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How A Year Abroad Has Changed Since The 1980s

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More and more university students are choosing to spend a year abroad as part of their studies. Although it is now easier to go global, students travelled when our parents were at university too.

I talked to a current student from Oxford University and an ex-Bristol University student who was there during the 80’s to find out more…


Where did you do your year abroad? 

80s: “I went to Voronezh in Russia from 1985-86. I was in my third year studying Russian at university from scratch and chose to spend the year in Voronezh over Moscow because Voronezh wasn’t on the tourist map – I thought that it would better reflect ordinary Russian life.

I went in a group of students from universities from all around England. I had to be interviewed in Leeds because they needed to make sure that I would be prepared to go to Russia (the Soviet Union still existed at this time.)”


Current: “I went to Yaroslavl in Russia from 2015-16. I didn’t specifically choose which area to spend the year in – Oxford has a link set up that follows on well from the first year of Beginners Russian.”


What were you doing while you were there?

80s: “I was studying Russian at Voronezh University and lived in a student hostel, sharing a room with specially chosen Russian history students.”


Current: “We had classes from 9am until 1pm Monday to Friday. In the afternoons we would often visit the new mall to eat the food that we missed from home or go shopping. We often went to Moscow at the weekends, as it was only four hours away by train and, living in a small town, we soon ran out of things to do. Each student was staying with a different landlady, most of whom were in their late 60s/early 70s so we were looked after well.”


How was it similar to or different to the UK?

80s: “At the time it was very different to the UK. There was often nothing in the shops and no advertising, so there was a lack of colour, except for dull red Communist slogans or pictures of Lenin and Stalin. When we first arrived, the armed border guards looked very stern at the airport and, on May day, there were tanks all up and down the main road. The Russians were all treated equally in terms of salary and housing, however in reality there were special shops for the very elite few in power. Only the very few in power were allowed to leave the country, so most people that we met weren’t used to travelling abroad. There was little freedom of religion or conscience; Baptist church-goers were ostracised from society and Communism was taught in schools.

In winter the weather went down to minus 25 so there was lots of snow and we needed to wear rabbit fur hats and boots. To get around the country we used overnight trains with bunks.  Tea was served in glasses from the samovar by the ‘babushka’ in each carriage.  The public transport was excellent and would keep going in all weathers.

We ate using beautiful wooden spoons and pots, mainly eating bread, cheese, eggs, poor quality sausages and vegetables when they were in season. If there was something special on sale, e.g. sultanas, there would be huge queues that would appear from nowhere on the streets. Russians didn’t celebrate Christmas, but the English group of students celebrated with things from the Russian Embassy.”


Current: “I found the food very buttery – when I had a sore throat my landlady gave me a mug that was half melted butter and half milk. We would have porridge for breakfast that would also have a tablespoon of butter in it!

Russian fashion was very different; people under the age of 30 would often wear velour tracksuits and those over 30 would often wear patterned fleeces.

I noticed that women were extremely important in the family, they seemed to be key decision-makers and were given a lot of respect.”


What was the best thing about the year?

80s: “I loved being immersed in Russian culture, for instance, learning the language and playing in the Russian orchestra. We would swim in the river, drink vodka in the woods and make friends with the Russian students. I enjoyed cross country skiing in winter.  I felt that there was camaraderie with other English students.”


Current: “The best thing was probably the travelling – we had three reading weeks and everything was very cheap! I went to places around Russia, including Sochi and St Petersburg, as well as travelling around Eastern Europe too. Since I’ve been back, I can’t stop talking about how beautiful Georgia is!”

For travel advice when travelling on your year abroad, look here.


What was the worst thing about the year?

80s: “When the snow melted, there was lots of slush underfoot and the winter felt very long! There was a lack of fresh fruit and veg during the winter. Chernobyl happened while we were out there, so we were visited by someone from the Russian Embassy.”


Current: “I found that people related differently to each other – people were pretty blunt with each other and would tell us that they didn’t think our Russian was very good! I also found that people had different perspectives on mental health.”


Did you make any travel errors?

80s: “When I played in a concert, there were some Communist propaganda pieces at the start – I decided not to play them and made excuses that my violin had gone out of tune so as to not offend the people around me.”


Although doing a year abroad has changed over time, it is still important to be culturally aware when on your year abroad.

If you are thinking of heading to Russia – whether for a year abroad or just for a short break, it’s really important to check the country specific travel advice on the FCO website and that you don’t visit any places they advised against travel to.