Getting off the train into Russia, I was tired. Along a white wall to my left, a nest of cables and cameras scanned every square-inch of the railway station. A short man sporting an impressive mustache kept his weary eyes locked on our group of high-school students. His security badge shined brightly on his chest as he turned to another somber looking woman at his side. Russia! I breathed in the brown city air.
All I needed was an ostentatious grey suit to play my role as 007. My eyes darted left and right. White license plate: E 003 py 90. Kalininsky District КАЛИНИНСКИЙ Р-Н. The people: somber and rigid.
As a group, we were all excited to explore. Our bus darted through the congested streets. Each vehicle moved through the roads without the slightest recognition of other objects. You either moved or got run over. Through the windows, we saw the city.
On one particular stop, we got off the bus to look at onions. Buses competed for parking space while tourists flashed and flailed their cameras. The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is one captivating architectural miracle. One inch tile squares cover every space in the churches interior. Millions and millions of tiles converge to capture divine imagery. The air is hot and humid as bodies push and prod to touch the church. We got back out and hunted down our bus. Taking a step back, I took a deep breath at the end and smiled. Mrs. Priddy snapped a photo, and we left. I’m happy I saw holy onions in Russia.
On our last day in Tallinn, which was the last day of the trip excluding airport travel, the IR Fellows visited a museum on the history of Estonia located in Old Town Tallinn, then split up to explore the city in small groups and reflect on what we have learned about leadership throughout the course of the trip. Many of the fellows viewed Tallinn from the various overlooks on the sides of the old city walls. It was an excellent way for us to conclude the trip, especially for the class of 2016 fellows, who completed their last Fellows trip.
Our 2nd day in St. Petersburg began with a hotel buffet breakfast infused with cultural lesson #1: the etiquette of lines is less valuable in Russian society (or at the least Russian hotel society) than the necessity of food. Best plan of attack is the Blitzkrieg strategy of targeting the weak spots in the line/mob surrounding the food table with speed and more force than you would think.
After our adventure with breakfast, Natalia, our tour guide, led us via tour bus to Peterhof Palace, the summer palace of Peter the Great and his ancestors. Or, to be more accurate, it was an intricate replica of the summer palace of Peter the Great; the original one had been leveled by bombing during the German’s siege of St. Petersburg during the 2nd World War. Dr. Rezelman pointed out that around 3 million Russian civilians died in the 900 day siege, compared to the 407,000 U.S. soldiers killed in the whole war (The National WWII Museum New Orleans). Lessons from Mr. Horstman’s 9th grade World Cultures class came to my mind in that the Russians are very proud of their resilience to outside invaders, and that this sacrifice they have constantly repeated, from the Vikings to Napoleon to the Nazis, is their claim to being a regional and global power. Although post-Cold War Russia has slid from it’s position as one out of the two world powers, Vladimir Putin is determined to remind Russians of their prideful history. His campaign to “restore Russia to greatness,” besides increased aggression in former Soviet spheres of influence, entails the full restoration of Peterhof Palace, a symbol of Russian wealth, history, and power. This is paid for by the Russian people of course, but in a later informal meeting with a local, she states, “Of course we do not mind. It is our history, and Putin has given it back to us.”
After admiring Russia’s proud imperial history, we proceeded to the Peter and Paul Fortress. We were impressed by its several historical functions, including: a prison, fort, church, burial site, and more recently, a sunbathing park.
We then embarked on a boat ride through St. Petersburg’s famous canals, learning about the history of the city as well as ducking under the several unique bridges. After reaching up to touch the underbelly of the low bridges while remaining seated, I finally understood the sign I had seen when I boarded the boat: “Please sit. Do not lose your head.”
Olga Zhmailova-Senik, the Analytical Laboratory Manager at the St. Petersburg office of the British-American Tobacco Company and Peter local, joined our group for dinner at a traditional Georgian restaurant. We all enjoyed picking her brain of Russian culture, attitude, and customs. My favorite response, however, was to the question, “What do Russians think of Americans?” We all joined her knowing laughter, as she took a minute to pause and smile at the ceiling while she considered the question. She then responded graciously and diplomatically, “I think we have very different ways of thinking, different cultures. Hard to understand each other, but I also think a world with one way of thinking is no good.” It was in this moment of putting a laughter to an identity, a face to a culture, that I realized that despite the role of a frustrating, worthy rival in world politics, Russians were in fact real people. People who shared at least one of our core beliefs as fellows: to always consider more than one way of thinking.
