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There you have it. Two of my favourite assumptions about the world’s biggest country: it snows all the time, and everyone is miserable.
Before I went to Russia for the first time, one friend said to me, “When I imagine Russia, I imagine it all in black and white.” And I don’t think she was alone; all anyone seems to know about the place, if anything, are things they have learned from James Bond films and, possibly, the odd history lesson. “Is it still communist?” Um, no. It isn’t.
I have spent the majority of my time in Russia in St. Petersburg, the most beautiful and fascinating city I’ve ever been to. Several trips have enabled me to experience the full spectrum of St. Petersburg weather; and yes, it is cold and dark for an inordinately long time. Winter in St. Petersburg means an eternity of ice, snow, slush, re-frozen slush, and more snow. But towards the end of April, things start to melt. It happens in the blink of an eye; one week, the city is in its grey winter outfit of bare trees and bare earth, and the next everything seems to be turning green. The passageways of ice, you’d forgotten were canals, melt and boats start gadding about on them. And the sun shines, and shines, and shines. It’s hot (it was warmer this summer than London, Paris and New York) and everyone starts sunbathing. Both men and women find it absolutely acceptable to strip down to their undergarments and stretch themselves out in the sun, no matter their age or size. This is not just true of St. Petersburg. All over Russia, summer does exist. Really. Even in Siberia (which, by the way, is not the same thing as Serbia – a mistake a disconcerting amount of people make).
I have also been contemplating the theory postulated by many that Russians are rude. I suspect that this is true, without wanting to make too wide a generalization – there are rather a lot of them. But I would like to defend them nonetheless by suggesting that they are rude, but only by comparison to the British, or, even worse, the Americans. Russian culture does not do superfluous niceties. ‘Please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘oh goodness me I do apologise’ do not often enter their vocabulary, and many transactions between people are wordless. Upon entering a shop, there is no greeting; there is no need to talk to the cashier scanning your groceries (unless, of course, you do not have change. It is common practice for Russian shopkeepers to ask you if you have any smaller change, not believing you when you say that you don’t, they take your wallet away from you, and check for themselves). However, I would argue (either as a devil’s advocate, or because I really believe it, I’m not sure) that this makes them a more genuine people. Why thank a bus driver on leaving the bus? He is just doing his job; he has not done you a favour. He would have done exactly the same whether you were there or not and undoubtedly could not care less that he has driven you home. When it really matters, that is to say, when someone has actually done something nice for you, Russians are polite. They are kind, caring and above all, generous. A Russian person would invite you into their home, feed you pickled things you’d rather not question, and make you drink vodka after vodka – “no” is not the right answer. Perhaps I’m talking in generalisations again; but after all, if you can make a negative generalisation, you can make a positive one, too.
Russia is a fantastic place, steeped in culture, history, and other more unusual and hilarious things which you come to love – sour cream and dill on absolutely everything; women who all look like supermodels and consider stilettos a sensible choice of footwear for icy conditions; kopeks, whose monetary worth is less than the worth of the metal they’re made from (no wonder they have issues with change). Get past that cold façade (in a physical and emotional sense) and you’ll discover that there is a lot more to Russia than vodka. Although there’s a lot of that too.