When I told friends and acquaintances that I would be going to Saint Petersburg, Russia for over half of my winter break, I was met with mixed responses. Some of my peers were interested about the country whose culture I have grown up with, some were obviously judging my choices but pretended to be interested anyway and some flat-out wrinkled their noses and asked, “why?”
It’s no secret that Russia is a controversial international power. In fact, a poll concluded that most Americans deem Russia unfriendly and an “enemy.” Russian values are perhaps opposite of those of Americans, and I can say from personal experience that yes, Russia does still closely resemble a communist country. Additionally, controversies surrounding President Trump, his campaign and alleged collusion with Russia have led to tension between Russia and the United States. It‘s important to mention that recently, a bipartisan committee gathering facts on the election revealed that they have found no evidence linking Trump’s campaign to Russia. Regardless, in the years since the 2016 presidential election, Russia has been put under fire for attacking democratic values and, in the process, the Russian people have been portrayed in a disingenuous way.
I take politics to heart, and it tends to become intertwined with every opinion I have. When I first learned of the Russia-centered theories about the 2016 election, I was upset and torn. I felt I had to choose between two countries which I consider a vital part of my identity, a feeling which increased tenfold when I was on the plane flying to Russia. The last time I had visited was before Trump had taken office. I honestly did not know what to expect. How politically laden would my visit be? How would people react if they heard me speaking English with my American accent?
When I landed, I found no political news and certainly no flashy headlines denouncing the U.S. or any other country. In fact, newsstands displayed magazines with American celebrities on the covers. Throughout my whole trip, the sheltered nature of the Russian public became more and more clear, and I realized that they did not pay attention to politics, nor did they seem to have any desire to. As I realized this, antagonizing them became more and more difficult. They were simply happy with the way things were. On New Year’s Eve, when the clock struck midnight, every Russian family must have been gazing raptly at their television, and Vladimir Putin told them exactly what they wanted to hear. That Russia will have another fantastic year, and that he wished the best for every Russian citizen watching.
I began thinking that perhaps it would be best to discount Russian politics entirely while I was in that country. I figured that when I got back to the U.S., I would go back to confusing myself and grappling with my two identities, but while I was in Russia, I would make an attempt to simply appreciate the culture.
Russian culture is not popular in the U.S. Everyone knows of the stereotype that Russians like to walk around in the snow and wear fur, but there is much more to the country than those visceral characteristics alone. Russia’s history is extremely rich. Their architecture is exquisite and they are in fact some of the best at producing perfection in figure skating, ballet and (yes) the making of fur coats. I understand that it’s hard to focus on the beauty of a country whose government has been accused of meddling with the most recent U.S. presidential election. But perhaps if things were not so cut and dry, there would be less animosity and more of a gray area between the classifications of a country as allegedly good or evil. We face a major problem in antagonization of opposing groups, based on little more than hysteria, emotion and group thinking. Unfortunately, impartial logic is lacking and so is sympathy for other groups.
By the end of my time in Russia, I reached the conclusion that it is close-minded and inhumane to see nothing about a country except for its politics. Hating an entire group of people — along with their culture and history — because of something their administration has done is ridiculous. However, politics are still a relevant part of every society, and it is idiotic to denounce it completely. The best system would be to keep politics and culture separate, and thus give even controversial groups credit as more than manifestations of their current leading party.
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Email Sima Doctoroff at [email protected]