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Home > Projects > Russian Sampler > 2004 Program

Russian Students Share Culture With Middle-Schoolers

By Colin Hickey

WATERVILLE - Kylie Cleary sat attentively Monday as she listened to two Russian teenagers talk about their lives in the country former President Reagan once called the Evil Empire.

The eighth-grader from Messalonskee Middle School was one of about 200 students from 11 area middle schools and junior high schools who participated in the 11th-annual [actually 12th annual] "Russian Sampler" day at Colby College.

Cleary learned that Russia once stood at the center of a vast republic known as the Soviet Union, a republic that fell apart when Cleary was just beginning to walk and talk.

"I heard of the Soviet Union," she said, "but I didn't have a clue what it was."

Cleary does have a clue now. And that is the purpose of the Russian Sampler, an event that the Kotlas-Greater Waterville Sister City Connection organizes with help from the Colby German and Russian departments. (Kotlas is a city in Russia that greater Waterville formed a formal relationship more than a decade ago.)

"It opens their eyes," said Mary Coombs, a Winslow Junior High School science teacher. "That is the idea of it. And my students will go back to their schools and do their own unit on Russia."

Coombs, a member of the Sister City Connection, helped found the Russian Sampler 10 [actually 11] years ago with the hope that the event would encourage students to take a greater interest in Russia and international matters in general.

Organizers of the Russian Sampler agreed that Russian students have far more knowledge about the United States than students in this country have about Russia.

"I think we are very focused on ourselves, on our history," Coombs said.

Monday, then, amounted to a vast departure from that self-centered focus. Students attended four sessions of presentations and workshops that examined various aspects of Russian life, including pop culture, fairy tales, music, ballet and the Russian language.

In between the morning and afternoon sessions, students broke for lunch, where they got an opportunity to eat Moldavian vegetable soup and Russian black bread. Hannah Ohlund and Serach Ramu, eighth-graders from Mt. Blue Middle School in Farmington, said the soup was delicious.

Students also had the opportunity to hear from Russian students, as well as a student from Uzbekistan, a country once part of the Soviet Union.

Kate Stepanova and Sergey Kaigorodov described both their lives as teenagers in urban Russia and their experiences as exchange students in this country. Stepanova, 16, and Kaigorodov, 18, each attended school at Morse High School in Bath.

The two each gave high marks to the more liberal, informal American style of education.

"I like American schools better," Stepanova said. "You don't have to wear a uniform. You can wear whatever you want."

As proof of that, Stepanova was dressed in the tight, low-cut jeans, complete with bare midriff, favored by American teenage girls.

Yana Kim, 16, gave local students a sense of the ethnic diversity of the former Soviet Union in talking about her native Uzbekistan. Kim said she is of Korean ancestry.

Bunny Geisler, who works for the organization that enabled Stepanova, Kaigorodov and Kim to spend a year as students in the United States, served as moderator of the presentation.

While she noted many of the differences between Russian and American culture, Geisler stressed the commonality as well.

"They are just like you guys," she said. "They are just from a different country."

From the Morning Sentinel, 3/23/04, p. B1. Used by permission.