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leaving russia

June 11, 2011 2 comments

A line at my local supermarket at 12am

I’m pleased to report that Russia isn’t a country rife with organised crime, there aren’t bears running down every street and people generally prefer beer to vodka. There are so many aspects of this country, its people and the way they live that the rest of the world just doesn’t quite get. Similarly, there remains an underlying misunderstanding in Russia towards its orientation to the world, particularly the west.

Yesterday I left Saint Petersburg where I’ve lived since August last year. I thought it was a good time to write something down to summarise how I’ve felt about my time in Russia and to share my opinions about the place.

Don't do that

When I arrived last year I didn’t have a crystal clear path to follow, I didn’t have anywhere to live and I wasn’t that sure where I was studying. I felt generally okay about that though as I visited Russia a few years ago and found it straight forward enough. I was fortunate to find Elena and Marina on a Couch Surfing forum and they agreed to have me stay with them in their home until December.

Shortly after my arrival in Saint Petersburg the long Russian winter set in. I took advantage of the cold and went skiing most weekends at nearby resorts around Saint Petersburg. I also went to Austria with some Russian friends and travelled through Germany on my own.

I returned to Russia after that much needed break to continue my work at a local English School in Saint Petersburg and my Russian Language studies. By that point I had already spent Christmas and New Years in Russia and had moved into a new flat with some other students in the centre of town.

The 25th of December isn’t normally a particularly special day in Russia as they celebrate the orthodox Christmas on the 11th of January. Christmas 2010 marked the second Christmas I hadn’t been at home for. Despite that, and obviously missing the sunshine, family, friends and warm weather I normally associate with Christmas time, I had a good day with friends and celebrated with a roast dinner and plenty of top quality, cheap Russian alcohol.

New Years was a surreal experience. I found it difficult to believe that New Years this year marked the sixth one in a row I hadn’t been in Australia for. I was invited by Kolya, a Russian friend of mine, to join him at a traditional Russian New Years party he was hosting at his house in the countryside. New Years Eve in Russia is the main annual celebration with family and friends, much like Christmas lunch back home in Australia. We feasted on all sorts of Russian delights before having our own fireworks show and partying into the evening.

Over the last six months I’ve hitch-hiked to Tallinn with Elliott, caught the train to Riga after being denied access to Belarus at the border and travelled to some of the towns surrounding Saint Petersburg. Unfortunately, due to the bureaucracy surrounding my visa, leaving Russia regularly to travel abroad became an extremely time consuming and expensive process so as a consequence I didn’t travel as much as I would have liked.

The experience

Anyone who’s visited or lived for an extended period of time in a foreign country understands what it’s like to be confronted on a daily basis with a whole series of unfamiliar challenges. While my time in Russia was generally quite smooth sailing, initially there were plenty of problems with language barriers which often caused me to look like a complete idiot. From the simplest tasks of ordering food to organising accommodation and my university studies, language was often a problem. Russia isn’t really set up for people who don’t understand the system and who want to come to Russia to study without a prior association with a home university. Unlike in Australia where universities have highly refined processes of welcoming international students and making them feel part of the local community, my Russian university didn’t even have a fully-functioning website… Naturally this made me feel pretty nervous and my general apprehension about my whole decision to move to Russia didn’t change when I first went in to visit my course administrator and no one seemed to have much of an idea what was going on.

Tulips in garden near my house

As I’ve written in previous blogs, bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption is entrenched in many areas of Russian society. From the simplest tasks of posting a letter or buying something from the supermarket, the bureaucracy comes to bite you in the arse to remind where you are. When you do eventually make it to the cashier in a shop or a post office you’re greeted by an uninspired public servant who’s paid well below what they should be and has absolutely zero job satisfaction. Quite often ten people are employed to do one person’s job and in some places people are even employed in jobs that don’t even exist in many other countries. To provide some context: Saint Petersburg has an extensive and very efficient subway network operating below the city. A typical metro station employs around 10 to 15 people. Three to five to distribute tickets to people, another couple to man the gates at the metro entrance and two or three  to sit at the bottom of the escalators making sure people don’t fall down as they descend deep into the subway to the train platforms (often these people are asleep). There are well in excess of 30 metro stations dotted throughout the city in total employing I’d estimate around 500 people not to mention an army of cleaners and escalator repair men making sure everything runs smoothly. Comparing this to Melbourne’s public transport network where the large majority of stations are unmanned with no one monitoring escalators or selling tickets, you begin to comprehend just how different not only public transport, but everything else is in Russia. Of course, there are definite advantages in employing so many people just to work in a subway: they’re clean, generally safe and trains arrive every 30 seconds or so compared to every 20 minutes or more as you’d expect in Melbourne.

