Owen Murray: Study Abroad in Later Life

Published: May 24, 2007

Owen Murray started learning Russian late in life after meeting several Russian businessmen at a Rotary Club in California. He has since learned much of the language, traversed much of European Russia, and made a surprising number of friends, acquaintances, and good impressions on both sides of the Pacific through his genuine love for the people and culture.

Owen, like many, came across SRAS while searching for Russia-related information but has never actually been on an SRAS’s study abroad program. He sent us a positive note one day about enjoying the SRAS Monthly Newsletter. In the conversation that ensued, we learned that his experience with Russia and Russians was as diverse as it was unique. We asked him to share his story and this interview is the result of that.


SRAS: Can you describe how you first became involved with Russia?

Owen stands on the dividing line between Europe and Asia in Ekaterinburg, RussiaOwen Murray: I first became involved with Russia – really the Soviet Union – as a member of Strategic Air Command from 1960 through 1964. We were “on alert” most of the time, with our B-52 bombers regularly patrolling off of the Kamchatka Peninsula/Primorye areas. The Korean situation was unstable, and the Cold War was raging. In the process of gaining my security clearance, I had learned of my Eastern European heritage but I thought little of it at the time. Politics had us all both respecting and fearing the capabilities and intentions of the U.S.S.R., and we hoped that the feeling was mutual. Our American patriotism did not allow much sympathy for the Russian people, but throughout my youth, the Catholic Church prayed for them every Sunday at the end of Mass.

Fast-forward to 1997: I had retired from my law practice and was a member of our local Rotary Club. Rotary has a weekly attendance requirement (almost as stringent as the Catholic Church!) and so, while “making up” a missed meeting at a neighboring club, I noted that they had several (about 11) guests from Russia – bakery executives participating in a three-week seminar on financing, marketing and labor relations (they already knew how to bake) through the auspices of the Center For Citizens Initiatives in San Francisco. Two weeks later, I attended again at that club, and was intrigued by the delegates’ appreciation of the program. Together with a fellow member of my club (he of pure Russian heritage), my own Rotary Club joined the program, providing homestays and transportation for the delegates for one-third of the program time.

That first year for us (1998), my wife and I hosted two delegates for ten days. The younger spoke some English – about 100 words of vocabulary, so some conversation was possible. His background prior to baking was as a concert pianist, and he was very worldly, even to the point of buying a Ford Explorer, having it shipped to Helsinki, and driving it home to Dubna from there!

The older delegate spoke only a few words of English – comparable to our skills (or lack thereof) – in Russian. However, he and I were both hunters and fishermen and communicated by thought if not by word. We were (and remain to this day) like brothers: his family is mine and mine is his; our families dearly love each other.

This particular Rotary program continued for eleven years: my participation as a home-host, driver, tour guide, etc., spanned ten years, and several other similar programs, including visiting judges, lawyers, businessmen and musicians – an eventual total of 54 adults and three university students, for average stays of about ten days.

SRAS: Many people don’t realize that the business and cultural ties between America and Russia are really quite diverse and numerous. Through your involvement with a Rotary Club in California, you’ve hosted businessmen, students, and artists. Based on this, could you briefly describe some of the economic and cultural ties that exist between your corner of California and the Russian Federation?

Owen and Ruth Murray, pictured near Red Square, MoscowOwen Murray: Most of the Rotarian participants, like so many of the Russian delegates, were “Cold Warriors,” but most wished not only to befriend the others but also to understand and appreciate our similarities and differences in life and culture. After a couple of years (and following providing homestays to at least eight delegates and social events for many more), I began to appreciate the multiplier effect that these programs were having in Russia: some delegates come here already “knowing” us through their predecessors who had in turn referred them: a spouse, a nephew, co-workers – they came to America and learned what it was all about! Many were preconditioned by old Soviet propaganda (well, we Americans had our own preconceptions too!) and were stunned to learn that more than 160,000 Russian immigrants live in metropolitan San Francisco, and 720,000 within the State of California. Guiding the delegates through the area also educated many of us as well – discovering the ethnic Russian neighborhoods of San Francisco and the Russian River areas, appreciating Russian culture through the delegates and local Russian businesses, churches and the Russian Consulate (where I am now on a first-name basis with the consul-general and his deputy counsel general).

