From Russia with love
Post Independent Staff
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Before they got married in 1999, Glenwood residents Talbot and Laura Hardman talked about how much they both wanted to live in a foreign country.
“I’d only been to Canada, and Tal had only been to Mexico,” said Laura of the couple’s previous limited traveling experiences.
Nevertheless, in July 2000, just a few days before their one-year wedding anniversary, the two found themselves in Vladivostok, Siberia, reporting for a two-year Peace Corps stint teaching English.
Talbot, now 34, was assigned to teach at Irkutsk State University and Laura, 35, at School 47, a high school in Irkutsk, the capital city of eastern Siberia.
The two English teachers – Talbot now teaches at Colorado Mountain College and Laura at Glenwood Springs High School – decided to sign up for the Peace Corps after discovering the difficulties of obtaining international work visas.
“It’s a lot more difficult than we originally thought,” Talbot said. “The market is flooded with people wanting to work internationally.”
“We thought it would be a good time in our lives to go,” Talbot said. “We didn’t have any kids, pets or a house.”
The Peace Corps offered the Hardmans a way to realize their dream of world travel – albeit in Siberia, where temperatures sink to minus 45 degrees and colder.
The Hardmans didn’t know any Russian before they landed in Vladivostok, a port city on the southeastern edge of Russia. For 10 weeks, they and 39 other Peace Corps volunteers attended a “survival Russian” class, six hours a day, six days a week, learning the Cyrillic alphabet and an entirely new way of communicating.
With a basic knowledge of the Russian language came a newfound sense of being a part of the larger community.
“There’s a joke that you’re part of the collective when Russians yell at you,” Talbot said. “We got to that level.”
From Vladivostok, the Hardmans separated from the rest of their fellow Peace Corps volunteers and took a three-hour flight to Irkutsk. There they would spend the next 22 months living in a 400-square-foot dormitory room at Irkutsk State University, where Talbot taught English and literature.
“I remember saying to Tal, `I’m so glad I’m not here alone,'” Laura said.
Although they were the only Peace Corps volunteers in the city, their dorm housed international students. The couple met several Turkish students and became fast friends.
Talbot felt more accepted as a faculty member at the university level than Laura did teaching high school, where her English classes were electives and students were fairly lax about attending.
“School 47 is the biggest and best high school in the city,” she said. “It was so big, I just got absorbed into the school. I always felt like a guest. There were 2,000 students from kindergarten to 11th grade, and there were two school shifts a day. Classes are held on Saturdays, too.”
Laura said schoolteachers are paid paltry sums – the equivalent of about $45 a month. She said she never mentioned to anyone there that she and Talbot received a $6 per day stipend from the Peace Corps. That kind of money would have been considered middle to upper middle class wages, and surely could have bred resentment and jealousy, she said.
“There’s no way teachers there can live on what they make,” Laura said. “They all have other jobs, tutoring or whatever else they can do.”
Russian economics weren’t the only thing the Hardmans had to get used to.
“The first winter we were there, it didn’t get above minus 45,” said Talbot. “It was the coldest winter in a century.”
Summers were hot – generally in the 80s and humid. But Irkutsk is situated next to Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, and the couple planned getaways to the nearby countryside.
Between their first and second years, they were required to leave the country to renew their work visas. They traveled for about a month, visiting Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Greece and Turkey.
“We used the money we saved from our $6 a day stipend,” Laura said. “It’s pretty inexpensive to live in Russia.”
Culture shock was everywhere.
“Our second year was as wonderful as our first year was miserable,” said Laura with a smile.
Talbot said at first he didn’t understand the attitudes of the people he’d meet on the street.
“Initially, I thought they were a surly, grumpy group of people,” he said. “But soon we learned what big spirits the Russians have. We learned they generally don’t smile a lot in public because they feel it’s superficial. But we were invited into people’s homes, and that’s where you find out about the warmth and generosity of these people.”
Laura said the warmth of the Russian people really came to the forefront on Sept. 11, 2001.
“The next morning we heard that America was being attacked,” she said. “At first, we heard eight planes had gone down, and then four. We got so much support from the Russian people. They understand war. They flew the Russian flag at half mast.”
Laura said it was somewhat ironic that she and Talbot befriended two Iraqi men at the university while they were in Irkutsk.
“They were giving, warm and generous,” she said of their friends. “It really made it clear that a country’s foreign policy doesn’t necessarily represent the people of the country.”
Politics are an enigma to many Russians as well.
“There’s a lot of confusion about democracy, for example. We’ve been educated about what democracy is in this country for over 200 years. But for the Russians, it’s like they were living in a communist country and then in 1991, they woke up to a democracy. But nobody told them what democracy means.”
As the date got closer for the Hardmans to return to the United States, they dealt with new emotions.
“I really got used to being there,” Laura said of her Russian life. “I loved the markets, and the interaction with the local women. I loved speaking Russian. And I loved the little challenges that came up every day, like getting on a bus.”
But Talbot started looking forward to coming home.
“The closer the date, the more my head was back here,” he said. “I got my job at CMC while I was in Russia, and I was ready to come back and teach here, and ski. The only skiing I had done in Russia was some survival cross-country skiing on pure ice. Lift-served skiing was too expensive for us in Russia.”
The Hardmans have been back in Glenwood Springs since last summer, and have had time to process their Siberian adventure.
So would they go back? Talbot said the Peace Corps programs in Russia have been discontinued.
“Russians don’t understand the concept of volunteering,” he explained. “And Russians are proud people. They might have felt insulted in some way for having volunteers in their country.”
But the Hardmans have grown from their time in Siberia.
“Even though the Russian programs have been discontinued, our time with the Peace Corps inspired us to travel off the beaten path,” Laura said.
For their next journey, Talbot would like to go to Nepal; Laura would like to go to someplace “exotically different.” Both would like to participate in a Peace Corps program again, possibly when they retire.
“It’s great to be home,” said Talbot. “Seeing the world from a different perspective definitely makes you appreciate what you have.”
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