St Petersburg: Russia's Cultural Capital
"If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home."
― James A. Michener
Russia is a country founded on literary tradition. A country steeped in the collective past of its people and shaped by its rich history. It is a land of contrast, of city and province, of man-made and natural beauty, of past and present. But more than this, Russia is a country of pride, of tradition, of culture and a source of great intrigue for many, who travel far and wide to brave the supposed icy exterior of the typical Russian (stern look, fur hat, vodka in hand) to find stereotypes largely debunked. Russia is a fascinating country and travel broadens the mind, so why not combine the two and plan a trip to the Motherland? But take heed, Michener is right – Russia needs to be embraced if you are to fully appreciate its unique and undeniable charm.
My Travels: Where & For How Long?
- Last year, I was fortunate enough to spend a period of 3 months living in Russia, in St Petersburg to be precise. Capital of the Russian Empire for 200 years from 1712 onwards, St Petersburg is now a cosmopolitan megacity, visited by millions of tourists each year. Whether you choose to try your hand at haggling for Russian dolls and souvenirs at one of the city’s many markets or you opt for something a little more adventurous, like a boat cruise on the river Neva, or a tour around the Tsarist palaces of the city’s environs, there is no question that the history of St Petersburg is practically palpable.
- As a student of modern languages at Durham University, my 3-month Russian adventure formed part of my degree course. I embraced the challenge of learning Russian in first year as a beginner and so knew that I would need to be exposed to as much Russian as possible during my ‘Year Abroad’. Somewhat inevitably, this meant living with Russians and I ended up sharing a flat with my very own Russian 'babushka' (or grandmother), Nelly. Her homely apartment was situated just off the city’s main street ‘Nevsky Prospekt’, the equivalent of the Champs Elysées in Paris or London’s Oxford Street. This was an absolute blessing, as I was a stone’s throw away from the majority of museums, art galleries, restaurants, clubs and shops. Not to worry if you are situated a little further out, though, as the St Petersburg metro is cheap (at approximately £1 per journey), efficient and user friendly.
- I found that living with a host family was the perfect way to immerse myself in the Russian way of life. I was treated to homemade traditional food, taught about Russian customs and came to identify real cultural differences that increased my understanding and appreciation of the unique country that I was living in.
1) White Nights
Or ‘Belye nochi’, as the Russians call them. These are midsummer eves, when the sun never fully sets and northern cities bask in an eternal incandescent glow. During the White Nights season (May to early July), days are lazy and warm and the nights are oddly luminous. This makes for a truly unique experience and I was lucky that my trip coincided with them. It is custom at least once during the White Nights to watch the great Neva River bridges open to let boat traffic through – a real ‘must see’ experience, especially for photography enthusiasts and party goers, who will probably be able to fit this in on their way to one of the clubs on the main island!
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Swan Lake at the Marinsky
2) Cultural Capital
The Hermitage, The Russian Museum, royal Tsarist palaces, churches and cathedrals, houses of literary greats down unsuspecting side streets – you name it, St Petersburg has it all. I went slightly culture-mad during my 3-month stint in the Cultural Capital but why not? My top 3 cultural experiences would have to be: watching the ballet at the marvelous Marinsky Theatre, climbing to the top of St Isaac’s Cathedral (the bird’s eye view of the city is fantastic) and drinking cold ‘kvass’ (traditional bread flavoured beer – I kid you not) on a summer’s day – how Russian!
3) Food, Glorious Food
And that brings me nicely onto the food. Before I ventured out to Russia, I must admit that I had visions of being force-fed potatoes, cold beetroot soup and cabbage. Although the real traditional food that Nelly cooked at home did take a bit of getting used to, it was, for the most part, delicious. As for fast food, an inevitability in this day and age, St Petersburg does have its fair share of home comforts (McDonalds, Burger King and Subway) just like all other Europeanized capitals. But what’s nice about St Petersburg, though, is that it has just the right mix of familiar and foreign. If you’re craving a Big Mac, you know exactly where to go (just head to those golden arches, right?), but if you’re feeling inspired by the buzz and hubbub of the local culture, you can find tasty typical Russian food at very reasonable prices on the highstreet (stews, soups, salads dripping with mayo, meat-filled cabbage parcels (‘golubtsi’) and meat dumplings (‘pelmeny’) are amongst the most common dishes). Russian fast food is another story, though, and interestingly, pancakes are to Russians as pasties and pies are to the English. You’ll be hard fast to find a sandwich though (without venturing to Subway), so what I used to do was brave the supermarket for picnic goods and set up camp in one of the city’s beautiful parks.
