Letter from Siberia

by Cecilia Whitehurst


It was a pretty typical school trip, on the surface. A group of middle school students from Tulsa and Claremore, a few teachers, a chaperone. But we weren’t going to D.C., or New York City, or even the usual European suspects of London, Paris, Frankfurt. We were going to Claremore’s sister city, Muravlenko, Siberia, by way of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

In Moscow, though it was March, the Russian girls all wore short skirts, boots, and no tights. The boys on our trip gawked. We went to Red Square, took pictures of St. Basil’s Cathedral’s breathtaking onion-shaped domes, looked in on Lenin’s waxy corpse, which looked to me like a movie prop. We visited schools, where the students were curious about our western life. Children and adults alike were fascinated by my limited knowledge of Russian. After I would greet them, “Privyet,” they would reply in their own tongue, very fast. I would have to admit, “Ya ne znayu, ya ne ponemayu”—“I don’t know, I don’t understand.” Some of the only Russian I still retain, I used those phrases so often. In St. Petersburg, we must have visited the Hermitage, but I was so preoccupied with whether there were cute boys on the trip (there were), and whether they liked me (they didn’t) that I never noticed.

In Siberia, I waded in snow up to my shoulders. The locals laughed at us when we suggested it was OK to eat the snow, since it had accumulated more than an inch. “Dirty!” they teased. Our Oklahoma was showing.

Hear Ian Frazier get real about the difficulties of portraying a foreign country:


My trip to Siberia was not my introduction to Russian culture. By the time I went, my sister Laura had been to Russia twice, although her trips were to Tulsa’s sister city Zelenograd, a suburb of Moscow. Furthermore, we’d hosted a few Russian students over the year. Our family’s connection with Russia and its culture began in 1992, when our aunt brought her college-aged Russian exchange student with her to Thanksgiving dinner. Olga arrived with an exotic accent and several bottles of Soviet-era vodka. The bottles had pry- off tops, as apparently no true Russian would ever leave a bottle half-drunk.

It was this visit that began my family’s connection with Russia and its culture—one that lasted 10 years, four trips to the motherland, and several International Baccalaureate Tests.

And, for my sister, an affair that continues even now, although one that lies dormant. Laura explains the beginning of her love affair with Russian like this:

“After [Olga] left, I bought this book, The First Thousand Words in Russian, and would copy the words out of the book into the letters that I would send her. I’m sure she thought it was totally lame that this second-grader wanted to correspond with a college student. But she was really nice; she would send me postcards and pictures sometimes. So that’s how I got into it, and then when I went to Wilson [Middle School], they did the language rotation your first year. I had Russian second quarter and I was really fascinated by it. The secret code aspect of the alphabet was fun, and it was neat to learn such a totally foreign language, as opposed to French, or German, or Spanish that you hear all the time.”

Laura began taking Russian in sixth grade and kept it up all the way through college. Although she’s now an engineer, she is fluent enough in Russian to have worked several summers as a translator at the local YWCA.

We were a part of the Tulsa Global Alliance. We went to and hosted dinners, put on plays about the Russian cosmonauts and fairy tales for children at the Kids World International Festival. We hosted Russian exchange students, ferried those students from bowling alleys to ranches to zoos and back. We went to parties thrown by or for famed poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose toasts, and poetry readings, went on for hours. I loved the Russian community in Tulsa, loved being a part of something few knew or cared about. The Cold War was over.


I stayed with a host family in Muravlenko; the daughter was 16 to my 13, the son 12. They both smoked, which horrified me. The daughter took me on “tours” that were thinly disguised smoke breaks. Her parents disapproved, although they both smoked as well (and didn’t seem to mind their significantly younger son lighting up). My host family loaded every dish with sour cream, accompanied every meal with vodka.

Muravlenko was a gray, depressing city, full of industrial Soviet buildings. The snow was regularly scraped off the streets and heaped on the sidewalks in increasingly dirty piles, some of which towered over my head, threatening to topple and bury me. Unsurprisingly, the sky remained sullen during our entire stay, although the snow itself came down only sporadically.

It’s traditional in foreign exchange trips to give gifts to your host family. I came armed with Tulsa and Oklahoma memorabilia: postcards, posters, dream catchers, sand paintings, anything to do with oil, Indians, or cowboys—the foundation of Oklahoma. Before I left, I made extensive visits to Lyon’s Indian Store, and the gift shops at Gilcrease and Philbrook. I also went to the mall, picking up anything with the flag, the eagle, or the word “AMERICA” on it. In return, I got pins, booklets, paintings, nesting dolls, and anything that seemed “Russian.” Despite not being Christian, I received multiple crosses in a variety of media.

Muravlenko is not the cosmopolitan center of life that Moscow or St. Petersburg are. While there, we visited few museums or cultural centers, and instead went to classes with our host siblings, ate massive beet-and-fish fueled dinners, played pool in the local rec center, and ended our stay with a night at the discotheque. Although I thoroughly enjoyed my trip, it was probably the last time Russia held any real pull over me.


After returning from Siberia, I was forced to turn away from the fun of travel, and resume the work of actually trying to master the language, something I was surprised to find that I actually had difficulty with. I struggled through another four years of Russian classes, but it never came easily to me. All my love of language and wordplay abandoned me when the words and language were foreign. Around my sophomore year, I began to truly hate the language (as I disliked most things I wasn’t good at). I dropped it halfway through my junior year, and bombed the International Baccalaureate test, putting an end to my entire IB career.

In the end, all that’s left is remnants: A lot of blurry pictures; some excruciating diary entries (which are not helpful for remembering any details of the trip, but very helpful if I wanted to know which of our Russian hosts were cute); a variety of Russian trinkets—painted spoons and Easter eggs, nesting dolls, handcrafted carvings, paintings—scattered around my parents’ house; multiple workbooks and dictionaries designed to guide me through a language I couldn’t grasp; a lone copy of Dr. Zhivago on my sister’s night stand; a few, sad phrases rattling around my brain; and a bottle of vodka that mysteriously disappeared sometime during high school.