Discovering Russia Through Basketball

Three weeks ago, my father’s barber questioned why I would want to study in Russia. A Russian emigre, the barber said St. Petersburg and Moscow are beautiful cities. But they are also dangerous, especially for Americans who don’t speak Russian. He was very intent on making my father and myself believe that Russia was rotten to the core.

As a political science student, I was well aware of Russia’s hisotry of corruption during the past 20 years. Still, I wanted to go see it for my myself. And I did so obeying one of the first lessons any poli sci student learns: Never trust the words of an emigre.

Before arriving here in St. Petersburg, all I wanted to do was go out into the street on my own and talk to Russians, see the country through its everyday people. This did not take long. By the second day in St. Petersburg, I was already wandering the streets of Vasilyevsky Island, one of the many islands that make up this city, looking for adventure.

I found that adventure in a game of basketball.

Passing a local basketball court, I saw a young man teaching his younger brother how to play basketball. This seemed to not only be a chance to engage in conversation, but an opportunity for myself to participate in an activity with locals. Immediately I decided to go up and introduce myself.
The young man was named Alex, and he was an 18-year-old student from Kemerovo, a city of 500,000 in southwestern Siberia.

Alex is currently studying law at St. Petersburg State University, where Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin received their law degrees.

Alex taught me a game that’s name happens to be my lucky number. Called 33, the game consists of players taking turns and receiving three points for every basket they make. The first to score thirty three wins. The is not as easy as it sounds. Players must shoot from wherever the ball landed from his opponent’s previous shot.

As we played 33, Alex and I discussed contemporary Russian politics. Unlike other Russians I had talked you, Alex actually was supportive of Putin and Medvedev. “Medvedev is intelligent man and Putin is strong.” When I asked if the Russia’s current leadership were good for Russia, Alex responded, “They hold Russia,” meaning they prevent the country from descending back into the chaos of the 1990s.

Despite his support of Putin, Alex was very aware of the problems confronting Russia. When asked if he believes Russia is democratic, Alex said, “Russia has democracy, but has many different problems in many different Oblasts.” Oblasts are regions organized into a politcal entity, such as an American state, that are ethnically Russian.

Alex recognizes that there is strong corruption at all levels of public and private life. However, this does not crush his optimism that his country will improve. “I believe in the future, Russia become better,” said the future lawyer from Siberia.

Alex and I shared a similar vision of our own own futures. Both of us would like to become attorneys and eventually serve in government. Maybe one day we will meet again on opposite sides of a negotiating table. And maybe, by that time, his country will be become the better Russia he envisions.