Sorry for my syntax, I am not a writer and English is not my first language. Sorry for my point of view, I am not an intellectual. But I still think that I have something interesting to tell you!
Last month (in September), I went to Russia for 10 days, for the first time of my life. More precisely to Moscow and St Petersburg, the 2 biggest cities of the country (respectively 12 and 5 million inhabitants). Some slanderous people may say these 2 cities don’t represent the sociological reality of the nation. But I could only visit these 2 cities, so that’s the reality I have taken from this personal experience.
Like many Europeans (I am half French/half Polish living in Latvia), I had prejudices about Russia. Mine were quite negative. Here are some. This country is ruled by only one man for almost 20 years: Mr Putin. This man sends to jail a lot of his opponents. That looks like a dictatorship from here. Then, there is this recent past when Russia was oppressor during the cold war. And now, there are all these wars in which it is involved: Ukraine, Georgia, Chechenia, Syria etc. Concerning the Russian people, I can’t help thinking about brutal and violent people who drink vodka all day long. This cliché sticks them. In general, French and Polish people don’t have a good image about Russia. Only few French have a good one. First: basically those who are anti-American and think that Russia is the only country which faces this ultra-capitalist nation. Second: those who are passionate by the great Russian culture through its many talented artists such as Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, Kandinsky, Pouchkine, Tolstoy, Gorki, Stravinsky etc. There are so many of them! Oh and I almost forgot!… Three: those who are passionate by these tall and beautiful blond Russian women with blue eyes!
Very honestly, I thought, especially because of French media which write only negative things about Russia, that this country was stuck in the 80’s, period when it was still USSR. For example: sad and ugly buildings where people live in, old Lada cars, destroyed roads, etc. Basically a non-developed country very different from French culture, with a lot of cold and not open-minded people. Imagine: a lot of people were very worried for me because I was going there alone. My mum even thought that I will never come back …!
All of these negative images … And paradoxically, this aura, this great power, this huge influence which has this country in the world … Why?! I wanted to see that with my own eyes…
I arrived to Moscow by plane. I took a bus to get into the city centre. First obvious difficulties: most of the people don’t speak (or very badly) English. And everything is written in Cyrillic. Fortunately, I speak a bit polish (language very close to Russian) and I learnt Cyrillic alphabet before leaving. Finally I arrived to my hostel after asking help (in Polish) to a lot of people. No time to visit the city, it’s already late and I am tired. First impressions: my trip here is going to be complicated… The day after, I go explore the city. I understand how works the subway, crucial and reassuring stage. I find out very quickly that Moscow looks like an European city like Berlin, Paris, or London. I don’t feel disoriented at all. Everything is the same: a lot of people, huge buildings, big boulevards, same shops, lot of noise … However, two important differences: here cars are definitely the queens in town (Paris cars traffic is nothing compared to here) and … this alphabet! I need about 30 seconds to be able to read one simple word.
Church on the Red Square
One question I am always asking myself: where are these ugly big soviet buildings? I only see one from time to time. And yet, I walk around 10 km per day.. It is sure: there are much less than in Poland or Latvia. I remember telling to myself: “bastards! They built these habitations only for their “colonies”!”
And the people, let’s talk about it! Surprising. Everyday. And I meet so many of them! They are all warm, smiling, welcoming. It is definitely not the image I had. As we go along discussions (fortunately, I succeed in finding Russians who can speak English!), and after few beers (they don’t drink as much vodka as we think and have actually good beers!) I start asking them important questions about their situation: “do you feel free?” “Of course yes! I have a job, my friends, I party, I listen to the music I want, I watch the movies I want. In brief I am happy.” « And what do you think about Putin? » A lot of them tell me that they don’t care about him, about politics and what he does doesn’t impact their daily life. But they admit that they don’t live in a democracy. “We have this impression that we can’t do anything about it. Nevermind. It has always been like that and it will likely be still for a long time… As far as we are happy, and that the government doesn’t bother us, it suits us.” “Okay but you know, he’s got blood on his hands. With all these wars, his opponents disappear…”. For that issue, opinions are different: “you know, we need a strong and powerful president. And Putin is the man we need. Otherwise, Russia would split in multiple of parts, it would be chaos. This president succeeds in maintaining a relative stability. Russia is very big country, we need someone up to the task.” And some others told me other speeches: “you know, he is a bloodthirsty for sure. But the worst is corruption. All these weird things happening, I can’t bear it anymore. I am totally against this country’s policy, that is why I support his opponent: Alexei Navalny. But unfortunately, he is sent to jail very regularly for implausible reasons. Thus, the government tries to reduce his influence. Nevertheless, he publishes many videos on YouTube. He says and does good things.” And finally, everybody agrees on one fact: “You know, you are very lucky to be French. Russian people love France and generally West of Europe. You have such a great culture, beautiful landscapes, nice weather, and you live in democratic countries.” Some of them even confessed to me: “I would love to live in Europe.. If I can, I will try to move in there”. While some others tell me: “However, there are too many homosexuals in your places. It’s completely against nature. We don’t understand this social phenomenon. You know that we nickname you Gayropa ?! »
I had all these discussions in bars, in my hostel (where there were no European tourists, but Belarusian, Ukrainian or Russian workers), and with a friend of a friend who welcomed me like a king. It was planned to spend only one evening together. But actually, we stayed together for 48 hours! She showed me Moscow places that tourists don’t visit and even invited me in her place. She didn’t know me and yet she was my local guide for 2 days. It seemed natural for her. Just because she was excited to show her city to a French while practicing her English. Oxana, thank you so much!
