During my semester in Russia, I’ve lived in Saint Petersburg, the tsarist-era capital of the empire. This is reflected everywhere in the city— from its baroque and neoclassical architecture to the sea-green Winter Palace. Of course, there is evidence of the Soviet period and of the passing of time into the present day, but in general the city remains frozen in time. Until quite recently, the tallest building in the city remained the spire of the cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress, dating from the early 18th century.
I have also travelled to Moscow, where one is much more hard-pressed to find such imperial architecture. Instead, pre-Petrine and Soviet-era architecture dominate the city, creating stark yet beautiful contrasts in the skyline. The colourful Kremlin and Red Square are overlooked by towering Stalinist skyscrapers, adorned with mammoth statues of workers.
I am now travelling around the Pskov region, a truly historic area. Pskov was first mentioned in the Russian Chronicle in 903 AD, and was a bustling centre for trade until the foundation of Saint Petersburg. As we tour around on our bus, the guide points out Ivan the Terrible’s favourite church in Pskov. Nearby, a statue of Lenin (predictably) is the focal point for Lenin Square, which also boasts a (garish) monument with a hammer and sickle. Pskov has seen it all: our guide says (half-joking, half-seriously) that there are so many churches because every time the city would overcome a hardship, people would build a new church. Needless to say, Pskov has endured many, many hardships.
Travelling around Russia, even just this small northwestern part I have been moving around in, can really overwhelm a visitor. The violent passage of time is always incredibly evident: architecture, sculptures, street names, public institutions…modern Russia really is the sum of its historical parts, both figuratively and literally. Nonetheless, as I breathe in the fresh country air and bask in a brilliantly golden sun that is altogether too rare back in the old capital, I remember that I am always surrounded by familiar, comforting elements; In this country of endless artisanal honeys, gigantic stacks of buttery blini and the colourful headscarves of meandering babushkas, a traveller will always feel welcome.