Today’s guest blogger is Matthew Avischious.
It’s difficult to know just what to expect when visiting a foreign country. No amount of reading about sights to see or cultural practices are a replacement for the real thing. When I was preparing to go to Russia, this process was made even more difficult as I knew very few people outside of my Russian professors at school who had actually been there. Most of my friends had no experience there, and what they did know was usually based off some joke or Russian stereotype. Needless to say I was nervous and excited to venture off into a completely new part of the world in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Stepping of the plane, I realized just how different learning a language in a classroom was compared to actually being surrounded by native speakers. At college the speakers I talked to were just learning the language, and apart from my professor, no one spoke quickly or with great pronunciation. I tried to eavesdrop on conversations nearby to see if I could pick up anything they said, while only sometimes being able to pick up the gist of what they were saying. What really forced me to get comfortable with speaking Russian was living with a host family that spoke no English. It took getting used to, but eventually we were able to understand each other, and it gave me a deeper appreciation for the language.
After about a week of being in St. Petersburg, I began exploring the city with friends to see the sights. When most people think of Russian architecture, they think of Red Square or giant Soviet apartment complexes. However, St. Petersburg is a very different type of Russian city. Since the city was originally founded by Russian czar and Europhile, Peter the Great, there is a distinct European style in much of the city. Many of the buildings are pastel colored and feature arches and pillars like in classical French design. That is not to say there is not Russian style, though. As one heads out from the center of the city towards the additions added during the Soviet times, there are towering grey apartment buildings where many of the city’s residents live.
The city not only has unique architecture, but also has its fair share of art. There are many museums in St. Petersburg, but none are more famous than the Hermitage. It’s one of the most famous art museums in the world, and after visiting several times while I was there, it’s easy to understand why. There are pieces from ancient Egyptian art all the way to modern galleries from around the world. While it is an amazing place to visit, I preferred another nearby art museum called the Russian Museum. What makes it special is that it contains only the works of artists from Russia. This helps to give a distinctly Russian perspective of art and the world. It features early Russian icons which show the deep connections with Russian Orthodoxy, portraits of Russian aristocrats during Imperial Russia, and paintings of modern Soviet ideals.
To better understand Russian culture, I then had to travel outside of the city to explore some of the vast parks and gardens. Russians traditionally have emotional and spiritual ties to nature, and getting out of the city is a great way for them to unwind. To get to the parks, my friends and I traveled in old soviet style train cars out from the city, and despite the cold weather, large groups of Russians were out enjoying the scenery. Many of the parks are on the land from former imperial palace grounds, and the amount of space they take up is absolutely gigantic. One could easily spend a day or two just walking around a single park. Through the thick forest and rolling hills, there are often small buildings scattered throughout the parks. These buildings range from green houses to mausoleums built for royal family members.
Of course, it is impossible to really know a culture without actually talking to the people who live there. Walking down the street or riding the metro, people always have a serious look on their face, which can be quite off-putting for foreigners. However I learned to not be fooled by the stern outward appearances of the Russian people. Once you get to know Russians, they are very kind and welcoming. From the friends I made while playing soccer matches in the park, to the old Russian grandmothers who simply wanted someone with whom they could practice their English, they are the ones that truly made Russia feel like an amazing place.