The arrogance that accompanied my 21st year of life led me to ignore most safety considerations for the entire six months of my study abroad program in Moscow, Russia. In fact, despite enduring and surviving a rather scary piano-bar attack, towards the end of my stay in Moscow I was more confident than ever in my “guaranteed” security; and more prone to apathetically going about my final days in the city I had grown so fond of.
In my previous article of the series, “ Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance: What a Student Traveling Abroad Ought to Know“, I told the detailed story of the attack I encountered at a piano-bar on one of my first nights out on the town in Moscow. After having time to process the occurrence, and truly evaluate the role I played in increasing the potential for security threats to become a reality, I determined that an arrogant attitude coupled with ignorance of cultural cues led to an empty wallet and a night that most students cannot imagine happening on their study abroad adventure. I would like to say that after the night at the piano bar I “wised up” and began to take responsibility for my own safety; but, this could not be further from the truth. In this article, A Semester Abroad: Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance, Part 3, I will describe how apathy began to seep into my daily lifestyle as a student studying abroad. Ultimately, with just one month left in my stay, I was once again the victim of a criminal attack — only this time much worse.
Getting Too Comfortable
Many study abroad programs last for well over a month; in my case, six months. In the course of a six month stay, it is only natural to begin to feel at ‘home’, more familiar with the environment, and more comfortable with your surroundings. A student may begin to learn the unique social ques of the culture, the euphemisms behind much of the language used on the street, or perhaps the style of dress begins to become more attractive. By my third month in Moscow I had secured a part-time job as an English teacher, learned how to navigate the Moscow metro, and even made several local friends. I would certainly describe myself as being comfortable in my new-found environment, so much so that I began to dismiss (even more so than before) the common safety concerns that many international students spoke of in the dormitory . For example, the crowd of “hooligans” (as they were called by local Russians) that congregated around the corner market and the metro stop nearest my dormitory became common place; I seemed to never notice them, and was indifferent to their calls, choosing to tune them out.
It is quite normal to grow accustomed to one’s environment and if we as humans did not adapt appropriately we would have bigger issues. Never-the-less, too much comfort in a rather unfamiliar environment (three to six months can still constitute unfamiliarity!) can result in apathy; I simply did not care about these so-called ‘threats’ because as far as I was concerned I had for the most part disproved them with my comfortable stay in Moscow.
The problem with choosing not to care is you are choosing to not be aware. Situation awareness is defined as “the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission.” More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you; and no, it does not only apply to law enforcement officers or armed services members. Any student studying abroad must learn to exercise situational awareness habits on a regular basis. Growing too comfortable, too apathetic to the ebbs and flows of hooliganism, for example, can be dangerous. Sure, tuning out some guys that make incessant cat-calls your way is one thing; but, tuning out the whole picture all together is a risky mistake. Now, let me briefly introduce how my apathy, comfort, and lack of respect for situational awareness divulged into another security threat.
When You Least Expect It
Many of the international students that lived in the dormitory with myself and other Americans were scheduled to leave Moscow soon, and we all decided to gather at one of our favorite ex-pat restaurants for dinner and drinks. I had been to this place, “Papa’s” as we called it, countless times during my stay. At times I had even traveled by metro or taxi to and from the restaurant with absolutely no issues. “Papa’s” had become a safe haven for international students studying in Moscow, and the last place I expected to be scoped out for a dangerous kidnapping scheme.
I enjoyed my night with friend, reminiscing about all the adventures we had while studying in Russia. As the night went out I grew tired and decided I should head home. I asked if anyone wanted to accompany me, but did not think twice to wait when no one wanted to go home quite yet. I payed my bill and walked out front where the familiar sight of a row of un-marked taxis waited to take the restaurant patrons home. I negotiated my fare with an average looking fellow, hopped in the front seat (something I had done countless times, yet turned out to be a costly mistake) and told the taxi driver where I would like to be dropped off. Shortly after, I knew something was not right.
As we drove further and further away from the center of the city, where my dorm was located, I grew more and more anxious — demanding to know where he was taking me. I began to frantically think of a plan, and curse my own stupidity…my own apathetic, too-comfortable attitude towards the dangerous realities of the big city. Unfortunately, ‘thinking of a plan’ when you are already in the middle of a dangerous scheme is quite literally too little too late. In the next few moments I suddenly realized that I had skipped over all opportunities for prediction and prevention when it comes to avoiding potential security threats; I now in the middle of my very own nightmare, and the only choice I had was to respond to the threat unfolding in front of my eyes.
I demanded one last time to know where we were going, speaking Russian with some powerful colloquialisms mixed in — a futile attempt at talking tough hoping that it would intimidate this man! As soon as the words were out of my mouth, the real dangerous part of the attack began. While driving down the road, he leaned over and began to hit me while trying to remove my phone and purse from my person. Too little, too late…I was living out the worst possible study abroad adventure I could have ever imagined.
A recent report released by the U.S. State Department in 2015 revealed that choosing to travel or study abroad in Russia requires extra precautions to ensure one’s own safety and security. Criminal activity such as petty crime, physical attacks, and corrupt law enforcement is on the rise in the Russian Federation: “The social and political unrest in Ukraine has led to increasing political tensions between the Russian Federation and the U.S. and other Western nations. As a result, anti-American and anti-Western sentiment appears to be increasing, especially in certain media outlets.” Studying abroad now, even more so than when I studied in Moscow in 2013, carries new security threats. Do not let this deter you to the point of staying home (remember: You will face potential security threats in every country you travel to), rather choose to be prepared, well-equipped, and alert.
The facts are clear, and the warnings are there to benefit travelers…if we choose to listen to them.
In the next article, the last of the series, I will provide a detailed account of the ending to my taxi-cab ordeal. Though the violence escalated, I was able to escape (hence me living to tell about it!). Stay tuned for the end of the story and some final thoughts on how you can be in control of your own safety while studying abroad!