One of the things I try to do when moving to a new place is to find a good café to read and work. This is a good way to meet people and to get a sense of how life here is. Since I love what is known as third-wave coffee, or coffee as artisanal food, I have to be particular about my cafes to choose one where I can find quality coffee. As a result, I have sampled cafes all across Moscow, giving me opportunities to explore the city. In a word Moscow is eclectic, it has a prodigious amount of diversity, in the people, architecture, food, and art. All emblematic of rich history. While going about exploring the city I’ve also been immersed in the culture and been able to meet the people here. This has all worked together to change my perception of Russia and the Russian people.
Developing a better understanding of the life and culture here has changed my perception of Russia the most. However, one cannot understand the culture of Russia without learning about its history. History provides context to what I see around me, about certain customs, about large aspects of the culture itself. Furthermore, learning about Russian history has given new context, insight, and understanding into my favorite works of Russian literature, shedding light on things I hadn’t been aware were in the dark. One such illuminated idea in the book is the question of Russian identity: is Russia part of the west, or independent? This question, which has been debated in different forms thought Russia’s history is linked, in a sense, to coffee. Coffee wasn’t a commodity in Russia until the 18th century when Peter the Great brought it from Europe. Russia has been and is a large consumer of tea, bringing in this foreign drink was met with resistance, some of the courts called it “smut syrup”. It made its way past the resistance with the help of Peter the Great and slowly came into its own among the aristocrats. Peter the Great didn’t just bring the superior beverage to Russia, he also brought along Western European ideas for society and government. Just like the coffee, the reforms were met with resistance. This resistance to adopt western ideas and technology came to be known in the 19th century as the Slavophile movement, with the Westernizers touting the benefits of adoption. These groups, while in different forms still exist today, which helps shed light on some of the recent events and relations Russia has with the west. Understanding this old question about identity also helps dispel the idea that is prevailed in the media that Russia is an antagonist against the west. Perhaps Russia doesn’t follow the west in some things not in an antagonistic way but in the sense that it wants to have its own path. Regardless, understanding the history of the debate has changed my view of Russia.
Living here, seeing the diversity of people, seeing the diversity in thoughts and opinions, has also had a significant effect on my view of Russia. The people here are people, friendly and living their lives. The idea that Russia isn’t like how it is represented in the media is accentuated from my time with my host family. Not only are they nice enough to take me in for a summer but they help in the adjustment to the new culture and can show you the little things in the area that make it home for them. This means you can skip the touristy places and get into what makes Moscow unique. Living with my family also shows how similar people are around the world, maybe it can be called a shared sense of humanity. I think a good example of this was when the youngest child was complaining about having to eat dinner while advocating how dessert would, in fact, make a better dinner. Despite the language barrier I did understand this exchange and can relate to it with experiences of my younger siblings doing the same thing in the US. Coming here I expected to have my views of the country and the people changed, but just how and why these things have occurred has been an amazing learning experience. While Moscow is a different place than most of the rest of Russia the amalgamation of influences that have been present throughout Russian history is all within view here. Around the city, you can see the remnants of the past, either through monuments to historic people and events or from the varied architecture. I consider myself especially lucky to have been able to be here, learn about a place I had only heard about through media, meet the people, and try the food, especially the coffee.
By: Alec Thanig
Program: Overseas Professional & Intercultural Training Program, Moscow, Russia
Term: Summer 2019