When I was at dinner with Lana the other night, she said I would make a terrible journalist. I agreed, because I just can’t take being told what to do. She said that was true, but moreover, I’m incapable of writing without bias. I completely disagreed, but have nonetheless decided to take a leaf out of what is apparently my book, and write a highly opinionated post about Russia. Or is that two posts? I’ve put hating-Russia on the left, and loving-Russia on the right: I’ve been so perpetually in two minds about the place, that it only seems fair to write two opposing pieces.
The blog will continue, though from here on in, ‘Russia’ posts can be found under the ‘Russia’ category tab, while the front page will now be posts from what I’m calling ‘the long way around’ (who goes to Australia via Europe and Latin America?!).
And now. Enjoy! My last post about Russia, written from within Russia. (Hopefully not forever?):
I’m writing the ‘hating’ post first, mainly because I’m mid-cleaning, and I’m going to take out the resulting rage on some grout!
I started writing these posts by doing dot points of the things that I love, and the things that I hate. The first thing that came up on my list for ‘hatred’ was the spitting. And, for that matter, public excretion in general. As men walk down the street, they spit everywhere: and not just those of lower socio-economic status. You’ll see men in business suits having a good old time of it. Why?! It’s so disgusting! Of course, there’s also public urination: Karie had a man on the metro whip it out and go for it in the train, April saw another guy—positively refined by comparison—open the metro door between stations and pee on the tracks. I came home a couple of nights ago and someone had actually pissed on my front door. Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?!? Hoos once came home and found that someone had shit on his door-step. The streets smell permanently of bodily fluids, and I hate wearing shoes other than boots, because I shudder to think of what—or who—I’m actually getting on my feet. Disgusting!
On the topic of streets, I won’t miss the drunkards stumbling over the pavement or being obnoxious in parks, or the sheer number of men walking down the street with beer-bottle in hand. I’ve seen on multiple occasions men leaving the supermarket with their wife with child in one hand, beer in the other, and cracking it open to take a swig the moment they’ve left the store. I mean, I’ve been fined for drinking in public before ($120 in Tasmania, what!!), but there’s something a little different between having a drink with your friend in a semi-private enclosed space at night-time before heading out, and treating alcohol as an essential accessory. They’re like male Paris Hiltons, but switching the chihuahua for beer.
Still on streets, the thing I hated most about winter wasn’t its length (though it was definitely too long), the temperature, the darkness or snow: it was the ice. St Petersburg doesn’t really have drains as such, and everything would be covered with this ice which was down-right terrifying to walk on. The hour or so I spent walking to and from metros every day was something I dreaded: on weekends I refused to leave the house, because I just couldn’t face it. There has to be a better way of dealing with the problem than leaving it (or making it worse by sweeping the streets).
Next has to be work. I think I’ve been fairly and consistently clear in my hatred for the company I worked for: I said to their faces that working for them was the worst mistake I’ve ever made. If I could do it all again and not work for EF, then I would in a heart-beat: I feel like my time in Russia would be 1000% improved. My usual bench-mark is if I don’t like something and Russians don’t like it, then it’s just not okay: and Russians flee the company too.
Of course, bureaucracy and paperwork isn’t the only impracticality. As Jess mentioned in a vlog, 5000 rubles notes are ridiculous: they’re dispensed at ATMs, and nobody accepts them. On the other end of the scale, there are 1-kopeck coins (1/500,000 the value of the 5000 ruble note), which you can use for exactly nothing. They cost around 70 kopecks to produce, and you need around 3600 of them to buy one loaf of bread. Hyper-inflation set in in Russia over ten years ago: you’d think that would be enough time to eliminate the most worthless of coins. Kopecks in general are a joke.
Then there’s having to confirm and reconfirm things. Don’t bother sending emails, nobody will get back to you. Don’t bother booking online, as Russians don’t do it (too high a risk of fraud), so you won’t be completely believed if you say you bought a ticket. And yet I still try haha: it actually works fairly well for intercity trains. I’ve confirmed my bus to Finland tonight twice already and have been told to confirm it again today. Nastya rang the hostel she’ll be staying at tomorrow for a month, only to find out that management has changed in the few weeks since she’s made the booking, and therefore she has no booking.
Need to go shopping? Need to pick up some rice, eggs, milk and maybe some biscuits? Go to at least three different stores! I’ve largely memorised which products are available at which stores, and so a weekly shop will take me to 5-6 different supermarkets. Of course, it doesn’t help that stocks are completely random, and change in the smaller stores from week to week. Food is, of course, Russian staples, with little international cuisine. Feel like you’ll die without a fix of, say, some Mexican? Or even some pizza? Well, I hope you like it with DILL. Dill is the national flavour, and it is is gross. On the rare occasions I eat out, I specifically ask for no dill—to which I invariably get a puzzled expression. ‘Why would this crazy Australian girl not want dill? It’s delicious!’ YUCK.
