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If the minister of education is reading this, you and I need to have a chat fella

By 0 and 0 and 0
18 June 2013


Michael Oliver-Semenov with his wife Anastasia in Krasnoyarsk. Picture: Michael Oliver-Semenov

It has been nearly a month since my last blog. This isn’t because my life has been empty of interesting events. On the contrary it has been quite full.

However, a recent conversation with my publisher, that included phrases like 'conflict of interests’, brought me back to Earth with a thud and reminded me of my obligations back in the UK. I can and will continue blogging, though maybe not as often and with less talk of the past.

I’d hate to for my book not to be released, I worked on it for two years, with the last 40 chapters all written within the 3 coldest months of the last winter.

I spent days and nights pouring through research, typing like a mad man, while turning into a hairy, bearded drooling idiot. Night after night I went without sleep, writing and re-writing single paragraphs until they were just so.

‘Sunbathing in Siberia: a marriage of east and west in Post-Soviet Russia’ was very much a labour of love, and I can’t think of anything I’ve ever put so much effort into, other than my forthcoming poetry collection, which I have been working on now for some six years. So if in future I seem to ignore certain subjects, it’s not because I want to avoid them, rather I wish to avoid finding myself without a book deal or being dragged off to some British court with my tail between my legs. 

The past month has been business as usual: students came and went (one moved to Turkey, another to Florida, another to Tomsk); although the summer is supposed to be quiet due to the big summer holiday I have now taken on a kindergarten (for small children with very rich parents) as well as two summer schools.

This is perhaps a bit much. I can’t deny that I’m starting to feel as though I’m spreading myself out too much. However, a perk of the new jobs is that I have recently met several native English speakers!

Hooray! I have made expat (immigrant) friends and will now be able to meet up for beers with people who feel as alien as I do.

Michael Oliver-Semenov Krasnoyarsk

Hooray! I have made expat (immigrant) friends and will now be able to meet up for beers with people who feel as alien as I do. Picture: Michael Oliver-Semenov

One man, an American teacher who has been here for nearly a year, couldn’t stop talking when we met. He explained he has lived with zero social life since last July and although it didn’t bother him before, he now finds himself feeling lost and lonely among people who can’t understand what it’s like to be a westerner in the East.

Unfortunately for me, most of the other English speakers I have only just met will be leaving at the end of the year or early next year, though I’m glad to have met them - better late than never I say. Still, saying this, I can’t help but feel it’s a bit sad of me to come half way across the world only to make a social circle out if other westerners.

As a relative newcomer to the world of teaching in Russia I have in the past month or so found myself either being ripped-off or negotiating myself out of a situation where I realised only in the last minute that I would be exploited.

But then again, that kind of thing happens everywhere, and at least in Russia I am able to find work relatively quickly; for every school that has tried their luck by offering me a really low wage, there is a school prepared to do the exact opposite. Speaking of new jobs I have just recently begun working for yet another school (that’s 4 now).

On the first day in job number four I spent a few hours with another native English speaker who was working her last ever day after four years in Krasnoyarsk. I feel as if I have been passed some sort of baton in a race I can never win, but must keep on running. There are apparently over 150 schools in this city alone, and as the only Welshman that I know of, I can safely say that odds are in my favour. 

Michael Oliver-Semenov Krasnoyarsk

My wife and I zigzagged home in a very drunken manner and flopped into bed like 2 bags of fermented potatoes. It was magic. Picture: Michael Oliver-Semenov

As for the American, life here isn’t as pleasant for him as it is for me. For him, products, food and clothing in are very expensive compared to prices back home in his native land; and as everything around him appears unreasonably expensive he is forever in 2 minds about living in Russia.

It’s different for me. In the UK prices are crazy. There’s no way I could live in the kind of apartment I am living in now without another £100,000 in my back pocket. On my way to work on Friday I stopped in the shop just before the office to buy some lemonade, cigarettes and a pack of mints. It all came to less than 100 roubles, less than two British pounds. If I had bought the same in a British shop I would have spent the equivalent of 500 roubles (£10). 

Although it isn’t an observation of Siberian life per se, one thing that I have found unusual recently is my American colleague’s use of words and method of speech. Half the time I feel as if I’m being talked at rather than spoken to (huge difference) and I am also alarmed by how many times I have heard the word ‘capitalise’ recently. ‘We could capitalise on this’, ‘we could capitalise on that’.

Before I came to Russia I had never heard the phrase ‘we can capitalise on’ something, in the flesh. I thought it was TV language, or politician language; now I know the truth. Even though my colleague is a disillusioned American who shares many of my political views, he still thinks in ways of ‘perhaps we could sell this’.

