Sometime over the past month Saint Petersburg became my home. I didn’t realize it until I was strolling down Nevsky Prospect (the main street of Petersburg) today. The sun was shining on my face as I passed a series of famous landmarks and buildings that I know like the back of my hand. Ever since the weather decided to stabilize above 35 F I’ve been walking my 40 minute commute home instead of taking the trolleybus or metro. Tourists are flooding the streets, and I can’t help but smirk at their cluelessness. I was in the same situation less than four months. How do I get tokens for the metro? Where is the Hermitage? How many rubles are in a dollar? Every time I hear a stressed out English-speaker I feel compelled to help them out. This city can be a nerve-racking place when you know little to no Russian. Just last week I met a woman at my favorite restaurant, whose mother is from Sweden and father is from New York. She didn’t know a lick of Russian and unfortunately for her, she was a vegetarian (which is still a rather new concept in Russia). I helped her distinguish everything she could and couldn’t eat. According to her, she had never been so culture shocked in her life. This statement made me reflect on whether I was shocked upon my arrival to Petersburg.
When I travel, I leave home with no expectations. I travel to learn. Every city, every state, and every country on this planet has something fabulous to teach me. I find that the more I explore (even just in Madison), the more I erase my own ignorance and close-mindedness. I crave knowledge. My time in Russia has been a huge “compare and contrast” experiment. What are the similarities? What are the differences? Some days I feel like I’m back in Madison. For example, last weekend I attended a Russian soccer match, and I felt like I was back in the stands of Camp Randall. One of the rambunctious fan sections, in particular, was screaming rehearsed cheers from the bottom of their hearts. Every minute of the match was filled with songs, chants, and memorized hand gestures. I couldn’t have possibly felt more at home amongst the enthusiastic Russians around me.
However, I’m not naïve. I know there are various glaring differences between Madison and Saint Petersburg. My political science class here verifies this for me every week. For the past three and a half months my professor has had us watch documentaries and participate in discussions about the government in Russia from the 1990s-present, and I couldn’t help but notice an overarching theme. Corruption. Every documentary and discussion has highlighted the connection between Russia’s government and crime. Theft. Murder. Fraud. I sat with my mouth wide open for half the semester. I always knew Russia’s government had never been top notch, but how could it be this bad?? Honestly speaking, I was even more shocked that a Russian professor would not only provide us with this information but also encourage us to discuss it.
Finally, this week my classmates and I had the opportunity to find out why our professor was so dead set on us becoming exceptionally well-informed on the corruption that plagues the Russian government. With the semester drawing to a close, our professor asked us if we had any general questions about the class. My friend Isabela raised her hand and asked just exactly why had he chosen all these gruesome and sad topics to discuss.
“They’re important for you to know as foreigners,” he said. “Plus, the door is closed, and I see no video cameras in this room.”