Haniel Spring School 2015: Reflections on a Free Day in Russia

by: Richard Stupart

It’s hard to really convey, in five hundred words or so, any impression of St Petersburg that would stand up to extensive questioning. Or a longer stay in the country, really. But be that as it may, free days on any study program are meant to at least be a contribution of sorts to the project of trying form opinions about a place. In this case, the world consisting of the cosy rental apartment at number 63 Nevsky Prospect, and the few kilometers of surrounding area which tended to vary from sunny to freezing , and occasionally both at the same time. Caveats aside, and acknowledging the fragmented nature of opinion forming, a few observations from time spent exploring stand out as particularly worth mentioning.

Firstly, it’s worth pointing out – perhaps obviously – that many Russians do not see the country as those of us west of it tend to. While not unexpected, the distance in both opinions on fact and ideology was in many cases far, far larger than I had anticipated and ranged from what I would consider unreasonable disconnects with reality on issues of corruption, race relations and national pride, to far more complicated differences on the politics of places like the Ukraine. Some of it is of course a much-needed reminder that there are ways in which ‘our’ media and leaders lie to citizens every bit as much as the Kremlin, with differences often coming down to whether the omissions are ideological in some caricatured, propagandistic sense of it, or driven by ghosts of a cold war history and the knee-jerk reaction of most people that the world to which they belong is – if not perfect – at least amongst the most progressive. In a sense, the souvenir mugs with Putin’s face and cheeky allusions to Crimea are far more honest about political reality than an America where an Obama mug with drone strike references probably doesn’t exist in Washington gift shops. On the other hand, the incredible reluctance of speakers to ever admit to being outright political, and the gymnastics involved in recasting the quest for social justice as ‘research’, technical-type initiatives for ‘development’ or otherwise only highlights the consequences of openly challenging the orthodoxy. Having the right ideas is one thing. Being able to speak them is something else.

Then there’s the size of the place. St Petersburg – and by extension, Russia, I guess – is so much larger than I’d anticipated. Not just larger in the ‘many buildings, wide roads sense’, but in that particularly American sense in that there’s a continual feeling that you are in a country that does – or did once – matter. Cars, big buildings, Starbucks and the usual crowd of international junk food retailers are interspersed with some truly impressive buildings from the old times. From the regime whose size, if not ideological character, has persisted. I’d remarked to one of my classmates that it feels a little like I imagine the United States might if it had had its economic heart torn out for a decade or so, and then slowly begun to regain its momentum.

And finally – because of space, rather than a lack of impressions – there’s the philosophical character of the place. Listening to classmates talk about politics, speakers talk about economics and history, or a panel of sociologists at St Petersburg University discussing the working class is a stark reminder of the different place that Russia of twenty five years ago was. That the state had become a monster is only the trees in the forest. What’s honestly fascinating is the intellectual debris of what was – in the strongest sense – a different philosophical universe. Different ideas about ownership, capital, justice. Not all correct, and many sacrificed to pragmatism on a road that would end badly. But even if the world that was, was wrong, it’s something else to be reminded that, as Arundati Roy’s famous phrase goes, “another world is possible”. Coming from the intellectual West, it’s easy to forget that neoliberal capitalism, much like human rights discourse or questions of history and responsibility, are not fixed quantities. They must be made and remade by each generation for itself. And as much as each generation might occasionally forget that, the monuments to communism, and the world of contemporary Russia are reminders that something else is always possible.

 

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.

On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

– Arundati Roy