Author: Christian Diemer
Photos: Christian Diemer
Why Russia? Why go to Russia, why even study in Russia? A dirty, ugly, unfriendly, undemocratic country, an uncivilized, uneducated people. They bump into you, they don’t apologize, they bawl at you – in Russian, they don’t even speak English, who in the world does not speak English?! They force this ludicrous visa stuff upon you – what the hell do we, travelling freely across all of our borders, have to do with their visa regime?!
The one who told me this was a Swiss student who had come to Saint-Petersburg, Russia, a week or two ago, in order to learn Russian at the university’s language center. I, originally German, spent about half a year studying at the city’s music conservatory and also spent some of my summer vacation at the same language center.
That was in July 2009, on a hot summer day, early in the morning on a bus heading for the university, but the sun had risen out of the Baltic sea hours before – we still had the White Nights, and the dazzling days…
Six months ago, I would have mostly agreed with her. And at that time, I had not passed only one week in Russia like her but even three months already, without my emotions having been subject to significant positive change. On the contrary, heading for Saint-Petersburg without any particularly bad stereotypes in September 2008, the situation had gradually deteriorated until reaching an absolute low in the winter – not a legendary „Russian“ winter, but a windy, cloudy, slushy sequence of some hours of sunless daylight, lulled in, from both sides, morning and evening, by a timeless night under a reddishly shimmering cover of clouds, smoke and darkness.
I had hated this daylight, I had hated this darkness. Of course I had hated the Russians bumping into me, bawling at me, pushing to the front in the queues. Of course I had hated the visa regime, forcing me to complete an absurd show-jumping course through the offices of the conservatory, before
getting the permission to leave the country back home. I had hated the oldish, bad-tempered dormitory custodians gate-crashing our three-bed rooms whenever they wanted one of us to sign some cryptic documents. I had hated the stinking toilets on the floor, flanked by plastic canisters containing some mysterious brown liquid, probably tap water – the same that fell out of the water pipes four floors lower and every morning transformed the dorm’s shower room into a place of hot, steamy, mouldy relaxation. I had hated the bus, getting on which required as much physical toughness as getting off where you wanted, and which got stuck in a smoky, dirty traffic jam in any case. I had even hated some of the teachers in the conservatory telling dogmas about how to compose and how to analyze (I used to be a musicologist there).
That’s half of Russia, I agreed with my Swiss fellow.
I love the blue of the Smol’ny language campus, a five-domed fairy cathedral that our bus was now heading for, and where I had in the end learnt reasonable Russian. I love the blue of the Singer book store, one of the most breathtaking houses on the kilometers-long luxury boulevard called Nevsky, where I used to meet up with my first Russian friend every day, within a never-ending stream of bumping, bawling, pushing Russians. I love the blue of the castle of Tsarskoye Zelo, set into a marvelous rural idyll like a Russian Arcadia, where during the summer I sat with my feet dangling in the lakes, watching tiny fish and tiny Russian girls playing.
I love the bus driver whom I couldn’t pay for the ticket and who during half an hour’s way didn’t forget to tell me where I had to get off. And the other one whom I did pay and who invited me to his Uzbekistani hometown, Samarkand, where he had left his family. I love the dorm’s watchwoman who gave me Christmas greetings for my parents in Germany, where she had never been. I love the drunken husband who bumped into me at the lonely cash-point, who asked me for help to remember his PIN number, desperately fearing his wife’s rage. I love Pasha, my Russian friend, who offered me everything – cigarettes, beer, food, beds, cats, girl-friends the first night I stayed overnight at his parent’s meager flat. I love the teacher that told me everything about herself and her family in order to make me understand why she had also lied during the communist era. I love Russia’s contradictions. I love the Russians’ sadness, their austerity, their despair. I love their devotion, love, the true friendship. I love the daily adventures, the little ones, and the greater ones. I love the language, this intense, hefty melody. Of course I love the culture. I love these people that called me their brother over there.
Having said that, I am very well aware that I have only caught a glimpse into this vast realm petering out in an unforeseeable vastness, eleven time zones east.
Our discussion went on for a little while, fellow passengers were overhearing it, some smiling, some head-shaking, some sleepy, while the bus had gradually left the grey concrete blocks near the sea coast, worked its way through the Art Nouveau quarters on Vassilyevsky Island and was approaching the Neva, wide like an ocean at this point, with the golden domes and spires on the other side gleaming in the morning sun.
She seemed to find me ridiculous, as I was trying to defend the Russians and talk her into being more open-minded towards the adventure of intercultural difference. I don’t know what it was to let her conclude that she and her countrymen were multilingual, multicultural and open-minded from birth, as four peoples were successfully coexisting in the melting-pot she claimed Switzerland to be. Whereas xenophobia and racism could be accounted for in the German genome, alas, and likewise, most likely, also in the Russian one.