Life in Saint Petersburgh feels a bit like you’ve climbed into a time-machine and been zapped into an odd mish-mash of London, Paris, Berlin and Venice, but can’t work out which era you’ve entered. It’s modern with a massive underground scene, it’s soviet, it’s the set of Disney’s Anastasia… excuse me, can someone please tell me where I am?!
The city was founded by Peter the Great as the ‘window to Europe’, and is arguably the cultural hub of Russia. It’s home to the Hermitage, an astonishingly gigantic art collection of over 3 millions works, that was left behind by Catherine the Great. And, not uncharacteristic of some of the architecture here, the museum is itself a gaup-inducing, palace-like building.
Having lived here for over 4 months now, what has come to my attention is how fiercely protective and proud Russians are of their culture. If you have ever read any Russian literature, perhaps you will have seen the tip of an extremely deep iceberg. So deep that sometimes you’re left feeling a little dumbstruck. Most Russians have read extensively, and will proudly and patriotically recite you verses and verses of Pushkin, dare you ask. It’s impressive! There was a funny episode after a night out, in my favourite burger joint (amen to the 24 hour culture), when two drunken Russian guys asked if they could sit with us. One was covered in blood – why? Somebody tried to diss Gogol and, naturally, he taught him a valuable lesson. Don’t diss their favourite writers guys, just sit quietly and eat your burger.
Contrary to popular belief, the nightlife and bars are extremely varied. There is a large Berlin-esque hipster scene emerging here, and it’s definitely not necessarily the high-heels and grey goose affair that I expected. To bust a strange misconception, a friend on her year abroad in France asked me whether there were any cafes here, as she had imagined Russia to be more of an empty, vast expanse. I thought this was funny, but to clarify, yes is the answer (hundreds Rach!!). They do cafes and restaurants very well here actually. And although I’m trying to resist sounding like a travel agent, the theatre, ballet, and opera here are all surprisingly affordable – and honestly astonishing.
Living here is immensely entertaining on the large part…hilarious enough that I felt it deserved its own instagram page (@WheninRussia, if ya interested). If only I could list all the bizarre things! What surprises me, is how anarchic people can actually behave under autocracy. The rules here are seemingly made to be ‘bent’. Pedestrian crossings are to be taken with a fist of salt, bribes can sometimes be nice, and deadlines are sometimes, well just plain annoying.
Russians are also usually very honest and straightforward, but it’s not because they are trying to offend you. They are not all cold or hard to befriend as the stereotype goes either. Infact, once you get chatting to – be it a бабушка (a granny, or stereotypical old woman) on the bus, who is ‘kindly reminding’ you that you have forgotten your hat, or a drunken Russian in one of their beloved karaoke bars, asking you to evaluate their heavy metal karaoke singing on a scale of 1 to 10 – they can be the warmest and most genuine people you will ever meet. Cautionary note, political discussions however are best avoided for the purpose of your sanity.
So when people ask ‘how’s RUSSIA??’, I often give the same response: ‘weird’. The obvious issue with this answer, is that it is a little on the curt side. However, I also fear it gives rise to false and negative misinterpretations. In a time when Russian politics is baffling to say the least, and Russia is often being portrayed unfavourably in Western media: ‘bad’, or even ‘evil’ is not an uncommon prejudice. What I really mean by ‘weird’, is that it’s just a totally surreal place to live in, as well as absolutely beautiful and intriguing. My plea is simply to give Russia and its people a chance, and not judge a whole nation based on its corrupt and autocratic politics. You may be pleasantly surprised, or at the very least, pleasantly confused.