Societal and Cultural Differences in Russia
This time last year, in December 2019, I was lucky enough to go on the Russian exchange with school. The Russian students had already stayed with us for a week in June 2019. During the amazing trip, I noticed how different life there was, in lots of ways: The buildings, the food, the schools, the security etc. These things interested me, and made the trip even more enjoyable, but they also surprised me.
The most striking difference in Russia was definitely the security in the country. Before we even arrived there, months before the trip, we needed to get visas. We had to fill in all our personal information, our family’s as well, and then someone from the embassy came to school to take our fingerprints. This obviously started to show me how different travel is in and out of Russia as you wouldn’t have to do something like that when travelling to Italy or France. Months later, after we landed in Domodedovo Airport in Moscow, we went through security as normal, but then we had to go through customs, where they checked our visas. Each of us went one at a time to the desk, handed our passports (with our visas) through, and watched them meticulously check they were authentic. They used very high tech equipment, including a large number of magnifying glasses. Every one of us had to stand and watch the person check our visa for about ten minutes, while also answering their questions. It was quite a daunting experience, and something we’d never experienced before. When arriving back in London a week later, all we had to do was scan our passports on a machine which took about 10 seconds. A few days into the trip, we went on a high speed train to Saint Petersburg, and we had to bring our passports (including the visas within them), even though we weren’t leaving the country, just going to a different city for one day. Our teacher, Mrs Wray, also advised us to carry photocopies of our passport and visa in our pockets throughout the whole trip, in case we were stopped. On the first day in Russia, we were all on the bus driving to the centre of Moscow, but we got pulled over by the police and accused a girl for not wearing her seatbelt, although we were all wearing our seatbelts. One of the teachers explained to us after they left that they would’ve fined us to get money for themselves.
Another thing that struck me in Russia was the difference in food. I’d never been to any eastern European countries before, so the cuisine surprised me, even after learning about it briefly for GCSEs. The breakfasts were quite similar to here, including cereal and muesli and fruit, but they also had bell peppers filled with cream cheese, which I’d never seen before. They also drink tea without milk with a slice of lemon. During the week, I went from eating quite normal dishes like pelmeni (dumplings) to quite surprising dishes like cooked rabbit! It was a good experience to get out of my comfort zone, although we all went to a pizza restaurant on the last night. Something my friends and I noticed throughout the trip was that the vegetarian options were not very substantial. Whenever we would go to a restaurant, the vegetarian dish would always be the same soup, while there would be a much bigger range of selection for the meat options. I don’t think there were any vegan options at all. It was the norm there to eat meat, while in Britain there’s more options for vegetarian and vegan people. That being said, the food there was amazing.
The last thing I found very strange in Russia was the students’ school. On our last day, we spent the morning with our exchange students joining them in their classes. The atmosphere in the school was something I’d never experienced before: It was very relaxed. They also didn’t have a uniform. The building was quite small but a big range of year groups were all mixed together. I went to a history lesson with my exchange and only two students were fully paying attention to the teacher. Everyone was chatting throughout the whole lesson or just playing on their phones. The classrooms were quite different as they used blackboards with chalk. We were all used to whiteboards so seeing the teacher use the blackboard was a bit surprising. Something that surprised all of us was how there was a picture of the Putin, the Russian President, in every classroom, and when we asked about it, we were told that in every school they have to have a picture of him in each classroom. You wouldn’t expect to see a picture of Boris Johnson in all the classrooms at Stamford, so you can imagine our surprise.
My favourite trip with school was definitely this one, especially because we managed to do it before Covid-19 became a problem. It was so fun to experience the different culture, as well as practising the language, all with my friends (and new friends). It’s a strange trip I’ll remember for the rest of my life.