Food in general is bad in Russia though. It’s not just the flavours (though they’re not a happy time, either)—it’s the quality. I remember when we first arrived, Karie raved about how much she loved the food (and I looked at her dubiously). When I saw her to say goodbye a few weeks ago, she said that she’d finally noticed how bad the food is. The quality of fruit and vegetables for example is very poor: even if you buy frozen goods, sometimes they’re mouldy, or have been improperly stored and therefore frozen and defrosted multiple times. They are, not, good.
At this point I got a phone call from my Russian bank—connected with both the FSB and apparently also used by the mafia for money laundering—saying that I need a new bank-card. Despite the fact that yesterday I was told specifically that I absolutely did not need one. Who needs access to their money, right?!
Next has to be the armour. I’m not talking about role-playing here, but rather about the emotional armour you have to put on every day to survive here. I’ve talked about it at quite some length previously (here here here). Here is chaos. Nothing makes any sense, people aren’t nice, and anything could happen at any moment. It’s actually incredibly stressful. Armour is requisite, and it is heavy. It involves being pessimistic, having no hope, and being prepared to accept everything that will be heaped upon you. One of my students once emailed me that Russia is too ‘dark and cloudy’ for someone like me, and that I should escape while I could. I would feel robbed of my life were this armour permanent.
Then we have the -isms. (Not ‘-asms’, which I am significantly more partial to!). I’ve spoken about sexism before at quite some length (eg here): I hate being treated as a second-class citizen because I’m a woman. It just doesn’t make any sense to me! I can’t comprehend how anybody could see me as anything other than a person like any other. Of course, it’s not just women who are an underclass in Russia: it’s people from other places, specifically the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russians are super racist as a general rule. (I’ve talked about it a bit here.) I don’t feel like I suffer from much racism myself—but then again, I’m a young white woman. Actually, I’ve noticed some positive racism toward Westerners in some ways: people tend to trust us more, because we’re not Russian. It’s expected that we’ll do what we say we will, and that we can be trusted more. Weird. Especially given that a lot of people who come to Russia from the West are down-right creepy.
I can’t not mention the men. It’s not just that they’re not groomed or dressed like Western men. Actually, everything about them is different. As I’ve said time and time again, there are massive cultural differences in every respect. I hate that talking to a man seemingly gives them the right to my body: it doesn’t. Saying hello doesn’t mean that you can grope me. Also, a lot of men sit on the metro and glare at me, and I have genuinely no idea why. I posted on my facebook once that sometimes, I’m not sure if Russian guys are hitting on me or are angry with me: and that still stands. How are short, glaring men attractive? I’m probably not going to say hi.
Lastly (though I’m sure the longer I leave it, the more things I’ll think of) is the apathy. I can’t fix Russia: I can understand it, and I can understand the reasons for the way life is here, but I have absolutely no power to help or to change it. But Russians could. But they don’t. Instead, they will mention the political/cultural/social/ecological/economic problems and just shrug and say “well, it’s Russia”. As if Russia deserves to be robbed by its government, to have substandard education, to have widening social and financial inequalities, to be treated as a joke by the rest of the world. Things here are ludicrously bad. I understand what the country’s been through and I recognise that things are changing, but it’s just a broken, broken, place. And the people who live here don’t try to make things better—sometimes I can’t tell whether it’s powerlessness or just the all-abiding apathy—they just shrug. And join the fight to clamber over everybody else in their wish to get rich or to escape. It doesn’t have to be like this, and I wish that I could show everybody here what life could be like. If only.
<3 Love <3
I like to be positive, and so I kind of hope that people read this part of the post, rather than the ‘hating’ part. Or at least read this second 🙂 But, as I said, I’ve been very divided about Russia the whole time I’ve been here, so it seems only fair to write two parts to this post.
The thing I love most about Russia is, of course, the people I care about: my friends, students, and my adorable landlords (really—I want miniature versions of them to put in my pocket!). Russians aren’t quite like anybody else, it’s true: they’re un-ironic, emotionally available and affectionate, and I do love that about them. The people I know are, of course, now expected to come and visit me in a country sometime 🙂
The thing I’ll miss second-most is the Russian language. Of course. I love it. How I feel about it doesn’t make much sense, but since when did passion have to be logical? I dream half in English and half in Russian, and find it bizarre—like they’re somehow lacking—if people don’t speak any Russian—like part of their soul just isn’t there. (Oh god, I really have become Russian). I will continue to study the language, independently like before: I’ve looked into courses in Sydney, and there aren’t any of a high enough level. Russian just isn’t a priority language in Australia.
