A closer look at Russia
When you travel, you’re supposed to learn. Taking photos and following tour guides can be so shallow. Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back and study the country. If you really get to know the place, meet the locals, learn the language, study the history, and grasp the culture, then the experience will be so much more rewarding.
And like in Russia, hopefully you can make some critical judgments along the way. Here are some that I made about Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
Religion is a roller coaster. Surprise surprise, Nick is talking about religion again! Russia’s Orthodox Church is amazing. Behind all of the shimmering mosaics and icons is a strong, active religious community. The history is astounding – Russia went from being one of the most religious nations in the world to one of the least in just a few generations, sparked by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. After the Cold War, churches opened up again, and the Church-State relations are now as tight as ever.
While in St. Petersburg, we talked to Father Vladimir at the Transfiguration Church. We discussed the Pussy Riot scandal (his take: don’t disrespect the Church – it exists on a level far above punk rock), his personal beliefs (“If you are a slave to God, you can never be a slave to man”), and the totality of the Orthodox faith (permeates both personal and political life). A truly inspiring man, and one of my highlights of the trip.
The facade is beautiful. I already raved about this, but Russia is unbelievable to look at. The food, sun, landscape, churches, statues, canals, palaces, and colorful streets really gives these cities their charm.
Just be careful if you dig a little beneath the skin. There’s a memorial to the victims of the “Communist Terror,” but on the other side of Petersburg is a communist rally for Stalin sympathizers. There was a Pussy Riot protest underneath peaceful church domes. There’s Bentley’s and homeless beggars. There’s two sides to the story, and a whole lot of irony.
Communism sucks. There are parts of Russia that look like a blast from the past. We visited an old communitarian apartment (the Soviets threw out the rich family that used to live there and redistributed all of the rooms to poorer, working-class families). The utopian intentions are fluffy, but in reality, all of the common areas looked disgusting. Broken windows, cracked walls, dirty floors, and a tiny bathroom that was supposed to fit 7 families. As Russian author Joseph Brodsky says, “If there is an infinite aspect of space, it is not its expansion but its reduction.” Indeed, about 10 square meters per person. And whatever you do, don’t complain.
The personal rooms, on the other hand, were clean, finely decorated, and much better kept. The bottom line: whatever is communal tends to get forgotten. So much for being comrades, huh?
People are people. If there is one thing I’ve discovered on this trip, it’s how incredibly small the world is. This really hit me when I spent a day with Russian students, cooking holobtsi and chatting around the kitchen table. Speaking in half English, half broken-Ukrainian, we talked about base-jumping, politics, why they were proud of Russia, and hitchhiking across Siberia. We got really deep on the way back to the metro station at night. No matter who you are – regardless of your education, your job, your family background, where you live, what you do – you can always talk about life. Its meaning, its purpose, God. It seems so general, so gushy. But everyone is happy to talk about it.
I also tried to overcome the stereotypes about how you think other people look or act or think. Not all Russian drink vodka (though we learned how to), support Putin, or go to those beautiful Orthodox churches. People are different, and yet so much alike. Even the beat-up communist apartment could resemble my dorm room on a Saturday morning. There’s Bentley’s and beggars in New York City too, you know? We’re not communists or republicans, students or drop-outs, Russians or Americans. We’re just people, and we live in a very small, small world.