Haniel Spring School 2014: Day 3

by: Ritu Sharma 

Snippets from Russia

Weathering the Storm

This storm was of my own making! Before starting for Russia I checked the Weather Updates for Moscow, like an expert traveler. It read 24 degrees. An elated me, dreaming of warmer climate, packed all my summer dresses. As I happen to meet my travel partner Yu at the Erfurt Hauptbahnhof, I got the shock. The temperature in Moscow was zero degrees and an excited me has read 24 Fahrenheit as 24 degrees!

I somehow survived the inclement weather in Russia, which is as unpredictable – if not more – as its actions in the international politics. But for future Haniel Spring students – do take adequate clothing even though it is a spring school!

Me and Moscow

Even before I began packing for my maiden trip to Russia (that I did at the eleventh hour), all my friends had doled out a safety advisory vis-à-vis the bastion of Communism. Incidents of people of colour being targeted were narrated. Instructions about not roaming around alone were given. As if the beginning of the trip could not have 3 more ominous, the officers at the airport immigration asked me to come along. Even though I was not subjected to any interrogation, but the 10 minutes that I spent sitting in a corner, while the authorities checked my Passport ‘thoroughly’, seemed the longest in my life. I eventually came out and thus began my Russian adventure.

The outsiders are Unwelcome sign are not written anywhere in the city. But things like absence of any language besides Russian and any tourist information centre are big enough to dissuade any non-Russian speaker to explore the city, where it is tough to find a Russian speaker. My skin colour did not really help as it made me stand out and it often evoked an intrigued reaction from the passerby if not an averse one. My plans of jogging along the Moskova River had to be unceremoniously shelved. Though I managed to walk along it, along with ‘unsere russische Mutter’ (Our Russian Mother) – a name me and Yu gave to Leonore, as she was the only one with a knowledge of the language. As we walked through the snowfall towards the Beer Gardens in Gorky Park, we kept humming the famous song by German band Scorpion written in the backdrop of the falling Soviet Union – “I follow the Moskva
Down to Gorky Park, listening to the wind of change”

I travelled through the City accompanied by Leonore, and did not dare to venture out alone for nearly three days. And when I eventually did, my eyes were scanning all directions to spot a ‘nationalist’ who could possibly attack me. Nothing untoward happened to me during my stay, even when I was alone and was out for a drink in the night and I just realized how little it takes to get scared. I come from India, where I have to negotiate through various challenges, every day of my existence, and how easily I got scared as I went to the minority side.

As I overcame my own inner fears – fuelled by both certain facts and exaggerated rumours, I found Russians to be very effervescent and warm hearted. The response I evoked from the people the moment they came to know that I was from India was amazing. And the first word of the conversation was always Bollywood!!

Privet Peter!!

While Moscow seemed to have been surrounded by an iron wall to thwart anybody coming in, Saint Petersburg was certainly more welcoming and cosmopolitan in outlook. Now also was the time to study. The topic was Border Policies from the Soviet Union to the EU: Russia and the Baltic States. Coming in the backdrop of the Russian takeover of Crimea, the course became all the more interesting.

We got a sense of building national identity in Moscow as we visited the World War II museum. The war dedicated to the sacrifices of the Red Army, depicts it as the Great Patriotic War. Post disintegration of USSR in 1991, Russia has taken off as the successor state. Disillusioned by the ‘Shock Therapy’, Russia continued to hang up to the ideology of communism. Suffering a loss of a considerable territory and population; and a marked decline its power, Russia embarked became a nationalizing state. The Museum seems like an attempt of depicting itself as the keepers of the values ‘promoted’ by Europe now and were once trampled by the Nazi Army. The jingoism in the voice of the guides taking school children for a Museum tour could hardly be missed.

At the same time, the USSR disintegration has seen emergence of many new borders. Coming from a country, which also suffered a partition in 1947 and more than six decades after is still nursing its wounds, the topic is very interesting. The introductory lecture was about the universalism of border in one or the other form. Even as European Union is striving for making borders porous within its fold, it is bulwarking its external borders to differentiate itself clearly from the others. At the same time, Russia still reeling under the emergence of a multi-polar world is seeking to bolster its defences on the Eastern front, which is occupied some of the previous members of the USSR.

These newly formed countries, popularly referred to as Baltic States, have a huge number of ethnic Russian population. Russia offered them citizenship after the disintegration and large number of them continues to live outside the country. There have been instances where cities and towns juxtaposed to each other, speaking same language and interlinked with each other in economic and social terms, have found themselves on different sides of the border. One classic case is like Ivangorad (Russia) and Narva (Estonia). I am keen to study the towns from the perspective of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – once part of the same country – have not been able to make the borders irrelevant. The trade between the border areas of these countries remains negligible and the border policy is prominent due to its absence.

Hope I will be able to get more perspective about the border issues in the region.

Till then Dasvadaniya!