Puzzling Through: Finding Common Language at a Russian Media Festival

Published August 25, 2016

“He’s milking a cow?!”

The three American students looked up from the video they were watching, mystified. They were trying to figure out who Nikita Dzhigurda was, as the Russian actor and singer danced around a stable, wearing leather bracers, sunglasses, and a metal bucket on his head. The closest they could get was “Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Weird Al Yankovich” rolled into one. Either something had gotten lost in translation, or Russia was going to be quite a bit more of an adventure than the three students from Florida could have anticipated.    

Making small-talk is an easy way to break the ice when meeting new people and figuring out your commonalities. It’s quite easy to take for granted, but the polite, casual, and incidental conversations that arise every day in social situations are oddly complex. They require vast, nuanced, and perpetually-changing knowledge of popular culture and current events.  On top of that, even small-talk requires some degree of common vocabulary and linguistic competency. You can likely pick up a conversation with any stranger on a random innocuous topic because you speak the same language and may have seen similar headlines, movie posters, or viral videos earlier in the day.

Now imagine that none of those commonalities existed.

That’s what it was like when in May, 2016, as several US and Russian students met at the Volga Encounters Youth Media Festival in Cheboksary, Russia. The three Florida high school students — Lee Giat, Daniel Pursell, and Ricky Kidder — were attending the festival as part of the US-Russia Youth TV Bridge, a collaborative media project implemented by Eurasia Foundation’s US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange. They had never been to Russia, did not speak the language, and had no frame of reference for Russian celebrities, television programs, literature, pop music, or fashion. They certainly had not anticipated being brought up to speed with Russian culture through YouTube videos of bucket-wearing cow-milkers.     

It might seem like these circumstances should have hindered communication between the US and Russian students, but their shared passion for video production and documentary and broadcast journalism turned out to be the key to overcoming these barriers. Using their skill set and common medium, the students overcame vernacular impediments and made the conversation about the potential cultural and linguistic disconnects that they were experiencing.

To explore the boundaries of these divides, they played identification games. Russian video blogger Denis Merenkov challenged the US students to glance at images of Russian celebrities and give their impressions. The students compared pop-singer Philip Kirkorov to a quirky Michael Jackson, and Russian television personality Ivan Urgant reminded them of either Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon – they weren’t sure themselves.  Merenkov’s resulting video has since become a minor sensation, racking up almost 400,000 views on YouTube, 70% of which have been from within Russia. Watch the video below: 

The speed and decisiveness with which the three US students deduced that video-blogger EeOneGuy was a YouTube star is quite telling about the passion for media and video production that all of the students shared. To them, this young person sitting in front of a computer, using good lighting equipment and a DSLR camera to record himself was clearly a production-savvy video blogger, not too far removed from their own world of video production.

The US trio challenged the Russian students with vocabulary charades, acting out various words while having the Russian students guess what objects they were embodying: 

The goals of the TV Bridge project are perfectly embodied in these spontaneous video naming games. TV Bridge is implemented in partnership with the Volga Encounters Festival and the US-based Student Television Network. Drawing on the talent and skills of aspiring video broadcasters in both countries, the TV Bridge project facilitates cross-cultural collaborative video production and knowledge exchange through creatively breaking through barriers.

Through the process of transforming the conversational conundrum into documentary material, the young people “got” each other. Solving each other’s puzzles helped them realize that they had much more in common than they had ever imagined.  Sharing a dedication to their creative medium opened up yet another path to explore their respective languages and cultures.