For as far back as its colourful history stretches, Russia has always been a land of mystery for outsiders, and even having studied the language for the past two years, I knew very little of contemporary Russia prior to my arrival here. In fact, by virtue of the amount of Tsarist and Soviet history and literature I had read, I felt that my understanding of the country at any point in the last two centuries trumped my knowledge of what Russia was like today.
So the Russia I knew best no longer existed, which was in fact the most exciting part of this whole trip: I had the opportunity to live in a land whose people and culture were completely unfamiliar to me. The only points of reference I had were the experiences of others who had travelled to or studied in Russia, along with a handful of myths and stereotypes. After spending a little over a month here, I now wonder: is it all that I had anticipated?
My first impressions were certainly mixed. I was welcomed by a two-hour wait in St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport – on top of the usual security spiel – whilst a few students from the group tried to locate their luggage. After it became apparent that the luggage had not yet arrived in the country (and would not for another two weeks), I finally began the nine-hour bus journey to Petrozavodsk, my home until Christmas. The highlight of this leg of the journey along seemingly endless, potholed roads was the bus breaking down in the early hours of the morning, and eventually being repaired by the driver, who took to battering the engine indiscriminately with various hammers until it sprung into life once more.
After nearly a full day’s travel, we finally reached our destination. There to greet me and Charlie (the other St Andrean in this little Karelian outpost) were our hosts for the semester, Sasha and Marina. Having been quite worn out and very hungry prior to arriving at their flat, my mood improved considerably once we had settled in and begun conversing, in quite broken Russian, over the huge plates of beef stew and potatoes that our hosts had prepared for us – an excellent end to a poor day.
Over the next few weeks I began to feel more at home, and after starting out fairly timidly, I became braver in my interactions with the locals. I had wondered how frosty the people here would be when confronted by a foreigner – particularly outside of St. Petersburg or Moscow – and initially the myths of Russian unfriendliness did seem to hold true. After all, niceties like “excuse me” or “thank you” are rarities here, as are smiles bizarrely enough. In spite of this, I have since found Russians to be amongst the friendliest people I have encountered on my travels, once a friendly chord has been struck. In bars, usually over many, many pints (24 hour bars are not uncommon here), I have made friends with a great number of Russians, who will happily chat all night and introduce me to their friends. Furthermore, my limited knowledge of the language – which becomes greater the longer the night continues – is never a problem.
My host family too have made me feel very welcome and comfortable in this strange land, and our regular, extended dinner time chats have so far done more than anything else to improve my grip on the language. Topics are wide-ranging; one of our most interesting conversations began with Sasha’s asking if it was really true that there were many non-white people in the UK.
Petrozavodsk itself seems like a typical, small Russian city: a juxtaposition of neoclassical Tsarist architecture, horrible Soviet high rises, and a growing number of modern, glass and steel apartment complexes. Disappointingly however, bears casually roaming the streets are a rare sight. As is standard, the focal points of the city are Gagarin Square, Prospekt Lenina and Karl Marx Avenue, and it is around these areas where I have spent most of my time.
In terms of nightlife, there are plenty of bars and clubs dotted around and a decent pint is considerably cheaper than in the UK, although surprisingly, beer beats vodka by far in terms of popularity. Despite this though, the city is definitely lacking in good fast food places for the end of a night out. There is supposedly a McDonald’s opening soon, but until then I have had to settle for “Mak Dak”, a shameless rip-off where the ‘hot’ food is rarely hot. A decent alternative is a bar called Kivach, across from the University, where pizza is served almost around the clock. It is a very relaxed way to end a night, having a quiet final pint whilst a waiter serves your hangover cure / next morning’s breakfast – but it is not a patch on the crowded mayhem of Empire.
All in all, to say it has been an interesting transition would be an understatement. While it doesn’t quite feel like “home” yet, it’s been a fairly successful move to a new country, and I am eager to see what the remainder of my time here has in store for me. One thing is for certain though: I will not come back lacking in stories to tell.
Images by Brendan Sugrue