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Dispatch from Russia: Upending Cultural Assumptions


Final up to date on March 4, 2023

Chilly air gnawed via my layers, persistent and unrelenting. As an avowed lover of all issues tropical—smoothie flavors, colour palettes, and, sure, temperatures—I had dreaded exploring St. Petersburg, Russia in November, a month marked by grey skies, drizzling rain, and pervasive chill. Though my unsuitability for chilly climate panned out, St. Petersburg upended my each different assumption about what I might discover after I touched down in “The Venice of the North”—a reputation each apt and but too simplistic to encapsulate the the town’s je ne sais quoi.

View of St. Petersburg from Saint Isaac's Cathedral.
Sweeping views of the town from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral—the Winter Palace (ie. the Hermitage) is the huge blue constructing.

Visiting Russia: My Why

Hype and media frenzy shaped my preconceptions about Russia. Though I’ve by no means but discovered a rustic’s politics an correct illustration of its folks, I struggled to shake the politicized rhetoric about Russia as I packed for my journey—an endeavor that concerned shoving each sweater I owned into my bag. I approached my enterprise journey with cautious curiosity, figuring out the risks of visiting with a “single story“—a uniform stereotype utilized broadly to a folks and place primarily based on restricted info.

Humorous sufficient, hype in media was the very nature of my discuss on the VII St. Petersburg Worldwide Cultural Discussion board. The TASS Information Company invited me to talk on the Discussion board on seven-person panel entitled: “Hype Collectively: The Period of Cultural Shock.” However how might I focus on faux information, bias, and media ethics in Russia? I grappled with the query at the same time as my aircraft touched down in St. Petersburg.

O'Donnell on a panel talk in Russia
Panel speech on hype in Media hosted and arranged by TASS. (Picture courtesy of TASS Information Company)

My first day handed in a haze. I shaped solely fleeting impressions of the town, too consumed with the swirling particulars of my panel discuss. And though my first dialogue befell within the storied the Common Employees Constructing of the Hermitage Museum, I spared it however a look. As a substitute I shook many fingers after which mentioned ethics in not simply media, however running a blog/influencer relationships particularly.

And I discovered the convention each fascinating and exceedingly regular.

No whiff of politics entered my talks; as a substitute we explored concepts about speaking tradition regardless of trendy obstacles (assume: 10-second consideration spans and pay-for-play social media). We mentioned the worth of elevating our collective expectations of what content material creators supply the world—it is a large one for me: Why are we content material with a tradition of superficial, wistful Instagram photographs changing considerate dialogue within the journey business? Why are we permitting bloggers to sneak previous our media filters with barely disclosed sponsored relationships? I believe rather a lot about what it can take for us to shift this rising pattern.

In brief, my part of the discussion board examined the function of mass media within the promotion of tradition and artwork—how are the media and bloggers fairing and the place can they do higher?

My efforts within the tourism business these previous years have step by step shifted from certainly one of merely broadcasting journey adventures, to as a substitute purposefully sharing concepts and journey tales that increase degree of dialog about a spot.

We as vacationers, me included, can all the time discover methods to extra responsibly work together with a brand new place—discover the cultural adventures with out abandoning a detrimental legacy. This kind of dialogue, nevertheless, just isn’t all the time horny and shareable—it doesn’t carry within the large bucks from advertisers and all these items not often go viral. Provided that, is it any marvel lots of the discussions finally spoke of the fragile steadiness content material creators want to stay related in a tradition valuing cat movies and popular culture memes? It’s a steadiness I haven’t but discovered on this web site, to be sincere, however nonetheless, I persist. As a result of regardless of the challenges, navigating these points is what readers deserve—content material that entertains however doesn’t assume a baseline unwillingness to deal with weightier topics.

Shannon O'Donnell speaking about Women in Cinema at the Cultural Forum
Talking on a panel about Girls in Cinema. (Picture courtesy of TASS Information Company)

Exploring St. Petersburg: The Components I Liked

As soon as the hustle had handed, I approached the town as I do any new vacation spot: uncover iconic “must-see” landmarks, immerse in offbeat experiences, and ask questions of any native open to answering them. Our posse of audio system explored collectively the primary few days, however as they slowly flew house, I sunk into purposeful anonymity amongst the crowds.

