Reflections from St. Petersburg, Russia

Tending the Inner Light

"Saint-Pétersbourg - L'Hermitage" by Panoramas:
“Saint-Pétersbourg – L’Hermitage” by Panoramas on Flickr

Outside, a crow calls; in St. Petersburg, Russia, it is the first of December.

It is day, and also night. Orange snowflakes hurry past under the streetlamp, whose dull orange glow filters through the window shades. A draft slides between the ill-fitting frames of casement windows in my pre-revolutionary building. I warm my feet on the radiator. A machine sprinkling salt and sand passes on the street below. Winter has come.

My computer tells me it’s 7:22 am, but it could be any time of morning, evening, or night. In the fall months, St. Petersburg is dark and wet. From October to December, the rain falls daily, and the pavement rarely dries.

I feel as though I’ve spent the last few months walking on the sea floor, living in an underwater kingdom where crows grow scales and swim through a maze of pale buildings and dark, seaweed-like trees. The sky is consistently overcast, the distinction between night and day—nebulous. When I enter university in the morning, the streetlights are on, they come on again as I walk back home after class. On weekends, I sometimes sleep through the day, and sometimes, I do not sleep at all.

It is my second fall in St. Petersburg. I first came here in 2011, on my junior year abroad.

I spent my trip struggling with my surroundings. I hated the corrosive darkness, the car exhaust at rush hour, the push of bodies and smother of winter coats in the metro. I was confounded by Russian tolerance of petty despotism—the cashier refuses to take anything but exact change although you can see she’s got each type of bill in the register; and everyday absurdities—water to your building has been turned off for a week, the internet is out in the apartment and may be out indefinitely. I was exasperated by the answers I received, that “it happens” or “that’s just the way it is.” I felt isolated from Haverford’s small Quaker community and pined for the people I loved.

Surprisingly, I have come to appreciate my discomfort.

St. Petersburg is a city of facades; the plaster on its buildings imitates stone. To a passing tourist, the city bears the facade of a European metropolis. It has rich culture of ballet and opera, world-class museums, and continuously appearing new cafes. Sometimes, I forget I am in Russia.

Every so often, I am reminded. Life here is punishing and often difficult to understand. Under the glimmer of gold onion domes and high-tech trinkets in shop windows lingers an age-old mentality: the fundamental distrust of police and politics, and pervasive cynicism. The weather is indifferent, and sometimes the people seem to be, too. Coming home one Saturday night this semester, in the center of town, I witnessed a gang kick a man until he was unconscious and bleeding from the mouth. Of the small crowd that had gathered, no one called the police (unsurprising) or an ambulance (unfathomable).

But life in Russia also brings moments of unexpected warmth, goodness, and humanity. It brings people together and forms instant, deep connections. That same Saturday, I missed the last train home and sat side by side on the bank of a canal with a woman I met, sharing stories, a bottle of wine, and several coal-hot cans of cappuccino until the metro reopened.

In these months, I’ve begun to see my experiences in a different light. I cannot say I’ve come to love St. Petersburg, but I’ve taken a step toward making peace with it.

My time in Russia isn’t always fun. Some days my tongue fumbles and my Russian malfunctions, I drop things and yell at inanimate objects, and wish I could explain that “salad” does not mean “aggregate of three types of pickled vegetables, cubed potato, and pickled fish in a bathtub of mayonnaise.” Some days, I wish I could hug my dad.

In it, I draw closer to self-understanding and internal balance. I realize now that being on the “outside”—whether you’re beyond the Quaker bubble, navigating a foreign country or language, or in an unfamiliar and unsettling situation—is simply a question of ‘being on the inside.’ Living in Russia has taught me to create an internal environment that helps me find happiness in my external one. In the absence of sunshine, I generate my own rays.

As the Russian winter begins, I add kindling to my inner light and remind myself to cherish the good, little things. Each morning, I drink my coffee, swallow my vitamin D, and head out to school. As I walk to catch the bus, I feel cozy in my thick socks, enjoy the glimmer of holiday lights on frozen surfaces, and draw warmth from a friend’s joy, which travels to me in email sent from across the ocean.

Pola Lem

Pola Lem is a recent graduate of Haverford College and a 2013 intern at Friends Journal. She is currently studying in Russia.

4 thoughts on “Reflections from St. Petersburg, Russia

  1. This is beautiful writing. It connects with my own experiences and my own reactions to them. One route into a culture is to get the official story and learn what the leaders and those with power are doing. But understanding how average people live and react to the official narrative is illuminating, helping to show the difference between what the culture thinks it is and how things actually work.

    It strikes me that this difference between the official narrative and actual human behavior is a part of religion too. Like observing another culture, it’s easier to see in another religion, but we live it too.

  2. Wonderful observations, written wonderfully. Beautiful poetic prose without a trace of pretentiousness. Keep generating your own rays and keep us warm. These inner rays matter the most.

  3. This story is crafted beautifully. It’s evocative and perceptive of the nuances of St. Petersburg and its people. After reading this, I felt I’d visited this city myself.

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