What are two interesting things about Russia that the average person doesn't know?
A continuous surprise to me were the people themselves as they do not look like anything portrayed by Hollywood. While this may seem insignificant, or even too generalized, I find the stark contrast very important. In our movies, Russian men are usually shown as harsh, tough men in black leather jackets with a serious mission in mind. Meanwhile, the women are somehow always old, haggard, and seem to have arrived on a horse and cart from the countryside. While these personas do exist in Russia, they are definitely not found in St. Petersburg. Instead, the streets might as well be catwalks for the incredibly tall and thin women who are frequently accompanied by hipster men. Whether Hollywood’s portrayal is due to ignorance or is enduring propaganda from the Cold War era, it is necessary for our relations that such portrayals are accurate.
Something else interesting from daily life pertains to Russian cuisine. While traditional standards of porridge, beets, potatoes, and yes, vodka, are prevalent, Asian cuisine is quite dominant. In the main areas of the city, one is typically less than five minutes from a restaurant serving sushi or wok dishes. With its geography and access to fresh fish this makes sense, although it does lead to the perplexing issue of whether or not Russia is European or Asian, or both, or neither. Adding to this matter is the dramatic influx of Chinese tour groups within the past year to Russia following a tourist agreement between the two governments.
Is there anything you wish you would have known before leaving and why?
Looking back, I wish I would have realized how much I would love the experience and how incredibly quickly it would end. Since the program was intensive, I had hours of homework each night, but I also was intoxicated by the energy of the city. Thanks to the midnight sun, the abundance of light allowed for more experiences, but ironically also made the days fly by. I also wish I would have realized how delicious Russian food is so I would have had more room in my suitcase for sweaters and pants. Yes, St. Petersburg can be quite cold and wet in July and August—something for which I was woefully unprepared. Luckily, Russian hot chocolate (hands down the best I’ve ever had) and daily porridge saved me.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from this experience?
As often happens when traveling, daily realities are not the same as the news portrays. Not once did I receive a negative reaction to saying I was an American. Instead, it would often lead to questions about our election or conversations in jest about how scary we think Russia is. That said, one comment about the difference in our cultures stuck out and came from a taxi driver when he was complimented on his English. Without hesitation he said that his English was not very good, and that such statements are mistakes by Americans. He said that in America we always put a positive spin on situations, even when that isn’t the case. But in Russia, he said, they tell the truth and say if they are having a bad day or if they are not skilled at something. That way, he said, they are motivated to improve and do not pretend to be better at something than they are. While that may be perceived as harsh or unfriendly, he said that is better than Americans being fake.
While I can find benefits to both approaches, I was struck by the perception of our routine interactions. If our small talk cannot be believed, then how can we expect our political exchanges to be welcomed? Therefore, if we truly intend to have a meaningful relationship with Russia, or anyone else for that matter, we need to spend time not only studying the cultures of others, but also of ourselves.