Mills in front of "Concert of Birds," by Frans Snyders, displayed in the State Hermitage Museum.

Living Abroad: Russia

For Scout Mills (’16), Russia is grand, noisy, and historical. But above all, Russia is a place to belong.

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A view of Griboyedov Canal and The Cathedral of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

By Scout Mills /// Staff Writer

Saint Petersburg was built to impress.

Walk down any street in downtown Saint Petersburg, and you’ll find something pretty enough for a postcard. Whether it’s the massive Kazan Cathedral with its Roman columns, the candy-colored Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood or the magnificent arches leading to Palace Square, you can find something to pose in front of, Instagram or show your grandparents.

But snapping that first round of photos upon arriving in Saint Petersburg was almost a chore. I knew I had to get the obligatory picture of the Winter Palace perched so smugly on the Neva River, not just for myself but also for the people who hardly attempted to hide their scoffs when I told them I was going to live in Russia.

Don’t get me wrong—I am proud of the grandeur. The souvenir snowglobe beauty of Saint Petersburg holds an even deeper soul that you can find if you put down your camera and think before moving on to the next landmark, peeling the sparkling skin to reveal its rich, dark history. The Russia that stole my heart lies in these striking contrasts between Catherine the Great’s vanity and Khruschev’s mass developments.

Picture yourself by the Primorskaya metro station waiting for the crosswalk light to turn green. There’s an old Lada parked on the sidewalk, and a man in a Sochi 2014 shirt is selling grapes and mushrooms out of the trunk. The sour smell of the river weaves between the food stands with the rush of commuters, but every once in a while you catch the scent of fresh black bread softening the atmosphere. You can hear the accordion and a scratchy voice mumbling Soviet folk songs while children shriek and play soccer on a lawn nearby, children who go to the Hermitage Museum on school field trips so its world-renowned glory hardly fazes them. Saint Petersburg is just their home. In this city, there’s no shortage of soup, cheap tea or bad Russian pop.

I feel this language taking me by the tongue and leading me into conversations way beyond my proficiency level. My deadpan-honest Russian friends refuse to accept any excuses not to speak. Russian culture is intense, resilient, passionate and truthful: love is not a word tossed around for social niceties, and poetry recitation is a party trick. This is a good place for romantics and a bad place for liars.

The ordinary people that live in the shadow of the Bronze Horseman are my reminders that I don’t need the Saint Petersburg skyline to justify my love for Russia, no matter how impressive it is.

I’m at home here.

 

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