Beyond Moscow: Notes from Small-Town Russia - My Family Travels

In Kirov's city center with my host sister

When Americans think of Russia, it is usually a very limited picture: cold weather, the Kremlin, the Bolshoi ballet. In fact, most of our understanding of Russian culture is based around the capital city of Moscow, and we very rarely consider the multitudes of people and cultures that exist outside of that cosmopolitan center. When I traveled to the city of Kirov as a student with the NSLI-Y program, I discovered that the less-recognized cities of Russia are not only full of life and culture, but also often more friendly and accessible than massive Moscow.
Kirov, a mid-sized city about 500 miles from the capital, is a perfect example of the value of lesser-known areas. As an exchange student, I was lucky to be hosted by a fantastic Russian family, which allowed me to get the know the city as more than just a tourist. A favorite spot for both families and teens was Theater Square, home to the city’s theater as well as a large fountain and park space. My peers and I also loved Kirov Park, which hosts both the city’s circus and a massive Ferris wheel. Kirov also features a cat cafe, complete with delicious tea and lots of cuddly cats. Kirov is a wonderful place to explore Russian food culture; it is renowned for its delicious ice cream due to the large dairy plant in the center of town, and is also the home of Doner, a popular fast-food chain serving roasted-meat sandwiches. The city even has its own ice cream museum, known as Artico!
You might think that a smaller city like Kirov would be difficult for foreigners to navigate. However, my experience was just the opposite: almost everyone I met was excited to see an American in their town. Kirov is home to the Vyatka Humanitarian Gymnasium, a high school focusing specifically on foreign languages and humanities, and many of the students enjoyed helping my peers and I practice our Russian language skills while they worked on their English. This was another benefit of staying in a smaller town – Russian language and culture was far more accessible than in a larger city. Additionally, since Kirov is not accustomed to heavy tourism, there were few cheap trinket stores or tourist traps. Instead, I got to discover genuine traditional arts. One of my favorite experiences was at the Large Matryoshka Factory of Kirov, where classic Russian nesting dolls are carved and painted by hand. On a guided tour of the museum, we were able to see the dolls being carved, as well as paint our own mini-matryoshka!
Visiting Kirov also highlighted for me the similarities between Russian life and my own American experiences. While I had expected Moscow to be somewhat similar to other large, cosmopolitan cities, it was a surprise to see how much my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky had in common with Kirov. My Russian family and I went shopping at the local mall after school, saw a Marvel movie together, and ate ice cream to cool off on hot summer days. Despite the differences in language and cultural background, my Russian counterparts lived very similar lives to my own. Getting to experience life in an everyday town helped me to connect on a deeper level with the Russian people and culture, and I would encourage anyone visiting Russia to consider the value of a town like Kirov. Russia is like nesting doll: although you might be impressed by the elaborate exterior of cities like Moscow, even more is to be found when you make the effort to go deeper within.

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