But charades, mime and limited English go only so far – we needed, desperately, to communicate with our future delegates, so in 2000 I began to study Russian at the local college – I, who, forty years before, barely passed Spanish by first flunking a year, then repeating it! I had the same experience with learning Russian, only my hearing had become much worse (it was difficult enough to converse in English, after all) and the teacher had a thick Moscow accent. I have retaken the first year of Russian twice, plus an intensive six-week course at Rostov State University.

The language study introduced me even further to Russian culture, and Russian-Americans whom I had met in the interim also increased my appreciations of things Russian. Gifts from delegates, and their stories, also enhanced our knowledge and understanding of their way of life.

SRAS: After all this cultural interaction with so many Russians, you must have a favorite story or two tell from these experiences. What has been the most revealing occurrence for you in terms of our two different cultures interacting?

Owen (far right) sits down to dinner with friends in Russia.Owen Murray: Our cultural interactions over the ten-year period are numerous and, of course, with our travels, include occurrences both in Russia and America. Some were strikingly revealing of likes: Georgi fishing, and then panning for gold, in the American River in Sacramento (our state capital); then my wife and I fishing in the delta of the Kuban west of Chechnya; and of past military attitudes: In 2000, there was a delegate who was short, stocky and grumpy with fellow delegates, staff and home hosts alike. At the Farewell Party, he stood near the hall entrance and glowered at everybody. I had had enough of this negative attitude by then so I stopped about 15 inches in front of him, saying, “Hello.” He made a menacing expression, pounded his chest with his fists, saying “Missiles, missiles, missiles!” I responded by making the whistling sounds of bombs dropping, then saying, “B-52’s, B-52’s, B-52’s!” His expression changed to one, first, of astonishment, then changed to a huge smile, and I was given a bear hug and kissed, twice. From then on, he was the life of the party, joining with one and all in the revelry – sadly, this was three weeks into the program; but at least he finally joined in. A wall had fallen, and an understanding reached!

In traveling to Russia, we discovered that, European Russia greatly resembles our own Northern Mid West: the weather, the agriculture, the challenges of life, the generosity of the people. Truly, if you placed Krasnodar onto Omaha, Nebraska, from there west to the Rocky Mountains, east to the Appalachians, and north to the ice fields of Northern Canada, only the languages would differ.

Two points about generosity (as distinguished from the fantastic Russian hospitality): On one occasion we were in the Kuban, passing through a very small village, when we saw a lovely young lady selling cabbages from a pile in her yard. My host, Georgi, told me to pick one out – we had no vegetable for dinner. After I chose one, he directed me back to the car. He handed a paper ruble note to the girl, who then went into the house to get change. Upon returning, she first asked Georgi if I was a foreigner, then if I was an American. When this was confirmed, she returned the ruble note to Georgi, saying that “Americans love cabbage” and that the cabbage was a gift from her to me. In Russian, the word for cabbage is used as slang to mean “money,” so this was a pun on our perceived love for money. This from a farm girl who needed the money for her own household! That was in 2002.

In 2004, while we were in Rostov-na-Donu, my wife and I were touring the city by riding the buses. At the end of one line, my wife paid the fare – 5 rubles each, and then we exited the bus. While we stood at the bus stop, the driver relaxed and had a cigarette. When he finished, he got off the bus and came over to where Ruth and I were discussing, in Russian, where to go next. The driver waited for us to pause, then he handed Ruth two 5-ruble coins, saying, “It is a gift.” We were absolutely astounded! We had not forgotten the “cabbage gift” two years before; but we simply could not believe it! Of course, we tried to return the fares, thanking him, but he refused to accept.

Another instance (and there were many!) occurred on and following a bus ride to Azov: Just before arriving, I goaded Ruth into asking directions to our next destination from a passenger across from her. She did; he ignored her; but the fellow next to him replied, in broken English, that he would guide us. He was a businessman who had some governmental matter to attend to, but was willing to help, and help he did! The museum and town tour took almost 90 minutes, was fantastic, and he refused to take any gift or even coffee or a drink! In fact, it became so late in the day that we hoped that the municipal offices were still open. The museum folks also went far out of their way to show us their paleontological and historical/cultural exhibits. While visiting Taganrog, and the Chekhov Museum, the guide invited Ruth to play the Chekhov Family piano. She did, reading music from the exhibit. What courtesy, and what a thrill, for everyone. We still have pictures!

