Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Winston Churchill was Right

Winston Churchill once said that Russia is a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Let’s just say that I’ve been in this country for almost 3 weeks now and I still don’t understand how it ticks. Before now, I have settled with explaining the complex and sometimes contradictory facets of Russian life by saying that Russia is in itself a dichotomy. But this explanation is simply not sufficient to reconcile the history of suffering in the city’s recent past and the very western mindset that St. Petersburg has today. So I think it’s time to talk about the Russian culture as I have seen it here thus far. 

I guess I’ll start off by recounting my experiences with cultural enigmas that hark back to the Soviet past. Back in the Soviet era, alcoholism was a common aspect of life. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that at certain times during the Soviet Union, alcohol was subsidized by the government. Even today, there are some restaurants and cafes that sell water for a higher price than beer. So this leads to my experience at the hockey game I attended last Wednesday. My friends and I had a very exciting experience watching the number one rated National Russian Hockey team play Finland’s hockey team. After the first period, however, I was surprised to see almost all the spectators hurriedly file out of the stadium. Apparently, drinks are not allowed in the actual arena, so after every period Russians will run out to the food stations to down a quick beer. After the second period, I followed the Russians out the arena only to find drunk Russian men dancing with female hockey cheerleaders. I don’t know why I found this so funny; I guess it’s because scenes like this are bizarrely Russian and quite common. Of course not all Russians drink; it just seems that way. I think this stereotype is similar to the perception that all Americans love ketchup. The other day my host mother gave me spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, so of course she tried to insist that I put ketchup on my meal. Because Americans put ketchup on everything right? Nope. False. I stuck with some butter and salt. 

On another note, some Russians still hold a very strong views regarding fascists. In many ways, I can understand why. In St. Petersburg, more than 1 million people in the city died during the 900 day blockade during World War II. The Nazis held the city in a state of starvation and despair for almost three years, and this memory remains imprinted on the minds of many people. I was fortunate enough to see the memorial dedicated to the blockade on Saturday (see below). 


Almost everyday in St. Pete, we hear a story about the blockade or an accusatory remark about Germans. This is one of the most memorable stories: One of my friends lives with an 80 years Russian babushka who claims that birds today are stupider than in the past. Well why you may be asking? Apparently my friend’s babushka said that before WWII, people would give food to birds and the birds would simply fly away. After the Nazis invaded, this all changed. When the Nazis fed the birds in St. Pete, the birds began returning for more and more food. Now, birds in Russia keep returning for food. According to her explanation, the Nazi’s stupidity has permanently transferred to the birds. And thus, it is the fascist Nazis’ fault that birds are stupid today. The Soviet system of blame perpetuates. 

So in contrast to the alcohol drinking and Soviet influences on modern Russian life, I spent almost all of last Saturday viewing some of St. Petersburg’s fantastic churches. On this “day of churches” I visited the Nikolsky Cathedral, which held services during the Soviet Union even when religion was officially band. It’s nice to see that enforced secularism didn’t completely eradicate the beautiful religious traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. Here’s some photos of  Nikolsky Cathedral (top left) and Chesme Church (bottom left):

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