by: Laetitia Sengseis
The three of us were occupying the hostel’s comfy kitchen preparing dinner that we had shopped for in the nearby, slightly overpriced mall. Shopping in the grocery store was an experience in itself. Frozen Russian dumplings and vegetables in giant open freezers were lying open for people to take whatever portion size they wanted. Barrels of sweets, unlimited amounts of chocolate and caramel candy caught everyone’s eye. Cheese from all over Europe was offered, even from the small little Austrian corner of the world that I am from.
We were cutting vegetables and preparing cheese with some wine we had bought when this Russian fellow came walking in and unashamedly told us off for purchasing bad wine. We had met him that morning and all got a special invitation to eat birthday cake to celebrate his son’s 16th birthday. They had come all the way from the Ural area to visit St. Petersburg for a couple of days.
The day just couldn’t get any better after having chocolate cake in the morning. We were all set for discussing difficult issues such as intolerant Russian regulations on foreign and local NGOs operating in Russia, anti- gay propaganda and difficult cross border agreements on ecological protection. Keeping the perspective of policy-making in mind, the understanding of political culture in Russia is a valuable asset to comprehend the relations between the European Union and Russia. Until today I can’t fully grasp to which extent the Soviet legacy still lives on in both the cultural and political context here, but I can guess. We learned that Russia introduced the foreign agents law in 2012, which regulates foreign non-government organizations strictly to have more control on the influence that comes from abroad.
It was a sunny afternoon and we were finishing off with the lectures at CISR, the institute where our lectures had been held thus far. We walked to a magnificent palace situated close to Isaac’s cathedral. Baron Alexander Stiglitz had offered the palace as a present to his daughter when she got married. A far relative of Alexander Stiglitz had started the Foundation „The Heritage of Baron Stiglitz“ and explained to us his impact on Russian business and finance in the 19th century. At one point in history he served as the head of the National Bank of Russia. A big project was in the works to be implemented in Ivangorod, where some factories owned by Stiglitz were situated in order to pay tribute to this person. It sounded like a very ambitious project that ideally will be supported by the Russian government. I am excited to see the place in Ivangorod where the project is supposedly going to be implemented.
Back at the dinner table in the hostel’s kitchen we sat relaxing after a long day of presentations and walking to and from different locations in St. Petersburg’s chilly weather. Vitaly, our new Russian friend came back with a bottle of champagne and once again invited us to celebrate his son’s 16th birthday: there’s always a reason to celebrate in Russia. The day ended on a good note. But it stood as a big contrast to the topics that we had discussed during the day.