In this final exploration of J’s experience in Russia, we leave her uncomfortable classroom experiences behind and head for freedom outside the academy’s boundaries.
“We went to St.Petersburg,” J reveals, “and it was a breath of fresh air. It seemed more European (than Moscow).” It was the closest resemblance to home in a far-away land, perhaps? Removed geographically and stylistically from Moscow’s, “More grimy Soviet environment,” as she describes it.
J was a student of drama, rather than Russian history. She knew little of St.P’s origins and it’s Europhile monarch/instigator. The city’s familiar neo-classical style came as a welcome surprise, being displayed at its most impressive time of year.
She and her compatriots had landed in Moscow just prior to Victory Day (May 9th). They had watched the capital’s annual military parade and they now found themselves in the midst of St.Petersburg’s famed White Nights festival – all thanks to the scheduling of their coinciding summer school.
After Moscow’s dour grind, her group now wandered excitedly through another world: Partytime Russia – in full artistic and operatic swing, though confined (for them at least) to a, “Fabulous 24 hours” before it was time to sullenly board the return train. In J’s mind, the nature of the outbound and inbound journeys summarised the character of each destination city:-
“The train to St.Petersburg had been packed with young people dressed in white -all full of energy and heading to the festival. On the way back to Moscow it was dead, with a few old and very grumpy passengers!” A man with what appeared to be a prisoner-number tattooed on his hand spent much of the time staring at the increasingly nervous students, whilst often whispering unsettlingly to his silent partner.
Mechanically, J and a colleague prepared their sleeper bunks, exchanging wide-eyed glances and wondering if they would likely survive the coming night. Meanwhile, their ominous cabin-mate alternately muttered under his breath before settling back into his relentless gaze once more. “It was terrifying!” she says -obviously still alive.
Bouquets from grime
“Moscow buys into the performing arts even more than London” J tells me. “It’s massive, everywhere.” She recounts the frequent sight of people carrying bouquets through the central streets; floral ammunition to be launched on-stage in celebration of divas and renowned thespians.”It’s just a part of life there; I saw the most amazing shows (with much prolonged applause) and there was a deference towards artists and performers.”
Before now, J had only seen classical Russian theatre through her London-centric lens; as part of a western curriculum. But here it was; a huge living, breathing entity – right in front of her, and an issue of national pride.
We all went a bit mad
“It was an intense environment -crazy!” she exclaims, “because of the (pace of) life there -and the course itself. In the poor parts they would turn off the hot water for two weeks in the summer -we had to boil water in a kettle to wash!”. She continues: “No one seemed to like us, no one wanted us there. We were not immersed in Russian culture and there wasn’t much integration.”
The weather was hot, contributing to the overall pressure-cooker experience. She and her fellow foreigners felt confined to stew in the close proximity of their tiny apartments, seemingly ostracised by the rest of Russian society. “We all went a bit mad,” she confesses, revealing their increasing dependency on vodka and cigarettes. “We were drinking like never before and smoking like chimneys.”
Her excitement at arriving in the Russian capital had already taken a hit upon landing, and headed further south as her stay progressed. She remembers those first, deflating impressions, straight off the plane: “Very grey, very austere, with poor weather. The first walk was horrible.” Perhaps Moscow just isn’t her town?
It’s a shame that she and her compatriots never crossed the social barrier of being “outsiders”, and especially odd because of her course location: a buzzing academy. What would seem a better place to meet intelligent, like-minded people with something to say? Although the incomers poor Russian language skills would have been problematic, of course.
There was a missed opportunity somewhere, as the other side of that psychological barrier contains a hospitality and a friendly familiarity that is remarkable.
The rest of our chat is a scattering of anecdotes that even include a few things she did enjoy!:-
- An escape to a cafe where the only paid-for commodity was time; tea and coffee were free and there was space to spread out her coursework in peace.
- Russian Karaoke was: “A great pressure release -brilliant!” as was the discovery (if at a distance) that: “Russians have a good sense of humour; very dry”. I agree.
- The astonishingly cheap Metro system was a boon; trading (the equivalent of) 50 pence for a ticket to any location within the city, although the carriages were often, “Packed, five people deep, like sardines.”
- Her group was also were told to “be quiet” when they broke the unspoken etiquette of talking too loudly on the Metro, thereby ruining its reserved ‘waiting-room’ atmosphere.
- J also tells me that Muscovites (again on the Metro) prefer to ready themselves for alighting, a full two stops before their due station, causing the sardine-crush to swell to critical mass as it heaves into life.
- One of J’s colleagues committed the fundamental sin of losing her migration card. That’s an absolute no-no, which resulted in a terrifying (and extended) embassy visit, plus considerable extra expense. More migration card info can be found here.
- Drama even followed J back to the apartment when the plumbing sprung a leak in the middle of the night, hosing her down as she opened the bathroom door. Cue: frantic phone calls and relayed DIY instructions to stop the flooding. By 3am two hulking slavs had arrived to fix the problem: only to be hysterically rejected by J’s companion in case they had come with the intention of murdering them! You never know.
The reviews are in
“It was burn-out towards the end,” J admits. ”We were smoking and drinking, we were having huge drunken arguments – and then just sitting on the balcony watching the Moscow sunrise”.