Since I was a young boy, I have always wanted to visit Russia. In the United States, our perception of Russia is still contextualized by the Cold War – we remember the country as a powerful adversary who threatened our existence and freedom. Despite this negative attribution, I found the architecture, the history, the literature, and culture fascinating.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2015 when I was studying at the London School of Economics for a one-year course. I met Ivan Velentey during debate practice at the university. We did not participate in the same debate, but he joined our group at the bar later. He told me he was Belarussian. Unsurprisingly, he was the first Belorussian I met. The only thing I knew about Belarus at the time was the name of their president, Alexander Lukashenko, and their supposed love of potatoes. We had a lengthy discussion about the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the Russo-Georgian war, and a number of other Eastern European topics. Coincidentally, we met up at Cambridge where I was fortunate enough to see him debate and participate in the English as a Second Language (ESL) Finals.
After Cambridge, we kept in touch through Facebook. We would talk about Russian life, politics, Chechnya, and general debate stuff. He suggested I go to two debate tournaments in Russia held by Saint Petersburg and Moscow HSE. I was hesitant at first. I was worried about the Russia-Ukraine conflict; would it be safe to go to a country that is currently engaged in war with its neighbor and under heavy sanctions from my homeland? I was also afraid that Russia had a lot of crime. My parents and teachers told me stories about post-Soviet Russia, how illegal organizations thrived under the economic crisis of the nineties.
Ivan assuaged my anxiety by telling me how Russian society has changed and I would be around native Russian speakers. I decided to ask my parents for their approval. They, like I, were concerned whether it would be safe for me to travel to Russia. I assured them that I would be a conscious traveler, staying in safe areas only, not indulging too much in Russia’s finest vodka, and always having a native Russian speaker around me at all times. They finally gave in and supported me through the whole procedure of getting me to Russia.
The process of getting my visa was also interesting. There were some difficulties in attaining an invitation letter from one of the universities, so in the end I had to contact a travel agency and purchase one. I then went to the Russian Embassy in London where my beliefs about Russia were somewhat confirmed: they said my paperwork was incomplete and I had to print out a new application. As I went to print it out, I left my computer bag under their computer section – I realized this and ran to get it when a security guard stopped me. He was a tall, broad man with a heavy Russian accent. He pointed at me and beckoned me over.
“Is this your bag?” He asked aggressively.
It was, of course. “Yes, my apologies for leaving it at the computer area.”
“Do not leave your bag unattended.”
I knew, after experiencing embassy bureaucracy and a tough guard that Russia was going to be a different type of country.
My trip itinerary was set: I was to spend five days in Saint Petersburg first, present a lecture on US foreign policy to debaters, and debate at Saint Petersburg State University’s debate tournament. After, I took the “fast” train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow. In Moscow, I presented the same lecture at Moscow HSE and participated at their tournament. I would be sightseeing in between the tournaments.
I traveled to Saint Petersburg, Russia at the end of March. As I left Heathrow, I was excited and nervous to go to a country foreign to me in every way. I had travelled around Western Europe, but I had a feeling Russia was going to be quite different (and I was right). As the plane descended into Pulkovo Airport, I could see out the window that Russia was going to be an amazing experience. The buildings were not Western – in fact they looked stereotypically Soviet. A student at Saint Petersburg State University met me at the airport and accompanied me to my hotel and dinner. On the drive towards my hotel, I saw a statue of Vladimir Lenin, which shocked me. I exclaimed, “Is that Lenin? I never expected to see a statue of him in my life”. Both the taxi driver and my new friend laughed. For the rest of the drive I was admiring the beautiful architecture and differences between Russia and home.
I recall seeing broken down and dilapidated buildings as we got closer to the center of Saint Petersburg. There was also a large amount of stray dogs, something I had never seen before. After we arrived at my hotel, we went to dinner and then I went to bed early, as the next day I was to debate at Saint Petersburg Open.
The next morning I met up with Ivan and friends I made while at Cambridge, Ekaterina, Oxana, and Danil (my teammate for the tournament) at a restaurant. I will never forget standing in line at the cafeteria when a young girl behind me began speaking to me in Russian. I don’t really speak it, so my response was, in the most obvious American accent, “Izvinitye, ya ne ponimayu.” She looked at me as if I were weird and walked away. I was so worried that I had said something wrong or offensive, but my friends told me it was appropriate.
We went to the debate tournament where I got to meet some of the most intelligent and kind people on the Russian debating circuit. We had some high-caliber topics and phenomenal discourse. One of the debates we had was in the final round of Saint Petersburg State University. It was about Pussy Riot and whether their actions harmed feminism within Russia. I never thought I would be discussing feminism within Russia as the Western culture focuses more on topics like the mistreatment of women in Saudi Arabia and under other authoritarian regimes.
During my time in Saint Petersburg, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit some of the most beautiful tourist spots, including the Hermitage and St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
After touring St. Petersburg, I took the day-train to Moscow. It was really interesting to see the terrain between the two cities – quite a lot of snow! It was pleasant to see snow-covered forests from the inside of a well-heated, comfortable train.
After arriving in Moscow, we went around the city – first to the Kremlin, the infamous Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and finally, Arbat Street. I went to a restaurant on Arbat street called “Varenichnaya”, which served excellent food and had old Soviet décor. I also had the opportunity to try out “Fine” Crimean wine (for only 195 rubles!) which was surprisingly good. I also noticed the flag of South Ossetia (or North Ossetia – I never got close enough to see to which one it was referring. This reminded me of my conversations with Ivan about the Russo-Georgian war. I also visited the Jewish Museum (a truly wonderful place), Gorki Park (not the best during the months of March-April), and the Pushkin Museum. Moscow is definitely a unique city and contains within it the architecture I enjoy – brutalist and commanding.
It is really hard to say which of the two cities I enjoyed most. Saint Petersburg was really beautiful in the winter – the snow covered rivers and stylish architecture really made my experience there great. Moscow, on the other hand, gave off a more historic and Soviet vibe. The people in Moscow appeared to be in more of a rush and were not as friendly to tourists.
Taxi drivers (and traffic) in Russia were definitely crazy. I had numerous drivers who did not come to a complete stop at the stop sign, charged unreasonably high prices, and were not the most professional. Because of this, I decided to use Uber as opposed to the metro or normal taxi drivers due to my inability to comprehend Russian and tolerate poor driving. I tend to chat with my taxi drivers, so I would ask them questions (using Google Translate) such as “have you ever been to Crimea?” or “what do you think of America?” Almost all of them said “Krim Nash!” or “Krim Rossiya!” Interestingly, their view of America was rather neutral – I had expected harsh anti-American sentiment.
As I finish my final year at George Washington University in Washington, DC, I look forward to starting my career here in America. However, I plan to return to Russia and maybe one day work there in the financial sector. This is, of course, assuming I can pronounce the letter “ы” and learn how to correctly enunciate “ь”.