Culture Beyond Politics

One of the main reasons I chose to live in Petersburg for the summer was to learn about the Russian culture beyond what I read in our textbooks and see through media. Here, I have met new people either by shopping for groceries, trying to eat as much delicious Georgian food as possible, or simply living with a host family. Some of my fondest memories here are with my host mother—or babushka. She is always eager to know what I am up to and about where I am from. At first most of this exchange was polite, we discussed our shared passion for ballet, our favorite books and films, and family life. Our conversations have grown into something precious, faster than I ever imagined.

There is a word in Russian, судьба, roughly meaning fate, destiny, luck, fortune, and chance. All in one word—so I have called it судьба that I met my new babushka. We get along so well that we laugh over tea when she shares her past romances and gives tips for my future. We have watched ballets together and practiced my phonetics’ homework. We have engaged in conversations of more serious topics such as life in the 90s, and its economic crisis as well as life in the Soviet period. While she reminisces, I listen to the past being brought to life. Her stories and adventures taught me that there is so much more in between the lines of history and politics that we do not read when we learn about Russia. For instance, when there was no food in the supermarket during the 90s, my babushka chuckles and mentions how all they could buy was vodka and with an unstable currency people would exchange vodka for other necessary goods. She went on to explain how in those times, life was enjoyable (although it was difficult), everyone helped each other.

I mention this because I am taking a history and politics course here titled Russia Today, at Herzen University. I have started to think about Russia’s history not only in Russian but through a new lens. No longer am I an American reading about Gorbachev in an American classroom but listening to a teacher who grew up in that same era. His anecdotes alongside the memories of my babushka teach me something more valuable than any politics lecture can ever give me. I noticed how a culture changes as a result of political decisions and how culture affected political decisions.

Every day here, I am moved by the kindness and curiosity of Russians’ hearts. “Politics are politics and people are people,” as my babushka would say. A country is made up of more citizens than politicians and sometimes, I tend to forget that. Every day is a new flavor of Russian culture and the more I embrace Russian culture, the more eager I am to pursue my studies of the Russian language. From now on, I will question my history and politics’ textbooks, pondering on how citizens truly lived through those times.

By: Mariela Dyer

Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program

Term: Summer 2017

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