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Study Guide for Getting Sent to Siberia

A pine forest near a lake in Siberia
A pine forest near a lake in Siberia during the summer.

Contrary to its common depiction, Siberia is an incredibly beautiful place to spend your summer abroad. Before demonstrating why my experience led me to this view, it should be probably explained how I managed to get myself voluntarily sent to Siberia by the U.S. government.

I applied for the Critical Languages Scholarship, a program funded by the State Department, which allows undergraduate and graduate students to spend seven to ten weeks learning certain languages abroad at various levels of proficiency. Beginner, intermediate, and advanced programs are offered in Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Punjabi, Turkish, or Urdu. Students studying Chinese, Japanese, or Russian must be at the intermediate or advanced levels to apply. The goal is to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering “critical need languages,” so named by the U.S. government. No reason to hesitate either, as the offer comes with no strings attached (i.e. no post-program requirements working for a government agency, though it is certainly an option). Because the travel visas, costs, housing arrangements, and learning expenses are fully covered, this is a pretty competitive program. That should not keep anyone from applying.

I applied and was accepted to the advanced Russian language program in Tomsk, Russia. A group of about 20 students, whose academic interests spanned everything from art history to business, literature to ecology, international policy to regional history, also shared the same fate. I am usually a more independent traveler, so I always encourage finding individualized study arrangements. But I will admit that it was worthwhile to have such easy access to this remote and intriguing travel destination. And living with a host family made it easy to assimilate rather than hang out with other American students while abroad.

I like to learn about my destination before leaving, though this information is usually focused on logistics (i.e. what to pack weather-wise, how people dress there, what it looks like, how you will get around, key phrases/words, type of government, etc). Upon arriving, learning some more in-depth historical, geographic, and economic facts relating to the area helped me better orient myself culturally and connect with the local population. Here is what I learned from my travels to Tomsk.


Tomsk is a university town of 500,000, one fifth students, nestled in the vast Siberian taiga (or boreal forest area). With such an abundance of timber, it is no surprise that the location is known for its beautifully ornate, historic wooden houses built from the 1700s to the early 1900s. It is located northeast of Novosibirsk, which is the largest industrial city in Siberia (population 1.4 million), between the Ural Mountains and Lake Baikal.

The city of Tomsk was founded in the 1600s on one of the trade routes from China to Europe, a northern version of the Silk Road. An old story refers to horse traders and merchants paying a bribe to Moscow to keep the Trans-Siberian railroad from coming through Tomsk. They wanted to maintain their “horse power” over the trade in Tomsk, and saw the new railroad invention as a direct threat. The railway now bypasses the city to the south, which has resulted in preserving the small, university-town atmosphere, and the town’s emblem has remained a white horse. The Trans-Siberian was rerouted to go through Novosibirsk, once a village and now the largest, most industrial (and unfortunately, highly polluted) city in Siberia.

The Tomsk Oblast' (or state) is divided by the Ob River, the world's seventh longest river in the world. The landscape is flat and dotted with marshes, birch tree groves, and the taiga forest. You may have heard of Siberian mosquitoes, and though they are vicious (my bites did not go away for over a week), they usually hang out outside of the city. I found that a few drops of tea tree oil (I had packed a small bottle) diluted in water and applied to the skin usually kept them at bay.

I highly recommend starting your Siberia tour in the summer, as sometime in October the area freezes over for a good six months or more with temperatures reaching -40 degrees Fahrenheit!

The Program

Luckily, the CLS curriculum was not limited to the classroom. While we did have language and culture classes taught in Russian by faculty of the host university everyday (four to six hours a day), we also enjoyed cultural activities every week that included tours, local artist studio visits, museums, a weekend field trip to Novosibirsk, and other group activities, such as boat excursions on the river, an outdoor ropes course, and live music concerts.

My Host Family

I had the opportunity to live with three of the loveliest ladies in all of Tomsk, spanning three generations.

Babushka (Grandma), the family’s pillar, was born during Stalin’s reign of terror. She is by far one of the most energetic people I have ever met and is over 70 years old! Almost every single day, she would make breakfast, feed the family, and take a 20 minute train ride out of Tomsk (by electrichka) to the family’s garden plot (dacha), sometimes with her lively 7-year-old grandson, and would return in time to make everyone dinner. Her life story is astounding. She would say, "We live as if in a never-ending story, the further we go, the crazier it gets!" ("Живём как в сказке, тем далее тем страшнее!") In the early thirties, before she was born, her parents were deported by the soviets to an area near Tomsk for being “well-off,” which meant they had a small farm with horses. They were dropped off, like many, in the middle of nowhere in Siberia – with literally no villages or sign of human life in any direction. So they dug a hole in which they lived and hunted/gathered food until they slowly built a house and began to farm. Others who were deported did the same, and that is where the village of Bakhchar now stands. Three years after Babushka was born, her father (along with most of the men of the village) was taken from home at night by Stalin’s secret police (the NKVD) and disappeared forever. They only found out years later (during Khrushchev’s Thaw) that he had been executed as an enemy of the state, and the whole family had been labeled as such. They were since "rehabilitated" (meaning, they receive some government contribution for the wrong done to them) and Babushka’s father’s name was cleared.