It’s horrible for me to think about this in actual real life terms: 'SIBERIA FOR SALE, ten bucks a piece with an extra slice of cheese and a super-size coke for an extra dollar fifty’. In one of my most recent advanced English classes we spent an hour discussing swear words; but none of them come anywhere near ‘capitalise’.

It is the dirtiest word of all: the concept of looking at everything in monetary terms. Quite the opposite of the Siberian ethos. 

Michael Oliver-Semenov Krasnoyarsk

Michael Oliver-Semenov Krasnoyarsk

Anastasia Oliver-Semenov by Krasnoyarsk Sea (770 sq mi reservoir created when river Yenisei was dammed). Pictures: Michael Oliver-Semenov

Coming back to the summer schools, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a dire need for changes in the education system here.

Students and teachers from private schools complain that the English language education received from state schools is under par and needs an overhaul. Saying that I have just this week found myself completely flabbergasted by a situation that is a sad reminder of the unfortunate red-tape reputation of Russia.

Until now I have enjoyed relative freedom in classes, delivering lessons according to guidelines but straying from the path when I deemed it necessary. Were it not for one class this week I would be able to say I that I haven’t had to teach something I didn’t want to.

Let me explain: ‘I am going to visit the country’ in English means that you are going to the countryside. Nothing more. ‘I am going to the village’ does not mean the same thing, but I have been informed that according to Russian state examiners, this is curriculum and therefore I must teach my students (in a private school) that going to the village and going to the country are the same thing, when THEY ARE NOT.

Villages exist inside the countryside, in just the same way as birds and rivers do, but we don’t say ‘I’m going to visit the birds’ or ‘I’m on my way to the rivers’. This is madness. 

Although the word ‘village’ is synonymous with the word ‘country’ they aren’t perfect synonyms, if you get my meaning. We can’t simply replace one for the other as and when we feel. There are nuances of language and unspoken rules within common phrases that mean words can’t be supplemented with others simply because one is a synonym of another. 

Michael Oliver-Semenov Krasnoyarsk

Villages exist inside the countryside, in just the same way as birds and rivers do, but we don’t say ‘I’m going to visit the birds’ or ‘I’m on my way to the rivers’. This is madness. Picture: Michael Oliver-Semenov

On a slightly different note, in a few hours’ time I will be back in my 4pm summer school class with a bunch of teenagers, the majority of whom like to spend the lesson with their faces resting on their hands, elbows on desks, while rolling their eyes.

This is the hardest class I have had to teach so far. Half the class want to learn, the other half hate me and want to be very far away.

The problem is that they all have quite wealthy parents who want their children to continue education when the sun is out and everyone else is having fun. While I understand the parent’s motives, throwing money at a situation isn’t always the answer.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I wonder how many of these teenagers have been asked by their parents if they even want to go to summer school. I would ask them but all I have gotten out of them so far is ‘I don’t care’. Nice. As an educator this is highly frustrating.

Yes I want to make a living, but I don’t want to teach people who don’t want to be taught. Yes I enjoy spending my hard earned cash but I don’t like receiving money if I don’t see any clear results from my efforts. If I wanted to be rich I’d be doing something else; so parents, if by chance you are reading this, ask your children if they ‘want’ to learn next time ok.

Changing the subject slightly, a few weeks ago I had a stinking cold, the kind that lasts for weeks and converts normal human being into giant balls of snot. When the week was over I came home after my Friday morning class and fell fast asleep. My wife woke me up later that afternoon to make sure I ate something and suggested we go for an evening walk to perk me up a bit. We ended up at our local pub, somewhere we had never been before.

Michael Oliver-Semenov

Michael Oliver-Semenov

It was a fantastic experience. The pub looked, felt, smelt and sounded just like a proper British pub, with Irish themed décor plus beer mats and empty bottles all over the shelves and bar interior. They even had a Gogol Bordello concert playing on several TV screens... Pictures: Michael Oliver-Semenov

I was amazed. Having previously been disappointed by Russian pubs I was expecting to have a quick pint in a clinical room that was bereft of any atmosphere, save a few Russian pop songs on the radio, and leave sharpish.

However, it was a fantastic experience. The pub looked, felt, smelt and sounded just like a proper British pub, with Irish themed décor plus beer mats and empty bottles all over the shelves and bar interior. They even had a Gogol Bordello concert playing on several TV screens.

A couple of pints in we found ourselves being entertained by a Russian band who sang in both English and Russian. They were AMAZING!! Not only that but I was able to smoke at the bar. WHAT A JOY. Something I hadn’t done for nearly 7 years because smoking indoors is illegal in the UK and has been for some while. My wife commented that I had a boyish smile on my face all night. 

