In preparation for going to Russia this summer, I had been reading 'The Gambler' by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In it, he portrays the Germans as stiff and sanctimonious, the French calculating and conniving, and the English worthy but dull, but curiously left out any stereotypes of the Russians. Russia at that time was less formed as a nation, so Dostoevsky believed there was not a comparable Russian stereotype. That was 150 years ago, time enough for a stereotype to form if you will indulge me, based solely on two weeks of tourism and a failed attempt at reading Dostoevsky.
I had heard while visiting that St Petersburg was 'the most European of Russian cities' so often that I began to count the remark per hour of conversation. I had not visited anywhere else in Russia, but I could offer an opinion on the European comparison. I told my newly-made Russian friend, Oleg, one of those most at pains to stress the European comparison (read: open, tolerant, cultural), that on first impressions I found St Petersburg to be 'like a grander and more historic Budapest.'
'Budapest?!' Oleg asked me to confirm, utterly dismayed by the comparison, but leaving the chance that I had just horribly mispronounced Paris or Vienna. I thought both shared the same neo-classical grand architecture, uniformity of streets intersected by historic monuments and bridges, and dated but charming public transport.
A Croatian friend with us chipped in her impressions: 'The outskirts, those 15 blocks or more sky-scraping apartment blocks, remind me of Bosnia, on an enormous scale.' Another failed comparison as far as Oleg was concerned. Any irony of aspiring to be the 'most European of Russian cities,' but balking at any would-be comparison was lost, and I felt it better for everyone's happiness and safety not to point that out to already-irked Oleg.
Formerly Leningrad, the majority of St Petersburg was built in just a few decades by eponymous tsar, Peter the Great, in the early 18th century to cement his rule, knowing that the city would be the bulwark for the embryonic Russian nation against would-be European invaders. The result is majestically formed palaces, gardens, and fountains, such as the biggest art collection in the world at the Hermitage, the private gardens of Peter the Great at Peterhof, and the original citadel of the city at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Less well known is that between 30,000 to 100,000 perished in St Petersburg's construction, which added a solemnity to our stroll around the grandest palaces, parks, and fortresses, knowing the human cost of such luxury.
One advantage of being a tourist in St Petersburg is not feeling surrounded by them. Most of the other tourists were Russian-speaking, which should not have come as too much of a surprise given the size of Mother Russia and the visa requirements to visit. Visiting in the heat of summer, the city was alive with cafes, hidden bars, and people hanging out in parks or by the river. The inward Russia was less visible than I had imagined, but on the flip side, my travelling companions and I experienced the infamous social surveillance. From being upbraided with seeming relish by the hostel receptionist for any perceived misdemeanour, to every luggage larger than a handbag being checked before entering the subway, to being asked to pay for failing to notice the 'Women Only' in bars and clubs offering women-only dancing spaces.
The penultimate day of our visit coincided with the national holiday, the 'Day of the Russian Navy,' for which St Petersburg as the main port city is famous. In the morning, cars and residents flocked from the outskirts to the port-side with flags and other national symbols, as city residents are encouraged to show their support by wearing an item of clothing symbolic of the navy. Many of the men decided to dress like Popeye to show their support, minus the smile; in a more Western context, their matching sailor outfits, hats, and skin-tight tops would not have been out of place at a different kind of male-dominated street parade, although I'm confident the two clienteles don't overlap. That version of masculinity was prevalent in St Petersburg, holding on to images of strength and aggression, whereas the femininity I encountered sought more to be capable and intelligent, an aspiration to do anything and be self-sufficient, characteristics far better suited to the modern world.
This celebration of state power and its city supporters seemed to make its mark on the city, not so much because of its number or noise, rather that in a few short days I had become used to the totally muted social, cultural or political expressions outside. The parade felt emphasised because I wasn't able to set my eyes on much by the way of civic expressions outside for, by, or with the public other than the parade (excluding a Korean-pop concert the following day for young teenagers, which felt like a complete aberration).
The displays of military (read: state) power were everywhere that day: the grand ships blaring their horns, the array of fleet, and the sailors on land. Oleg looked as similarly distant to it all as this Scot on his two-week holiday, so I felt comfortable probing his thoughts on the whole show.'It's weird, because in a lot of ways the success of the navy led us to this beautiful and amazing city, we won and this place is our reward, so why not celebrate it? But, on the other hand, this around us doesn't feel as if it's celebrating that, this is all about Russia's power today.' I felt from Oleg the pride of a St Petersburg resident rubbing up against the ill-feeling of the same Russian citizen.
Oleg spoke eloquently and at length about his and all his friends' disdain for Putin. Present on his mind was the 'complete waste of time' of the last election, and facing the frightful reality of risking being thrown in jail for posting anti-government online memes (a verified story), which has led him not to feel free anywhere; the endemic corruption at all spheres of society which has brought back the scarred memories of the 1990s; the fact the pension age is being raised to 65 for men and 60 for women, which for men is only two years below their life expectancy (not coincidentally, the bill was introduced during the World Cup when all protests were banned); but despite all Oleg's complaints, you could still feel his pride in Russia.
It reminded me of the adage: 'Russians have everything in name but nothing in reality.' Then he brought home a cold reality to my facile impressions: 'But don't take my opinion, I speak English and almost everyone here doesn't; being a student and having studied abroad, I'm already the elite!'
I was asked on my return what Russia was like, to which I could only muster with any confidence: 'Well, not like Europe.' But it in no way put me off appreciating and marvelling in the differences, be they the grander scale and decoration of everything from the Soviet buildings to the incredible subways (a highlight), or the fact that a smile needs to be earned and is not offered freely, or a humour so down-to-earth you get the sense most of them are as good as six-feet-under already.
That missing stereotype of Dostoevsky's? Along with the stiff and sanctimonious Germans, the calculating and conniving French, and the worthy but dull English, I add the dissonant but proud Russians.