Peter Under a Fur Coat

Prior to stepping foot in Russia, I had been inundated with prophesies about my experience here. From tired stereotypes of Russian culture to enthusiastic recollections by visitors to Saint Petersburg and Moscow, I had heard seemingly every take on life in the world’s biggest nation. Though this collection of prognostications contained some truths, life everywhere contains multitudes of nuances, paradoxes, and unexplored observations that no answer to: “how was it?” can adequately address.
Allow me now to inadequately illustrate a few such first impressions, beginning with a little mythbusting.
First, the oft-repeated trope of Russian interpersonal coldness is an absurd one. Within my first nearly-three weeks here: I have been treated with patience and a smile by service staff while I slowly navigate my way through basic Russian sentences; my friends and I have had a fascinating at-length conversation with a retired schoolteacher who sought to educate us on the Siege of Leningrad (on the day of its end’s 75th anniversary); and everyone at our host institution has been welcoming well-beyond the requirements of civility. Certainly, if you pay for a 35 ruble (53 cent) water with a 1,000 ruble (15.18 dollar) note, you get a bit of a look from the cashier who now has to open a lockbox to put together change. To be fair, however, that is a well-earned look.
The second thing that gets tossed around constantly stateside about Russia is the bitter coldness of her winters. I am in no position to refute the brutality of a winter season credited with defeating both Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Hitler’s Wehrmacht, but I can attest to the relative comfort in which I have traversed the city, even on its coldest days. Furthermore, while I was here, my home city of Chicago was hit by the Polar Vortex, which managed to put local temperatures there a solid 40 degrees Fahrenheit below those here, seven latitudinal degrees below the Arctic Circle. Regardless of relative temperature, the most important and least emphasized aspect of winter in St. Petersburg is the near-constant night. Spending most of the morning commute in dawny twilight and most of the afternoon work hours in dusk plays merry hell with your body clock, and makes a mockery of your ability to tell something’s duration.
More interesting, however, is the local culture surrounding winter. The most notable element of this is sartorial: despite the cold and snow, young people continue to dress with style. Women very often have high-heeled boots, whose ability to traverse lengthy sheets of ice shocks me, and seem to sacrifice little stylistically to the weather. Meanwhile, the men of Peter have the most incomprehensibly clean shoes to have ever walked in a city that is – at this point – 1,000 percent slush. Our program director has worn the same black suede shoes routinely for our entire stay here, and they appear to have been pulled out of their box only minutes before their wearing. There is a pride of person and place whose nature shines through the details.
The second aspect of local winter culture is somewhat less subtle: the city-wide ritual of snow removal. First, Peter is coated in ankle-depth snow. Then, no one does anything for at least three days. As the snow on the sidewalk is packed down from a graspable fluff to a solid ice rink, teams of men with body-length chisels are arranged to crack apart sidewalk sections block by block. These teams are closely followed by teams of young men on rooftops, harnessed to flimsy-looking fences, who then shovel quantities of snow and ice off said rooftops. The arrival of these snow chunks on the sidewalk creates a report like a car backfire. These men are coordinated by elderly women who stand in the street with bullhorns, coordinating foot traffic, vehicular traffic, and the teams’ operations. Finally, all of the debris that has accumulated on the sidewalk from this incredible and dramatic process is piled into the road verges – establishing a wall of ice and snow between pedestrians and traffic. This process, of course, repeats. Thus, the pedestrian of this imperious once-capital spends half the time looking down to get safe footing on the ice, and the other half looking up to avoid falling snow chunks the size of pianos and icicles the length and mass of Escalades.
There is a great joy in the adventure of life here, and I feel lucky to still feel the glow of novelty in every day’s challenges and bounties. Though the novelty will inevitably wear off, my great hope is that the spirit of adventure will not.