1) Queue Jumping Antics
To those who don’t know their ways, Russians can come off as rude and ill mannered. Outspoken babushkas will openly criticize the behaviour of young people in public, smiling at strangers on ‘Nevsky Prospekt’ or the metro is rare and beware of the queue jumping tactics employed by impatient Russians, who will try it on at any opportunity. All of this can, and does, offend our delicate British sensibility (especially the queue jumping – how very dare they?) I asked one of the Russian teachers at the language school why elderly Russians acted in this way and she told me that they simply suffered such hardship during Soviet times (when they would have queued for pretty much everything) that nowadays they just have a very different mentality to members of the younger generations. Having said this, I must stress that all of the Russians that I came to know were hospitable, welcoming and genuinely friendly individuals with big hearts and a real desire to make you feel at home.
2) Culture Shock
To add to the shameless queue jumping, there are a dozen other quirky cultural differences that I noticed over the weeks and months. The most important thing to remember, though, is that there is a culture gap between Russia and Europe and that neither side is right in how they behave or act. The beautiful thing about culture is the exchange and the lessons we take from our differences. Although I did undergo some level of culture shock, I put it down as an experience in itself and found it interesting to learn why exactly that gap exists.
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'Babushka' on a Balalaika
3) Bridges (All 342 of Them!)
More of a mild annoyance than a letdown but definitely worth noting that St Petersburg is basically made up of islands connected by bridges. If you’re traveling on foot close to midnight, make sure that you find your way to the right side of the river by the time the metro closes at 12.30am, as it won’t reopen until around 4am and with the bridges up until 5am, you might (will) find yourself with a bit (a lot) of waiting to do.
The Price of Life
I found St Petersburg to be a reasonably priced city. Obviously it will depend on how long and where you decide to stay, but I have approximated the cost of daily essentials below. What I will say is that students should purchase a Russian student card, as this will allow for free entry into many popular tourist attractions (including The Hermitage and St Isaac’s Cathedral).
- Student card: 250 rubles (around £5)
- Public transport: Bus 30 rubles (about 60p), Metro 50 rubles (about £1)
- Russian fast food (pancakes): Can eat well for around £3
- Milk and bread: Comparable to England, if not a little cheaper
- Souvenirs: Depends on what you wish to buy and how confident you are in your haggling skills but you can bet you'll spend a fair amount on bits and bobs at the market (if you're anything like me!)
NB: Flying with Air Rossiya worked out cheaper than BA for me but, as with everything (accommodation included), the sooner you book the cheaper it will be.
Be prepared to…
1) Sort your VISA and Vaccinations out Ahead of Time
The administration side to acquiring the necessary documentation can be time-consuming.
2) Put up with that Dreaded Language Barrier
Russians dealing with tourists in service industries will be able to cater to an Anglophone crowd. If you don’t read Cyrillic script, however, it will be next to impossible to decipher road signs but most tourist attractions are listed in English too. It might be a nice idea to master the word for thank you (‘spasiba’) and other simple phrases.
Russia is like no other country that I have ever visited. St Petersburg has a unique charm, a universal appeal and just the right balance between the familiar and the unknown for tourists and seasoned travelers. My best advice is to be prepared to explore, to embrace the unique Russian way of life and to accept their fantastic culture for all that it is. Churchill once said, "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". For me, the most satisfying aspect of my time in St Petersburg was the feeling that I was starting to unravel the riddle, debunk the stereotypes and see the real Russia, a truly fascinating country just waiting to be explored.
- For more information, try reading the Lonely Planet page on all things Russian . Go on, what are you waiting for!
From Russia with a newfound Love for pancakes, photography and Pushkin!
By Amy Anderson (including photos)