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Russian Brenau students cheer on home country during Winter Games
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Brenau University students and Russian nationals Anastasia Minaeva, left, and Snezhama Kiseleva talk in Brenau University’s tennis office Thursday. Minaeva plays basketball for the school; Kiseleva plays tennis. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Brenau University junior Zalina Nazarova has been glued to her television night after night for the past couple of weeks.

“All night, we’re all next to the TVs with our books,” she said, laughing. “We’re like, studying and watching just to know what’s going on.”

It’s both difficult and rewarding for the 22-year-old tennis player to watch the 2014 Winter Olympics, as the host city, Sochi, Russia, is her hometown.

“I feel homesick, of course, because it’s my city and I see my friends (on social media) posting pictures,” she said. “But at least I can watch it here.”

Nazarova is one of four Russian student athletes at Brenau this semester, and they’re all thrilled the games have introduced the country to their American classmates and professors.

“I was really proud,” senior basketball player Anastasia Minaeva, originally from Moscow, said about watching the opening ceremony two weeks ago. “It’s a really, really big deal. It’s the first Winter Olympics held in our country.”

They just want people to know it may be a different culture, but the people are all the same.

“I remember someone asking me if I knew how to text,” Minaeva said about when she first came to America. “I was like, really?”

Kiseleva agreed. “Even other students and professors are strange,” she said. “They’re asking me, ‘is it true people drink a lot?’ I have to say ‘no, we don’t drink all the time.’”

They’re now happy the Olympics coverage is helping to answer some of the more annoying questions about their homeland.

“In my classes they’re like, so this is how Russia is,” Nazarova said. “They were just amazed by the music, by ... all the architecture. They were just impressed. Some of my friends wanted to come visit, so it got their interest.”

But except for Nazarova, they were all a little shocked about the location when Sochi was first announced as the site for the 2014 events.

“Usually, Sochi’s for summer vacation,” said junior tennis player Valeria Savina from Vologda. “When I heard the announcement, it was like ... The Winter Olympics? What?”

“It’s still nice weather,” Nazarova countered. “It’s like plus 5 (41 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s not like plus 20 or 30. It’s pretty nice. The sun is shining, the snow is there, even though it’s melting. People won’t freeze, and they won’t say ‘Oh, Russia’s so cold!’”

“It’s really pleasant, I think, the weather,” freshman Snezhana Kiseleva, also a tennis player, added. Kiseleva is from Naberezhnye Chelny, about 1,200 miles east of Moscow.

They all said it was the best possible location to show off the country, with the best of both worlds, a beach and the mountains, right next to each other.

“Last summer, I went home and I just did not recognize my city at all,” Nazarova said. “They rebuilt it; they changed everything.

“And now our President (Vladimir) Putin, he really has big hopes on the new ski resorts,” she added. “It’s also good for our athletes because before they would travel to Europe to train in winter sports but now they can stay home and train because now we have all these new facilities. It’s a plus and also our president hopes to have world championships in the future. They put all this money, they did all this construction ... and also, for now, people around the world, they come there and they see, so maybe they want to return.”

They acknowledged there have been some negative media reports about the location, including one about the quality of drinking water.

“I think it was generally journalists staying there, and I think they didn’t get a good deal. Like I’m sure this is not like the new buildings,” Nazarova said. “Maybe it’s the older ones ... but I just think they didn’t get what they wanted and they got like the old construction or whatever. The plus of it, they can be introduced to Russian culture, a little bit. But it’s not common. It’s not throughout the city.”

There’s not much that throws Nazarova off. She loves her home city and is convinced everyone who has traveled there will come back loving it, too.

But both Nazarova and Minaeva also acknowledged the stray dog situation, which is apparently a problem across the country.

“It’s just different cultures, you know?” Nazarova said. “Like for us, when we see how Americans treat dogs and cats, we’re like ‘What?’ You know, they have insurance, they have their passports! We’re just like, ‘What is that?’”

“I’ve heard some of the athletes, they want to take dogs home,” Minaeva added. “We see a lot of homeless pets. It’s a different kind of expectation.”

The Russian students are eager to speak about all facets of the Winter Olympics held in their home country — except the hockey game results.

“I love watching it but won’t since Russia is out,” Kiseleva said. Both the men and women’s Russian hockey teams fell short of getting medals at the winter games, which the girls seemed to take as a personal affront. Hockey is to Russians like what football is to Americans.

Along with hockey, they love watching the skiing and bobsledding.

“Winter sports, just to think how dangerous it is,” Nazarova said. “Snowboarding, so many falling down!”

“And when they go head first, in the skeleton,” Minaeva said. “It’s really scary.”

But while she’s a self-described patriotic Russian, Nazarova loves her adopted country.

“I really love America as much as I love Russia,” she said. “I came here when I was 15 and I really got adopted to the culture and I really like the country.”

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