Russia. The very sound of this country likely conjures up a controversial leader or perhaps the nail-on-a-chalkboard sound of our very own President’s name. It has been in the front line of news more than any other country since the election and not in a positive light. I’m not here to talk about politics, but I will be happy to debunk a few negative stigmas about Russia and their people throughout this post. This is a travel blog after all, therefore I am here to share with you the immense beauty, history, art, architecture and culture that Russia has to offer. So follow me to explore the beauty of this beautiful European-feel Western-most city of Russia: St. Petersburg.
If someone told me while living in Hawaii, that before I turned 30 I would meet a wonderful Russian/American man while living in Seattle, a year later quit my job, leave the country, and together fly across the world to visit his home city of St. Petersburg, I wouldn’t have believed it. Russia had never been on my bucket list, and I’m not sure it ever would have been, had I not met Sasha. But here we are on country #4 on our travel adventure, and believe it or not, I’m even learning Russian! I can now officially read the alphabet and feel like a first grader as I try to sound out street names and signs and ask Sasha if I got it right. Learning another language (especially one with 33 letters in their alphabet) is humbling and satisfying. Sasha is my multi-cultural babe; he was born in St. Petersburg and raised here until he was 9, with a two-year stint living in India from age 3 – 4 while his Dad (a professor) taught on a visiting program. He would return every summer to St. Petersburg all throughout his childhood, and when he was 12 years old, his family relocated permanently to Boulder, CO where he grew up. (I am convinced that this is one of the reasons Sasha has a stomach of iron, having been exposed to all kinds of cultural foods growing up.)
By the way, the name Sasha in Russia is just about as common as the name John or Steve in America. It is a shortened nickname for Alexander (how they derived Sasha from Alexander makes no sense to me, but I like it.) When Sasha introduces himself anywhere outside of Russia, people ask him to repeat his name because we are trained especially in the U.S. to think that any name ending in “a” is feminine. Here if you call out the name “Sasha”, about five males turn to look.
It is an absolute dream to be here and feels surreal as Russia is quite literally across the entire Earth from where my family is on O’ahu. When people ask me where I am from, I respond with, “ya s Gavai” (I am from Hawaii) and they’re always amazed. Some have never even heard of it, some think it’s close to Cuba, some don’t know it’s part of the U.S., and some have heard of it but wouldn’t be able to locate it on a map. I don’t blame them, it’s tiny. I imagine it is difficult for them to fathom such a far away place that is so polar opposite to Russia in every possible way. I feel so grateful to have the opportunity to be here and experience this culture, though I admit, the grimness of folks on the metro, at grocery stores and in passing on the streets was tough to get used to. From first glance one might think that based on facial expressions or the fact that nobody smiles at you in passing or when you enter an establishment, that Russian people are miserable. However, after spending one month here, I learned that smiling at everyone is simply not part of their culture. Smiling and laughing is reserved for family and people you know.
Going from South America to Russia was a massive culture shock. I had a hard time accepting that it’s not normal to smile all the time and say hello to or acknowledge everyone I pass. The constant big, genuine smile on my face that I typically walk around with, does not fit in here. In fact, if you do smile at someone in passing, they may think you’re making fun of them or just did something naughty. In general, people are not open or outwardly friendly here unless they know you. There is no such thing as “pocket niceties” like you would see in America, such as asking someone “how’s your day going?” Or “did you find everything okay?” while checking out at a grocery store. I actually don’t mind this because in America these niceties can often come across as fake and forced because companies train and sometimes require their employees to make “small talk” with their customers, even if they couldn’t care less about the current state of your day or mood.
Here, your Uber driver is considered good if they pick you up on time, don’t talk much if at all during the ride, and say goodbye when you exit the car. Interactions seem much more transactional rather than emotionally oriented. Of course, not everyone in Russia is this way. We have had our fair share of chatty and friendly Uber drivers and restaurant servers. One Uber driver even expressed how happy he was to see American tourists in his home town because he felt that the news and our leaders make us hate each other without understanding why. And I must say that once you get to know someone and they gain your respect and trust, Russians are some of the most kind, generous and hospitable people I have ever met.
