Life in the Big(ger) City

The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg.

“What did you know about Russia before you arrived?”

This was the subject of one of my very classes at the St. Petersburg State University of Ways of Communication (a very fancy name for what’s essentially a university of trains!) and I have to say, we six Durham students came up trumps. Some of the words which we most associated with Russia are listed below:

  • Snow
  • Vodka
  • Bears
  • Culture
  • Communism

Luckily our teacher, Irina, is what you might call a modern Russian, and didn’t take offence to this rather unflattering portrait which we’d painted of her homeland – perhaps the inclusion of the word “culture” sweetened her just enough. But how wrong were we in our stereotypes? What do I now know about Mother Russia after 10 weeks of living in St. Petersburg, its beautiful “second capital”?

1. It doesn’t snow all the time. In fact, I should have known this already, as a friend came back from St. Petersburg in July sporting a rather attractive tan. But, stubbornly clinging to my Dr. Zhivago-esque visions of snowy Russian winters, I touched down in September with two massive suitcases full of woolly jumpers. Amazingly enough, I didn’t need them until the end of the month (lucky I squeezed some T-shirts in around the edges), and even now, in mid-November, we’re yet to have more than a few flurries of snow. What we do get though, is rain, and lots of it. So much for escaping the British climate!

2. Vodka is no longer the national drink. At any rate, not for the young, who prefer beer. However, before I crush anyone’s dreams too much, a group of Russians devouring an entire bottle of vodka with nothing more than a few закуски (appetisers, generally deep-fried bread, smoked cheese, and salty pickles) to line their stomachs is still a far from unusual sight. And anyone who takes a glance into the vodka aisle in the local supermarket would struggle to believe that vodka holds anything other than first place in the alcohol market.

3. There are no bears roaming the streets. My only close encounter with a bear so far this trip was in the zoo, where we stood staring at the polar bears for a good twenty minutes. Other than that, I saw more bears (although only of the model variety) in four days in Berlin than I have in nearly twenty times that in St. Petersburg.

4. Culture, it seems, is the one thing we got right. St. Petersburg is one of the world’s foremost artistic, cultural and literary centres, or so says the Lonely Planet, at any rate. This is perhaps slightly wasted on me, as a self-confessed philistine, but I have at least made an effort to enjoy St. Petersburg’s cultural offerings. Mariinsky Theatre? Check. Hermitage? Check. Dostoevsky Literary Museum? Check. I’ve even, thanks to our incredible Literature teacher, struggled through some Pushkin and Chekhov in the original Russian. (Or at least the original Russian with a little help from Google Translate.) How’s that for culture?

5. As for the Communism, it is officially gone, but I would be lying if I said it was forgotten. Many of the older generation, my host included, still appear to be reminiscent for the old ways, and in some ways the country is very definitely still catching up with the rest of Europe. However, what separates “European” Russia from Europe is more than the ghost of Communism, it is the mentality of the people, the pessimism, the constant belief that they have it harder than everyone else. If this could be stamped out, progress would surely be easier.

This is not to suggest that all Russians are miserable people. In ten weeks, I have met many friendly, cheerful, even bubbly Russians, including the girls who took us to the zoo who could perhaps be described as a little too bubbly. (Seriously, who runs everywhere? And in HEELS??) Because honestly, living in a city like St. Petersburg, who could stay miserable for long?

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