Learn Russian Culture as a Foreigner: From Vladimir to Saint-Petersburg

This article is aimed at informing foreign students about the best cities to visit for the purposes of getting acquainted with Russian culture.

Learn Russian Culture as a Foreigner: From Vladimir to Saint-Petersburg

Russia is a vast country with long history and very mysterious to foreigners at that. From my experience as a Chinese student, the information one can get about Russia is usually one that is spoon-fed to one via the mainstream media – in my case, a very positive but broad and unspecific image from the Chinese government, while, I imagine, in Western countries the situation can be quite the opposite.

I believe, however, that whatever is your host country when you study abroad, it would be extremely wasteful not to acquaint yourself with its national history and culture, because then one would not be able to truly appreciate their time in this country. Personally, I had this approach during my first year in Russia, and that made me feel very confined to the university while making the rest of the environment seem like a “dark forest”; taking my time to travel to some corners of this land has radically enhanced my experience here, and in this article, I want to give a brief overview of such opportunities to other foreign students.

From my communication with the natives, Russian history is not easy to conceptualize, but it can generally be divided into three main blocks: early medieval history (when Russia used to consist of squabbling separate princedoms), imperial history (from Russian reunification in 16th century up until the fall of the Empire), and Soviet history. There are many small periods which would be interesting on their own, like the famous Time of Troubles, but for the purposes of this review I would like to focus on these.

During medieval history of Russia, the most prominent cities culturally and economically were the settlements in central Russia that are generally located near modern Moscow. These cities, such as Suzdal, Vladimir, Ivanovo, Yaroslavl and etc., are collectively called “The Golden Ring of Russia” and constitute one of the most prominent attractions for cultural tourism for both foreigners and Russians themselves. Although each of them, of course, represents a unique cultural treasure, the overall vibe from these places can be quite similar, so I will only cover the city I am most familiar with, and that is Vladimir.

Vladimir, much like its colleagues in the “Golden Ring”, provides ample explanations on why Russia is sometimes called ‘the land of churches’. For example, the Russian website for tourists “Tripadvisor” gives the Orthodox churches and monasteries as 15 of the 30 top recommendations for sightseeing venues. And, travelling there, one might be overwhelmed by the majestic white stone constructions that absolutely cover the city center. The famous Dormition Cathedral – represented at the newsfeed image of this article – is an absolutely fabulous piece of architecture with snow-white limestone construction and shining gilded tops; not only that, it is covered on the inside with icons, frescoes and other attributes of an Orthodox church.

What was especially baffling to me is that this cathedral and other churches, even though they offer guides and are used as museums, also function as normal churches, with parishioners coming to execute their religious traditions. It is an excellent illustration how Orthodox Christianity is a huge part of Russian culture, which remains relevant even for the youth; coming from a very non-religious by comparison country, this was very surprising for me.

Continuing about Vladimir, besides a variety of cathedrals and churches, there are also several museums, one that I visited was the “Museum of Crystal and Glass of the XVIII-XXI centuries” which depicts various achievements of Russian glassblowing. The period that museum covers is rather the late imperial history, but, as one can see below, the building itself looks like it was built in medieval era.

Overall, visiting this establishment was a blast. It is hard to say exactly how integral is glassblowing to Russian culture, but all the expositions presented are very distinctive and unique, and visiting that sort of museums focused on one cultural phenomenon is extremely interesting on its own, regardless of the fact that it is also culturally belonging to Russia. As a small off-topic remark, similarly exciting experience was presented to me in another city of Myshkin (literally “the city of the mouse”) in Yaroslavl region when I visited the “Museum of Live Crafts”, where, for instance, a real smith can make a miscellaneous souvenir for you in real-time. These museums offer amazing insights on how different crafts and industries were important for different Russian cities and settlements, tying together the whole conceptualization of pre-modern Russian economy for a foreigner.

Moving on to the imperial history, here a student of HSE Saint-Petersburg doesn't need to travel far to get a grasp of this culture, as the city of Saint-Petersburg – the former imperial capital since Peter the Great – is by far the most exciting venue for cultural tourism. Here one can witness numerous pieces of imperial architecture (Kazansky Cathedral, Isaakievsky Cathedral, Hermitage, various imperial governmental buildings around Nevsky Prospekt and Vasilyevskiy Island, etc.), which are very popular and, I guess, do not warrant a specific introduction to most visitors. What I want to focus attention on is perhaps the State Russian Museum, which has several buildings scattered around the city center, that collects and displays amazing quantities of Russian art, with different exhibitions changing seasonally. These exhibitions offer a lot of insight into the ‘high art’ of Russian Empire, displaying works of the most well-known Russian painters, such as Aivazovsky and Vereshchagin at the exhibition being displayed right now. There are also occasional tours which cover medieval, Soviet, or contemporary Russian art.

When talking about these museums and pieces of historical architecture, I should also mention the linguistic barrier. Even though neither English nor, obviously, Mandarin Chinese have any widespread status in Russia, a lot of the exhibitions are adapted to foreign visitors, with texts and signs in the museum doubled in English, and occasional guides speaking English more or less fluently. At the same time, in smaller cities (like Myshkin mentioned above) one is not likely to find any facilities for non-Russian speakers. However, that has consistently not been a problem from my experience. First, if you need some help, there might sometimes be a person in the crowd who speaks some English and can help to translate you to the museum workers – or, alternatively, if you are well-prepared, you would conduct all these tours with a Russian companion to begin with. Second, though, I have never found any backlash from Russians when attempting to speak broken Russian or using Google Translate in front of them, and both the museum workers as well as ordinary people have always been very patient and helpful in these situations. From what I can tell, Russia is a very diverse country, with people who speak Russian with various accents and degrees of fluency, so there is very little intolerance on the issue of language for various Russian citizens.

This experience of daily communication with ordinary people is also excellent by itself, as it allows to see the ‘real’ Russian culture of the present, and not only the elevated noble art of the imperial period which Russia is most known for. For that purpose, I would in fact recommend to grab a Russian friend and travel to a small town of their choice; I have personally done so for various settlements in Novgorod Region, and even though the language barrier was at its strongest then, I believe that I was only able to understand the whole socio-economic diversity of Russian culture at that time.

Finally, to give some notes about the Soviet period, there are no specific cities to recommend in this case, as every part of Russia was affected by Soviet history more or less equally, from my observations. A lot of cities follow a structure similar to that of Saint-Petersburg, where in the city center one would find historical architecture, then plain constructivist architecture in the rim, followed by modern apartments at the very edge of the city; this illustrates how a city’s growth pattern is dependent on the historical period of the time. Simply walking around in Soviet-era districts gives you a distinct feel of constructivism and the cultural features it gives to its inhabitants.

To sum up this article, to get a full and diverse experience of Russian culture, architecture and art, I would recommend starting with the “Golden Ring” cities, followed by Saint-Petersburg, and then also grabbing some countryside excursions along the way. The most important thing to do, however, is to communicate with Russians at any opportunity present. Any negative experiences from such communications, even when a linguistic barrier was present, were almost non-existent for me, and especially when you try to speak Russian (no matter how bad is it), the locals are very supportive and eager to guide you through their history, both literally and metaphorically.

Reflections by

Xinran Yue