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'Get out.' A Middlebury College student reflects on Russian study abroad trip getting cut short

Buildings comprise the Moscow skyline in Russia.
Twelve students enrolled in Middlebury College's Russian study abroad program had to leave Moscow, pictured, and the Siberian city of Irkutsk after Russia invaded Ukraine February 24, 2022.

Get out while there are still commercial flights available. That’s the advice Julian Gonzales-Poirier recently received from the U.S. Embassy while studying abroad in Moscow.

The trip was a long time coming for the Middlebury College junior, who’s majoring in Russian studies and political science. But it was suddenly cut short when Middlebury suspended its study abroad program after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Now that he’s home in Lubbock, Texas, VPR's Grace Benninghoff had a chance to catch up with Gonzales-Poirier about his scramble to leave Moscow, and reflections on what he observed there. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Julian Gonzales-Poirier: The first few days we definitely saw a few rapid changes. I have a really vivid memory of standing in the bank waiting for an ATM for about two hours with one of my friends the first day that the invasion started. And everyone was trying to get dollars, of course, and they actually ended up running out of money, and had to wait for one of the big money trucks to come and refill. So you saw things like that all over the city.

A man is pictured in front of skyscrapers.
Courtesy Julian Gonzales-Poirier
Middlebury College junior Julian Gonzales-Poirier arrived to Moscow in late January for a study abroad trip, but his visit was cut short when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

And in other spheres, there were definitely protests everywhere, which isn't really related to sanctions, but it definitely shows how the city was kind of adapting to everything going on. We were all signed up for alerts from the embassy there, and they would sometimes tell us to avoid these areas — there are protests going on and we fear for you guys getting arrested because we're not at full capacity right now.

But other than that, that mood in the city kind of changed as well. People knew something was going on, even if they didn't know the full picture of it. And it definitely became a lot more somber. It didn't feel quite — it didn't have the same vibrancy as it did even a week prior. So that was very interesting to see.

Grace Benninghoff: Flights from Russia through Europe were halted after the invasion. Can you walk me through the process of leaving Moscow to return to the United States?

One night, the U.S. embassy there said, "We recommend all U.S. citizens leave while their are commercial options still available." My mom called me that night and said, "You probably should leave." And then the next day, the program sent us an email saying, "We made this decision that we're going to shut down in-person learning. Get out." So I sat down and I found a ticket. They emailed us that Monday, it left that Wednesday at like 2 a.m.

What kind of experience did you have in Moscow before this war began?

We had about a week before classes started. So we would walk around, do all the sightseeing things. We were on Red Square quite a bit walking. And just being in the city, it was kind of surreal. Because we learned about a place for so long — it's my third year of studying Russian —to learn about a play for three years and then you finally get to be there, it just feels like you turn a corner and there's something you read about. Moscow is a very beautiful and historic city. It was just nice to be able to walk and be in it.

And we'd spend time with our host families. I talked to them for a few hours every day, and they make me breakfast and dinner. And then once classes started up, we would spend a lot of time at the University, which is very nice. And just kind of going here and there in the city. It was it was a fun experience while we were there.

I'm interested in what you make of the experience of growing close to your host family, becoming friends with Russians — and then grappling with this invasion that the Russian government is receiving so much criticism before around the globe?

It's definitely interesting. And it's difficult to say the least. Because everything that is on Russian media right now —especially now — is saying that it's a justified military operation. And you can't even call it a war, because all they're being fed, and all they have been fed, is this narrative that kind of positions Russians as the liberators of the people in Ukraine. So it can be difficult.

It's almost like over the last two weeks more has happened in the field of Russian studies, and in Russia, than has happened in the last 20 years.
Julian Gonzales-Poirier

I read a lot of Western media, of course, and I am on Western social media. So I see the Western point of view. And it's difficult trying to connect with someone when our base of information is so different. There were some times when I had difficulties with my host family. And there was just no way around it. And I think we both recognize that and had to find other ways to connect. It's definitely an information block. It's very hard to get the correct information there or the reality of what's going on.

Do people in Russia have access to to Western news outlets?

It's very difficult to get access to one. Towards the end of my stay there, I had to download a VPN because I couldn't get on to Twitter. And everything else was being throttled. So you could access it, but it would take 10 minutes to load a web page. They're not showing anything on TV; they shut down the liberal-minded news station completely. So I would say that for the most part, Russian people don't really have access to Western media anymore.

You're studying Russia and political science. How does it feel to see history in your chosen fields unfolding right before your eyes?

I don't know. I still feel like, to a certain point, I haven't fully grasped that. It's almost like over the last two weeks more has happened in the field of Russian studies, and in Russia, than has happened in the last 20 years. Because everything is moving so fast, I think it's harder to understand the moment that we're in. But there's definitely a feel with me and my friends who study Russia and politics in general that even after this ends, we are going to be in a fundamentally different situation in regards to Russian studies.

To be a student in my last years of college, I will be probably writing a thesis about this and to be contributing to the academic work. It feels like you have a responsibility to do good work. But at the same time, it's almost like, how can you do academic work right now when the war is still going on and there are still people on the ground suffering? So it's very difficult. There are a lot of feelings going around. And I know my friends feel the same. So it's definitely interesting to be in this position. I'll say that. I'll leave it at that.

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