I have arrived at the end of my stay in Russia, and this will be my last column. I’ve tried to present Russia to you with all of its contradictions, to show it as a country of both pleasant and shocking surprises. From babushkas with rows of golden teeth to a Stalin impersonator just off Red Square, Russia always has something new to offer, something you never thought could be real.
If anyone asked me whether I’d recommend visiting Russia or not, I would say yes. But I would also find it necessary to give some instructions. So, in my last column I’m here to give you some guidance and suggestions for a visit to Russia. My general advice is that you should be prepared for everything possible, and be prepared that things you cannot even imagine might happen. You cannot go to Russia expecting to find another UK, so on that note:
1. Forget about your personal space! Russians have a different understanding of personal space. If you’re using public transportation there’s no way you can travel without sharing a square metre with four other Russians. People are not afraid of physical contact – I was still just as horrified the first time as the last when I ventured to take the metro in Moscow. To be honest, I’ve developed a certain fear of public transportation while being here.
2. Don’t expect anyone to queue properly and learn to adapt to the Russian way of approaching a counter! They just stand around the window, and it’s the loudest or strongest who wins. Russians shamelessly cut lines in front of me, so it always took a long time to get something done when it involved queuing. Once someone actually grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back, so that he could go through the metal detector gates in front of me!
3. Speaking of metal detector gates… Get used to the constant presence of authority! There is not one station, museum, or library you can enter without walking through these gates. They look in your bag and occasionally you have to empty your pockets. There are people wearing all sorts of uniforms. It is quite shocking in the beginning to see so many people in military uniforms. You’ll get used to it, but you never feel really comfortable.
4. Never forget to get stamped! I’ve mentioned a few times that being in Russia is like living in the past, and the frequent use of ink stamps just proves this. Our student cards are hand-written, a photo is glued onto a piece of paper, and the stamp that is half on the photo and half on the paper is what makes them official. A remnant from the Soviet times too, is that foreigners have to register everywhere they go. When I went to Sochi with my friend and tried to register at the hostel, the staff didn’t know how to do it. The next day we tried at the police station and they sent us to another building, the registration department, which was not open that day. The next day we went to the department, but we were a few minutes late and they shut the window in front of us. We went back the next day and, after fighting our way through the crazy Russian ‘queue’, we were told that they would not register us, since it is our hostel who are supposed to do it. We stayed in the city without being registered and had a police officer stopped us we would have been in serious trouble. In Russia, you can never win.
5. Travel! Once you get to Russia, you have to see as much as possible! Staying in a small city such as Tver has had its disadvantages. Tver can be dull, while Moscow and St. Petersburg are vibrant cities. The museums, galleries, and some nightclubs in these cities show a completely different Russia. One that, contrary to the norm, tries to process its past and works on creating a future that fits into Europe.
Russia is for those who like waking up in the morning not knowing what kind of difficulties they’ll have to face that day. For those who are satisfied with the minor victory of getting off the minibus at the right stop. For those who are open and tolerant enough to live among people who might think very differently to themselves. For those who are able to respect views that might go against their own.
Visiting Russia now is an invaluable lesson. It is a priceless experience to see a country where some still consider Stalin a legitimate leader, where the value of the currency has halved, a secret war is being waged, another country’s territory occupied and to the president has a personality cult. Russia is a country of extremes. A country of unbelievable wealth and miserable poverty; a country of revolutionists and of people living in the past. A country of prolific contemporary art and persistent Soviet kitsch. Living in Russia you learn so much more than just the language! Facing unexpected situations and learning new things daily is a thrill that has come with my time in this country, and it is one that I will certainly miss when I leave.