Why You Should go to Russia

As a graduation gift from my aunt I got a Seabourne cruise in northern Europe. The cruise departed from Copenhagen, Denmark, stopping in Estonia, Russia (advertised as the highlight of the cruise), and Finland, before ending in Stockholm, Sweden. Naturally I was thrilled about the trip, however I can admit there was also an underlying fear surrounding the trip. Since the cold war’s end, and especially after the 2016 election, Russia has been both villainized and mystified, made a mystery to the citizens of the United States. The rules surrounding our visit intimidated me. Unless you were able to get a Russian Visa, which my family and I were not able to get, you must be accompanied by an appointed tour guide at all times. Each morning you must leave the boat and go through immigration, and every night you must go back through immigration to the boat to sleep. British government recommended tourists do not connect to wifi anywhere in Russia other than the boat or use cellular data due to the threat of being hacked. I was also going during the World Cup, meaning there would be extra tourists and security.

Landing in Russia felt like a dream, even now looking back I can hardly believe I was there, that it was real. Entering Saint Petersburg was a strange experience to say the least. I have never seen such a gorgeous yet tragic city. What I mean by tragic not only refers to the grim end to the royal family who lived in most of the buildings I visited, but to more modern history. Traces of the Soviet rule are everywhere, many people still residing in the unattractive communal flats built in that time. Aside from the palaces and museums, the city is run down and dirty. The air is hard to breathe.

In the square in front of the Hermitage Museum

 

The first reason I would recommend visiting Russia, especially for IR or Political Science majors, is because of the history. Saint Petersburg serves as the optimal classroom, the perfect balance of past and present. Every church, palace, and state building tells a story. For example “Spilt Blood Church,” The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, was where Emperor Alexander the Second was killed by nihilists, was turned into a sort of anti-religion museum by the Soviet government, then a morgue for those who died during the Siege of Leningrad, and finally a warehouse for food before it was opened as a museum. During World War II the church suffered significant damage and with it a sort of miracle. Years later when repairs were being made a bomb was found in the dome of the church, unexploded. Many Russian Orthodox christians view this as an act of God. While the beautiful mosaics alone make the church worth seeing, I also believe it is a significant place to visit because it truly embodies the struggle between communism and religion in Russia.

Mosaics in Spilt Blood Church

The second reason I would recommend visiting Russia is the beauty. I found each royal palace to be more beautiful than the last, rivaling Versailles and the Royal palaces of Denmark and Sweden. The walls are vibrant blues and greens and encrusted in gold. The Hermitage hosts some of the most magnificent art in the world, with works including “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt, the “Madonna Litta” by Leonardo Di Vinci, as well as notable works by Matisse and Camille Pissarro. What struck me the most in this museum was a fantastic golden clock once owned by Catherine the Great featuring a life sized animatronic peacock, chicken, and owl (pictured below).

 

The third reason I would recommend visiting Russia is the people. Here in the United States Russia is seen as thae dark, mysterious evil. I believe it is very misunderstood. The people I encountered and spoke with there were friendly, they do not hate Americans. In one gift shop my cousin and I spoke to a young man selling Russian nesting dolls. He could tell we were Americans and told us he had visited and loved it. He asked if we had been to Universal Studios, we talked about Harry Potter World. It sort of came to a surprise to me, how welcoming he was of American culture, how happy he was to talk to us.

There is a sadness to the Russian people, still affected by the country's past. Many of the people are poor, quality of life is not very high. I distinctly remember on the first day in Russia the boat gave us boxed lunches, suggesting we eat in a palace garden to save time. My cousin and I were not thrilled by the lunches which were comprised of a sandwich, cookie, orange and banana. Our tour guided eyed the bananas, something scarce in Russia. She told us how the markets in the city would scam people. All the fruit on display was gorgeous, you would point and what you want and say how many and they would put some in a brown paper bag. When you got home you would find it did not look like the display fruit at all and was often already rotten. I felt an awful guilt I had not experienced before, the acknowledgement of privilege. We gave her all our fruit and brought some from the boat the following day.

On our last night in Russia Folk dancers performed on the boat. One of the dances was very comical, a man walked on his hands and feet wearing a costume making it look like he was two people fighting. My cousin and I were laughing so loud he came over and jumped on us, something I will never forget. At the end they invited some of the audience members to dance, that man brought me up (pictured below). I was embarrassed to get up on stage, but I am glad I did, because it was a nice way to say goodbye to Russia.

So my point is, should you ever get the opportunity to visit Russia do not shy away, do not be afraid. It was a step out of my comfort zone, but also perhaps the most influential experience I have ever had.