In our first lesson on Monday our teacher welcomed us with a warm smile and enthusiastically assured us that “there is nothing to do in Petrozavodsk. Only study, study study”. We’ll see if she’s right…
I think Petrozavodsk is a bit like Sheffield. It’s quite a big city, but it feels like a town. Although it can’t boast as many trees as Sheffield (which has the most trees per person of any city in Europe) it is a green place, with at least one pleasant park. There are plenty of concerts and plays to go to; there’s a museum and a gallery, and some lovely walking next to the lake and through the forest, but it certainly isn’t St Petersburg. Also, like Sheffield, there is a big student population, and, alas, the football team is pretty rubbish! Maybe that’s why over half of my class are from Sheffield uni.
Despite being as far north as Anchorage in Alaska, Hudson Bay and the bottom of Greenland, it’s been pleasantly warm so far. I was out and about in shorts and a t-shirt, but the Russians, who seem immune to temperature, still wore hats, coats and some were even wearing gloves! It was tempting to think they must be a bit nesh, but I’m sure I’ll be the one who feels that way when it’s -20, which, as the locals love to point out to us, won’t be long.
I’m living in a flat with a very kindly “Babushka” (Russian grandmother) called Tamara. I daren’t ask how old she is, but my suspicions were raised when she introduced me to her 50 year old son. I’ve since found a “Happy 75th birthday” card, but, in true Russian babushka fashion, she seems fairly unstoppable. At the moment she is at her “dacha”. The “dacha” culture began during the Soviet Union when, in order to compensate for moving everyone into monochrome urban monoliths, they gave them plots of land in the countryside. The people put up simple wooden houses, cleared the land and now they use them like an allotment, growing cabbages (Russia’s favourite vegetable!), marrows, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, raspberries, apples, beans etc. September is a great month to arrive, because all these things are fresh. Our fridge is already loaded, and no doubt there will be more tomorrow when Tamara returns.
So far I’ve been very comfortable in Tamara’s little fourth floor flat, which sort of overlooks the lake. Bright paintings, by her daughter, who lives in the states, hang on the walls in the living room. The kitchen, like all Russian kitchens, is cluttered but clean and the radio provides a constant stream of Russian listening practice if I want it. Tamara is also very patient with my Russian. I coped alright with topics like family, school and music, but I felt quite out of my depth when she asked me what I thought of Islamification! I’m sure we will get on well though.
I don’t exactly feel like a student at the university - there is a course run specially for us foreigners (the powers that be, quite rightly, don’t think we are good enough at Russian to study a regular course like study abroad students usually do) which runs from 11:30 til 3 each day. I was starting to despair that I would never be able to meet Russian students, but then we discovered the university choir, which rehearses 3 times a week for 2 ½ hours. I went along on Friday and it was great. We sang the jazziest Kyrie Eleison I have ever come across, and the Russians were very friendly and accommodating. Keeping on the musical theme, one of the few things I understood at church on Sunday was that they were doing auditions for a musical version of John’s gospel. Rather nervous, but determined not to miss an opportunity, I went along today. It seemed like they were fairly short of people, so I might end up with a part - that will be interesting!
I found the church through a charity which runs a “Christian Centre” in a local secondary school. After my audition today I went along there to meet some of the young people and received another warm welcome. I thought that I might be able to sit and listen while they got on with it, but no - I was asked, actally, told, to share something with the group. After stumbling around for a while trying to think of something I could explain in Russian, I ended up talking about hope, something Russia certainly lacks. I’d just read an article from the Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/21528596) which paints a very gloomy picture of the situation here. Sadly, it’s not too far from the truth. Russia is a difficult place to live. It’s freezing cold for four months a year and it rains a lot. Most of the infrastructure was shoddily thrown together in Soviet times and it is falling apart - the roads are particularly bad. Wages are generally low and everyone pays the same tax rate (so they hit the poor hardest), but prices aren’t much lower than in the UK, while gadgets cost a small fortune (£600 for an iPhone!). But the worst thing is the political system, which is hopelessly inefficient, corrupt and dominated by a privileged few. It is the entrenchment of this system, under the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his puppet-President Dmitri Medvedev which makes Russians doubt whether things could ever get better. Having said all this, the people I’ve met don’t let this hopelessness get them down. Yesterday I asked one girl if Russians used sarcasm - she replied “Of course, if we didn’t, we couldn’t survive living in a place like this”. And they do survive, and I will survive too. Hopefully, I might even have some fun along the way!