The first time I heard about Russia was on television. My parents weren’t watching the news, I was watching “The Rugrats.” Tommy, the show’s infant protagonist, had grandparents from the Old Country whose names were stereotypically, Boris and Minka. The two would quip about borscht and how life was better in the old U.S.S.R. For most of my youth, Russian stereotypes would continue to be slung my way. Be it from watching 20th Century Fox’s “Anastasia” to learning about the Cold War in the classroom. It seemed that Russians were people who thrived on cold weather, beets, and socialism.
Those stereotypes continue to bombard me as an American adult. From Tina Fey spoofing the land of ice and snow while dressed as Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” to the rain of satirical jokes made in dishonor of Putin, Russian regale runs rampant in the U.S. of A.
After the negative coverage the country received during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in conjunction with what little I already knew of Russia, I was completely unsure of what to expect when we headed to Saint Petersburg this year.
Arriving in Russia’s “Northern Capital,” we were picked up by a private tour guide, a chipper woman named Irene. Extremely knowledgeable about Russian history, Irene was able to answer any question we threw her way. But I was immediately distracted from our history lesson as our van zipped by crumbling gray apartment complexes. The housing developments all looked the same. I couldn’t help but imagine rows and rows of identical coffins, stacked high and dark, obstructing the city skyline.
As we approached the center of the city, I was taken aback by the grandeur of landmarks like the Hermitage Museum, Church of the Savior on Blood, and Catherine’s Palace. Buildings were larger than life, surrounding us on all sides. Scaffolding was abundant. Irene told us that one of the government’s top priorities is preserving its city’s landmarks. However, the images of residential areas were burned in my mind. They seemed neglected, and I recalled bits of concrete crumbling off the sides of apartment complexes while we marveled at gold plated pillars inside the Hermitage.
Although I was ecstatic to be exploring Russia, I left our trip unsure of how I felt about our time there. Russian government has been monopolized by Putin’s regime for over a decade and it was abundantly clear that the culture was vastly different than ours in America. But being different doesn’t make something inherently bad. The ‘bad’ comes from placing restrictions on freedom of expression, trying to obtain an unhealthy amount of influence over neighboring territories, and ingraining a militant mentality into many of its citizens.
With that in mind, it was hard to accept everything our guide said. Irene seemed like a nice person, but the only politics she was willing to discuss were those of Imperial Russia. Fair enough, we were on a guided tour rooted in history. However, whenever someone in our group would reference recent politics–Putin and the country’s current state of affairs–she would redirect the conversation, glossing over our bloated questions.
As an outsider, I might never be able to glimpse further under the skirt of Mother Russia than I did this summer. I feel fortunate to have been able to visit the country and will continue to be mystified by its unsmiling citizens and non-refrigerated markets. But I can say I left the country a bit more knowledgable than I entered it. And for that I am grateful.
Have you had a similar experience in Russia?