city for two days and with some planning and communication, the three of us were able to do all of the sightseeing we had discussed prior to our excursion. Although I had visited Novgorod before with MVERN, we saw many new things. We toured the Museum of Art and History, the Kremlin, St. Sophia Cathedral, the entire Wooden Architecture outdoor museum, ancient monasteries and churches, as well as a Russian dormitory, where Lena lives. Because I had studied Russian for only a year, it was helpful that Lena had studied English far longer and also wants to be a translator. It was easy to speak a mixture of English and Russian with my peers and it was good practice to discuss correct grammar and interpretation.
Although sometimes confusing, being immersed into the language and culture of Russia taught me so much over three weeks. Student teachers, who were the same age as me, the cooks and all other residents at the school made a point to include me in conversations and simplify sentences if I didn’t understand. The people with whom I interacted the most were welcoming and understood my sometimes-botched Russian. Because of this trip, I feel prepared and motivated to continue my studies.
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Sarah Penix is a member of St. Paul’s, Oakwood, and a recent graduate of Oakwood High School. She is now a double major in Russian language and News and Information Journalism at Ohio University.