Though the country was far from the complete wreck I had pictured, it still had more than its fair share of unsavory elements. One of the first things I learned upon my arrival in Moscow is that Russia is full of, and to an extent defined by, sharp contrasts between outside appearances and inner realities. I encountered this phenomenon countless times throughout my stay in Russia—holes in the ground instead of toilets at the otherwise new and beautiful World War II museum, gilded czarist palaces with yellow, parasite-infested tap water, and so on. The most egregious example that I came across, however, was a crumbling shell of a building filled with debris and covered in graffiti that, instead of being demolished or renovated in some way, was simply covered by a sheet painted to look like the facade of a normal building. Standing in front of this monstrosity, it suddenly occurred to me I was staring at a metaphor for the entire country—a barely-palatable exterior with an interior in ruins.
Looking back, this contrast is all the more striking because I remember being amazed by how relatively normal the country seemed when I first arrived. Walking around Moscow felt like walking around any other European city, only with crazier traffic. The streets were filled with BMWs, Jaguars and even Bentleys; public transit was extraordinarily efficient. On the surface, all appeared completely modern and westernized.
Yet, signs of the past linger all around, not only in the form of the omnipresent hammer and sickle, statues of Lenin, or subway stations named “Marxist” and “Proletariat.” The government strangely advertises every national holiday (try to imagine a billboard featuring nothing but a giant American flag and the text “Thanksgiving – November 26”), and, in a distinctly Big Brother-like fashion, even makes audio announcements on the Metro along the lines of “Today is National Unity Day. On this day of celebration, we wish you health, success, and happiness.” The populace also remains largely trusting of the powers that be. I toured Lenin’s mausoleum with some Russian friends and walked out fairly confident that the supposed body of the erstwhile leader was in fact a wax copy. My Russian friends, on the contrary, were absolutely positive it was the real thing, and were shocked that I would even suggest otherwise.
Despite all this, I grew fond of the country. The stereotype most thoroughly demolished in my mind was that of the perpetually angry, cold Russian. The vast majority of the people I met were kind and sociable, and I received no less than three not-inexpensive birthday presents from Russians while I was there (Guess how many I got from my fellow Americans?). I was able to have small-talk with people in trains, on the street, and at school, and in all cases the people seemed genuinely interested in why I chose to come and study in their land.
My experience in Russia is difficult to sum up, due in no small part to the dual nature of the country itself. Many of my preconceptions were eliminated; others were confirmed. I saw potential for the future coupled with pernicious ties to the past. Overall, the most important thing I learned is that the Russia of today looks oddly familiar. Rather than acknowledging and facing its problems, it prefers to conjure up a facade of normalcy and pretend it can face the West as an equal. This mentality has greatly harmed Russia in the past, and will do so again if it is not changed and replaced with an outlook more in tune with reality. That, however, appears unlikely to happen. Russia is still Russia.