A few weeks ago, I was in Saint Petersburg, Russia (not Florida) and what an unforgettable experience it was. Now, this is not meant to be a travel log (I have another blog for that), so I won’t cover those details. I will, however, write about my thoughts, feelings, and insights, because these are the things that shape my life.
Ever sine the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia becoming more open to the rest of the world, I have had a fascination for the Russian people, or maybe it is more accurate to say that I had an unexplained draw to Russian people. I have tried to understand this draw, but as of yet, I don’t’ know why it is. Maybe with this trip to Petersburg (as the locals call it), I have come a bit closer to understanding my feelings.
First of all, why was I there? My company has a part of my department located in Petersburg, so I was going there to build some relationships and do some training. This was a great opportunity for me, because I got to play the role of tourist and interact with local people. Unlike my trip a few years ago to Hong Kong, this trip afforded numerous opportunities to really interact with locals; not only through work situations but also on tours with local tour guides. In Hong Kong, because things are so accessible and there really weren’t any language barriers, I didn’t’ need to hire any tour guides. In Petersburg, it would have been very difficult to see and understand some of the sights I went to without an English speaking tour guide.
Even before I ever arrived in Petersburg, I had to go through the most difficult visa application process ever. The process is so difficult hat you basically need to hire a company to help you with all the paperwork. Not only do you need to provide your entire life history to the government, you need to get a sponsor letter from a business in the country saying it is OK for you to come. Also, you need a letter from your company saying that they will be financially responsible if something happens with your funds. I had to ask myself, don’t you want me to bring and spend money in your country? Why are you making it so difficult? After a few weeks and paying a lot of money in fees to the government and the visia processing company, I got my visa.
When I arrived in the country, I was quite nervous. Would they actually let me into the country? Did I get all my paperwork correct? What might I have forgotten? What else are they going to want from me? Well, I made it. I was greeted by a small smoke filled airport that was functional, but certainly didn’t have all the fancy and modern decorations of many other airports. Usually when I arrive at the airport, I look for a sign that say “Welcome to Hong Kong” or something to take a picture of, but I wasn’t even sure if it was legal to do this here. Yes, I was more than slightly nervous. What I certainly did not want to do was draw any attention to myself. A prearranged for driver met and took me to the Radison hotel where, after checking in, the hotel kept my passport to register my entry into the country. I felt like I was being tracked: airport, hotel, what next? Plus, now you have my passport. Fortunately, the hotel itself felt familiar and people spoke English, at least a bit.
The next day was my first day at the office. A local coworker met me in the hotel lobby and we walked to the office. I purposefully chose this hotel so I could walk to the office and avoid taking the confusing public transportation. After about a 35-minute walk (two miles), we were at the office. Oh, and another security guard to pass by; did I mention there was one at the hotel too? The guard only needed to know where we were going. No big deal unless you don’t speak Russian and don’t know what he is asking you. Fortunately, my coworker knew the protocol.
The office was pretty basic. a bunch of dingy rooms painted with bright colors you would expect from the 70’s. Each room seemed to be crammed with people and desks (no cubicles) that were so close together that the only thing stopping you from counting the blemishes on your coworkers face are your monitors that serve as walls. The back stairwell is filled with cigarette smoke and signs on the windows that say “Absolutely no smoking.”
The people are very interesting. Maybe not as outwardly friendly as I am use to, but once they get to know you, they warm up a bit. I say a bit because there seems to be a wall that I am not use to that is part of the culture. I would say a sort of personal distancing. While in the office, I took some pictures of the team. I don’t know if it is the culture or just people being self-conscious, but people do not smile showing their teeth in pictures. In fact, some people just don’t smile. In the US, this would seem like a gesture of non-cooperation, but it seems quite the norm in Russia. If you are not taking pictures, smiling while showing teeth is not a problem.
In my one-on-one interviews with team members, I tried to establish a repoire and a comfort level between us, and for the most part this was achieved, but there was always that something that stopped me from feeling like we really connected. I kind of felt it was always a her and me and not an us conversation, although each person was very nice. Maybe they were nervous. I also felt this way with my tour guides. They will talk and tell you things, but it always seems to be with reservation. You might not think this is unusual with people I have just met in person, but for me it is. I mean I am not saying all people like me, but I can usually access a person. Maye it is just that trust is very hard to earn in Russia.
What the people of Petersburg are modern. People dress very trendy and all the big name designer shops are there. A mall in Petersburg looks like a mall in Hong Kong, Paris, or San Francisco. I was amazed at all of the women walking around with extremely high heels and how fast they can move. One thing I do not know is how they can afford these bands. I was told the average Russian earns about 10,000 US dollars a year. Maybe Petersburg has a higher average; otherwise they are spending a very high percentage of their income on clothes. In any case, people in Petersburg are very fashion conscious.
In some of my other conversations, I learned that many Russians think Americans are wealthy and expect Americas to tip in accordance. I learned that some Russians, especially the older ones, feel like life was better under the Soviet Union because people were taken care of. People feel the government really does not care about the people. They also tell me how lucky we are because we have choices when it comes time to vote. The coveted jobs are those with the government, because you can make a lot of money. Notice that I did not say high paying. Do you get what I am saying? Some feel that America is the dream and long to move to America, but the process of getting a US visa is very difficult. I don’t think Russia spends as much money on education as America, but youth have the attitude that education is a privilege not a necessary evil or requirement. People in Russia generally seem to be extremely cautious. They tear your receipts to signify the completion of a transaction but no one can really explain to me how it helps. Some people will only accept crispy paper bills and not crinkled ones. McDonalds in Russia is considered overpriced, and people outside of the big cities cannot afford to eat there. In the big city, the restaurants are always packed with young people (and tourists like me). On the streets, I hear more Chinese than English but I know many Russians learn English as a second language. Petersburg is growing quickly, because many from the less economically well-off former Soviet republics are struggling and come to Petersburg for a better life. People from within Russia want to move to Petersburg and Moscow because of the opportunities too. Outside of these cities, you don’t want to know how it is, at least so I am told.
I am anxious to learn more about Russian culture. Maybe I will chat with some of my friends that have lived there and know more than I do. I still do not understand my draw to Russians. I think the draw has lessened a bit, not because I think any less of them, but because I know them a bit better now, so some of the mystique is gone. It was great to be in Petersburg and really great to get to know some of the people and their culture. It is also humbling to know how fortunate and blessed I am to live how and where I do.