In Other Wor(l)ds: Katie in Russia

Today’s expat interview features none other than my older sister, Katie!

Katie Marshall is 25 years old, currently living in Brooklyn, NY, and working as an artist and Russian translator. She graduated Reed College in 2012, where she majored in Russian literature.

On Her Interest in Russia: I got interested in Russia in high school mostly because a boy I had a huge crush on was really interested in Russia, and it was something we always talked about. Well, things never really worked out with him but my love for Russia only grew once I had decided to study it in college. I went to Russia for the first time during my junior year to study for a semester in St. Petersburg. After that, I returned to work for five months. My job was with a Moscow-based non-profit, and I traveled throughout the country to interview high school students applying for a year-long exchange in the United States.


I took this picture on the train to Moscow, and it’s one of my favorites. It sums up everything I feel when I’m there—sweaty and depressed—but also young, in motion, and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

On the Soviet Past: Russia is no longer Communist, but the Soviet past never feels far away. I think the most apparent signs are the INSANE architecture. In Moscow there is a huge park filled with pavilions representing each country of the Soviet Union. It was originally built for a World’s Faire but now the buildings have been repurposed as conference centers and really creepy stores selling anything from electronics and bongs to kvass (fermented prune juice) to Aryan nationalist literature. Also within the park are two breathtaking sculptures. One is a monument to the great Soviet cosmonauts, and it is just a rocket ship elevated on a metal jet stream probably hundreds of feet in the air. The other is one of the most famous Soviet sculptures designed by Vera Mukhina. It is called “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” and depicts a factory worker and collective farmer triumphantly raising a hammer and sickle into the air.  This place represents something I really love in Russia—the completely disorienting disjoint that exists between the communist past and hyper-capitalist present.

Then of course you do encounter older people, such as the 78-year-old woman I lived with, who speak with great nostalgia about the Soviet past and even the Stalinist period. This particular woman would often say to me, “You know, life really WAS better with Stalin! Everyone had a job back then. Today, there are just too many foreigners and no places to live.”

On Babushka Housemates: When I worked in Moscow I slept on a couch in an apartment belonging to a 78-year-old woman. The day I moved in, she insisted on helping me unpack (i.e. touched all of my socks and underwear) and scolded me for bringing such flimsy clothing. Then she took me to the kitchen where she explained that I had to clean the stovetop after every use and make sure that not a single grain of oatmeal went down the sink drain or it would surely break. The first time I returned home from a work trip she scolded me for not immediately washing off the bottom of my suitcase. So the second time I returned, I made sure to do this right away. I think her heart finally melted because she exclaimed with joy, “You’re learning!” Things got even better when I brought her favorite food, pickled ginger. I would probably never wish to repeat this experience, but by the end we were pretty good friends. She taught me how to knit, made me soup, and we watched a lot of talk shows together. Let’s just say I’m extremely glad to be living in an apartment full of friends in Brooklyn these days!


On Nightlife: One of the strangest places in St. Petersburg—and one of my favorites!—is called Tunnel Club, which I believe was one of the first independent night clubs to open in the city after the fall of the Soviet Union. It seems to frequently get shut down for drug-related issues—I heard there was a vending machine selling ecstasy! I haven’t done any drugs there, but it’s the perfect place to go dancing all night if you want to see people going CRAZY to techno and trance music as well as a bunch of people fighting and screaming. The bathroom there appeared to be covered in blood and rust. I saw several guys get in a fight—one got his head slammed by a glass door and he started bleeding everywhere. I usually am sort of a party pooper when it comes to staying out all night, but here there’s really no choice but to keep dancing until the metro opens up in the morning.


In front of Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square, in central Moscow.

On Food: Russian food does not have the best reputation for the uninitiated—there is a lot of ham and macaroni and strange creamy salads—but traditional Russian dishes are phenomenal, and although the grocery stores are more limited or prohibitively expensive, everything just tastes fantastic and much earthier. Since everyone drinks huge amounts of tea there is an amazing array of sweets, candies, cookies, and biscuits that are specifically to be eaten with tea.


All I ever really want to eat: potato pancakes, brown bread, sauerkraut, pickles, butter, sour cream, dill, caviar, and vodka.

