Arkhangelsk attracts foreign students

Jorma Toivonen studies at the Northern Arctic Federal University in Arkhangelsk. Photo: Rune S. Alexandersen

Jorma Toivonen (25) from Finland is one of the growing number of international students in Arkhangelsk and Russia.


“I was interested in Arkhangelsk because it was in the north. The Barents region is rich on minerals, oil and gas, and for me as an economics student, I think there will be interesting opportunities for doing business in the future,”  says Jorma Toivonen.

He is one of a growing number of foreign students in Arkhangelsk. Vegard Seljemo from Norway is another: 

“I will never forget when my classmates invited me on a fishing trip outside Arkhangelsk. I remember how nice it was to sit by the river around an open fire playing the guitar and singing Russian classical songs, in the middle of the night. Those moments I will never forget,” says an enthusiastic Vegard .

 “That’s one of the great things about your fellow students in Arkhangelsk - they are very social, and take good care of you while you are there. As a student you are never alone. Every Sunday I went to play soccer with some friends of mine, in a little gymnastic hall by a mall. When the spring came, we went to different arenas in the city to play soccer. I had a great time with good friends. I miss my friends, and I miss Arkhangelsk! I’m very sad I didn’t have time to come back. I hope to meet them when I return sometime,” says Vegard Seljemo.

Jorma Toivonen is now travelling back to Finland after spending two months as an exchange student at the Northern Arctic Federal University (NARFU) in Arkhangelsk. 

Jorma is originally from the town Hyvinkää in the southern Finland, but has been studying economics at Oulo Business School. He has also studied Russian through The Aleksanteri Institute, which is Finland’s national centre of research, study and expertise on Russia and Eastern Europe.

As a part of the Russian program program, the students can choose between four Russian cities: St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk, Murmansk and Petrozavodsk.

Jorma chose to study in Arkhangelsk because he considered it more exotic than Murmansk! And he thinks the future will bring interesting opportunities for those who speak Russian.

Arkhangelsk has charm!
His hometown Hyvinkää has about 45.000 inhabitants, and Oulo, where he studies, has about 144.000. For him, Arkhangelsk (about 350.000) is a big city.

“The Russians would probably call my hometown a village,” he laughs, sitting in one of the cozy cafés in downtown Arkhangelsk, “but for me this is a big city. At the same time it is a peaceful town, and I like that. Arkhangelsk is a nice city. I like the wooden houses which almost fall down, and all though it can seem to be «dirty, this city really has charm,” he says.

History, language and politics
Unlike many other industrial cities of Russia, Arkhangelsk has a long and rich history. Situated on the banks of the Northern Dvina river, not far from the White Sea, it was the main sea port in Northern Russia from mid-16th century and until St. Petersburg was founded in the early 18th century. And international students who come to Arkhangelsk to study at NARFU, often study Russian history. The Russian revolution is also one of the subjects in the exchange program “Russian studies” which also includes practical language training. From the autumn this year, the program will also include studies in Russian politics. The main goal of that subject is to examine the basic principles of contemporary Russian politics and processes that goes on in today’s political life in Russia.

Good language training
The most important for Jorma Toivonen, though, has been the language training he got in Arkhangelsk.

“When you come here, you realize that what you’ve learned in Finland does not necessary work in real life. You can recognize some words, but the Russians speak really fast, and it’s a different language,” says Toivonen with a smile. Ha chose to study Russian because it is useful also in Finland.

“I’ve always wanted to learn it someday. These days it is really useful to know how to communicate with Russians in Finland, especially in business, tourism and fields like that.”
Are you thinking about doing business with Russians?
“Yeah, maybe in the future, if I learn the language well enough.”

Why study in Arkhangelsk?

Kaisa Vainio, Oulo, Finland
Exchange student autumn semester of 2009.

“Arkhangelsk is a peaceful city, but there is always something interesting going on. People are really friendly and it is easy to get Russian friends there. I surely prefer the atmosphere there more than in big cities like St. Petersburg. And here you get interaction with Russians, not only with the other exchange-students,” says Kaisa.

“In the beginning it was really hard, because I felt that my language skills were worse than I thought. But it went better very fast. My best memories were conversations with my hostess, the old lady in whose apartment I lived. She also showed me old photographs and told about her life story,” Kaisa explains.

“And there was also many of those great nights with my Russian (and foreign) friends in the great music-club Koleso.”

“There I learned to use Russian language fluently, with no fear. But what is even more important, I learned a lot about the Russian way of life and the Russian way of thinking and doing things,” says Kaisa Vainio.

Hedvig Ølmheim, Tromsø, Norway
Exchange student autumn 2011.

“For an urban Russian, Arkhangelsk is probably seen as small and cold, with less to offer than the bigger cities. For me as a visiting Norwegian, Arkhangelsk is exciting because it is very diverse. Old wooden houses stand side by side with modern buildings, and the city is in the middle of a beautiful region of forests, rivers and the White Sea,” Hedveig says being asked about why she decided to go to Arkhangelsk.

“Though the number of bars and restaurants is not infinite, it is enough for you to pick out your own favorites. The city is small but it is always possible to discover new things and meet new people. Also, the people are friendly in a way I’m not used to from bigger cities and the atmosphere of the city is warm, even though the weather might get cold,” Hedvig explains.

“My best memories of Arkhangelsk are of the people we met there. We had great time sitting at cafes and talking with extremely patient Russians, who were speaking as slowly as they could to be able to communicate with the foreigners. Russians are very hospitable people and we experienced that often. It was great to go on day-trips with Russian friends, showing us other parts of the beautiful Arkhangelsk region,” Hedvig says about her memories from the time as a student in the Pomor capital. 

“In Arkhangelsk we had thorough and interesting lectures on Russian history and language at NARFU, and it was a great experience to learn Russian history at a Russian university. But even though I enjoyed the academic program, I appreciated more what I learned from experiencing the daily life of Arkhangelsk and from the fantastic people I met there,” says Hedvig Ølheim.

Vegard Seljemo, Tromsø, Norway
Eexchange student autumn 2009.

“I would recommend to stay for two semesters! Arkhangelsk has a lot to offer both autumn, winter and spring. The city itself is easy to get to know, and the «naberezhnoy» - the river embankment - is fantastic in good weather, summer and winter. In the winter you could go skiing on the embankement, and on the river Dvina itself, participate in mass skiing event Lizhnaya Rossia - it is an fantastic event with hundreds, thousands of people that loves to go skiing. Young and old. And if you are interested in skating, the stadium of the local bandy club Vodnik is open on some Sundays. It is popular to bring friends there, and it is very social. I actually went skating for the first time in my life here, after beeing invited. That went better than I have feared, that is - no broken bones, and just some bruises. If you don’t want to go skating yourself, I recommend to go and watch one of the home games of Vodnik. Even in 25 degrees minus celsius and wind, it was real fun being a part of the fans,” says Vegard describing how it was to stay a semester in Arkhangelsk.

“Malye Kareli is also worth a visit regardless of the time of year. In winter it is very quiet here, and it is relaxing to get away from the noise in the city. And I recommend a visit to the part of the city called Solombala, if you like to go on architectural walks and watch houses. And even more important: the Santa Claus - Ded Moroz - lives here! That’s worth a visit wintertime,” says Vegard Seljemo about his memories.

What did you learn in your time here in Arkhangelsk?
“I learnt to speak Russian like the arkhangelogorodsi (the inhabitants of Arkhangelsk)! The most important lesson was that most people in Arkhangelsk has a warm heart, and I think that has influenced me and my view on Russians - not to mention my view on Norwegians,” says Vegard.