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.
– Jessica Williams, ‘16