Monday, May 20, 2013

Until Next Time St. Pete

Me, Raymond, and Olivia in front of the Russian Museum
As my last days in Russia slowly dwindled down, I looked back on my experience, appreciating this Russia for what I’ve learned, how I’ve changed as a person, and what I’ve been blessed to see in this country. In a final ditch attempt to wind up my experience and say До Свидания (dasvidanya- Russia for farewell) to Russia, my friends and I took a boat tour on the canals of St. Petersburg, gaining a whole new perspective of the city. And now I know why another name for St. Petersburg is the “Venice of the North.” There are three major canals and a river (the Neva) that wind their way through the brightly colored buildings of the city, but I had no idea that there were other smaller and less obvious branches of the canals that connected the four major waterways. It was the perfect way to relax before finals began. We casually floated by worn down palaces and marveled as we passed by a large blue and gold domed church that I had never seen before. It was such a peaceful and relaxing method of transportation in St. Petersburg- seeing for the last time the Church of Spilled Blood, Mikhailovsky Castle, Nickolsky Cathedral, and the Mariinsky Theater by cruise while sipping on wine was the perfect way to end my journey abroad in Russia. After my canal tour, my experience was all but over. I finished my exams, celebrated the end of the semester with friends and professors, packed my bags, and had one last dinner with my host family. I spent my last few hours in St. Pete with Olivia and Ray eating ice cream as we walked among the gardens of the Field of Mars and the Summer Field. Just before we left for the St. Pete airport at 3:00 am, we sat in front of the Tsar’s Winter Palace coming full circle. We had begun our semester four months ago by traveling to this famous local and now we ended our semester here once again. 

As we boarded our 5:00 am plane to Munich, I couldn’t help but think about how fortunate I have been to live in this city for four months. I have met some pretty incredible people, learned to live without readily available drinking water, and have been humbled by my ineptitude to make even the simplest transactions in Russian. The city itself is splendid and the culture fascinating. For me, many of the highlights of my experience involved interacting with the Russians themselves. Yes at times I became very frustrated with our cultures differences (I am mostly thinking about the times when store clerks refused to give change for bills as small as 200 rubles- the equivalent of 6 US dollars). But most of the time, I was vastly intrigued by the history, beauty, and complexity of a nation who has withstood significant periods of political and social turmoil. Even though I will forever have Catherine’s Winter Palace, the interior of the Church of Spilled Blood, and the Moscow Kremlin imprinted on my memory, I will also never forget the simple daily interactions of my life in Russia. Drinking tea around a samovar (ancient Russian version of a kettle), discussing international affairs with my host family while watching the Russian news, and learning about US-Russian foreign relations from a Russian perspective. These are the memories that have enhanced my cultural understanding and have challenged me to strive to understand major themes and events that guide the typical Russian perspective. In turn, my exhilarating experience in Russia has given me more patience, humbled me, but has also taught me to be more appreciative. I have always been and always will be an American Patriot, but  my time in Russia has opened my eyes to what defines American freedom. 

In order to better explain how lucky I am to be an American, I would now like to includes some of the tidbits about Russia that I thought were better to share after I left the country. First regards the news. Every days my host grandmother and I watched the news together during dinner. And let’s just say both her and I knew that not everything on the news could be trusted. For instance, at the beginning of the semester there was a massive scandal in Russia surrounding the death of a boy named Max Shatto in America. Max Shatto had been a young Russian boy adopted by an American family in Texas. Even before the autopsy in America had been released, Russian news organizations were claiming that Max had been beaten and poisoned. Either the Russian Intelligence Agency knew something no one else knew or the news was attempting to rile up anti-American national sentiment in order to gain support for their new law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian orphans. My guess is the latter option...

Speaking of the Russian Intelligence Agency (FSB), I had the remarkable opportunity while in Moscow to go take a look at the headquarters of this post-KGB organization. The FSB headquarters are housed in an old prison, and not just any old prison: Lubyanka. Lubyanka was the Soviet era prison where thousands of prisoners waited before being shipped off to Siberia during Stalin’s era. In my opinion, it is very fitting that the modern day version of the Russian KGB now resides in the location where thousands of prisoners were tortured or sent to their Siberian dooms during Stalin’s regime. We of course did not dare to take pictures of the building, but it was very interesting to see four or five men smoking casually standing around the plaza smoking a cigarette. hmm, I wonder who they were? I’m thinking FSB agents keeping a check on street traffic. 

And then there were the moments during my study abroad program where my jaw literally dropped due to shock. One of these moments occurred during my political science course as we learned about the Russian judicial system and a case surrounding the Feminist Rock group band “Pussy Riot.” Several of the members of this group had been on trial for hooliganism. They had been arrested after performing anti- Putin (down with the dictator)rock music during a religious service in the largest Cathedral in Russia. Their arrest didn’t surprise me as much as their trial did. Before their trial began, the members of the band were set on display in a see-through prison cell. Jury members and the press walked by them as the members sat objectified by their piers. Can they really being innocent until proven guilty if they are seen immediately before the trial behind bars. This was Soviet era Show Case Trials at their finest. The “trial” took place and two of the women were sent to Siberia where they preform needle work to this day. Siberian work camps during the 21st century? Yes, this still occurs. At moments like this, I am not sure if the Russian Federation really is a new country or simply a newly modified version of the Soviet Union.

It is crystal clear to me that I live in a very special place- America. We are provided opportunities to advance in society and work hard in order to accomplish our wildest career goals. (Unlike in Russia were the sons and daughters of diplomats study abroad in Europe and are automatically given a coveted seat in the bureaucracy). As an American, I have the right to receive a fair trial. So yes, I love America, but that doesn’t mean that I still didn’t love Russia. The country is beautiful, the people are fascinating. Some of the aspects of Russia that I listed above both frightened and fascinated me. It helps me understand why Russia is still considered a semi-authoritarian nation to many. However, the beauty of Russia overruled all. Russia may not be as free as America and its culture may be entirely unique onto itself, but Russia’s cities, landscape, history, and people will always remain unforgettable to me. I know that St. Petersburg will hold a special place in my heart forever. 

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