Traveling to various countries has helped me learn not to judge from my “American lens”, rather to accept a place and its people for what it is and try to understand where they come from and what has shaped their cultural ways. Russia has been through a lot of hard times and are still facing difficult circumstances as many other countries are. However, it is always possible to find the beauty everywhere; the key is not to compare.
Everyone here is so impressed by Sasha’s ability to speak fluent Russian to them and then turn around and speak to me in English without any accent. Kudos to his parents for teaching him their mother tongue growing up! I am so happy to know that when we have kids in the future, they will speak Russian (and hopefully more than that if we decide to raise them abroad!)
Sasha’s parents spend several months here every summer for White Nights, where the sun never really sets, rather moves across the horizon because the city is located so far North. This means that during the month of June, days are long and night skies are bright until nearly midnight! In the photo below on the left, you can see from the clock that it is 11:48 PM and still bright outside. We were coming home from the opera.
Russia occupies approximately 8% of Earth’s land mass, but on this trip we only visited three cities: St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kazan. You can check out my individual blog posts on the other cities here:
And if you’re a foodie, check out my post on Russian Food & Language.
We had originally planned to stay only two weeks, but, as fate would have it (and our biggest travel oopsie to-date), we ended up staying a whole month. (I have to admit, there are worse places to be “stuck” for a month!) Allow me to tell the story of how Sasha was stuck in Riga, Latvia while I continued on to his home city without him.
While we were in London checking in online for our flight to St. Petersburg with a stop-over in Riga, the capital of Latvia, Sasha noticed that his Russian passport had expired! In the midst of getting everything prepared for such a huge move in Seattle three months prior, we didn’t even think to check his Russian passport. His American passport was still valid, but without a Russian visa, you cannot enter the country even if you are a citizen. He made it from London to Riga just fine because it was considered a domestic European Union flight. However, upon checking passports in Riga before boarding the plane, the gate agents realized it was expired and would not let him on. They told me to proceed on to the plane, so we parted ways not knowing what would happen but that we would figure out a way to get him home!
This was a Wednesday evening, so Sasha caught a bus to downtown Riga, found a cheap hostel and waited until the Russian Embassy opened the next day. Meanwhile his Dad picked me up from the airport when I arrived in SPB (Saint Petersburg). The Embassy informed him that he must have his internal Russian passport (given to all citizens of Russia), which, thankfully we had at home here in SPB. His Dad and I expedited his internal passport via DHL on Thursday morning to arrive to Riga at an undetermined time on “Friday afternoon” the next day. The problem was that the Embassy was only open from 9:00 AM – 12:00 noon and we weren’t sure it would make it in time. They are of course closed on the weekends, so we ran the risk that he would be stuck there all weekend until Monday. Thankfully, Sasha took a taxi to the DHL office on Friday morning as the tracking had said it arrived. He made it back to the Embassy with his internal Russian passport with 30 minutes to spare, and they were able to get his paperwork prepared for him to leave that evening on a 9:00 PM ten-hour bus from Riga to SPB. Lesson learned here: always check the expiration date of ALL passports if you are a dual citizen!
Sasha’s father is the Director of Russian Studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder (CU). Each summer he takes a group of students studying Russian, to St. Petersburg and they stay here with host families for six weeks. They do many tours and cultural activities, which I so luckily got to join, so I could not have had a better tour guide!
Transportation and Getting Around in St. Petersburg
The metro system is the deepest underground in the entire world, going to depths of over 100 meters (300 feet). You can purchase a metro card and continue to reload it as often as necessary. This is a great way to get around if you are staying in or near the city center. Just be warned that the trains are ear-piercingly loud. If you’re at all sensitive to loud noise like I am, bring earplugs and don’t be afraid to wear them. Russians have seen stranger things in the metro.
Since we stayed outside the city center in one of Sasha’s family member’s apartments, it was not close to a metro station so we relied heavily on Uber, which is very popular here and really cheap (by American standards). For a 20-minute ride from our apartment into the city center, we typically spent on average $3 USD one-way. A ride to the dacha, which was located one hour outside the city, was $22 USD. I always think that a great way to get to know a city and their people is to take Uber and have conversations with the drivers (if you speak a mutual language), who usually don’t sugar coat their feelings on politics, city issues, and pride of their country. Luckily, Sasha speaks Russian so he was able to converse with them, which enabled me to get a rare peek into local beliefs and values as an outsider.