On Style: Only in Russia can I bring my shoes to the shoe repair and they take one look at them and say “Devushka! (Girl!) Can you really just not afford new shoes or something?!” Or I walk down the street and people run up to me and point out holes in my tights, loose threads in my jacket and, of course, all the problems with my old shoes. At least they are all just very concerned for my health and not just being critical!

Probably my biggest culture shock was that everyone was so incredibly tall, gorgeous, and well dressed. My American friends and I constantly talked about how we were the nastiest grubbiest bums in Russia. It is true that Russian women wear stilettos even in winter.

On Russian Winters: I honestly don’t know how I survived the first one—I think I was still wearing a fake fur coat I got at the St. Petersburg flea market, along with dresses and tights! But when I lived in Moscow (generally less temperate than St. Petersburg) and was a little older and less concerned about fashion, I just went all out and wore my knee-length down coat and full snow boots. I had to travel to places where it was about -35 Celsius, so I pretty much just never went outside. But having gone through that, New York winters are proving to be a breeze!


Inside an abandoned rubber factory in St. Petersburg

On Hospitality: One moment that sticks out was the day my friends and I decided to take a little train to a random town and see what happened. We didn’t have a place to stay, but sort of hoped we’d just find an old lady who would take us in. Sure enough, the first person we encountered was a very sweet old lady from Leningrad at a bus stop in a village called Sosnovo. She heard us speaking English, and asked us what language it was. Then she took us to a stolovaya (canteen), where we got borscht and received our change in the form of coins from the Soviet Union. She invited us to eat tea and cookies at her house, where we took a nap afterwards before returning to St. Petersburg.

Russians are wonderful. They may not smile very often and they may lovingly criticize the way you dress or the fact that you are unmarried at 24, but once you get to know them they are so warm, compassionate, and deep.

On Working Abroad: My job in Russia, while exhausting and trying at times, was particularly rewarding and unlike any experience I’ve had. First of all, I got to travel throughout the country to cities I never would have seen on my own, such as Yaroslavl, Ekaterinburg, Ufa, Nizhny Tagil, and my favorite, Sterlitamak.

My language abilities also improved a tremendous amount, more so than when I studied abroad. Giving speeches and answering questions (in Russian of course) to auditoriums packed with a hundred students and their parents, meeting with school principals to explain why it’s important to have a quiet and HEATED room to conduct student interviews, and answering phone calls from agitated parents, will get you pretty far when learning a language.

As I told my dear sister when she went to work in Spain after having a truly enviable study abroad experience there, working in a place is much different than being a student there. I don’t know if I would jump at the chance to work in Russia again, but I am certain of the fact that what I did there had a huge impact on helping me transition from college to adult life, and helped make the move from California to New York seem extremely easy. 


On Where She’s At Now: Ultimately, despite feeling completely confident navigating every day life in Russia, I missed the sense of independence and belonging I felt in the U.S. I realized that this is what I ultimately needed and wanted in order to pursue my interest in art. Luckily, New York has it all: it’s on American soil, has a thriving art scene, and America’s greatest seaside Russian-speaking community—Brighton Beach! I do dream of going back to Russia every day. Until then, I can grab a bottle of vodka and a jar of pickles and some piroshki, sit on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach, and dream longingly of the Motherland.

Thanks so much, Katie! I’ve found out more from this interview than anything you allowed at the dinner table back home ;) Hopefully we’ll be reunited soon, either swigging vodka on the pier in Brooklyn, or hiking in sunny San Anselmo.

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  • Wonderful series, Jenny! This one in particular is helpful in rounding out those dinner table “shares.” Also, it makes me yearn for that Georgian restaurant in Brighton Beach. So glad you and Katie have language skills.

    • Thanks, Lor! I thought it might warm your heart to see your daughters collaborating on a shared project :) Looks like staging an official interview is the way to get Katie to open up!!

  • I think I learned more about Russia in this blog post than I have in my entire American education/life. Thank you for doing this series, it is such a clever idea.

    • Thanks so much, Neema!! Haha yes, and I learned more about my own sister’s experience than she ever would tell me about at home.