Letter from St Petersburg

It’s difficult to put one’s finger on Russia, largely due to its size. People rattle on about how enormous it is, but, feeble metaphors aside, it’s easy to forget – living as I do in St Petersburg, – that the country touches Norway at one edge, while at the other it’s separated from Alaska by a strait not much wider than a few swimming pools tacked together.

Russia’s size is essential to national consciousness: its fourteen international borders mean its cities are cosmopoleis, but their citizens alarmingly racist for it. The dichotomy between Russia’s inward- and outward-facingness sounds like the central tenet of an academic paper, but at ground-level it’s very real, visible in the attitudes of old and young alike. Russia is a clear example of a nation that has seen a radical social, political and economic transformation within the lifetime of a generation of its inhabitants.

The old are fearful of change; they vote for a man who is strong, and physically fit, a man whose permanence, here, is attractive after a half-century of upheaval. The feeling of personal security for a generation manifests itself in the sight of the President on the television, and in the lumpy feeling of their life savings under the mattress. The young, on the other hand, have grown up in an economic climate that turned Russian cities into the Wild East in the early 90s, when the men currently sitting in British prisons were buying vast swathes of de-nationalised Russian infrastructure.

Economically, they live one day to the next: contracts are short, work is available, and their labour is cheap. They talk openly about their ‘grey salaries’, where only half of a salary is officially declared, the other half being cash in hand, or even the ‘black salaries’ – pure cash – that are an important column in Russia’s financial architecture. What they own is what they earn, and can usually be found stuff ed into their wallets.

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‘Every coin has two sides’, however, as any Russian will be keen to tell you, and the sprawling middle-class of young Petersburgers seems content. Social culture here is one where spending time with friends is the backbone of everyone’s free-time, the result of which is huge restaurant chains occupying every street corner, the tables full, most menus offering everything from sushi to Azerbaijani specialities in an attempt to satisfy what I can only describe, though it may seem heavy-handed, as a celebration of the vulgar novelty of abundant choice, the thirst for which seems to be bred into millions of young Russians (if it doesn’t develop naturally as a reaction to the Russian fare forced into them by granny back at home). The restaurant food suff ers as a result, by the way.

Aside from its distance from our “small island that no one listens to”, the mystery that surrounds Russia is its language, which is fairly impenetrable for a beginner, and very rewarding when a slight taste of approaching ‘fluency’ can be felt on the tongue mid-conversation. Amongst the catastrophic mistakes I have either made or encountered are “I need to take a piss” when “I need to write that down” is what you had in mind, or, worse, “I need to give a blow job at the next station” when “I have to change lines at the next station” is what the poor victim of that mistake was searching for.

My lifestyle in St Petersburg involves a lot of exposure to the language and has proven to me that there is very little point hoping to become competent in a language without spending an extended period of time in a country where it’s spoken. Back in your box, Rosetta Stone. More mysterious, however, are the people: there are 140 million of them, all speaking the same language with the same accent, and most of them are about as friendly on first impressions as the people who check your bag as you leave the Bodleian. A cheeky smile and a badly-disguised British accent, however, go a fair way in Russia, and the people I have met and am lucky enough to live with in St Petersburg seem to react to the prevailing outdoor temperatures through unmitigated personal warmth.

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And my bedroom is quite hot too.

Love,

Toby xxx