SRAS: I simply have to interject here – Russians love when foreigners make a genuine effort to understand the Russian language and culture. A smile and a few words of polite, if broken, Russian can earn you access to a Russian’s heart and open doors that might otherwise remain closed to other tourists, businessmen, and researchers. I couldn’t count the number of stories I’ve heard that are similar to these you’ve been telling. I am also interested, you began to learn Russian at age 60 and after you started to have difficulty hearing. First, if I may ask, how bad is your hearing? Second, have you found that this has affected your ability to learn Russian? Have your teachers or tutors found ways to circumvent this difficulty?

Owen and friend on a fishing trip in Russia. Owen Murray: My hearing difficulties began with a 1948 auto accident – I was seven at the time. The nerve damage worsened with exposure to B-52 engine noise and, of course, with age. Hearing/understanding in group conversations is next impossible. Much of what I “get” is from reading lips, and while I am pretty adept at this in English, it was (and remains) a challenge in Russian. Ask my teacher! So, I read well, speak fair to good, and understand poorly. Thus, I mostly speak (of course, I am a lawyer!) and hope that my wife understands the responses. Fortunately, our teachers at Rostov State spoke excellent English – one had studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the text books were, while modern, of the same style as our circa 1950’s college texts, grounded first in grammar, then in vocabulary, rather than the reverse which is so popular now. A humorous story: Our 2004 trip to Russia was planned because we (mostly me) really missed the place, and especially our friends. Attending a university seemed like a way for us to be more independent of, and thus less of a burden to our friends. We could learn, academically and practically, enjoying daily Russian life (in winter-time!). In retrospect, we should have chosen a more remote place than the crossroad city of the south but, then again…the cosmopolitan nature of Rostov, and its moderate size, allowed us many opportunities and experiences; so many, in fact, that we only enjoyed a small fraction of the cultural events! Need more time there, like months!

The university experience was excellent. We, as senior citizens, were treated with great respect, and our opinions sought. Our Russian was poor, but it did improve, and we worked at it. Homework was usually a portion of the end-of-chapter questions; we, however, did them all, each independently of the other. When the dean, Nina, assigned essays to describe our home area, she could not have expected more divergent presentations: mine dealt with facts and measures and economics; Ruth discussed culture, art and community. Nina was just flabbergasted! She understood our Russian, too! Having Ruth there to repeat (in Russian) instructions, comments, etc., certainly helped me to understand and produce. We were the only ones in our classes most of the time. (One classmate with whom we started was from East Germany. His Russian seemed very good, especially his vocabulary; his English was of like quality. However, he was slowed down by us, so he went to a different class.) After a few weeks, the grammar teachers asked us to turn in less homework – they were becoming over-worked reviewing it and not spending any time with their families on weekends! Ha! The pupils’ revenge!

SRAS: So why did you choose Rostov-na-Donu over other, more popular destinations such as Moscow or St. Petersburg?

A 'house mother' from a past trip Owen took to the Sochi area.Owen Murray: Why did we not choose to study in Moscow or St. Pete? There were many reasons: First, we had few friends there, so there was a social factor. We were far beyond the ages of most students, and while perhaps somewhat interesting, we were a “drag” to have around: “Who wants grandma and grandpa in the dorm and classroom?”

Second, we would be lost in huge cities, particularly ones catering to tourists, most of whom speak English. We wished to be immersed in Russian, to feel the culture, to share with the people – those our own age, and the families. We wanted to be compelled to speak Russian and, in doing so, made many, many casual acquaintances – on buses, in shops, stores, banks, and rinoks (marketplaces). We immensely enjoyed becoming known to neighbors and shopkeepers, clerks and tellers, and bartenders! At one “Irish pub” in Rostov, we walked in the door on a second visit, and the waitress started preparing our drinks before we had a chance to sit down.

The Tatar girl selling pickled vegetables at the market encouraged us to try everything she had in stock, eventually.

The girl selling kolbasa (sausage) wanted us to take her picture with us. Since Ruth could not hide that she was American, (and our Russian must have sounded horrible anyway!) fellow passengers mobbed us to practice their English (some spoke very well!), and then enquire as to why, in the world, would Americans want to learn to speak Russian! That, practically nobody could understand.

We were encouraged, despite our obvious embarrassment, to pay the reduced fare on transit, either at the “student rate” (everybody, including the drivers, chuckled at that!) or the “senior rate.” Paying five rather than two or three rubles sometimes even got us frowned at. Could we have had experiences like these in Moscow or St. Pete? No, because we were there, too, and life was just too demanding for those living there. Courtesy – a little less; smiles – a lot less; hospitality – almost comparable, but limited in scope and opportunity.