This morning we woke up at 4:30 to catch our train heading towards St. Petersburg, Russia. Despite the early wakeup, the enjoyable and comfortable train ride prepared us for this long day. I even made the Russian border guards checking my passport smile, which, according to every source containing Russian stereotypes, is a very very rare experience. Later, we visited many famous churches. My personal favorite was the Church on the Spilled Blood because of the fascinating mosaic covering its interior. Afterwards, we visited the Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace. The art was breathtaking, but the paintings and carvings around the ceiling truly caught my attention. They also gave me the opportunity to take some great photos. After a long day, we introduced our stomachs to some delicious traditional meats at a local café. Overall, we all thoroughly enjoyed our first day with the Russians.
The merry band of globe-trotting fellows arrived at the Helsinki airport and promptly mounted a bus to the hotel. The plane ride to Finland tested our endurance and stamina, and some of us were definitely exhibiting signs of sleep deprivation and exhaustion.
After checking in to the hotel and resting up for a bit, we took to the streets of Helsinki. The city had a different vibe than the great European capitals like London, Paris, and Rome. It was simpler; no grand monuments like the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben dominated the skyline. Instead Helsinki stressed a sense of practicality.
After a discussion about leadership on the Senate Square, the mentor/mentee pairs set off for a scavenger hunt around the city. We were tasked with gathering information on trolley fairs, scouting out dining options, interacting with the locals and sampling authentic Finnish cuisine.
After scouring Helsinki for a restaurant with enough open places for all 14 of us, we settled on a burger place specializing in reindeer burgers. Some of us were fans, others were not.
We closed the day with a meeting during which Dr. Rezelman praised the group of fellows for keeping up positive attitudes in spite of the lack of sleep and the challenges of adjusting to a new place, time zone, and culture.
If there was only one word I could use to describe our trip to the Baltic region this summer, I would say it was definitely immersive. A largepartof the trip was student-led with the itinerary for each of the countries planned out by the students. The planning took initiative on our part, and as a result, the rest of the IR fellows and I certainly felt proud of our work as the awesome trip panned out day by day. This created an excellent opportunity to immerse us into a real-world situation of planning a trip, and it prepared us for similar moments in the future. Likewise, we developed a keen first-hand understanding of different cultures, leadership styles, and even ourselves as people in an amazingly short amount of time. The cultures of Finland, Estonia, and Russia were fascinating, in each of their own ways, and very different from our own. Our total immersion in these foreign countries, as both travelers and students, was one of the coolest aspects of the trip. I was able to learn so much about other’s way of life by active observation, interaction and discussion. This experience made me more open minded and aware of the pitfalls of cultural stereotypes. As I found in Russia not everyone was as cold as rumored.
Similar to culture, we learned so much about how to be a good leader each and every day. Each day we had a different student leader who had countless opportunities to successfully lead our group through simple and difficult obstacles. Our Teacher mentors allowed the leaders to learn from mistakes along the way. The combination of jet lag, foreign foods, strange languages and unknown cities set up realistic real-world scenarios, and I feel that it helped heighten my leadership skills. I learned many things about being a fair but firm leader of a group. I learned the importance of the small but important things like bouncing ideas or plans off those who are older or more experienced before taking action. I hope to keep reflecting on the multiple mistakes and successes that occurred during my particular day and also learn from the successes and failures of the other leaders of the day to become the best leader I can.
I also learned a lot about myself through this trip. The real life aspect and immersion of the whole trip allowed me to stumble and recognize some flaws in my nature. Throughout my day as leader the weaker sides of my character began to shine, but thanks to advice from my older peers and teachers, I was able to improve upon them as the trip progressed. In the future I will try my hardest to be more confident and natural with myself, in both leadership and everyday moments. I would not have learned these valuable lessons if I was not afforded the opportunities on this trip. Our journey together was one of the most valuable and influential experiences of my life so far and will stay with me forever. I am very thankful for such an amazing opportunity to experience different cultures and to develop my character. As a result of this amazing journey I know that I am better equipped and able to help better my community now and in the future.