Around the world in eight issues: St. Petersburg, Russia

Tracy Johnson is a junior linguistics major from St. Louis who recently studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia.

What were you expecting before you went to Russia?

I think I expected it to be a bit more volatile than it actually was, even though I knew that it was very far away from any actual violence. But I thought I was going to see more political unrest … and visible dissent.

What was it like when you got to Russia?

I definitely saw nationalist rallies, but they were very small, which surprised me. It probably would have been different if I’d been in Moscow, but I really didn’t see a lot [of them]. It was very calm the whole time I was there.

Where I was, was in some ways very similar to Lawrence. It’s modeled after a liberal arts college. It’s really small for one thing; there are only about 500 kids. It’s pretty hard to get into, and so people work hard, but not as hard as people work here … I think that’s what surprised me: I did very little work. A lot of the professors just had in their minds the idea that Americans are naturally more hardworking than Russian students. Almost every Russian professor I had commented that Americans do better work than Russians. And I don’t necessarily think that was reflected in my work. It wasn’t that the Russian students weren’t intelligent and hardworking, either.

I really think I transitioned pretty quickly. It’s partly because St. Petersburg has a really good transportation system, which is cheap by American standards. Before it got cold, I was walking places, anyways. I got harassed a lot on the streets; I don’t think it was because I was physically American, or anything, I think that just happens to women fairly commonly [there]. When that happens to you, you try to avoid [that place], but in St. Petersburg, it was impossible. This was almost an everyday thing.

What are some big differences you see between the US and Russia?

A lot of people our age can’t drive. People walk everywhere or take public transportation. I think that was because we were in a city, and if we hadn’t been in an urban center, it would have been different.

Another thing is that people don’t feel like they owe you any niceties. I felt like I was being rude when I came back to the US and I wouldn’t smile at people I didn’t know. There were people on the program who felt both ways. Some people thought that everyone was acting mean, and others could appreciate it; you don’t have to be nice to people you don’t know.

Hand shaking is a big thing, especially among men. According to men of my acquaintance, when you see a man you know, you have to go over and shake his hand. It was certainly a lot of hand shaking, which I was exempt from, being a woman. As a woman, it’s just not a thing that you do.

Another difference is that you can’t pet people’s dogs. [The dogs] all wear sweaters when it gets cold, and they have little tracksuit things that go all the way down to their paws. At first, I thought it was ridiculous, and then it got pretty cold and I began to understand. And then I thought I saw a dachshund without a coat and thought his owner was irresponsible! But it actually did have a little coat on.

Similarities?

In some ways, little pockets of it are like Wisconsin in that women will wear heels in the winter. When it’s icy and snowy they have their winter heels. I definitely know people here who have winter heels. I thought I would stop seeing women wearing heels when it got cold and started to snow, but that did not happen.

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