The following was written as a mid-term essay for an SRAS program in St. Petersburg. Students were encouraged to draw upon not only the program texts, but also on the impressions and experiences gained of Russia and Russians while on-the-ground in St. Petersburg. A select few of these essays have been chosen to be published in this issue of Vestnik.
Upon my arrival to Russia, I met a woman named Mary who offered some advice for my first trip to this cold and overwhelming country. She told me that as an American who had never lived in a radically different culture, I was in for the surprise of my life. After two months, I can say that Mary was absolutely correct. Though I have kept an open mind and sought out similarities between American and Russian values, I have still been surprised by the vast differences that really separate our views on life and the way we choose to live it.
Between discussions in my culture class, titled “The Russians” and taken through the School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) in St. Petersburg, and discussions with my new Russian classmates outside of the classroom, I have noticed one Russian value that I find particularly refreshing from an American standpoint. The depth and knowledge of history in this country is astounding to me.
The amount of history and number of changes that St. Petersburg alone has seen amazes me, but the fact that the people living here know their history and celebrate the traditions of the past to the extent they do is especially surprising. I have lived in America my entire life, and in my opinion, I have seen a rapid decline in historical knowledge as my generation has progressed. Though I am only twenty years old, I can name the date when the Declaration of Independence was signed and tell you when the Vietnam War ended. Yet kids just a few years younger than me cannot say when Columbus discovered America, or when World War II ended.
Most of the Russian students I have met who are the same age as I am can cite hundreds of years of history and dates from memory. I have had conversations with students in my business class, and they told me all about the communist years and the czars without any effort. I asked if Russian history is taught so thoroughly in all places, but they said that much of their knowledge comes from parents and grandparents talking about their lives while growing up. One of my new Russian friends, Natalya, explained to me that many Russian children grow up learning about how their parents were raised and how it was in the old days. She also told me that learning how things were in the past allows them to appreciate the way their lives have improved and shows them just how differently previous generations have lived. She said that a major Russian belief is “if you don’t know your past, then you have no future.” Though we have this saying in America, I have never seen it applied in such a way.
These discussions on history led me to discover a few other Russian cultural values, such as keeping historical reminders without altering perceptions. In Virginia, for example, some people thought the state song should be changed because it used a word that has become politically incorrect a hundred years after it was written. However, altering the song to cover up an unpleasant past will not help people remember how we changed and why.
In St. Petersburg, by contrast, there are still symbols of Communist times all around the city, and I have asked Russians why the symbols did not fall when Communism did. The answer I received from my friends Natalya and Ivan was really unexpected. They told me that tearing down all signs of the Communist regime would be a waste of time and would not change anything that had happened. They said that for them and their parents, the symbols are reminders of the changes of the last 20-plus years and should be valued as such.
I am almost jealous of the level of pride and reverence that Russian people feel for their own culture and history. I see how much of their society has been affected by American culture, and yet they still cling to the idea that by remembering the past and keeping up traditions, they will be able to make their own lives better. My classmate Ivan, explaining his views on Russia’s recent historical changes, told me that, “though most people think the changes after Communism are good, we must remember that there were parts (of Communism) that are not all bad.” He, of course, was not speaking through experience but through the experiences and opinions relayed by his parents and grandparents. He told me that they would talk about how the bad parts of Communism destroyed lives, but also how there were a few good things to come out of it. I was puzzled about why they would tell him about the good parts, since there was obviously a bigger downside. He responded that if they hadn’t brought to light the good parts such as stable pensions, an excellent education system, and wonderful achievements in the arts and sciences, then they could never try to implement them in today’s lifestyle.
It seems that Russians and Americans want to constantly improve their own lives, but most Americans that I know tend to think this can be achieved only by technological advances and progressive social movements. Most of our problems today have been faced throughout history, and yet no one reflects on their origins how they might be prevented from recurring. I feel that since I have been here and spoken with many Russians, they have proven time and time again that they really grasp the importance of not just remembering the past, but learning from it as well. I hope that more people will promote this practical and helpful value in America.