This summer, I spent 2 weeks in Saint Petersburg on a language course and a further 8 weeks in Arkhangelsk in Northern Russia, working as an English teacher with a company that runs private language tuition for adults and young people. This is my first-hand account of life in ‘real’ Russia that I was promised by the AIESEC Local Committee in the city. AIESEC is the world’s largest student-run organisation, whose volunteer members work to find volunteer and paid opportunities in 124 countries around the world. My internship in the city was an offering of the organisation. I was privileged enough to be in Russia at an important time for both domestic and international politics, with elections, controversial new laws and opposition to US involvement in the Middle East. Whilst facts are important, I believe my trip was more valuable for gauging on-the-ground opinion and seeing how political decisions were really affecting daily life. It raised a lot of questions, which I will explore below.
First, I believe some perspective is needed: The average gross monthly income in Arkhangelsk is c.17,000 Roubles (c.£300), just 1/5 of the UK average. Many essentials are relatively more expensive for the average Russian than for UK citizens, especially petrol (£0.70 per litre – 29% lower than the average world price). I can eat for less on my student budget in the UK due to supermarket special offers, and the fact that I don’t have to worry about rent and costs such as medical treatment and tuition fees, which are becoming a growing issue for the social mobility of Russian youth. It is quite normal for a young person in Russia to work more than one job.
To my foreign eye, Russia appeared to be a place of untapped possibilities with the potential for the large change that everyone seems to want. My first experience of Russia was an airhostess propping open French doors with a bit of rubble so we could enter the Arrivals lounge. What you risked missing was the huge modern terminal building near-completion, and just out of sight. I didn’t find out about this until talking to my host family. This scenario was part of a trend that persisted throughout my stay in the country. Like any foreign country, unless you speak to the locals or read the news, you are out of the loop. Russia appears to be doing a good job of investing in infrastructure that makes it appear modern, but is failing to tackle the root of the problem. If this act is convincing the Russian people to continue supporting the current government, I’d suggest it is another example of a powerful state which leaves people clutching at straws.
There is a clear divide between the rich and poor in Arkhangelsk, most clearly seen in the architecture of the city, whose inhabitants have very contrasting perspectives on life. The richer communities are sometimes gated, with soviet high-rises towering above their spacious houses, or their apartments loom over the traditional wooden dwellings. Infrastructure was not the problem I expected it to be. You are not advised to drink tap water without a filter (which many households have), and hot water is often still centrally controlled. But in all honesty, the general infrastructure isn’t far worse than the outskirts of many British cities. One important thing I have learnt from this trip, and which is reinforced by my study of International Political Economy this year, is that we should avoid making premature judgement on a country’s propensity for development, through the filter of one’s own internalised set of expectations. Only after first understanding what another country considers to be priorities for the development of their community can we begin to scrutinise. It is worth remembering, for example, that in this part of the country, the ground is frozen for around half the year, so attitudes towards the quality of pavements is not so aesthetically orientated. Free WiFi providing accessible means of communication on the other hand, was much more common in cafés.
Many of the young people I met, taught and spent time with are optimistic, international and liberally minded, though for many this is reflected in having successful parents; one of their parents imports and brands alcohol for sale and another’s own and run a chain of supermarkets. One friend hopes to study in Finland, several in Norway and the others study languages: Swedish and Italian. They like America, as a place, and for the culture, but not for the government. They enjoy both English-speaking and Russian music from Apple products. But having been around the better-off, and those who expressed an interest in engaging with other cultures, I realise I cannot paint a full picture of the situation.
Nevertheless, the group of people whom I met are not confident about Russian politics, showing little interest in it or looking to move abroad. Putin seems to be a mixed bag for Russians. Whilst he is deeply disapproved of (and many Russians decide to avoid the subject entirely), those I spoke to found it difficult to imagine anyone else capable of representing the nation on the international stage. He has certainly showed this influence in the past months regarding Syria. Being in the country during the election campaigns for the State Duma (Federal Parliament) and the Mayor of Moscow, surprised me (as ignorant as I am of Russian politics): its façade at least seemed to show a healthy and peaceful competition between parties in the streets of Arkhangelsk between the big four – United Russia, the Communist Party, Liberal Democrats and Just Russia – as well as some smaller parties such as the Greens.
Whilst I am on the topic of politics, I was privileged enough to be a translator for a conversation between a Russian ‘Fresher’ about to begin his law degree at university, and one Egyptian intern doing the “Taste the World” project with AIESEC In the city. Neither supported the supposed double-standard of the US backing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and support of Syrian intervention, and the Russian also disdained the stereotyping of Russians by foreigners as disinterested or poor global citizens.
Domestically however, the economy powers on whilst politics falls behind. It might be better to say that the market economy and consumerism has penetrated popular culture in Russia, but an open, inclusive, liberal democratic culture has not. The less well-off (and perhaps consequently more radical and politically engaged, which accounts for the type of parties that sit in the Duma) are very much frustrated with the consumerism-meets-political situation, and a government complacent about big change. The penetration of Western culture, partly admired, also creates tensions among the Russian youths that I met. Vanya, a friend who spoke good English, remarked upon what he saw as a decline in women today: “all girls want to do is party and drink, and all they care about is money – they don’t even want children any more.”
And yet they are building a cathedral in Arkhangelsk, which isn’t something that you see every day. The number of atheists, according to a report by Levada in 2011/12, has dropped by 40% since 1991, and the number of Orthodox Christians has risen by 50%. My theory is that the older generations are alienated and trying to regain the “Old” Russia since “New” Russia does not seem to have given them what it promised. This is coupled with a demographic crisis with its roots in the early 90s, which means less children were born.
The issue of changing values goes further. Russians still talk of marriage in their twenties and I have never witnessed so many weddings in my life. A couple of 19 and 23 that I befriended plan to get married soon and a closer friend told me she wanted two children before she turned 30. Yet the divorce rate is one of the world’s highest. The aforementioned couple is also an interracial one – a Nigerian in Russia for five years and a native of Arkhangelsk. I would have liked to find out more about the reception of this relationship; however I did not get a chance to meet them again to ask them.
Egor, another friend, remarked on the depressive power of Russian television; channels showing the glitz of foreign life – fashion, music, Hollywood films etc. with a lot of imitation and kitsch thrown in (comedy which appeared strange to English sensibilities), as well as the news and Russian soaps – violent, tragic, and uninspiring. Soviet films and historical documentaries seemed to be the only “romantic” (perhaps nostalgic is a better word) and truly “Russian” things shown (without the intention of envisaging a stereotypical post-colonial interpretation of how the country should be). It is interesting to contrast the foreign media portrayal of Russia with the actuality of life. As a foreigner, but also as a resident of the city, there was no time during which I felt particularly unsafe nor any hostility directed towards me. The atmosphere was also definitely European in nature, but also distinctly unique.
My conclusion from this trip is that life in Russia is greatly misunderstood, as if most people only seem to view the country through its political system, the media and YouTube videos. Returning to the UK, I believe they put us to shame in three small ways; they drink better quality tea, their greetings are more formal and they buy flowers for each other all the time. I would definitely suggest a visit to Russia – that is as good a starting point as any from which to change perceptions.
George Jewitt is a second year Modern European Studies with Politics student at the University of Nottingham. George is the President of the AIESEC society at the university, contact him for more information about the opportunities available.