Babushka’s daughter, Natasha, was my host mother. She is very polite and caring, and the more I got to know her, the more I saw the independent, strong-willed Siberian woman in her. Natasha liked to joke, laugh, do patchwork, knit, and grow flowers. She usually helped me finish my homework so that we could either take a walk together around Tomsk, sit in the kitchen and talk over a beer, or watch classic Soviet films from the 1970s together. Needless to say, my language skills improved 10-fold because of these daily interactions. Natasha, like Babushka, would spend a lot of time at the dacha. She had planted flowers everywhere that the soil was not being used to grow fruit and vegetables. Every time she came back from the dacha, there was a new assortment of fresh flowers from the garden in my room. Natasha certainly gets her inexhaustible energy from her mother. She works at the hotel next to the train station, but as a single mother, she supplemented her income by cleaning and caring for apartments that a local company rented to travelers. She also cooked daily and cleaned the house constantly. Just thinking about how much these women got done in a 24-hour period was awe-inspiring.

Natasha’s daughter, Diana, had just finished her first year at Tomsk State University (TGU), where I was attending classes. She and her boyfriend would hang out with friends from the neighborhood just about every evening, and I was always invited to join them.

Glimpses Of Rural Culture

My favorite place to spend time was the family dacha (or garden plot), where they grew enough food to get them through the year: potatoes, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, carrots, beets, lettuce, squash, more berries than I know the names for, among them currants, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and cherries. What they do not eat fresh, they pickle, freeze, or somehow conserve for the winter months.

There was a little rickety house at my family’s dacha, which they built themselves in the 1970s. It includes a wood burning stove dividing the kitchen and small living/eating/sleeping space. Babushka, and her 7-year-old grandson, Danila (Natasha’s nephew), would spend the night there when the weather was nice. The house was decorated with hand-made creations.

Next to it was the banya, or small bathhouse, with a wood burning fireplace strategically placed under a water tank. The heat from the fire would warm  the bath water and the whole room. Bathing in the banya was a ritual, an “old, Russian tradition.” You rub yourself with crystallized honey, and then splash water onto the metal fireplace door until the room steamed up to about 80 C (176 F). After or during the steam bath, you can beat yourself or be beaten with birch branches to get the blood flowing. Another “old, Russian tradition.” Then you wash/wipe yourself clean with water from the heated tank.

Though it sounds like torture, it is actually incredibly refreshing and good for you. It comes from the old peasant custom of bathing like this once a week, every Saturday, in small groups (though some banyas can hold up to 10 or 15 people). Afterwards, everyone gathers, drinks beer and roasts shish-kebabs over a grill. I recommend participating in these kinds of customary rituals with the people you meet. You cannot get this kind of cultural lesson from the classroom!

My second weekend in Tomsk, Natasha took me to the village where her brother lives with his family. From there we went even further into the countryside, where there were only birch groves, grassy fields, and forests, to see Uncle Sasha (Dyad Sasha), who is a bee keeper. There we ate honey from the comb, drank tea and samogon (homemade spirit, about 50-60% alcohol), and talked about the last time a bear came to raid the beehives! Uncle Sasha had to climb the nearest tree and hide there until it left. He also let me take one of the really old Lenin posters off his wall. It was apparently there when he moved in. They joked, probably since the Revolution in 1917.

In summary, I found that this kind of immersion program was a great way to not only master the language I had been learning in the classroom for years, but to get cultural insight that would never be possible otherwise. I came back to The University of Texas at Austin more proficient and confident than ever, which helped in my being awarded the Foreign Language Area Studies Scholarship in Russian for the coming year at UT, and paid my tuition as well as a generous monthly stipend, allowing me to continue taking advanced language coursework for the next year.

I encourage anyone interested in mastering a language to look at opportunities off-the- beaten-track. Going to remote places can help you come away with a cultural experience you never could have imagined. I would never have thought of Siberia as such a warm and accepting place for studying Russian!

For More Info

A list of study/research abroad programs available for a various languages, countries, and fields of study:

Tips for studying languages abroad:

Rule #1: Explore your options and dare to go off-the-beaten-path. It is often more accessible that you think and you’ll probably have an easier time meeting people who are not used to hordes of Americans

Rule #2: If you really want to learn the language, live with a host family or immerse yourself among locals. Do not hang out with native English speakers and request that people interact with you in the language you are learning.

Rule #3: Be open to new experiences and take people up on invitations to travel outside of cities. It is often true that the most preserved cultural places are found in the countryside. But be smart about travel, don’t compromise your safety or do anything you will later regret.

Little known fact: If Siberia were to claim independence from Russia, it would still be the largest country in the world (bigger than America, Alaska, AND Western Europe combined) and would be one of the wealthiest in natural resources.

Siberia includes:

    1. The deepest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Baikal (which holds 25% of the world’s freshwater!) and three of the world’s largest rivers
    2. Abundant natural gas
    3. Huge oil reserves
    4. Coal (main source of electricity)
    5. Diamond quarries
    6. Rich agricultural land
    7. The world’s largest boreal forests
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