About discarded stereotypes and new friendships

Due to the current situation related to the Russian attack on Ukraine, the Swiss government recommended its citizens to temporarily leave Russia. I left Moscow on March 23 and therefore also my international as well as Russian fellow students in uncertain circumstances, feeling sorry for them.

At first, I traveled to Uzbekistan and stayed there for three weeks. In the following three weeks I also traveled through Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. I was able to benefit from my trip through Central Asia in an exceptional manner. Not only was I able to recover from the psychological, moral and governmental pressure that was on me in Russia, but was also able to explore Central Asia at the same time. I had been interested in this region for a long time, and the history courses at the HSE Moscow further aroused my interest in Central Asia. Hence, I wrote my first exam on Central Asia for the HSE Moscow from a restaurant in Buxoro, Uzbekistan. During my journey, I learned a lot about people, cultures, languages, and traditions in this region.

I had many enriching conversations – on cultures, religions, and women’s rights. I spoke with Central Asians who are against the Russian war in Ukraine, but also with those who said they would fight on Russia’s side against NATO and the US if they had to. I have several times met Russians who had temporarily left Russia and who seemed quite disoriented. They had left in a hurry, living in hotels in Tashkent and working remotely – having left their families and friends behind. They did not know where to go now and what the future would hold for them.

At the end of my journey through Central Asia, I realized that I had changed significantly. I had eliminated my own – not big but obviously subtle – prejudices against Muslim societies, which unfortunately are deeply rooted in the Western world. On my journey I understood what it means to be tolerant and open towards other religions and social models. Symbolically, this idea is reflected in a phrase I have heard over and over again from Central Asians: “In every society there is good and evil.” As simple as it may sound, however, many people in Europe still do not see this, even though they may claim to.

After some ethical considerations, I decided to return to Moscow on April 30 and not to travel back to Switzerland despite everything. In Moscow, the situation has already changed to some extent from the when I had left in March. Contradictory and disappointing as it may sound, the situation has somehow normalized. In March, a lot of people were still discussing current events with each other. Now, in May, many people who were shocked by the war and afraid of the sanctions have become accustomed to the bizarre everyday life. The city is full of police and barriers. Those people who are actively protesting and raising money for refugees are drained of energy and often at their financial limit because the penalties for protesting have been further increased. Some of my fellow Russian students are so frustrated with their new everyday reality that they take antidepressants. Others bury themselves in their rooms, rarely leave home, and others have become quite passive. However, there are still those who protest, demonstrate, spray, distribute leaflets and write articles, trying to educate the great masses on the ground about the terrible events in Ukraine. However, it is them – students, professors, artists – who are hit the hardest by the sanctions. They have friends abroad, have traveled around, would have had plans and dreams. Their dreams have been shattered because of the Russian government. The fact that they are isolated and sanctioned by the Western world takes away their strength and hope. Moreover, if they want to collect money for Ukrainian refugees and send it to Ukraine, they can hardly realize it because the financial flows with/from Russia are cut off due to the Western sanctions.

I see the tough everyday life of my Russian colleagues and empathize with them. In my dorm, the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed. We as international students can leave Russia at any time if we the living conditions are unacceptable.

The knowledge I have gained in Central Asia has helped me to make new friends in the dormitory. I have been integrated into the Central Asian group – among my friends are now Uyghur, Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Uzbek people. Through my travels, I understand many of their cultural habits, their jokes, and fit in well with the group.

Sometimes the whole dormitory organizes activities together. Last week we had some reasons to celebrate, including birthday parties or the return of Europeans to the dorm. Sometimes we as a dorm – a mixed group of Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Turks, Hungarians, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Chinese, Belarusians and Singaporeans – go party together.

Due to the different cultural, religious and personal backgrounds, stimulating discussions about politics, feminism, wars, world views, world powers and religions arise. In an impressive way I have learned again how important it is to consider different ways of looking at any issue. I have become a lot more tolerant towards people with a different opinion and I have reflected a lot on myself and the Swiss culture and thus definitely got to know myself better.

Berenika Zeller

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