A Postcard from Neo-Soviet Russia

Jackson Chung, a Malaysian who studied medicine in Moscow, writes about his experiences in the Malaysian Star newspaper. His message? “Consider other options.” Good advice, indeed.

IN the last couple of years, Russia has become a hotbed for young Malaysians who wish to pursue a career in medicine. Why? Plain and simple — its tuition fees are particularly low.

Four years ago, I was among 180 Malaysian students who entered the Russian State Medical University (RSMU) in Moscow, referred to as the Second Medical University by the locals. Although I was a freshman in a foreign university surrounded by people who spoke a language I’d only heard in movies, I was still excited to be here.

Since then, I have seen the true Russia which can be exciting to some, and not as interesting to others.

In my few years in Moscow, I’ve taken notice of Russians and their general way of life. If you were to ask me what I dislike most, I’d say it is their attitude.

Most Muscovites are terse, cold and glum, and they hardly smile. I suppose friendliness is not instilled in their culture, and that did not make me feel welcome.

Russia is a country with a lot of red tape. Most of the jobs in Moscow are still labour-intensive, which make the procedures even lengthier.

The attitude towards work here doesn’t help, either: working hours are short and employees seem to take tea breaks whenever they want!

Funnily, when they are overwhelmed by work, they tend to shout at those in their way, especially those who don’t speak Russian. Initially, I was shocked that they behaved in that manner. Now, I simply shrug it off and think to myself: “They can’t help it, it’s their culture.”

The two main concerns I had before coming to Moscow were racism and safety. To my surprise, Malaysian girls feel safer on the streets here than they do back home! According to them, they don’t need to worry about snatch thieves or strange guys eyeing them promiscuously. Malaysian girls walk about Moscow freely because they feel a sense of security and confidence.

There was only one instance when Russian winos approached me and started talking incessantly.

Policemen can be seen everywhere. They constantly patrol the streets and randomly inspect people’s documents. So, if you’re travelling in Russia, be sure to carry your passport with you at all times.

Recently, a parent contacted me. He was hoping to send his daughter to Moscow to study medicine and was under the impression that RSMU is the third-best university in the world. This is the sort of “misinformation” which agents are feeding parents back in Malaysia. The truth is, you only get what you pay for in Russia.

Don’t expect the same quality of education as in the United Kingdom or Australia, at one tenth the price. The standard of education here is hardly world-class, although it isn’t bad either.

The main problem is that lecturers aren’t very well trained in English, so it’s hard for them to elaborate certain points if a student finds these unclear. But they are undeniably very knowledgeable and can express themselves very well in Russian.

I find the education system here very “old-school”: exams are mostly oral, subjective and lack standardisation. Depending on your examiner’s mood, you could fail or pass an exam. And did I mention that most Russians are quite emotional?

Every year, slightly more than 100 new students enter my university. Every one of them is housed in RSMU’s hostel, where I’m currently staying.

The catch is that there are more students entering the university than graduating from it. Therefore, there are more students than rooms to place them in.

Instead of finding a new building to house these students, the administrators seem to have decided that the easiest solution would be to fit three people in a room for two. Who’s to blame?

Can we blame the administration for not being able to find a new building for the increasing number of students? Or is it the agents back in Malaysia, who are sending more and more students over, without caring about the facilities available?

Fortunately, not everything is as bleak as I’ve just painted. Some lecturers are very kind and most of the doctors who have taught me are very caring at heart. And we find solace in class. For a few hours every day, we can sit down and truly be students, hungry to learn and be taught.

We also have gatherings during every Malaysian celebration, to draw ourselves closer to each other. We try to cook glorious food, play sports and go shopping together.

With over 500 of us in Moscow, the Malaysian student community is pretty tightly knit. (By the way, a random survey by the students’ association showed that what Malaysian students miss most about home is food, followed by shopping, then friends.)

If you meet the right people in Moscow, you’ll find that they can be quite friendly. I have many close Russian friends, whom I’ve gone on trips with. Typically, the younger generation has a different mindset and is more open towards foreigners. If you want to survive in this country, friends can really help make things easier.

Studying in Moscow is a unique experience. It has opened my eyes to what Russia is really like and made me appreciate the simple things I have back home – the friendliness and politeness of Malaysians, for example.

So if you’re a parent, don’t be swayed merely by the cheap fees here; there are some drawbacks.

If you’re an aspiring medical student thinking about studying in Moscow, consider your other options first. And if you still decide to come to Moscow, the RSMU Malaysian Students Association (rsmumed.com) can help make your transition a little easier.

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