Is Voronezh an international city? Is VSU an international university? Are there any borders left today between the universities, cities, and countries? In the age of worldwide integration and tolerance we answer these questions together with our guests who have once connected their lives with VSU.
As often happens to international students coming to Voronezh, at first they study at the International Education Institute of VSU. So did Parfait.
Parfait Luth Armel came to Voronezh from Congo (Central Africa) in 2002. He lived in Russia for almost ten years: at first he studied at the International Education Institute, then entered the Faculty of Chemistry of VSU. Starting from the second year, he began participating in the International Song and Dance Festival “Let’s Join Hands” organised by the International Education Institute. At first Parfait performed together with his friends, then became the host of the festival. He is grateful to his teachers from the International Education Institute of VSU, Director of the Institute Vladimir Rodionov and Deputy Director for extra-curricular activities Nadezhda Shabunina, who helped him to fulfil himself and not get lost in a foreign country.
“It was the fastest and the most effective way to learn about the Russian culture,” says Parfait remembering his participation in the festival. “And I enjoyed it a lot. Once we presented a potpourri of Russian songs about war, about the Victory Day, and about Snegurochka... We believed we had picked the most emotional ones and transformed them into one song. Of course, we took first place.”
Parfait still watches the old videos of his performances and says that he hardly recognises himself in them. He says he is much older now and adds, “I can’t understand how I could sing like that because I was just a chemistry student and not a singer.
But we had great singing teachers. And we were accompanied by the professional who played this Russian musical instrument, what is it called... Balalaika, right?”
Parfait and his friends performed most of their songs to the balalaika and piano, a real harmony of strings and keys. They were often joined by local music groups, and the one he remembers especially well is the national folk dance group “Nadezhda” from the Voronezh House of Schoolchildren.
In 2011 Parfait went to France and taught chemistry in one of the colleges. Today he works in Tour Montparnasse, a famous skyscraper in Paris, as a technical assistant to the police or, in other words, as a medical examiner. He keeps in touch with the city of his student days and last time he came to Voronezh in 2018 for VSU’s centenary.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” says Parfait about his last visit. “I got the impression that Voronezh has changed a lot, I mean the people’s mentality. It has changed for the better.”
Twice a year Parfait goes to Moscow and he can hardly believe that Russia has changed so much - “for me personally”, he adds. Maybe because his girlfriend is waiting for him here in Russia?
“Three hours on the Paris-Moscow plane, then two hours on the Moscow-Tyumen plane, and I can meet her. It’s not such a long way from Paris to Tyumen as one may think.”
Divine Niambi came to Voronezh from Congo in 2012. And she also joined the folk song and dance club at the International Education Institute.
“I really like singing,” says Divine. “I started singing back at home in Congo but I got an opportunity to perform in front of a large audience here in Voronezh.”
It was again the “Let’s Join Hands” festival that helped Divine to find her audience.
“We, international students, were always happy to take part in the festival,” remembers Divine. “Not only because we could perform on a big stage in front of many people but also because we could show ourselves, show our country and its culture. But the most interesting thing was not the festival itself but the preparation, when we invented our performances and thought them through, when we rehearsed every day... It seemed like one big meeting to us.”
Interestingly, Divine notes, “There were many things I didn’t know about the cultures of the other countries... Although I’m from Africa, I can say there were a lot of things I didn’t know about it.”
Divine sang in three languages: Lingala (one of the national languages in Congo), French, and Russian.
“I became a little star of the International Education Institute of VSU”, says Divine.
And she is right: being an all-time participant of seven seasons of “Let’s Join Hands”, she was chosen by the audience as the most outstanding performer of the festival. Divine also performed together with other local music groups who sang in Russian. She is especially proud of her performance with the vocal group “Voronezhskiye devchata”.
The Faculty of Philology of VSU, then master’s degree at the Faculty of International Relations... Divine believes the time she spent in Voronezh (7 years in total) was the best in her life: performances in public spaces, university, friends...
“The last years in Voronezh I felt really sad. It was so hard to leave the city that became dear to me,” says Divine.
In 2019 she went to Moscow and entered a postgraduate programme in the People’s Friendship University of Russia. Every weekend she used to come to Voronezh but with every year it seemed further and further away, not in her mind, but geographically.
Today Divine lives in France, she works there and studies in a university in Paris. She says if it wasn’t for Covid, she would be in Russia now.
“I never thought that once I would say that I miss Russia. Only when I left I realised how much had I grown to love this country. Sometimes I wanted to leave. But, as the saying goes, we don’t care about what we have, but we cry when it is gone,” admits Divine.
Constantina Nchama Bakale Okomo came to Voronezh from Equatorial Guinea in 2014. She will soon complete her master’s degree at the Faculty of Journalism of VSU.
“Studying abroad is, surely, a privilege,” Constantina says. “Especially when your family supports you and can pay for your education. Although receiving a diploma of a foreign university is prestigious, it is still very hard to stay abroad. I have lived in Voronezh for almost seven years, and the first of them were the most difficult.”
Over time, Constantina got used to Russia, to Voronezh, and to VSU. Now she can understand Russian language quite well (but speaking is harder). She has made friends, especially among other international students.
“Staying in Voronezh during all these years helped me to understand more, in particular, how to live with people of other nationalities. I make friends with people regardless of their nationalities, I just help them, and they help me,” shares Constantina.
During her first year in Russia she found the language very difficult and used Google Translate to communicate with people.
“It made me laugh and cry a lot. My heart broke when I saw off my friends at the station who were returning to their home countries.” One of the greatest advantages of studying in Russia for Constantina is having a lot of free time.
“Back home I would have to work and study at the same time. Here I only attend the university and the rest of the time I spend at home in front of the computer. I only go out to get some fresh air and see my friends. But it doesn’t happen very often as I am a difficult person...”
Constantina spends almost all her free time in front of the computer writing stories, poems, and essays and reading. Her love of literature goes back to her school days.
“It is the “rage and passion” of poetry makes me feel led to the publication of my first novel “Bindang’s Screams”. The book was published by the publishing house “Círculo Rojo” at the beginning of the year in Spain. Most of the events described in the novel were real. The main character, a girl named Bindang, compares modern times to the times when her mother was young. A lot has changed, and a revolution has broken out in the country. To preserve their freedom, young people have to pretend, to lead an equivocal mode of life, and reap its terrible fruits. This was impossible to imagine at the time of Bindang’s mother’s youth.”
Constantina adds that in several months her second book, “A Letter for Melania Okomo”, will come out.
“It is a play that I dedicate to my mother, a letter that I’m writing to her from Russia.”
Still, Constantina admits that living in a foreign country is one of the best periods of her life.
“What will happen next after all these years?” she wonders. “I will definitely go back to Equatorial Guinea to spend time with my family.
And I will definitely go to Spain to present my book. What happens first, I’m still not sure.”