Russian student visits law firm
Twice a year for the past four years, Steve Notinger has filled his suitcases, headed to the airport and traded Nashua’s reasonably temperate winter weather for a frozen outpost so far north, its hardy inhabitants could brag about being Santa Claus’ neighbor.
There, in a city called Arkhangelsk, the Nashua lawyer makes his way over the frozen tundra to a sprawling, newly created educational institution called the Northern (Arctic) Federal University, sets up in a lecture hall, and awaits the first of several groups of young Russian men and women eager to hear him speak about U.S. and international law.
Now, Notinger has added a new wrinkle to his semiannual excursions: bringing a qualifying NAFU student to Nashua for a firsthand look at the American legal system – plus the opportunity to experience “normal” dawns and dusks and “real” summer temperatures – all while soaking in the norms and eccentricities of Western culture.
Ekaterina Zmyvalova – fortunately, she likes the nickname Katya – arrived earlier this month, brushing up on her (quite good) English and looking forward to experiencing a whole different corner of the globe. She’s staying with Notinger and his wife, Debbie, who also practices law and has accompanied him on some of his Arkhangelsk trips.
“It’s my first time traveling out of Russia,” Katya said this week in the conference room at Donchess & Notinger PC, which is sponsoring her visit. Notinger’s law partner is former Mayor Jim Donchess, who has returned to City Hall as an alderman-at-large.
A well-versed woman of 23 with wavy, sandy-colored hair and a ready smile, Katya knows full well that her passage to America was an involved process with no guaranteed outcome. “Not many students (in Russia) go to America right now,” she said. “It’s visa issues … I was very lucky. I got a visa in St. Petersburg. They can just say ‘no’ if they want.”
Indeed, Notinger said, a number of hoops needed jumping through, usually in the form of letters written to convince the U.S. Embassy in Russia that everything was on the up and up. “It went pretty smoothly, considering,” he said. “It was quite a process.”
Notinger’s teaching excursions and the summer internship program are rooted in the longtime relationship that Arkhangelsk and Portland, Maine, which are considered “sister cities,” have enjoyed. Their bond goes back to World War II, Notinger said, because it was out of Portland that the so-called liberty ships sailed on their missions to bring food and supplies to western Russians cut off from civilization by the war.
“They asked me to come speak (in Arkhangelsk), and that’s how I started,” Notinger said. Though he found himself in a city of nearly 400,000 people, 650 miles straight north of Moscow and just 90 miles south of the Arctic Circle, where daytime highs often stay below zero in the winter and seldom hit 70 in summer, Notinger began looking forward to his next trip before the first was over.
“I’ve never walked where everything is frozen solid,” he said. “It can be 30 below, and the city looks normal; everything is going on like it was 60 above (zero).”
Katya said she attended two of Notinger’s lectures and found them fascinating, but the prospect of traveling to America wasn’t something she gave a lot of thought to – even when Notinger announced the program and began interviewing candidates.
“I didn’t think about being chosen to come here,” Katya said with a sheepish smile. After giving it some thought, though, she signed up, seeing a great opportunity to pursue her career dreams. “I want to study international law as much as possible, so I was very glad to have this (opportunity),” she said. “I was very happy I was chosen.”
International law aside for the moment, how does Russian law differ from American law?
For one, the use of case law and precedents, an everyday thing for American lawyers, is nonexistent in Russia. Not unlike international law, Katya said, Russian law “is very clear. Every situation is clear,” she said. Hence her attraction to a career in international law, which covers topics from agreements between various nations to how far offshore international waters begin.
Perhaps Katya’s most poignant observation has to do not with law, but with how Russia and the U.S. differ when it comes to education.
“I don’t understand that in America, no matter how smart you are, you still have to pay a lot of money for your education,” she said. “In Russia, if you do well on your exams, you don’t pay for university.”
Her high marks also earn Katya a modest monthly scholarship from the Russian government, which goes toward various non-tuition expenses.
Primary and secondary levels are blended in Russia; “There’s kindergarten, then ‘regular’ school, then university,” Katya said. Kids typically learn other languages earlier than American children do, Notinger added. And there are three schools in Arkhangelsk that teach English exclusively.
Katya has been to court several times, studied the Notingers’ cases and even been “loaned out” for a day to other law firms. She attended an international law conference at the Mount Washington last week.
The fact that no visit to America – especially for a first-timer such as Katya – would be complete without side trips to Boston, New York, Washington D.C., and, of course, the beach, those areas have been, or will be, covered as well, Notinger said.
Being from the northern climes of Russia, what did Katya think of the fairly chilly (to us, anyway) waters of Hampton Beach?
“Oh, it’s so beautiful, so nice there,” she said with a laugh. “Cold? Oh no, it’s not cold,” she added, half-puzzled and half-smiling.
Katya also visited Newfound Lake with the Notingers a couple of weeks ago. But I didn’t bother asking her how the water was.
Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).