No, we much preferred the outlying areas, as we do here in America. It is closer, more friendly and familiar, kinder and gentler. If we were seeking advanced studies – fine. But, we were tourists studying Russian (in the autumn of our lives); we were not students enjoying tourism. We had provided homestays to many: they were our guests the first day; family the next. We wished to be treated the same way.

SRAS: Well, it sounds like you managed to “tap into” Russian culture and experience it to the fullest while you were here. Maladets! Did you find that traveling together with your wife affected your choice of housing or program type? Were you generally comfortable during your stay and in the course of your program?

Ruth Murray on a fishing trip in Russia.Owen Murray: As an older married couple, which has traveled through every state in America, and many in Mexico plus the Western provinces in Canada, and having lived both in cities and on farms, we are very flexible. In the first place, whenever we are boarding a plane or train, we introduce ourselves in Russian to the staff and communicate our pleasure in meeting and traveling with them, on their plane, train, etc. From then on, we are usually treated like royalty, even to the point where, on Aeroflot returning to the U.S., the crew asks me to assist Russian travelers to complete the (in English) customs documents. Our positive, friendly attitudes were returned in kind.

In our travels, we stayed in apartments, houses, a dormitory, a Cossack schoolhouse converted into a boarding house, and a fish shack. The toilet facilities varied greatly.

We regretted nothing, other than not being able to stay longer and do more. Our hosts always saw to our comfort and safety, often going far out of their way to not only please, but to exalt us. At one apartment, we were locked in when alone – for our safety, they said. Following that, in another city, we arrived at the obshchezhitie (dormitory); our host was embarrassed about this, but his parents’ apartment was too small for all of us. Well, there we had a fridge and TV, and the keys (main entrance, floor door, and room door) to ourselves. We were free to come and go as we pleased! The house mothers shared our delight, and we really enjoyed our stay in Chelyabinsk. This was in 2002.

On our study trip, in 2004, the university arranged for us to stay with a retired high school coach – she had a three-room apartment. She had boarded students before (single teen-aged girls), but never a couple, especially one much older that she. While the facilities were acceptable, her attitude toward me was not. She was estranged from her husband and children – they had moved to East Germany. She deeply regretted the breakup of the Soviet Union (which had been surely to her financial detriment). She, however, was unusually solicitous to my wife which, though sometimes embarrassing to Ruth, was of considerable benefit when Ruth was seriously ill (right at the time of our arrival: we thoroughly tested the Russian medical system, finding it caring and thorough, even if somewhat limited in equipment. We experienced care at three clinics, two hospitals, one laboratory, two ambulance calls with one transport, and several pharmacies, all in Rostov except for the airport clinic in Moscow. The care was efficient and heartfelt, greatly appreciated, and cost little. A difficult and dangerous situation was made quite acceptable by nurses, physicians, technicians and flight attendants.

SRAS: Well, I’m certainly glad that everything worked out. Did you find that your hearing made traveling in Russia difficult?

Owen Murray: Traveling anywhere, including Russia with poor hearing, is challenging, even without a foreign language factor. When both my “Russian brother” and his wife became seriously ill in mid-2003, I flew over and cared for them, as they had cared for me, for a month. This time, Ludmilla (the wife) was too ill to keep me from shopping, cooking, washing dishes, and the like. I just took over the household management: I answered the door, and the phone, asking everyone, “please speak slowly” and even took phone messages. I helped some folks who needed it, and greatly enjoyed doing it. What an experience!

SRAS: So exactly how extensively have you traveled Russia and what is your favorite story to tell from these travels? What was the most surprising thing you saw while in the Russian Federation?

Owen, apparently preparing to attack the Okhotnyi Ryad Shopping Center across from Red Square in Moscow.Owen Murray: Other than around the Voronezh area, and north and west of Moscow, we have traveled extensively in European Russia – and I pine away to visit Siberia! We have so many friends in KurganNovosibirskVladivostok and elsewhere, and many have extended hunting and fishing invitations. Will I ever find the time?

Of course, as first-time tourists, we stayed in Moscow (in a hotel, then an apartment) and rode the Metro (which is nice and has nice artwork). On the way to St. Petersburg, I rode with the engineer and his crew (on a dark, moonless night, on the night train to Leningrad!), for an hour and a half – we all took turns teasing the engineer, who was too busy to tease back!

In St. Petersburg, we stayed in a lovely apartment, enjoyed the beauty of the city and its historical environs, hated the traffic (there was heavy construction in anticipation for the city’s 300th birthday party in May, 2003), and we presented flowers to the diva after the ballet at the Hermitage Theatre. (I thanked her, in Russian, for her performance; she thanked me, in English, for the flowers!)