As an advocate for gradual journey, I knew three days was not sufficient to do all of the issues, so I  prolonged my dates past the convention. These few additional days proved lengthy sufficient for me to piece collectively an sudden story of a tradition well-versed in hospitality, even when it seems not like the gushing verisimilitude of American hospitality.

After they came upon it was my first time of their nation, locals instantly requested me how actuality differed from my expectations. I might solely confess that it was all completely extra pretty, in each means, than I had anticipated.

My fingers had been numb from the chilly, however I used to be decided to border the right shot. 🙂
Views of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral on a cold winter day.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in Russia
Views from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral over the river and the gorgeous buildings of St. Petersburg.
Road scenes close to the long-lasting Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

Town of St. Petersburg is beautiful. Steeped in historical past and bustling with arts and tradition, a broad cross-section folks from everywhere in the nation fill the streets. Like metropolises everywhere in the world, St. Petersburg gives a dynamic mix of conventional and new—hipster vegan road meals served below the shadow of the long-lasting Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Grandmothers in bundled layers fill the streets in equal measure alongside smartly-clad businessmen. My informal seek for vegetarian borscht crossed three winding canals, every bridge endowed with intricate lattice ironwork and sweeping views of pastel-painted buildings from the 18th and nineteenth centuries.

As a rule, I eschew large cities—their frenetic tempo and towering buildings overwhelm me. I favor a gradual tempo of life and cities that match my pace. My six month sojourn in a 1,000-person seaside city on Mexico’s Pacific coast was, in a phrase, idyllic.

Nevertheless, someplace between tipping again a celebratory shot of vodka with fellow audio system and respiratory deep of breathtaking views from St. Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg charmed me, wholly and fully. And I by no means noticed it coming.

Me in an alley in St. Petersburg Russia
It seems to be like a sketchy alley, but it surely supplied—bar none—essentially the most attention-grabbing vegan road meals I’ve had anyplace on the planet.

Upending Assumptions: My Journey Classes

Journey is a close to fixed assault on the senses. Each encounter rewrites the codes and social mores by which you reside. Belongings you inherently perceive— order meals, sip tea, or greet folks—as a substitute current moments of apologetic fumbling met by gracious smiles of instantaneous forgiveness. These sudden misadventures kind the bedrock of my finest recollections.

But nations and experiences have blurred over the previous decade as the truth of residing on the highway eclipsed the novelty of latest locations and cultures. Alongside the way in which, I misplaced a chunk of the journey expertise—the piece that had lured me into a lifetime of perpetual journey within the first place. After I settled in Barcelona earlier this 12 months, I hoped the mundane joys of routine would reignite contrasting shock after I ventured to new locations.

Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg Russia
Views of downtown from St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress.

By all accounts, it labored. Touring to Russia essentially upended my cultural assumptions in regards to the nation and the folks. Whereas I had hoped to go to the nation “at some point,” I had allowed an onslaught of detrimental media to overshadow a fact I’ve present in each nook of the world: Individuals in each pocket of our planet share extra elementary similarities than variations. Russians, like Individuals, work to construct a greater life for his or her kids, converse with associates over steaming cups of tea, and possess nuanced views misrepresented by fleeting information clips.

My favourite school professor as soon as stated the mantra of public relations is that this: Notion is actuality, info however. Our actuality types from a maelstrom of knowledge influenced by media, socioeconomic standing, buddy teams, and so many different contributing elements. Maybe what captivated me most about St. Petersburg, Russia was how a lot it defied my notion—one I had constructed with out firsthand experiences.

Persons are not their authorities’s politics. That is an assumptive kindness many afford me as an American, and this journey jogged my memory to afford others that very same grace.

As a result of I’m charmed by Russia.

Though I’ll return to discover different areas of the nation, a part of me hopes to by no means return to St. Petersburg, thus eternally preserving these crystalline recollections. The folks, place, and expertise coalesced right into a welling sense of marvel that struck with out warning. This by no means occurs within the locations I count on to like. As a substitute, I ended an off-the-cuff taxi experience in Yangon, Myanmar feeling an existential connection to the hum of universe. After two weeks in Tbilisi, Georgia merely awaiting my flight house, the town’s allure and hospitality left me an unabashed fangirl. And a whirlwind enterprise journey to St. Petersburg reignited the inexplicable lure of discovering myself fully adrift within the unknown.

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