It’s like European, but like, not quite.

Smolny Campus. (Credit: Smolny Student Conference Organizing Committee)

Two weeks ago, I attended the annual Smolny student conference. Five days I frolicked about and ate lots and lots of pierogies. Not a single dull moment was lived. This article is a reflection on my experience of the city:

I boarded at midnight. The experience was positively surreal. I had run across Riga airport to catch my connection — a process significantly slowed down by the immigration police’s diligence in checking my passport and visa. When I ultimately reached the gate, steadying my heart rate, I saw my flight there was a tiny jetplane. The plane was crowded with a peculiar mix of people: businesswomen and football fans sat side by side. Its odor was a combination of garlic and sweaty old person. Everywhere I looked I saw  babies with the potential to spark total mayhem. The plane shook and puffed and finally got us there in one piece. All the while in front of me, a girl calmly edited her selfie for the duration of the 40 min flight, nudging the brightness back and forth to reach perfection — which of course took a while, because of the shaking and all. But there’s no questioning her determination. I had to remind myself I wasn’t on a bus to a rural town; I was flying to St.Petersburg, the country’s former capital. She greeted me with snow. Welcome to Russia!

Old, established European city with a turbulent political history and famous art, architecture and churches? I got this. Or so I thought… It’s at the periphery where things start to get blurry, where borders become unclear and classification almost impossible. Europe? Asia? Who knows. There, everything starts ‘in 5 minutes,’ and you will definitely get yelled at for not following the unspoken rules. It’s the deception that hits you. Not disappointment: surprise.The city tempts you to believe you can hold onto your frame of reference. You read Aптека, you understand: apothecary. Not too tricky. There’s a promise that little has changed. It’s always too late when you realize: it’s snowing in April. Everything has.

First of all, English doesn’t get you very far. I asked the ticket officer at a museum for ‘information’ and she handed me a ticket. Thanks? Then I asked one of the guides, expecting a little compassion. She calmly walked me to an information screen and pointed to the text displayed. Relieved, I looked up and realized that every single slide was in Russian. Great…

How do you get by, then? It’s actually quite simple, you just need the one word: da (yes). Really. I had a ten minute conversation in Russian where my only contribution was da in different intonations. Da? Da! I must admit my contribution was limited, but my conversation partner seemed very engaged.

They proudly call St. Petersburg the Venice of the north. Da! Wait, nyet… Venice uses its canals for transportation. St. Petersburg has huge avenues instead, which makes sense considering the canals are frozen over half the year. It doesn’t make any sense to dig them in the first place. Don’t you know water only holds onto the cold? But they look so pretty!

Also pretty are the castles and mansions. They come in all shapes and sizes. Everyone deserved one. The Tzar, Tzarina, staff, concubines, even the second cousin of their great-grandmother’s neighbor got one. If you were really special you got a statue with it, too, just like that. Don’t believe me? Even the conference was held in — yes, you guessed it —  the mansion pictured above.

Among them, the crown jewel is the Hermitage. Beautiful. Impressive. Mint green. Wait… Such a provocative color that it demands an opinion. Personally, I like bold statements. So do the Russians. That’s why they built a golden chapel inside of the gigantic palace and furnished the rooms with golden clocks resembling birds, flapping, turning heads and all… We wouldn’t want it to be unrealistic. They even built a church on the rocks where Alexander II was fatally wounded by revolutionaries and topped it off with gold. Too rococo? Never.

Detail of the Hermitage (Credit: Clara Canales)
The Church of the Savior on Blood (Credit: Clara Canales)
Frozen Water (Credit: Clara Canales)

The bombastic Tzars left only to be replaced by other authoritarian figures. The last of them is, of course, good ol’ Vladimir Putin. His face is not to be missed on the streets of St. Pete. Mugs, calendars, t-shirts. .. anything can be adorned with pictures of him waving or riding his pet bear. After 17 years in power, Putin seems unwilling to abide by most democratic standards. He consistently violates his citizens’ human rights and encourages armed conflict wherever it pleases him. He has built himself a cult-like following that reinforces his right to power. All under the motto: Russia’s not that bad, look at other countries! So, his elaborate praise seems sarcastic. Sadly, this might just be another shape of deception. Here´s a few links for further info: Vox, The Guardian, Last Week Tonight.

We have come to the final deception: its people. Stern and focused, they buzz about the city. Don’t let yourself be fooled. The hard exterior hides a softer inside. Only in St. Petersburg have I been approached and offered directions. Only there did the taxi driver accept our improvised half-ruble, half-euro payment with an understanding smile. Only there was I offered champagne upon arrival. Only there was I lent money by a stranger with the complete faith I would pay them back. For all their kindness, I couldn’t even figure out how to say thank you. Spazibo? Splasiba? Spasibo, yes, that’s the one. I’m positive. I googled it.

There’s no denying the city is full of surprises. You just have to let go of your preconceptions to enjoy them. No, it’s not Europe: It’s Russia. Close, but not the same thing.

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