You can never really get a sense of what a country is like by reading its literature and learning its language alone. So, when I went to Russia for the first time this September I learnt about Russian culture from the Russian people I met and the Russian way of life from living it for three weeks. My land lady was a lovely old lady called Galina and we stayed in her flat in a typical tall, grey, Soviet apartment block. She came to be my Russian grandmother, my Babushka, away from home, and she taught me some very important things about Russian culture and Russian people:
1- Porridge solves everything.
Feeling a bit under the weather? Is it cold outside? Daunted by a busy day ahead? All of these problems can be solved by some of your Babushka’s humble porridge, or kasha as it’s known in Russia. Every day a huge saucepan of porridge was placed triumphantly before me, followed by an impassioned speech about the health benefits of porridge. I never dared mention to Galina that her method of making porridge, which involved a lot of butter and sugar, probably did more harm to my health than good. I know that I never would’ve been able to persuade her of this anyway.
2- Your star sign is the key to understanding yourself, your future, and everything else besides.
I was a bit surprised that, when coming down with a cold, Galina asked me what star sign I was. As a Gemini, she informed me, I was unfortunately predestined to have a weaker immune system and lower levels of stamina than most. The television screens on the trolley-bus (a cross between a bus and a tram which I took every morning to school) displayed your weekly horoscope, letting commuters know what lay in store for them in the week ahead.
3- Tea is equally as important to Russians as it is to us Brits, but not as we know it!
The regular cups of tea Galina offered me after I came home from school really helped me to settle in. It made her flat feel just like home in the UK. But a tea break in Russia has its own distinctive features, namely the distinct lack of milk and the optional extras of jam or apple slices to add to your tea.
4- Your babushka is 100% behind you in everything you do, which many involve plenty of tough love and unprompted advice.
Galina was an indispensable font of knowledge throughout my stay in St Petersburg, but her advice was often unsolicited and occasionally slightly eccentric. When I fell ill I was ordered only to drink lukewarm water, never cold, and she told me that a shot of vodka would rid me of me sore throat in short order. She emphasised her personal experience of its effectiveness.
5- Not everyone hates you because you’re British. They won’t treat you differently or incessantly bring up the Skripals.
Galina told us on the evening that we arrived that she didn’t watch the news and didn’t understand politics. That was her way, I think, of telling us that political differences between her country and ours wouldn’t affect how she felt towards us. It would be fair to say that before arriving in Russia I felt apprehensive about how people might react to me when they heard a British voice in the streets of St Petersburg, especially following the poisoning of Sergei and Lulia Skripal. In fact, I had only one conversation with a stranger in St Petersburg concerning my nationality, and she told me that she loved British culture and asked me to identify the accent of the actors on Peaky Blinders.
I am not trying to say that the political and cultural differences between Russia and the UK aren’t stark. It is undeniable that there are issues between our politicians which seem almost impossible to resolve. The 2018 Football World Cup, which took place in Russia this summer, began to tear down social and cultural barriers. It allowed the Russian people to show their kindness and generosity towards the thousands of foreign visitors. It is important that we are able to separate people and politics, and are still able to appreciate Russian culture. Perhaps next time you have a cup of tea, you’ll skip the milk and throw in some apple slices – I really recommend you give it a try!