In the Kremlin enclosure
My trip to Moscow is ending. I go to Saint Petersburg by train. 4 hours trip, very comfortable seats. They even give you slippers to feel easy, prepare a pink carpet when you arrive in the train and offer you a sandwich and biscuits. Pretty awesome! And who do I meet in my wagon besides me? A Russian Babushka who speaks fluently French!
Once arrived in Saint Petersburg, I realize that this city looks even more European than Moscow. It seems to be a mix between Riga, Tallinn and Helsinki. In brief, a Baltic city. Here people are colder, less smiling, less welcoming. A déjà vu feeling. And yet, they speak much better English than in Moscow. Perhaps they are fed up with tourists? It’s true, they are everywhere. Even me, as a tourist, in 5 days I got bored by these people with camera (or camera with people?), mostly coming from China. Hence here, despite the incontestable beauty of Saint Petersburg (its cannels, its churches, its winter palace, its Nevsky Prospect and of course Peterhof), I found it less attractive than Moscow. The last two days were a bit hard, the impossibility to find people to talk to was quite heavy.
There was a great meeting though, that I must tell you. My flatmate gave me the contact of a person she knows in Saint Petersburg. I send her a message. Unfortunately, she replies me that she went to countryside for two weeks, but she has a very good friend who can speak French and he would be very happy to meet me. I contact him. Positive answer! We plan to meet on Nevsky Prospect without knowing what will happen next. “If you want, we can go to my place and then we could go to a concert”. “Yes, sounds good!” Arrived in his place, I tell him “wow you live with many flatmates!” « No, no I live with my family. And here is my mum. » Once the ordinary greetings done, she proposes me some borscht (beet traditional Russian soup). I accept with pleasure but I tell to myself that these people are too nice with me. They welcome me in their place, they feed me whereas I don’t know them. Then we are having very interesting conversations about Russian and French culture, I am learning a lot as his mother is a philosopher. Besides, the flat fits with the image I had of typical interiors Russian flats: a big mess! Books everywhere, old objects whose I don’t know the utility, paintings, and a needed cleaning workshop. “Oh damn, we have to go!” We leave the flat for the concert. Well in fact, it’s more like a jam session. A weird one, very experimental. A conductor leads around 10 musicians whose my friend of the night. They improvise unusual sounds. A saxophonist, instead of blowing in his instrument drums on it to produce sounds. Flutists and other musicians do the same. Alutists and other musicians do the same. nstrumentight. tionconcert” next. ryside for two weeks, but she has a very good friendl these people use their instruments, but not in a conventional way. Very interesting. At the end of the concert, my atypical friend comes to see me among the public: “okay, now I have to go home.” I go with him in front of his place and then continue my night in an Irish pub, as we can see everywhere. There I meet one Italian and two real Siberians. We get on well very quickly and compare our life. Interested, the barmen start discussing with us. All together we set up a great atmosphere in the bar. It was again a great evening.
One of the numerous canal of Saint Petersburg
And that’s how my trip ended. Russia definitely destroyed all my prejudices. It is a surprising, welcoming, beautiful, clean and well developed country. I go back to Riga, sad to leave as it was so amazing. My point of view has changed about it going from rather negative to very positive after seeing it. Well, I have probably seen its two most beautiful cities but still. I warmly invite you to visit it to remove all bad stereotypes we have, spread mainly by media; to talk with locals, and appreciate the country as it is. Russia is like a pilgrimage to Mecca for a Muslim: Europeans must go there to understand themselves better. Nevertheless, I will still be mad at the political decisions made by this government, and I am saying it in a nice way …!