Generally speaking, it seems logical that the Soviet period of Russian history has had the longest lasting effect on the stereotypical American perspective of the current Russian Federation, purely because it represents, for many Americans, the most recent characterization of the region. However, it’s still very interesting to me — especially after witnessing the Petersburg’s grandeur — that Americans don’t seem to characterize the Russian state with allusions to its monarchical past (at least in the same way I often feel France is associated with the Sun King and Versailles, for example). Thus far, I’ve had the opportunity to visit three of Petersburg’s suburban palaces — Peterhof, Pavlovsk, and the Catherine Palace — and, of course, the Hermitage museum which is located in the Winter Palace in the city center. Due to extraordinary restoration efforts following the Second World War, the suburban palaces truly represent, at least in my opinion, both the overwhelming domestic power and international influence of the Russian monarchy. For me, the palaces manage to evoke an entirely awe-inspiring experience coupled with a touch of remorse over the amount of time, resources, and energy that was devoted to their completion and restoration. Discussing this idea recently with a professor of literature at Brown, he commented on the necessity of these palaces — which should really be seen more as monuments — for the Russian national consciousness. Even in my own, personal understanding of their place in Russian society, the palaces seem to serve as a rallying point for people in terms of national pride and culture. Seemingly, at least for the Russians I’ve come to know, these monarchical remnants are a point of pride, in so far as they bring hoards and hoards of tourists from around the world in admiration of what are viewed as “national treasures.”
All together, my trip from Jersey’s suburbs to St. Petersburg, Russia amounted to approximately 15 hours of travel. Partially the function of my seemingly perpetual jetlag, my first few days in Petersburg were almost inexpressibly overwhelming. I arrived with over two years of language study and relative confidence in my ability to hold everyday conversations in Russian. I quickly realized, however, that, with Russian, there is a huge difference between understanding language and producing intelligent responses. For example, on my first night, I managed through dinner with my host family using only the most curt, short responses. I was frustrated with my inability to express nuances and connect with my host family — an older couple who have lived in the city their entire lives — at a more profound level.
The next day, I sleepily followed my хозяйка (Russian for host) to the institute where I am now taking my language and literature classes. Speaking quickly in Russian, my хозяйка pointed out how easily Soviet architecture in Petersburg can be differentiated from buildings erected prior to the 1917 revolution.
While I was not able to contribute anything to the conversation, I was quickly drawn into the history and was able to forget my language insecurities until we arrived at the institute. I’ve now realized that following and listening are the most valuable skills you can possess while abroad. Purely through paying attention to my хозяйка’s multiple monologues on the beauty of Petersburg during that first week, I was able to pick up numerous new constructions that I then attempted to store away in the Russian side of my brain. I realize now that, in the U.S., I tend to dominate conversation and constantly seek to share opinions, insight, and ideas.
So while I was initially frustrated by my inability to simulate these tendencies in Russian conversation, my experience in Russia became much easier once I realized that, at least for now, listening is more important speaking.
I’ve realized how lucky I am to have all of these new figures in my life guiding me through this language journey. In fact, one of the most positive experiences I’ve had with the language thus far is working with my native, Russian language teacher. In an attempt to simulate the intensity of a full year course, my language class meets for three hours a day, four days a week. The largest difficulty is not necessary the length of the sessions, however. In fact, it’s the size of the course — only three other students are in my level. Luckily, our instructor works really well with us and we are able to keep the classes light though simultaneously productive. So far, we’ve been reading the daily St. Petersburg papers, watching popular movies, and, of course, finding time for grammar review, as well.
While I can’t yet count myself fluent, I’m seeing slow and steady progress in my Russian, while simultaneously experiencing one of the greatest cities of the world. Yes, the first week was tough but I’m slowly regaining confidence and attempting to take advantage of everything Petersburg has to offer.