Next is Nevskiy Prospekt. In my first few weeks after arriving, walking down Nevskiy, I felt like I’d finally found home. Now, walking down it at 11pm when it’s still light, I feel incredibly privileged to be in this beautiful, nonsensical place. Nevskiy and Piter have so much history to them, and when I walk past the doll-house palaces on the main road, I can’t help but be reminded.
The other day I was in Dom Knigi (when am I not—I spend a ridiculous amount of time there. Happily, the low price of books is one of the good things about Russia!) and saw a travel guide to Australia. Bemused, I picked it up and had a flick-through: and was filled with dread. The sight of the bare eucalypt forests reminded me that I don’t want to live in Australia—not now, and certainly not in the long run. Conversely, the forests in Russia are just amazing. They are so beautiful: they’re what forests should be. They make me feel like magic could happen. Russia is an inordinately beautiful place.
I have to give a shout-out to a few random things: firstly, there’s being able to wear boots every day (yes!) without being accused of wearing ‘fuck-me’ boots; then there’s the sweet little kittens in the courtyard! I’m not a cat person by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve made friends with these ones. They’re always leaping about the place! Gosh, I know I’ve been living in Piter—it comes with a cat obsession. Lucky I’m escaping before it becomes full-blown!
Public transport here is fantastic. I’ve gone on and on about the SPb metro before—there should be one like it everywhere. But it’s not just that: the buses, marshrutki and so on are equally useful. Man though, that metro!
As far as food, there’s little to nothing I’ve liked, except for Russian champagne (they call it champagne, so I can too), чудо everything (hello, flavoured, chocolate-coated cheese!), and drinkable yoghurt. I can’t believe I didn’t like drinkable yoghurt when I first tried it in Prague last year. It’s so good!
Similarly great has been going to uni, which I loved; all-day night and all-day day; the fact that everybody’s an artist and there are paintings everywhere. I also love the lack of rules. Haha of course, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t have any rules, but other people would! Russia is chaos, but I do like being able to do whatever I like, with no repercussions and with complete indifference demonstrated by those around me.
Next has to be the randomness. It’s bad in a lot of ways, but it’s astonishing, mind-bending, to get up every day and know that absolutely anything could happen. I never know what I’ll see, or what adventures I’ll have. Granted, a lot of the adventures are bad, but it’s all so incredibly interesting (high praise, from me!). It makes me laugh.
I know I’ve done a lot of Russian-man-bashing, but I do have to mention some positives. Finally. Way to be balanced, Laura! Anyway, I find them actually very romantic, in a traditional sense. They’re relationship-focused, they buy flowers, and they’re chivalrous in a lot of respects. Even if sometimes that’s ridiculous (when in Vyborg with Nastya, I opened the door and waved her through; then a couple came up and as I was already holding the door I waved them through too. The woman went, but then the man wasn’t going to let a woman hold the door for him—god forbid he should be emasculated—so we had to do this awkward shuffle whereby I ducked under his arm as he grabbed the door from around me, so that I could pass through as he held it. Face-palm).
Lastly, I have to mention the empathy and passion I have gained for Russia. Two years ago I knew nothing at all about it: vodka, bad guys, and ‘something to do with the Cold War’. Now I’m halfway through the language, I’ve lived here, I’ve made Russian friends, I’ve devoured the history, and I feel like I’ve gained an understanding. I would hate to think of a world without Russia (unless, of course, it got its own little world. Maybe a moon or something. Which would be accessible. That seems reasonable.. :p). I’m overwhelmed when reading about the history or politics, and struggle not to cry when feeling the tragedy of the place. It’s a place which makes no sense, but it’s easy to see how it got this way. I finally understand why Russian emigrants miss their homeland: things can be very bad here, but it’s a place worthy of passion.
I tell my students to write conclusions to their written pieces, and I feel I can hardly do less. Do I love or hate Russia more? I’m not sure, but it’s become part of me, like the other places I’ve lived. I suppose I won’t know really how I feel about it until—if and when—I come back. That will be the test: if I return, it’s because I can’t live without it.
Either way, Russia has been an experience. An impossible, ridiculous, near-inconceivable car-crash of an experience, but an interesting and eye-opening one nonetheless. Thank-you to everybody who has been here to experience it with me.