Discovering the Russian Enigma

By Malayah Redmond, Dialogue of Civilizations

When I was searching for dialogues to apply for in the summer of 2017, I knew that I wanted to join a program that would complement my studies and also take me somewhere I had never been before. And given that I had never traveled outside the U.S. before, I figured that I had a lot of options. However, when my first choice of going to Japan fell through, I was stressed and anxious to find a program that was still open instead of feeling the excitement of spending a month in Japan – until I discovered the emerging markets dialogue to Russia.

I couldn’t say that I was particularly happy about not going to Japan, but I was extremely curious to see what hidden treasures awaited me in the largest country in the world.The whole focus of the dialogue was to learn firsthand about Russian culture and its status as an emerging market economy. But what I got out of my time there was so much more than I could have ever imagined.

As soon as our plane landed in Pulkovo International Airport, I felt as if I was in a different world. I was instantly drawn into a bubble that the dialogue created. One in which we had a 360 degree view of everything that lived around us. The language, the architecture, and the people completely surrounded us. It almost felt as if I was planted directly inside a world history textbook, one in which the present was written to blend seamlessly into the past.

It was in St. Petersburg that these feelings began to take shape. The juxtaposition of the 21st century dynamic and of historical architecture in the city presented a visual passage of time. High-end malls built out of old Soviet food distribution centers, designer clothing stores like Chanel and Fendi residing in 18th century style buildings, and whole blocks built around World Heritage Site cathedrals. Each day we visited a new museum, church, or palace that added to our growing knowledge of Russian history and culture. At the Peterhof Palace, we marveled over the pure gold statues that adored its cascading fountains that emptied into the Gulf of Finland. At the Hermitage, we meandered through seemingly endless halls displaying priceless artwork from countries all across the European continent. There was never a day where we didn’t come together in class discussion to talk about how our initial impressions have changed as our trip went on. Contrary to the truth, I originally believed that Russia was not hospitable to foreigners given the relative small size of its tourism industry. There are in fact numerous resources for tourists especially in such a major city like St. Petersburg. There are tour guides who speak multiple languages that are eager to share the stories of Russia’s history in every city.

It was during that first week that I came to the understanding that all of the cities tell stories. Some are directly connected to each other while others stand alone, but they all contribute to the larger story of Russia’s history. Murals of revolution are painted proudly on the side of brick buildings, reminding us of the country’s past and present.

In Moscow, the story continued. We traveled to the capital city by speed train with the vast countryside painted outside of the windows, blurring past us until the only thing that you could see was the color green. Once settled, our daily excursions resumed. From navigating the massive train system to strolling along the winding streets, we were always on the move. Our days were spent visiting more museums, taking morning Russian classes, and meeting with business officials from all over the city. And after a while, the bubble that separated us from our environment began to dissolve. We could identify our favorite restaurants, recognize main streets, and understand key phrases and greetings which allowed us to become more integrated into the culture.

During our last week of the dialogue, we spent our final days touring several cities in the Golden Ring: the ancient towns that form the foundation of Russian culture and preserve the memory of significant events in Russian history. Each day, we visited a different city, the key features of which were proudly displayed by their populations. It was during these last days that I felt the most comfortable, not only because the atmosphere reminded me so much of home, but because I felt that I had truly immersed myself in the language and culture. I found myself wanting to learn more about the country that has been labeled as an enigma, and the people that endured the pain and destruction that have ravaged their homeland time and time again.

The foundation of Russian culture itself is founded in these cities, built from the most basic of materials, and restructured to accommodate new life. Overtime the infrastructure will lose its resilient nature, but the culture that it has helped shape and the narrative that it has built will not fade from memory. To be able to live and study in such a rich environment has encouraged me to continue to take advantage of the numerous opportunities that Northeastern provides. There are an abundance of stories that await; it only takes a leap of faith to discover them.