From there, we entrained east to Ekaterinburg (and by car to Nizhny Tagil and Chelyabinsk). We flew, afterwards, to Rostov-na-Donu in the south, visiting Shakhty, Starominskaya, Krasnodar by car. From Shakhty, we entrained to Volgograd, which had previously been named Stalingrad. Ah, Stalingrad, how you suffered in 1942-43! I climbed the hill; I cried at the Memorial; I admired and saluted Mat Rodina; and was astounded by the art and presentations at the Pavilion. I examined the one veteran tree that survived the battle, it being filled with bullets and shrapnel, but still alive and thriving! I piloted a tour boat down the Volga, and a river patrol boat down the Don from Kalash-na-Donu. How I love Russia!

We attended, and often made presentations at, Rotary Club meetings in Moscow, Volgograd and Rostov-na-Donu. The presentations often began in Russian but, much to the relief of everyone, ended in English. Rotary, and its dedication to public service, is rapidly expanding in Russia.

The trip to Volgograd began in momentous fashion: We boarded the 23:30 train in Shakhty, with reservations for two in a four-person kupe (private car). We were loaded with luggage (for two-season traveling). Georgi explained us to the conductress (a strong though short Russian woman). We greeted her, and she showed us to our room, placing one bag inside, and then returned to her room. We went inside, found both lower bucks occupied, and decided that the occupants were not about to move. So, resigned to our fate, we returned to the corridor and sat on the rest of our luggage, joking with each other (in English) about our fine accommodations to Volgograd! After about twenty minutes, another passenger squeezed by us toward the front of the car. Shortly after the passenger squeezed by, the conductress bolted out of her cabin, raced down the corridor to us, and ripped open the compartment door. Saying nothing to us, she ripped open the kupe door, ordered both occupants out of the room, grabbed and stored each piece of our luggage, remade the beds, assigned us to our bunks (mine was the lower) and helped Ruth to the upper. She then tucked me in (but refrained from kissing me goodnight!). Only then did she allow the previous occupants to re-enter, continuing to berate them, and they meekly took it. The next morning when I awoke, both were staring at me apologetically. After I happily greeted them in a friendly manner, they relaxed somewhat, but not entirely – they seemed to fear something, probably the conductress!

As I said, we were often treated like royalty, especially on trains, and we tried to show our appreciation. If there was a lengthy stop, even at three or four in the morning, I would get off the train to see the station, the grandmother-vendors, and the goods for sale. Often, the assistant conductress would follow me closely, and give me hints or gestures as to what was good or not, or too expensive. That was so thoughtful and helpful!

At one long stop, I did not buy anything, but I did mingle and tried to converse with the vendors. When the train departed, practically all of the grandmothers smiled and waved at me, and I at them. I got a nice smile from my protectress, too. So many adventures. So much joy.

I have had only two negative experiences in those three trips, and both were my fault. One involved a porter and his illegal taxi service. The other was an immigration matter arising from my hosts not allowing me to properly register my visa.

My greatest surprise in our Russian travels occurred during our train ride from St. Petersburg to Ekaterinburg: it was the millions of hectares of fallow but apparently fertile land, and the seemingly mostly-abandoned towns and villages. Although in a northerly climate, this land should have been producing crops, but there was little farming or equipment to be seen. I suppose that the young people had moved to the cities. Efficient farming is difficult, and not for the older folks, but it did seem a waste of food production opportunities.

SRAS: Yes, agriculture in Russia is in a state of crisis right now, due to several reasons including land speculation, depopulation, and a lack of effective government programs to encourage active investment into the sector. However, I’ve kept you for quite a long time now, though I must ask as a final question: “With all experience, what are your plans for the future as pertains to Russia?”

Owen and Ruth in a Volgograd park.Owen Murray: Regarding the future, despite the end of the Rotary-C.C.I. programs, we continue to host Russian visitors. Medical issues have forestalled some travel, but those are now behind me. Ruth’s job presently prevents extended travel. I really miss not being in Russia, and enjoying our visits. We must see and experience Siberia, take the Trans-Siberian Railway, and hunt pig, deer, and bear, and fish for trout, pike, and salmon. But most especially, renew our friendships.

We pray for Russia, for the success and happiness of the Russian people and for President Putin and his successors. May God bless them all.

About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for The School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) and Communications Director for Alinga Consulting Group. In those capacities, he has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs

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