‘I love it here’
Awesome Blossoms grow in Russia, too!
Russian foreign exchange student Kristina Makarenko spent her junior year in high school as a student at Blooming Prairie High School. She was hosted by Jim and Kelli O'Connor and family.
Her Blooming Prairie experience was six years ago when Makarenko was 16. Now 22, she currently teaches English on the Siberian Coast.
"I love it here," Makarenko said, hinting she may like to move here permanently some day.
"I am a big city girl in Russia and a farm girl in Blooming Prairie," admits Makarenko. "When I am in Russia, I miss my American family and when I am in America, I miss my Russian family," she said, adding she believes she is fortunate to have two families.
"I have two families in two countries and travel back and forth," she laughs.
From Day One six years ago as an exchange student, Makarenko was made part of the O'Connor family. "I call them Mom and Dad," she says, with a sparkle in her sparkling blue eyes.
Makarenko came to America this summer for a six-week stay, beginning on Aug. 2. This was her third visit to America. She was here two years ago for Patrick O'Connor's (Krystal) wedding. She departed for Russia last Thursday.
Makarenko's mother is an anesthesiologist. Asked if she has any siblings, she smiles and says she has an 11-month-old step brother named Dima.
She stayed with the O'Connors the entire six weeks. She and the O'Connors went on a trip to Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park in early August.
The O'Connors and Makarenko took a motorcycle journey around Yellowstone. "It was most enjoyable except for the weather, 110-dgree temperatures. I am not accustomed to that climate, growing up in Siberia,” she said.
While in Yellowstone, Makarenko and her second family did a lot of hiking and exploring, including a hike around Beartooth Pass.
While spending a longer visit this time, Makarenko had the opportunity to meet with some former students and staff members from the Blooming Prairie High School.
"I was surprised they remembered me," Makarenko said.
She said the O'Connors chose her as an exchange student. She did not select her host family, she says.
The fluent speaking young Russian woman is fully westernized, saying she speaks English a good share of the time. Remember, she is an English teacher in Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia with a population of over 700,000.
Irkutsk is located on the Asian side and boasts the world's deepest lake, Baikal Lake. It's the biggest source of fresh water in the world, Makarenko says.
She also holds a degree in journalism but says it is very difficult to find a media job in Russia.
Blooming Prairie has a population of just over 2,000. "I love both the big city and the small town," she relates.
It takes nearly 24 hours to complete the distance of over 5,500 miles between Irkutsk and Blooming Prairie.
During her year as an Awesome Blossom, Makarenko shared life experiences with Megan O'Connor. "I had my own room and this made it easier to adjust," she says.
Makarenko admits that her initial visit to Blooming Prairie six years ago "was scary" because it was her first time flying and her first visit to America.
"At first, I thought Blooming Prairie was a tiny village in nowhere," Makarenko confessed.
One of her first experiences when arriving in America six years ago in 2012 was to sample the flavor of the Steele County Free Fair in Owatonna. "Fairs are not our tradition in Russia," she says.
"It was a hard first couple of weeks coming here in 2012 but my family made it as easy as possible." She said her English also improved as time went by. She picked up some American slang, too.
"It's my generation that knows English," Makarenko revealed. "We listen to English songs and the first thing we are taught in second grade is English. We have to talk about oneself using English."
Makarenko said college algebra was her easiest course while going to school in Blooming Prairie.
In Russia as a fifth grader, Makarenko learned about all subjects (about 15-20) including biology, science, chemistry, etc. In Russia, students go to school six days a week. "We actually learned something about life around us," she said.
Makarenko said she liked being able to choose her own subjects in Blooming Prairie. Her favorite subjects were media arts, composition and research.
Eric Vigeland was her teacher at BPHS. "We made TV news," she remembers.
While a Blossom, Kristina played volleyball, starred in a school musical and helped out at the Blooming Prairie Boys and Girls Club.
"I always wanted to be a teacher," she said.
Still hoping to do some teaching and writing, Makarenko says she may have to go to a larger city like Moscow or St. Petersburg.
While a student here, Makarenko wrote some articles for the local newspaper. Her favorite piece she wrote was about Americans not being able to adopt Russian children because of Russian law. The thrust of her piece was to change the law.
She worked at an orphanage in her home country and saw how broken families lead to alcohol and drug abuse.
Makarenko says Blooming Prairie has always been friendly to her. "Blooming Prairie people knew I was coming long before I arrived," she said.
"My country is not as friendly as here," she shared her opinion. She visited the Blooming Prairie Cancer Group auctions Sept. 7-8 and was most impressed with the caring atmosphere.
She says Russian people live in a bubble and don't exchange greetings like Americans do. "In Russia, we don't talk to strangers. Here, if people see someone in trouble, they are ready to help."
Makarenko said she was quickly introduced to Minnesota Nice.
During her exchange visit six years ago, Makarenko became a farm girl of sorts. "I spent time with dad (Jim) in the field and even drove a tractor once," she said. "I never had seen a corn field before," she said.
She said she learned quickly that farming is extremely important in Blooming Prairie, but family comes first.
Makarenko has loved her re-visit to Blooming Prairie. She was reacquainted with the O'Connors' family dog, Murphy, a yellow lab. "He was my best friend six years ago," she said.
Murphy passed away while Makarenko was at the O'Connors' farm.
She has two dogs in Russia, one with her mother and the other, Jane, staying with Makarenko and her boyfriend in their apartment.
Often asked about world politics, Makarenko said she "is not really into it" but does follow some of the bantering. "Dad (Jim) says I hacked the election," Makarenko chuckles.
She looks at the power struggle between Trump and Putin as being childish. "It's like one kid getting a toy taken away by another kid," she observes.
News is controlled by the Russian government, Makarenko believes. She gave an example of a huge fire at a movie theater where 64 people died. She said official news reports did not come out until long after. Rumors thus permeated the Internet and thus turned into fake news.
Makarenko hopes to return to America but says her country does not want their people coming to America. Obtaining a Visa is becoming more difficult, she says. Five Visa centers were available months ago and now only one is open.
Older people are against the United States, carrying Cold War attitudes from years past, she says. Many Russian people don't believe there are nice people in America, Makarenko continues to explain.
Russia's currency value is worsening rapidly, Makarenko informs.
"It's a totally different experience in America," she says. "I loved school here in Blooming Prairie and love the cultural traditions here like toilet paper night (papering yards during Homecoming)."
The only thing Makarenko said she has missed while being in Blooming prairie is the Fourth of July celebration in BP. She hopes to return for that some day.
"It's so quiet and nice here. I feel so relaxed. I also love the energy shown by the people here. Everyone cares about you,” she said. "I'm so lucky."