“Assumptions are dangerous things.”– Agatha Christie
University-aged students are more and more choosing to travel to foreign countries to participate in study abroad, direct exchange, and semester abroad programs. While these education and travel opportunities provide invaluable experience to young adults, they also come with hefty price tags and unique security concerns. If you are a student, or a parent of a student, who may be traveling abroad to study in the near future then this article series is for you. Your student’s life is far more valuable than any Ivy-League education — learn how to prepare for a semester abroad by reading through my own mistakes while traveling abroad in Russia, in this article series “ Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance: What a Student Traveling Abroad Ought to Know.”
In the first article of the series covering ‘arrogance’, I will explore how an arrogant perspective can lead to false assumptions about one’s safety while traveling abroad. A spirit of honest reflection has allowed me to identify many flaws in my attitude, the ways in which I prepared, and the habits I practiced before and during my time in Russia. Here, I will specifically focus on how danger manifested itself in my arrogance towards the Russian culture, which lead to costly assumptions about the likelihood that I would be the victim of a violent attack.
Finding myself staring into the eyes of my intoxicated Russian assailant was most certainly not the way I had envisioned my first acquaintance with the sleepless Moscow nightlife. Yet, there I was feeling utterly helpless as my pleas for help to the local bartender, just a pace or two away, were blatantly neglected. The attacker’s breath reeked of a lifetime of vodka, as he asserted himself more until his nose was pressed against my cheek.
My mind was racing in disbelief. How could my seemingly innocent decision to stop at the local piano bar have divulged into a terror of this sorts? Where was my American friend—had he not only stepped off to the restroom? Why was everyone acting like this was not even happening? Could not one patron see this aggressive man as he pinned me down on the table and began his assault? I had heard of those students who traveled to a foreign country for the semester of a lifetime, and were never heard of again — but that was not me! I had taken precautions: bought the anti-theft wallet, spent years learning the language, and immersed myself into studying the nuances of the Russian persona. Suddenly, it was clear that I had made some hefty assumptions about what “safety in Russia” meant; and to assume too much in an unforgiving place such as the streets of Moscow, had turned out to be a very dangerous thing.
Arrogance comes in many forms; it can be prideful, justified, and presumptuous. My arrogance assumed a more subtle role during my travel experiences in Moscow. Armed with my two and a half years of Russian studies at the university, I felt confident that I had a rather solid grasp on how the Russian mind worked. Refusing to buy into the American propaganda machine, I had made many assumptions about the Russian population – that all Muscovites were familiar with a tourist culture, and must have friendly intrigue towards the American tourist. I flippantly dismissed the warnings of friends and family concerning the high volume of criminals masked as unsuspecting and welcoming figures, as nothing more than paranoia. (It was clear they had been watching too many movies with Cold-War undertones!)
My arrogance showed itself in the form of assumptions. While it is only natural to make a certain degree of assumptions concerning one’s safety while traveling, I had gone much further than that and assumed absolute safety in a place where not even the residents make such arrogant assumptions. In my mind, I was safe as long as I did not wander off into some dark alley or give out personal information to a suspicious-looking individual; but, I need not worry about the café patron who wanted to hear about Hollywood, or ask if I had ever seen Alexander Ovechkin. Indeed, assumptions were frequently made in the first few weeks I spent in Moscow: I was a rare occurrence, I was an American, and I was untouchable. I was doomed for a violent reality-check…
Waking up the next morning I was thankfully alive and physically unharmed, but had an empty purse devoid of nearly two hundred dollars and I-Phone, and a wounded ego. I was bruised and shaken-up, yet determined to deliver a swift dose of justice to this criminal with the help of the Moscow city police department. Surely they would be distraught to hear of my trauma, wondering “How could this man tarnish the image of Moscow by preying on an American traveler?!” And surely the police department would spring into action: checking surveillance cameras, taking a thorough testimony, and investigating the scene of the crime. Unfortunately, my assumptions would again reveal my naivety—the police department was a bureaucratic nightmare with little regard for the plight of unknowing foreigners. I was beginning to realize that I was responsible for my own safety in Russia.
I refuse to believe that my own experiences in Russia are merely ‘unfortunate circumstances’ in which I was the doomed tourist, prey to the schemes of unruly criminals. Rather, I believe that I too am at fault for my assumptions and for my arrogance. Further to that point, I believe these experiences have warranted a careful reflection of the role I played in ensuring my own security. In this series, Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance: What A Student Studying Abroad Ought to Know I will meticulously recall the dangerous encounters I had in Russia and further, breakdown the components of each attack. Unfortunately, this incident was not the last of my experiences with criminals during the six months that I spent in Russia.
In the next article, I will provide a detailed timeline of the events leading up to the attack at the piano bar, applying notions of self-defense, preventative action, and travel security to the events that led up to my attack. My hope is that by sharing my travel experiences with you, my readers, I can help you to understand when, where, and how you can intercede in, or even prevent, the ‘attack cycle’ you may find yourself the victim of while you are traveling abroad.
~ Anna Johnson