My Arrival in Russia

Russia has always been a place I desperately wanted to visit, but somehow it has never been on my ‘bucket list’. I really don’t know why as it has featured so heavily in my life…we did Russian history at school, I have taught it and I have done it as part of my 20th Century Globalisation studies. I have always been fascinated by spy stories and the media revelations of modern day agent cells. How incredibly exciting and surreal! I bet I was Russian in a previous life…there is definitely something about Russia that stirs me.

The journey to Russia didn’t seem like it was actually happening. The visa application made me giggle. I was asked about the countries I had travelled to in the last 10 years, all the educational institutions I had a connection with, and all professional bodies or unions I have belonged to. The three questions that stood out for me were, something on the lines of:

1. Have you obtained a visa in the past using false information? (Do you honestly think I would tell you?)
2. Do you have fire arms, chemical or biological weapons training?
3. Are you filling this our personally? (So even if I passed the form onto you to fill out, you would have to say yes)

And the visa arrived! The Russian writing was so cool, but I think this is where I realised how conditioned I am about my feelings about Russia. The visa looks like a spy document…something a secret agent would produce. It really doesn’t look like an innocent page in a passport. But then even passports were dodgy in spy movies.

The day of departure arrived. It still didn’t seem real. When I was asked at checkin where my final destination was, I heard myself say “St Petersburg”. I felt something inside me woke up. I felt like a Russian agent under surveillance trying to act all casual and trying to be normal. ‘Did I just say St Petersburg?’ I thought to myself? ‘Yes yes! I did!’ Now that’s pretty exciting!

As I waited for my connecting flight in Dusseldorf I felt the same excitement looking up at the board – gate A76 to ST PETERSBURG! Now suddenly everyone around me looked Russian. I know they probably weren’t all Russians, but I suppose I wanted them all to be.

So, what was I expecting? My perceptions have been created by history – communism, grey blocks of flats, harsh looking soldiers everywhere, people wearing dark colours, those old bashed up little Russian cars and neglected buildings. Of course it is now over 20 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain and Gorbachev’s brave presidency, so realistically things must’ve changed in Russia. So I suppose, I was expecting all that, but not as bad…maybe.

As we approached passport control one of the female guards provided me with my first insight into how things have changed. Bleached blonde hair swooped up under a regulation hat, heavy eye makeup and blusher. All she needed was a cocktail dress and a pair of heels and she would not have look out of place in a 5 star hotel bar. And this was at passport control!

As the coach made its way to the ship through the most industrial area (that one often finds around airports) I was almost embarrassed by my naivety. There were people manicuring lawns, weeding gardens, sweeping streets and all in normal company gardens.

The cars on the roads were a mixture of the modern cars we see in our roads and the old bashed up little things we associate with spy movies. As the coach got closer to the ship’s docking terminal I felt I was looking at buildings that were from the old USSR. Run down and grey…exactly as I had expected. The trams and buses were not as modern as those you find in Lisbon or Berlin and some … I did wonder how they were actually being held together.

On board the ship I unpacked – just wonderful to know I don’t have to pack up and change hotels at all for ten days.

I am so privileged to be in the job I am, but also completely overwhelmed with where I am…Russia! And just saying it gets me all tingly!

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