This is a photo of Geniya and Natasha, two young ladies who are my dear friends. The photo was taken on a beautiful day in November after the first dusting of snow. Outside Krasnoyarsk, Russia is a beautiful nature preserve named Stolbe, with great hiking trails and places to practice your rock climbing skills if you are so inclined. It was a favorite pastime for Geniya and Natasha to go hiking in Stolbe on weekends, especially in the winter, and lucky for me, they were eager to take me along.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in 2000, I was assigned to Krasnoyarsk, Russia, in the middle of Siberia, to teach business courses at the Siberian Aerospace Academy (SAA). Geniya and Natasha worked in the administration office at the university, and were assigned the responsibility of helping me learn my way around Krasnoyarsk.
I was fifty-seven when I joined the Peace Corps, and after ten weeks of language training in a small town outside Moscow, I boarded a train and travelled half way across Russia to the city of Krasnoyarsk. Geniya and Natasha took me under their wings and basically saved my life. My Russian language skills after ten weeks of training were “survival” Russian. I never had an aptitude for learning languages, but when you are put in a position where you really need to learn a language it is amazing how much you can learn in ten weeks. However, without Geniya and Natasha I would have probably given up after a few weeks or months. They showed me where to shop for groceries, where a couple inexpensive restaurants were located close to my apartment, how to use the city bus system, which would have been impossible to learn on my own, and generally helped me get adjusted to living in the middle of Siberia.
Geniya was a graduate from the SAA and continued taking additional courses while working in the administration office. Natasha was still an undergraduate, taking courses and working part time in the office. Natasha’s pay for four hours of work per day was 28 rubles, or approximately U.S. $1.00 per day. Coincidentally, at the time, my wife was working at a part time job and was complaining about only making $7.00 per hour. Can you imagine surviving on an income of $1.00 per day?
Both Geniya and Natasha spoke excellent English. I soon learned that most young people in Krasnoyarsk spoke some English. The Russian school system starts teaching students a foreign language in elementary school usually by the time they are ten years old, sometimes sooner. There are also private English classes available all over Krasnoyarsk. Some of the classes are available for children as young as six, and there are many classes for adults.
I have lost touch with both Geniya and Natasha, but I think of them often. Natasha got married and moved away from Krasnoyarsk just after I returned home from my Peace Corps experience. Geniya moved to a different job after a few years, and eventually we also lost contact. I will always remember my two “Russian daughters” who were so kind and helpful to the “old American professor”.