One thing that can be a bit annoying and which I hoped wouldn’t be the case this time was the fact that Russians don’t pull a full pint. Instead they fill the pint glass almost to the top and put a whopping great head on it, leaving tons of empty space where beer should be. Considering a pint of ale in Russia can be as much as 300 roubles (SIX QUID!!!), I find the practice of not filling a glass to the top VERY stingy indeed.

Michael Oliver-Semenov

One thing that can be a bit annoying and which I hoped wouldn’t be the case this time was the fact that Russians don’t pull a full pint.Picture: Michael Oliver-Semenov

I spoke to the barman about it and he explained that the pint he poured me was in fact a pint, only the glasses are made bigger to allow air on top or something equally feeble. In order to satisfy my dire need for a glass filled properly, he agreed to fill my pint glass right to the top, with a small, acceptable head, for no extra money.

It was such a good night that when we left I felt the same way I did back 20 years ago when I attended my first gig as a teenage boy (for those who wish to know it was Supergrass at the end of their first UK tour).

My wife and I zigzagged home in a very drunken manner and flopped into bed like 2 bags of fermented potatoes. It was magic. 

On another note, totally unrelated, I published 3 poems recently, two in the Welsh literary journal ‘The Lampeter Review’ and the third in the British socialist newspaper ‘The Morning Star’. The first two poems are Russian themed and will be included in my collection ‘The Elephant’s foot’ that will likely be released at the same time as ‘Sunbathing in Siberia’ next spring. 

Here are the links. Both are totally free to download/read: http://lampeter-review.com/issue-7/http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/news/content/view/full/133757

Please be aware that when I write about events in Russia, I also include Euro-Russia west of the Urals, and the events I refer to in my first poem are mostly taken from 2011/2012 articles in The Moscow Times.

Michael Oliver-Semenov is a professional poet and writer from Wales, the small but stoic country parked next to England.

After serving as the first poet in residence for Blown, the British magazine for cultural intelligence, Michael emigrated to Krasnoyarsk, Siberia to live with his wife and translator Anastasia Semenova.

When he is not growing vegetables at their family dacha in summer, or avoiding the wild Siberian hounds of winter, Michael is a freelance English teacher, editor and contributor to The Siberian Times.

His forthcoming expose on Siberian life ‘Sunbathing in Siberia:'A marriage of east and west in Post-Soviet Russia’ is due for release in spring 2014 and will be available online and in all book stores worth anything.

Comments (6)

Also, Valentyna, I'd like to add a further note. Not all americans are as you say they are. Although US foreign policy is quite disagreeable to say the least, the majority of Americans I have met on my travels (and there have been a few) are FREE THINKING, generous individuals who actually offer a level of hospitality that is on a par with Russia. They can be a little hard to understand, even for me, and their art of conversation is vastly different from Uk conversation techniques but on a whole, I don't think you should dismiss them all as materialistic. Although I would like to make changes to the way English is taught here, both my American colleague and I LOVE Russia and dont wish to make any cultural changes. We like it here, that's why we're here. I think if you look beyond the stereotype you'll find that, you, me and American people have more in common than you'd think.
Mao Oliver-Semenov, Krasnoyarsk
23/06/2013 20:06
Valentyna, I fear you have missed my point entirely. I have not been critical about Russian language or culture. Neither have I tried to 'educate' people of the English way. I myself and not English Valentyna. You have read something into my article that I have not written. Please have a look at what I have actually written before being critical.
Mao Oliver-Semenov, Krasnoyarsk
22/06/2013 17:13
Michael. Try not to change our way of expressing ourselves. We speak differently and express ourselves in a more intimate way than the English. We have masculine and feminine, whereas the English is 'dead' and boring - sorry, but it is true.

I was brought up in England to Ukrainian DPs and much prefer our Ukrainian/Russian ways. For example, the names of each month are very descriptive, that is one example only of many. Even reading the Bible in Ukrainian/Russian is far more intimate.

We are an 'ancient' people and rich in history and culture. Please do not try and 'educate' our young people the ways of the English - more especially the American way. They (Americans) are very hard to understand, very, very materialistic and extremely shallow.
Valentyna (Chernihiv/Kyiv), Perth, Scotland
22/06/2013 14:21
and what will you say to the Minister Michael?
Z, Russia
20/06/2013 22:57
nice looking 'sea' and blooming trees
Z, Germany
19/06/2013 17:55
What do you do when your students behave like this, roll eyes/say they don't care?
Masha, Novosibirsk
19/06/2013 14:58

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