Gates-way to Neva-land: Rarities in Rural Russia
By Ethan Gates '12, Staff Writer
For almost three months, St. Petersburg held me tight in its icy grip. After my arrival here in late January, a combination of bureaucratic complexities (the Russian visa system is an enigmatic process worthy of a Kafka novel) and personal indifference meant that I never stepped foot outside of the city. I say indifference because I never had any particular desire to leave; why bother going out to explore Russia at large when Petersburg alone had so much to offer? But, as with any cultural hatchling, the time eventually came for me to leave the comfort of my nest, to spread my wings and strike out into the unknown, albeit accompanied by the watchful eye and generous wallet of my Study Abroad program.

Our first excursion into the countryside was a day trip to Vyborg, a medieval town a stone’s throw away from the Finnish border. The city’s strategic location on the Karelian Isthmus (oh, look at a map) has made it a point of contention between nations in the past, with Sweden, Germany, Finland and Russia all having made claims to the territory. On paper, Vyborg boasted a 13th century Swedish fortress, a library designed by prominent Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and a gorgeous, isolated landscape near the Gulf of Finland.

Well, isolated it certainly was. After a two-hour drive through the wilderness, our group arrived in Vyborg, where we were soon informed by our guide that someone had “tipped the press” regarding our arrival, and that there was a reporter waiting who would like to interview these American visitors. For the rest of the tour, we had our own personal paparazzo following us around and snapping “candid” shots of our reaction to the city. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, from a story-teller’s perspective), the surrealism of the excursion would only grow from there.

The first critical stop on our bus tour of Vyborg? A replica tank sitting on the side of a random backstreet. Following 10 minutes of staring at said tank and thinking, “Yep, that’s a fake tank,” we were finally allowed to get back on the bus, where we quickly hustled over to the site that our guide proudly declared “the pride of Vyborg:” not the medieval fortress, no, nor the famed (I rather generously say “famed” instead of the more truthful but less-flattering “shabby,” “run-down” or “sketchy”) library, but a large bronze sculpture of a moose. No particular explanation was provided with this pronouncement; I do not know if Vyborg is actually some sort of cultural moose-hub, but it really didn’t make much sense no matter which way you slice it. After literally circling the entire city three times in the bus, things wrapped up with a visit to a museum of Lenin established in the house where the Bolshevik figurehead stayed for two weeks on his way back to Petersburg from exile. (This is akin to turning a shabby motel where Jack Kerouac slept into an historical landmark).

I shouldn’t be too harsh on Vyborg; the Swedish fortress was indeed quite something, and the view from the fortress tower was gorgeous. But we all certainly went into the following week’s overnight trip to Novgorod hoping the experience would be slightly less quaint. Even older than Vyborg, Novgorod dates back to the 9th century, to the days when Vikings still liked to poke their heads into other people’s business every now and then. Alexander Nevsky, a fierce military leader and national icon, began his political career as a prince of Novgorod, and the city remains an important site to the Russian Orthodox Church, as some of the oldest medieval cathedrals in Russia are located in the downtown area, particularly St. Sophia and St. Nicholas (11th and 12th century, respectively).

The first day in Novgorod passed rather quickly (and without hounding from the tabloids), with tours of the Novgorod Kremlin and Yaroslav’s Court (the old town square, where at least a dozen medieval churches are still standing) giving way to free time for us to wander the city on our own. Much of that time ended up being dedicated to a fruitless search for some late-night munchies, but I was able to check out a fabulously insane Constructivist theater that looked like something Lovecraft might’ve designed (it was, luckily, only later that we were informed that the theater’s four symmetrical towers were a popular spot for suicides). After the constant bustle of Petersburg nights, however, our night in Novgorod still felt almost maddeningly tranquil (a feeling that doesn’t actually bode all that well for my return to Amherst).

In the morning, we visited the tiny Peryn Monastery, where an awkwardly earnest monk handed us pamphlets blasting the corrupting influence of “sorcerers, magicians, barcodes and the three sixes,” and a sign outside a dog kennel kindly informed passers-by “THIS IS NOT YOUR DOG.” Needless to say, we hightailed it out of there fairly promptly, concluding our stay in Novgorod with a visit to an outdoor museum displaying several styles of Russian peasant architecture. Anyone who’s been to Old Sturbridge Village would’ve felt right at home here; just substitute the pilgrim kitsch at the souvenir stand for nesting dolls and you get the picture.

Venturing outside of Petersburg, however briefly, satisfied both my wanderlust and my lungs (if I have any complaint about this city, it would be the fact that my snot has been gray for some weeks now), and I still have a weekend in Moscow in early May to look forward to. But as our bus weaved its way back through Peter, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by just how comfortable I felt in this city: after three months, I know the streets, the landmarks, the people, just as well as I do in Amherst or Cleveland. This is my last column from Petersburg for The Student, but I just can’t bring myself to write a proper conclusion to my adventures; I find it too difficult to write a fond farewell just yet, when I still have a month’s worth of insane experiences yet to discover. So instead let me sign off with the most succinct of summaries, a distillation of all the indescribable emotions currently coursing through my brain: I feel home.

Issue 24, Submitted 2011-04-27 02:12:08