Homelessness, Crime & Safety
There is virtually no homeless in Russia that we have seen. There are a few beggars who look a bit rough, but were completely harmless, and many of them actually perform acts to earn their money rather than just stand there and beg. One theory is that the colder an environment is, the fewer homeless there are, simply because they would not be able to survive a Russian winter. During Soviet times and in the 1990’s, cities had programs where they would give apartments to low income earners or large families. The apartments were also given to war veterans or folks with a handicap that made it difficult for them to earn enough money to support themselves with adequate housing. This program still exists, however, the eligibility requirements have become more stringent making it more difficult to obtain.
Overall, SPB is an extremely safe city and the only reason I didn’t feel comfortable going out on my own is because I don’t speak or read Russian fluently, and most people here do not speak English if I needed help. As with all major cities, be smart with your belongings in crowded areas because of pickpockets. The city receives many cruise ships arriving to port on a daily basis, so streets are immaculate. I barely saw any graffiti and was impressed with the fact that there are street cleaners outside 24/7. There is also a fair amount of police security around the area to make people feel safer.
Chivalry Vs. Sexism
This is an interesting topic in Russia. Sasha confirmed that my observations were accurate having lived here for several years himself. My observation was that chivalry still exists here, which was a refreshing sight to witness having grown up in America where most young boys, teenagers or grown adult men wouldn’t even think to stand up when a woman enters a room. On the metros here, men stand for women so that they can sit. They also open doors and pull out chairs, as well escort them arm-in-arm while walking. While this is nice to see, it also shows that some of the old mentality of women being “fragile” or “helpless” still somewhat exists. Though customs are slowly beginning to shift and evolve, I noticed that most women still dress “properly”, meaning either in dresses or stockings. Of course many women wear pants or jeans, but the concept of feminism and women being “strong” here doesn’t seem to have caught on just yet.
As I mentioned before, the only place where I saw women in fitness clothing was inside the park. While this completely makes sense for a big city, I was surprised to not see many sporty-looking women. It seems to me that girls and women are still expected to be dainty and made-up. Again, this was merely my observation based on the time we spent here and the locations we visited, so this may not be an accurate or inclusive deduction.
Tourism is starting to pick up in the major cities such as SPB and Moscow, as well as Kazan because of the football (soccer) games. Russia is a huge hub for hosting sporting events, which brings a good deal of tourism here, along with all the cruise ships. China is the #1 tourism influx to SPB, and they typically come in large groups with guides. Overall, Russia was one of the richest cultural experiences I have had the honor of experiencing, and I would highly recommend a visit!
What We Spent in Four Weeks in Russia
A few notes before going into financials. The only accommodation we paid for was in Kazan as well as chipping in for the electric bill, as we were very lucky to stay with Sasha’s family, so our accommodation expense for this leg of our travels was extraordinarily cheap. We also didn’t spend as much on eating out as we normally do, because Sasha’s family cooked many meals at home.
Our cell phone bill each month is $104 for the two of us for T-Mobile’s International plan. However, because the apartment we were staying in did not have WiFi or a router, we had to get a local SIM card and continue to reload money on it, so our bill was a bit higher this month.
All expenditures are in US Dollars and are for the two of us
|CATEGORY DESCRIPTION||TOTAL SPENT IN 30 DAYS||AVERAGE PER DIEM|
|Transportation (includes the bus fare from SPB to Moscow, one-way, all Ubers and metros)||$527.69||$17.59|
|Airfare (from London to SPB, Moscow to Kazan, and Kazan back to SPB: 3 flights total)||$313.45||$10.45|
|Clothing, Accessories & Gifts||$148.07||$4.94|
Country’s currency: Rouble
At the time of travel to Russia, the currency conversion was $1.00 USD = 57 Russian roubles, so to figure out the USD cost, divide bill in roubles by 57 to figure out USD.
NEXT UP: ENGAGED IN GREECE!