Russia in the Eyes of a Year Abroad Student

May 17, 2012 6:10 pm

Russia is a place of great contrast, yet also at the same time, it is home to a large number of paradigms. It is a country, which to the most part in Britain remains shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Having removed the shackles of the old USSR regime, she is, in theory, politically free to the people. Having lived in the country for some time now, I’ll attempt to throw some light on this enigmatic place through the eyes of a British student.

The standard linguist’s third year at university, the “Year Abroad” has had me living in Russia for the academic period. Whilst acquaintances have been delegated sunnier climates (not to mention on a relatively cheap Easyjet route) such as Spain and France, I’ve been spending my time in the far Eastern stretches of the European borders, learning as much as I can about this fascinating country.

To make the most of this excellent opportunity afforded to me by my Russian language course, I’ve spent the year living in two very different places. As an introduction to the country, I had been living in a city in the North of Russia called Petrozavodsk, on the banks of Lake Onega, the second largest lake in Europe. Very definitely a town by English standards, locked away in the Republic of Karelia, an autonomous region largely resembling rural Finland in many aspects, yet with such regional importance, being the only city around for nigh on 200 miles, the population density is rather large. For my second semester,  I decided to live in a completely different environment; the relatively enormous metropolis of St Petersburg. Well known as Russia’s second city, and arguably the cultural and historical capital of the country.

The classic pre-conceived notion of huge blocks of identical looking flats is most definitely correct, everything does tend to look exactly the same once one retreats from the centre of the city (making it impossible to describe your location if you’re lost, “I’m near a big block of flats” doesn’t really cut it unfortunately). The surrounding environs of the city once outside the residential suburbia are indeed quite pleasant, huge expanses of woodland area encompass the city on one side, and a gargantuan lake on the other, both of which are ideal for warm, sunny days, which, to clarify another pre-conceived notion of Russia, are few and far between.

The temperature of a North Russian winter is something to behold for one who is not expecting it. Whilst in Petrozavodsk, the mercury occasionally dipped to -25 degrees, something a mere English student will definitely think of before unleashing hell at the ‘pathetic’ extreme of a -5 night in Sheffield. A decent, warm coat with all the appropriate, preferably woollen, trimmings is a must in order to brave the extremes of such a climate.

The snow does, however, highlight one of the most picturesque aspects of Petrozavodsk very well. An island a hydrofoil journey away from the town on Lake Onega called Kizhi is home to one of the most stunning pieces of wooden architecture in the whole of Russia, the wooden churches, dating back to 1563, is an extremely valid day trip away from the city, and one can not fail to be impressed by this prime example of ancient Russia.

Life in a small provincial Russian town was interesting; whilst parts of it are quintessentially Russian, the oldest building in the town being a disused Soviet tractor factory, there’s a very European twang to it. You could feel that it is very proud of its isolation, in the sense that the city itself has 3 functioning languages, Russian, Karelian and Veps, all working inside its huge catchment area, operating from just north of St Petersburg all the way up to south of Murmansk. At the same time though, there is a slightly foreboding reality that it’s very difficult to actually get anywhere, requiring an arduous overnight train to get to anything even approaching a large settlement, so once you’ve decided to live here, you are, to an extent, stuck with what you have.

Life in St Petersburg on the other hand is a whole different ball game. As the old Imperial capital of the country under the Tsarist regime, it has enjoyed a colossal struggle for power with Moscow within the history of Russia. Remnants of the past are, of course, still evident in abundance. The Hermitage, the most famous of all the museums in Russia, stands proudly alongside the Neva at the end of Nevsky Prospect, referenced in numerous Russian pieces of literature, in the Winter Palace; residence of the Tsars right up until the revolution in 1917, is just one example of St Petersburg’s former (and present) glory.

The winter cold had struggled to really surprise me as I arrived in the city, it was nothing new, but the length of time it takes for the arduous chill to turn into spring did surprise me. Come April, the snow still falls and the temperature can sometimes still struggle to make it into positive digits, let alone the double digit sun my Mediterranean dwelling friends were currently experiencing. In May, however, the weather does give way and the Russian summer begins to take hold. Temperatures in the mid twenties and exquisite levels of sunshine are not uncommon.

The geographical location of St Petersburg also gives way to a phenomenon I’d previously never been aware of or had totally taken for granted. The White Nights of Northern Russia are taking shape, which is fascinating. The sun barely dips below the horizon and as a result this gives way to midnight sun, a truly bizarre concept for anyone who has never experienced it. This also gives the local population an excuse to have a large scale party, playing host to a number of art festivals of all kinds of variety.

Sometimes living in such an enthralling city can give the impression that, even as a student, you are living life as a tourist – not necessarily a bad thing, but something else I’ve never previously experienced in my life. There is so much to occupy yourself with in the city that boredom is simply never an option. Be it the beautiful gardens and palace of Peterhof, the extremely Russian looking Church on the Spilled Blood, or the incredibly detailed and intricate St Isaac’s Cathedral, which also provides a glorious panoramic view of the whole city form the top of its colonnade.

St Petersburg itself, seems to encompass Russia in a way that no other city in Russia does; it possesses the old imperialist monuments, whilst also keeping up with the modern Russian chic, both of which are extremely evident within a stones throw of each other, yet it doesn’t bear the Soviet stigma of the Muscovite Red Square or former KGB headquarters. This isn’t to suggest that Moscow isn’t worth visiting, it’s probably one of the most interesting places I’ve had the privilege of going to but there’s something it lacks that St Petersburg, as a city for tourists, definitely seems to have.

My year abroad here has taught me a lot about the country. As Winston Churchill suggested, “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, I think I would have to totally agree with him. It’s a country that would be impossible to understand completely if one were to spend 20 years abroad here, but what I can take from my time here is that it’s definitely somewhere I can see myself spending more of my time, and somewhere I would be able to wholeheartedly say to anyone who has even a modicum of an opportunity of visitng, to grasp with both hands.

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