Russia is full of beautiful architecture, art and culture. Unfortunately, the thought of planning a trip there and securing a visa is intimidating to many people (including me!). I’ve been thinking of making the trip next summer, and came across Lisa’s blog about adjusting to life as a graduate student in Russia after living in the UK. In her guest post here, she explains why you should visit Russia, its definitely worth the effort!
I suppose visiting Russia may have an extra sense of adventure nowadays, with all the bad press it’s been getting. But apart from the added excitement, there are a fair few reasons you should visit Russia.
Firstly, Russia is a lot more like the USA than we imagine. By this I mean that it is big, it is geographically, culturally and architecturally diverse, and it has been shaped by a political legacy which is both defining and problematic for its inhabitants. The contrasts are beautiful- classic orthodox churches, or straight-edged soviet blocks stand next to each other, bordered by small stalls, flower shops, grocery stores and parks.
The people, although not known to be as smiley like the natives of the USA, are welcoming, open-hearted and friendly. Particularly now, the western-inclined Russians feel that increased dialogue is important, and engage in long discussions and sometimes even debates to show you their interest in (and concerns about) ‘the West’.
Finally- less significant but very practical- with the current economic situation it is significantly cheaper to visit than ever before- even if the visa charges are still ridiculously high.
Unfortunately, quick stops in Russia often confirm the stereotype of the silent, unsmiling and even unsympathetic Russian. The impression starts at the border, where stern looking security guards silently scrutinize your passport. I find it bizarre, but I have crossed the bored three times now, and have answered only two questions- ‘Are you a student?’ and ‘What year of study are you in’. On entry, I have never been asked anything, simply told to ‘SIGN!’. This silence makes the experience more intimidating, but most people I know have had a similar experience. However, for a tourist, when you add this impression of public security to the to the service providers such as cashiers, security guards and waiters(/resses), who are expected to be professional and courteous, not bubbly and enthusiastic, they begin to see grim faces everywhere, leading to observations that ‘Russians don’t smile’. This is of course, rubbish.
So how best to get to the encounters that lead you to meet some ‘real Russians’ and possibly even engage in conversation? There are a variety of things that I have found to be successful from my experience living in Moscow.
1) Flying to Moscow or St. Petersburg? In all likelihood your neighbour (unless they are travelling with you) is a businessman, student, or fellow tourist. They probably also have some fairly good language skills. Don’t be afraid to try to chat!
2) If you are on your own, do not be afraid to exercise in a public park. When you find an open-air gym (which you inevitably will at some point), which more often than not has someone slowly using the cross-trainer, smile or nod respectfully at the person, and join them. Eventually you will either get advice on how to use a machine, or will get praise for being outside and working out, especially if you are working out with a ‘grandmother’. The only downside of this approach is that usually some knowledge of Russian is required, although German occasionally also works with that generation.
3) Look out for the expat website or social media groups in which locals try to connect with English -speakers to practice your language. A lot of the time these will be long-term, ‘buddy’ arrangements, but there are also plenty of one-off events. This is a great option if there are a few of you, and if you definitely don’t speak any Russian.
4) For a more impromptu English-speaking meet-up, find a ‘traditional’ English Pub (Irish might also work, although I have not tested this!). In Moscow, an especially popular one is the ’16 Tons’ near the Metro station ‘1905 Ulitsa’. Even when in a group, people will ask to join your conversation, and possibly even buy a round of drinks when they hear real English accents.
For all of these conversations, it is helpful to have learned at least basic Russian phrases like ‘thank you’ or ‘my name is…’. You will likely be treated with some surprise, as Russians even in Moscow find it unusual that Westerners would want to come and visit Russia. Try to have an answer ready for why you are visiting, you will probably get asked that a lot. Probably the most accurate for me is still ‘Russia had to be MORE than what you can read in newspapers and novels. I wanted to be there, to SEE, to FEEL, and to EXPERIENCE.’