St Isaac's from across the Neva

I’ve often asked myself as I walk past these people on my daily commute to uni if it’s such a bad thing that so many people are employed to do absolutely nothing. On the one hand you’re giving people a job and something to do with their days but on the other hand you create unnecessary hassle and inefficiency by give people shit work when they could be doing something potentially more productive. There’s a similar issue with the police in Russia. Many people who have visited me from abroad while I’ve lived in Saint Petersburg have mentioned the unusually high number of police that lurk about bothering people for documents or issuing road infringements. At most metro stations packs of police patrol the exits and when walking down the street it’s not uncommon to pass two or three police cars within 100 metres. Again there are two sides to the coin when it comes to having so many police. One the one hand you’re employing people who potentially wouldn’t get a different job and you have a heightened sense of public safety but on the other many of these positive aspects are cancelled out when the police themselves become the ‘criminals’. The unfortunate result of having such a huge police force is that because their salaries are so low the police themselves often become the perpetrators of crime and turn to corruption and bribery in order to earn a decent living. There have been well documented cases – including one on this blog – where people have been openly bothered by police who claim they have broken some kind of obscure law. Often the only way to rectify the problem is to pay the police officer money to avoid further trouble.

My room

This kind of corruption unfortunately isn’t isolated to police bothering people in the street, it’s a similar situation if you want to get a driving license. It’s known by virtually every Russian that in order to obtain a driving license in Russia a bribe is necessary given the state driving test is so unrealistically difficult that nearly everyone who sits it fails. In education, the taxation system and many other areas of public and private life in Russia corruption is entrenched. Russia maintains a flat-rate tax bracket of 13% meaning everyone from the super-rich to the poor pay the same percentage of tax on their declared income. In addition to the obvious problem that billionaires pay the same percentage of tax as those that earn a few thousand a year, another problem is that most people don’t declare their full income. It’s very common for businesses to pay their employees their taxable income into their bank accounts and then an additional, non-taxable cash-in-hand salary on top of their taxable income.

But for all this so called ‘corruption’, which evokes horror for even the most liberal capitalist, many things still work perfectly fine at least on the surface. Russians are by no means oblivious to these issues. They’re more aware than any stupid foreigner or outside observer as they live with it, and always have lived with it, every single day. There is a general feeling amongst the majority that things should change and that under the Soviet Union corruption didn’t exist or at least wasn’t as public. But for me the more interesting part of the corruption issue isn’t that it exists or that it’s a huge problem, it’s that Russian society hasn’t completely caved in on itself as a result of it. Whilst the Russian government is actively trying to encourage foreign investment, at the same time the corruption problem is continuing to grow. There’s debate within some sectors of Russian society as to whether the leaders really want to change the corruption situation as they say, or if the problem’s so entrenched that nothing can or will change without massive reforms.

Our kitchen

Russians live with these issues and often participate actively or passively in the problem. In my mind the very fact that things are slowly improving despite increasing corruption is a result of the long-term and very well-known enduring Russian character.

Much of Russian history has been littered with pretty shit tragedy. As I was explaining to a friend of mine just the other day, despite the fact that the Russian people have suffered devastating blow after devastating blow there remains an unspoken humility, understanding and connectivity amongst its population. Russians are tough people and to the untrained eye it could seem like they’re nasty. However I found that beneath their hardened exterior they were very generous, real and honest people. Often if you go to the shops to buy something the cashier won’t greet you with a contrived ‘Hi, how are you going?’ but rather a disinterested look and if you’re really lucky a ‘Hello’. That sort of thing didn’t bother me that much though.

It’s important to maintain context though. Within my lifetime Russia has transformed from a closed state where there was no international or even domestic travel and no McDonalds or big-name brands into a completely different place. Depending on who you talk to the change has been either for better or for worse. The Russian people – more than anyone – are aware of this too and sometimes reflect fondly on days gone by when things were more stable, there were fewer people living on the streets and there was less visible corruption. In the west we’re often given negative images of Russia as a place ruled by an iron fist and the filthy rich. That isn’t the case. While a lot of Russians very much want to get out there and experience the rest of the world and what it’s like to live somewhere else, Russians still very strongly identify themselves with their country, its history and its culture. Russia has a long tradition of producing some of the world’s finest scientific, mathematical and literary figures and while there may be some problems with some things now, I don’t doubt eventually – after some setbacks – Russia will come out on top.

My experience in Russia has been phenomenal. Mainly due to the people I’ve met along the way I’ve been embraced by Saint Petersburg and many of its fine residents. The generosity of my Russian friends has been unbelievable showing a completely fresh Australian a Russian perspective and treating me as one of the own (even though my language abilities weren’t that great). No doubt the friendships I’ve made in Russia, not just with Russians but with other international students as well, will stay with me for many years.

For me personally Russia was a challenge I was ready for. After four years of university I needed to do something completely different by myself while justifying the experience as an educational opportunity to learn a new language and experience a totally different place. I hope to continue my association with Russia and the Russian Language and travel back there regularly.

Outside my house

Next week I’ll be in London where I’m looking to find work for the next few years. Given my proximity to Western Europe and the ease with which I can get a working visa in the UK I thought I’d take the opportunity to find some further experience in PR there.

I do intend to update my blog periodically in the UK and as I travel through Europe for the next few weeks with my great mate from uni Adam so don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE. Adam also has a blog which is almost as a cool as mine so check that out.

I’ve put some more pictures up on the extras page and finally updated the where’s matt section.

Matt

Lucy’s perspective