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When I knew I was going to Moscow and St Petersburg, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew about Russia was vodka, bears, communism, vodka, snow, and more vodka. It’s much more of an enigma than other European countries, and thanks to media it’s easy to think that it’s all doom and gloom there, and due to a complex political climate, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re in the midst of a second cold war. All in all it was a great insight into the culture we know so little about in the West, and also very enjoyable.
After the first few days in Moscow, it became clear it was not the most cosmopolitan of cities. Whereas in Paris or Rome you can usually always overhear English speakers everywhere, Moscow was very scarce of them. So unless you’re staying with a native, you might find Moscow quite impregnable. Nevertheless, Moscow is a very interesting city.
Reminders of its communist past and capitalist present are everywhere; the beautiful Moscow metro resplendent in marble and chandeliers is adorned with many soviet murals, statues of Lenin abound, and you will nearly always be able to see one of the seven ‘Stalin skyscrapers’, that somehow manage to be both impressive and oppressive at the same time. In stark contrast, shopping centres and teeming high streets everywhere, as well as plenty of fast food and café chains.
As well as the soviet and modern parts of the city, a visit to Red Square and the Kremlin will offer a glimpse of old Russia. The iconic St Basil’s Cathedral and the many churches inside the Kremlin walls are truly unique, unlike anything anywhere else in Europe, making this area of the city feel unmistakeably Russian.
St Petersburg by contrast has a much more of an Imperial era feel, as well as being very European and tourist friendly. As a result it came across as a friendlier and much more laid back place compared to Moscow; never before have I shared a mutual nod with a stranger wearing a large paper burger king crown.
Many of the buildings sport classical style columns and pediments as is the norm in Europe, as well as many large domes in the style of St Paul’s in London or St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, as opposed to the onion domes of St Basil’s and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (built on the spot where a Tsar was assassinated) which is essentially a copy of St Basil’s built 300 years later in St Petersburg. As if this weren’t enough, the lavish Winter Palace (now the Hermitage Museum) looks like something right out of Paris or Vienna, and as a museum is certainly close to the louvre in terms of scale. Also, walking round the grounds of Peterhof feels exactly like strolling around Versailles, only with more fountains, seriously, they’re everywhere. If there’s one thing I’ll say about the Russian’s it’s that they know how to make a good fountain.
Russia is well worth visiting; it certainly has a lot more to offer that its politics, yet it seems this aspect is the only one that sees the light of day, leaving its people and its culture very much under represented. It struck me one sunny day strolling through Gorky Park in Moscow, that despite all the depressing news we hear and the complex political situation, everyone around me was happy, and, well, normal. It really seems as though we in the west have more in common with the Russian people than we might think, for walking through that park, I could have been anywhere in Europe.
written by Ciaran Cresswell
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham