Why is Russia so misunderstood?
It is incredibly easy to have a distorted perception of reality filtered through the media, prejudice and word of mouth. Misconceptions cast aside, you can discover the beautiful truth of an ornate city deeply immersed in history and culture.
Having returned from a month studying in St. Petersburg, I was pleasantly surprised by my overall experience. The city was vastly different from what I was expecting. From the stunning ancient architecture and opulent golden gilded rooftops of St. Isaacs Cathedral, Peterhof Palace and the Peter Paul Fortress, romantic walks along the Neva River during the White Nights, to the mouth-watering blini (Russian pancakes) – I couldn’t have had a more pleasant experience.
As a Russian language student, I have grown accustomed to the look of utter bewilderment when I inform people of my degree choice. The responses are usually along the lines of: “…But why Russian? Isn’t Russia really dangerous? Corrupt? Hostile?”
Speculation about a country rarely portrayed in a positive light is expected, so I don’t blame anyone – for I too admit to falling victim to the power of prejudice before spending time there. I thus decided to uncover the truth for myself about some of the most common misconceptions during my stay.
To my surprise, Moscow and St. Petersburg have been voted the first and third least friendly cities in the world by the Travel + Leisure poll 2015. Whilst it is common knowledge that Russia is usually associated with an unfriendly population, this generalisation couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course, if you cannot speak the native dialect, the language barrier may complicate things. However, if you take the initiative to learn a few words of Russian, your efforts will be admired.
The majority of people, especially the younger generation speak English, so finding your way around is a simple task and from my experience, everyone is happy to help.
As is expected in any largely populated city, it is uncommon to smile at strangers, so do not take it personally if you encounter an unfriendly face – it is merely a defence mechanism which has been adopted following countless years of hardship.
SAFETY & ALCOHOL
My advice – visit Russia in the summer to discover the lively city at its best. My stay in St. Petersburg happened to coincide with the extraordinary Russian phenomenon, the White Nights (normally lasting from June 11th to July 2nd). Expect bustling nights which never end and endless romantic walks along the Neva River. Broad daylight for almost 24 hours a day guarantees continuous festivities into the night and a safe passage home at any hour.
I was lucky enough to attend The Scarlet Sails, a traditional event notable since the end of WWII attended by over 4 million and celebrates the beginning of summer. A magnificent ship with blood crimson sails cruises along the Neva River against the backdrop of a spectacular fireworks show. It is an event not to be missed and an experience of a lifetime.
The city is full of life during the glorious summer months with countless events and festivities organised to keep you busy. You may also be surprised to hear that vodka is not a common beverage among youths and young adults. When I questioned my lovely teacher on the topic, she laughed, “They prefer beer, cider and wine”.
Streets are relatively safe, and I found that Russia generally cares for their cleanliness and image more so than the U.K– streets and public spaces are cleaned more regularly and efficiently.
COSTS & COMMUNICATION
Transportation in St. Petersburg is surprisingly inexpensive. Trains run from Metro stations at just 30 roubles (30p) per journey until midnight. After that, feel free to use Uber or Yandex, a local reliable and affordable Russian taxi service which is downloadable as an app. I would avoid street taxis however, as they tend to charge outrageous prices verging on the border of criminality, especially if they sense you are not local.
If you fancy a cheap method of transportation outside of the city to Peterhof Palace for example, take a Marshrutka (a routed taxicab), from Avtovo and from Leninskiy Prospekt Metro Stations for a little over 60 roubles per one hour drive.
You are advantaged as a student in Russia, with free entry into many museums and attractions such as the Hermitage State Museum – one of the largest, oldest and most beautiful museums in the world – founded by Catherine the Great in 1764. If you’re there, make sure to witness the spectacular winding up of the Peacock Clock which takes place every Wednesday at 19:00.
Communication in Russia is a breeze, as sim cards can be purchased for as little as 400 roubles (£3.85) a month from the airport or any mobile store – this includes sufficient data, calls and texts. Additionally, free Wi-Fi is available at almost every café or restaurant.
So is Russia really as bad as it’s made out to be after all? Come and see for yourself, I promise you’ll thank me for it.