The riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

By Rafael Morseletto, 2015 Gilman Scholar

Russia and the Russian way of life has puzzled Americans and Western Europeans since at least the time of Churchill–whose bewilderment of our neighbors to the East is quoted in the title of this post.  A cultural, political, economic and geographic mix of Asian and European traditions, the American visitor will find Russia to be a deeply stirred melting pot of the ancient and the modern, the familiar and unfamiliar, and the reasonable and the completely unacceptable.  Though ideological differences have kept and continue to keep Russia and The West at odds, my recent travels to St. Petersburg, Moscow and Veliky Novgorod may help shine a light on a world that many in America consider, sadly, to be a dark mystery better left unexplored.

Besides curiosity and a love of exploring new places, Russia has personally attracted me in its commitment and long list of accomplishments in Art and Science.  Russia is the motherland of the traditional 19th century Realist landscape painters Ivan Shishkin and Ivan Aivazovsky.  St. Petersburg (known in Soviet times as Leningrad), specifically, is the birthplace of the Leningrad school of Painting, and of course, the city hosting The Hermitage–one of the most well known and largest museums of art in the world.  In the field of science, Russia has nearly incomparable achievements in the area of space research and exploration.  Russia is also a significant global scientific contributor both historically and in the present.

My deep appreciation for Russian culture would simply be that if not for the generous contribution that allowed me to travel there in the first place.  I am deeply grateful to the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Committee for financially supporting a large portion of my travel and program fees.  As a low-income student and person of color, I encourage everyone interested in travelling to apply for this scholarship.  This blog is a testament to just how within reach it is for anybody on the rocks about studying abroad.  If you want to experience a new country and culture, know that the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship will work with you to make this happen.

My first destination, and the city in which I had spent most of my time in Russia, was St. Petersburg.   I was lucky enough to choose a study abroad program (SRAS–School of Russian and Asian Studies) that accommodated me remarkably close to the city center.  The international student’s dorms of UNECON–the St. Petersburg State University of Economics–was less than one city block from Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s famous main street, and less than three city blocks from the world-known Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.  Its approximation to St. Petersburg’s main artery allowed for impressive access to most of the world famous attractions–including a short walk to The Hermitage Museum of Art and Culture.

One thing that stood out about St. Petersburg that I was not aware of until I became more comfortable travelling around Western Russia was the very pronounced European cultural influence.  The city boasted Classical and Baroque style palaces, 18th-century style French gardens, and pastel colored buildings that contradict the concrete, steel and rust of brutalist and Stalinist architecture more expected of by the western eye.  Of course, the visitor keen on seeing the dusty, weather-worn relics of the Soviet era need not worry, as they are typically further from the center and can be seen on the ride from Pulkovo airport.  In the three months I spent there, I opened my mind (and taste buds) to Georgian and South Russian cuisine, experienced the typical Russian rural life in Gryazno–a very small village about 79 km south of the city center–and, of course, practiced my Russian language speaking skills in a typical antikafe.  Unlike a regular café, an antikafe is a fusion café-game room-lounge space where tea, coffee, and cookies are free and patrons pay by the hour.  It is a Russian invention likely created to encourage long, comfortable stays in a fast moving city.

The second Russian city I visited was Veliky Novgorod (“Great” Novgorod, as opposed to Nizhny, or “Lower” Novgorod) during a day trip organized by my program.  Veliky Novgorod is a destination where one would expect to find the historian traveler.  The ruins of medieval Orthodox churches and historical plaques and markers scatter the serene, woodland outskirts of the city.  Before the Russian Tsardom and well before the Russian Empire, Veliky Novgorod represented the very beginnings of the Russian identity under the rule of the Varangian Chieftain Rurik.  Along with containing many sites and landmarks from before the discovery of the Americas, in more recent history, Veliky Novgorod is the birthplace of the famous Pianist and Composer Sergei Rachmaninov.

After some time had past from the trip to Veliky Novgorod, and I had once again grown accustomed to large city life, I was arranged to travel to an even bigger city–Moscow.  Russia’s capital and the second largest city in Europe, Moscow offered something that one had to actively look for in St. Petersburg–Communist iconography.  As mentioned earlier, St. Petersburg was very much influenced by European architectural standards of elegance.  In contrast, Moscow’s architecture appeared to be directly and deliberately opposed to any such influence.  Instead of the looming baroque palaces and grandiose Orthodox Christian steeples, Moscow’s horizon is dominated by intimidating Stalinist buildings–such as Russia’s equivalent of a Harvard, Lomonosov State University, and the famous Hotel Ukraine.  Additionally, Lenin and Karl Marx statues stand confidently in public areas mere blocks away from the world-famous Red Square and one has to look much more diligently for English-speakers and even just signs written in the Roman alphabet.

In a way, Moscow represents an active resistance against Western-style globalism with the city being difficult and even hostile for the American and European traveler.  As an American, it is clear that any political tensions between Russia and the US can be seen here.  Not simply the consequence of being a capital city, the atmosphere of Moscow has, as I’d been told, always been deeply political.  This could explain the much heavier presence of modern-day Communists (even occupying a notable 14 percent of seats in the state Duma) as opposed to, more logically, the birthplace of the Russian revolution in St. Petersburg.  An even bigger surprise being their coexistence with the second largest concentration of billionaires in the world–after New York City.  Whether considered good or bad by some, my experience in Moscow was generally very positive.  It was a city where I had enjoyed getting lost in, speaking to friendly and shady strangers alike, finding my way, setting out on a photo-hunt completely alone with no map, getting locked-in after-hours on the negative seventeenth floor of an old Soviet nuke bunker, getting lost again and finding my way again–all in the three days I had visited the city.  Moscow was definitely worth visiting, especially for the traveler with the “St. Petersburg” picture of Russia still fresh in their minds.

My return to St. Petersburg after the Moscow trip marked the final month of my overall stay in Russia but the beginning of a month of incredible autonomy.  Due to Spring quarter at SU overlapping with the entry date in my SRAS program, I had to arrive in St. Petersburg a month late–and consequently, leave a month late.  This meant I would be staying a month after the rest of the Americans in my group had left.  Though I would remain in my dorm for the period of time I had left, I would be free to explore the city with no guidance by any of the remaining English speakers, no itinerary, and with minimal obligations–the exhilarating experience I had always hoped for.  I had spent this time making friends, visiting local art galleries, a butterfly conservatory, a trashy basement punk rock venue, equally trashy late night shawarma stands, and of course the best places to pick up souvenirs.

The days following my return to Seattle became gloomier and greyer as I prepared myself to leave behind a city and country that had treated me so well.  Of the things I had worried about while preparing for this life changing journey–such as fear of hostility in my being American or a person of color or simply a foreigner–none came to fruition.  Either due to luck, good judgement or simply a misjudgment on my part, the Russian people made my experience in their country a wonderful and exciting one.  For this reason, I would gladly return to Russia and encourage any apprehensive Westerners to look past the political and historical biases and explore this wonderful country for themselves.