Chinese Student Reflects on Living and Studying in Saint Petersburg
Charlie Song is a Chinese student who spent a semester at HSE University–St. Petersburg, focusing on Russian, Eurasian and Post-Soviet Studies. Charlie shared his impressions of Russian culture and life in St. Petersburg with the HSE news service, as well as some helpful tips for other international students.
Until We Meet Again: Saint Petersburg, My Spiritual Home
2017 was an amazing year for me. This past year, I have been privileged enough to live my life in three drastically different, yet equally interesting, countries: China, the United States and Russia. Indeed, if you saw these three names together in an article, it would most likely be something about world politics, which is one aspect of my studies. Today, however, I would rather like to talk about culture, about us human beings and my life-changing five months in Saint Petersburg.
All this would not have happened without HSE, Saint Petersburg and the Five College Initiatives. I cannot express my gratitude enough.
Accept the Complexity and be Russian
Three years ago, when I first decided to start learning Russian, it was partly because of my obsession with the Soviet culture and partly my realization that I had totally overlooked the part of the world between Western Europe and East Asia in my past life.
As some of you have probably experienced while studying a different culture or society, at first it is easy to generalize everything with a short and seemingly precise paragraph or even sentence, but when you start looking deeper, contradictions keep occurring. This was when I started to realize there was something missing.
While studying a culture/society, we often seek a systematic answer to everything but reject the complexity of the subject we are studying; we often perceive the subject through ourselves.
My programme manager told me at the very beginning of my stay that HSE University - Saint Petersburg is set to become an international hub. After spending five months there, I have to say that they have done a perfect job. ‘Post-Communist Politics and Society’, taught by Professor Dmitry Goncharov, is by far the most diverse class that I have ever taken in my life. I had roughly 25 classmates from 15 different countries and the most amazing thing was that they had all represented their identity so well, whether through their speeches in class or during an intense political debate at a bar.
Do not forget that the USSR (as well as Russia today) was also a highly diverse country. Once you arrive in Saint Petersburg, you will be exposed to the cultures and cuisines of other former Soviet Republics. I highly encourage you to travel around the Caucasus, Siberia and Central Asia during your study break. It was definitely another life-changing experience for me to wake up in an Armenian mountain village and wander between the ancient monasteries scattered in the valley.
‘Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev possessed the dominant qualities of every true Russian: natural kindness of heart, simplicity and resignation. With a remarkably powerful brain, he had the heart of a child’ - Melchior de Vogüé
Half an hour after my arrival in Saint Petersburg in July, I had already started breaking the stereotypes about Russia that had been in my mind for the past two years or even longer.
It was also very soon that I started enjoying talking with Russian people and trying to understand their world. At first glance most Russians do not look that approachable (and I would still not recommend to bother with American-style small talk), however they are much more open to sharing their genuine experiences and sentiments than you would ever have expected.
Over my five months in St Petersburg, I had countless conversations with the local people, from the charming waitress in an Uzbek cafe to an taxi driver who had fought in the Chechen war against his old classmates. As I sit here writing this article alone in the library of my college at 12 am, I am missing their sincerity and kindness.
Russian people treasure memories. You might have a class on a certain topic in the morning and then experience this very theme yourself in the afternoon in a conversation with a local.
Mobile internet flourishes in Russia, especially in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. There are many internet applications for getting food delivered, booking taxis, shopping online and even ordering a cleaning service! During my stay in Saint Petersburg, I found some of my fellow foreign students rarely used them. I definitely encourage you to expose yourself to all of these wonderful online services in order to enjoy the convenience of modern Russian urban living. Meanwhile, do keep in mind that, while they might be so affordable and accessible to you, they are not for a great percentage of families. So: don’t take everything for granted or try to generalize life in Russia based on this alone.
Saint Petersburg is heaven for young people. Your HSE ‘buddies’ take you to thousands of fine restaurants, cafes, bakeries and bars in this city. Museums encourage students with their discounted prices or even free admission. The HSE buddies know how young people live in this city and will always be willing to lead you into their world. At the same time, I would say Saint Petersburg is a relatively small city, which definitely makes it a favourable middle ground between Moscow and provincial cities. If you are tired of American college town life and do not feel like living in a big city like New York, then Saint Petersburg is the perfect choice for you.
Another reason why I am very grateful to HSE University–St.Petersburg is that they carefully selected my host families. At first, I have to admit that I was a bit daunted by the idea of living with a host family. I am already an adult and have been living alone for quite a long time. However, HSE introduced me to the most understanding and caring host families in this city. I learned so much about Russian life and history from them. They have formed the brightest part of my memory in Saint Petersburg, which I will never forget.
Photos provided by Charlie Song