Maybe it’s the huge historical gaps between wealthy and the poor, the numerous cold-fought battles or the corruption of a huge bureaucratic system that creates a resignation in the voices of people to the hardships of life. Maybe it’s the long cold winters that give people room to think and spend time reflecting about complex issues. Whatever it is, Russia is an interesting place.
Walking the main streets of St. Petersburg you see fashion shops, hip cafes, countless cell phone companies, fast food restaurants, women dressed to the nines, all the trappings of a modern western society. Just behind all of this are crumbling side streets, sad and void of color.
The mask and the reality.
The Winter Palace built by Empress Elizabeth in the mid-17th century has 1,057 rooms, part of the palace houses one of the world’s premier art collections in the Hermitage. Vast like Russia itself, its rooms are filled with art and grander from days gone by.
Walking into the building is like walking into a history book of royalty and opulence beyond belief. I try to picture Tsars walking the long hallways or elegant ballrooms filled with people of pedigree and titles. There is something special about walking into a place where history once played out; it has an authentic feeling that makes it more real and less a distant dream.
I find myself struggling with the Russian language; they have a few extra letters in their alphabet that can really make things confusing. Additionally what looks like one thing is pronounced totally different, like the Russian Cyrillic letter H has the sound of the Roman letter “N.”
I’ve decided to stick to the basics, hello and thank you. Unfortunately it tends to limit the conversation.
Occasionally I find someone who speaks English like 21-year-old Yana Petrova, a university student going to school in St. Petersburg studying tourism.
“When I was 16, I moved in with my grandparents who live not far from St. Petersburg,” Yana says.
She goes on to explain: “This would allow me to have a better education than the state-run schools where my parents live. Plus, unless you have money to pay the officials who decide where you go to school, you end up in a place where the education is not so good. At least now I have a chance for a better life.”
Our conversation turns toward the subject what most people associate the United States with these days, the war in Iraq.
She pellets me with questions: “What are you looking for in war?” “What is the reason you are there?” “Is it power or greed of oil?” “Why does the United States think going to war is going to make the world safer?”
She ends her line of questions with: “ I think the role of the U.S. in the world could be more positive. They have kind people and the wealth to make a positive difference and could lead the world in a different way.”
I then ask her about the Russian police: “I’m not sure what to think about the Russian police. Can you offer some suggestions?”
“We’re not sure what to think of them either, sometimes you can trust them and other times not. It’s best to avoid them altogether,” she says.