From Russia with love? No - it's "to Russia with love"!
My love letter to Russia and a story about how the American media, Donald Trump & Vladimir Putin inspired me to visit this amazing Empire
How did this happen?
What do Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and the American media all have in common? Most people would say well possibly the alleged hacking of the American 2016 election - but not in my mind - for me it's what inspired me to visit Russia and encouraged what I'm sure will be a lifelong love affair with this incredible empire.
Rewind to May 2017 - Russophobia appears to be in full swing among Western media, particularly within America. Now I'm not American, I'm Australian, however I was avidly observing the noise around the political developments in the US (as I love a good drama story and this appeared to be the Watergate of my millennial generation) - and this is what ultimately led to an increased curiosity around Mr Putin and of course, the Russian Federation.
I trawled You Tube and Google, researching as much as I could - the more I learnt and educated myself about Russia the more I realised there was further to discover. You see, in the Australian educational system, we don't really learn a lot about Russia or its culture. And unfortunately from what I could see in the media it appears a lot of the positives of this land (and it's people) appeared to have been forgotten, or at least were not being mentioned at all.
So the more I educated myself, the more I listened to both countries version of events and reasons for political disagreement the more I realized probably for the first time ever the wide chasms between society and cultures that can be perpetuated by media, and I suspect some ignorance and unwillingness to self-educate in relation to other cultures from a place of real understanding. Being a millennial growing up in Australia the cold war meant nothing to me and was over! I also discovered how little I knew of this world and I couldn't quell my keen interest in simply learning more online. I needed to see more for myself, to take action and explore!
So politics aside, I decided in June this year that I was going to visit Russia, enrolled in a beginner Russian language course and by September found myself in this mysterious land - the largest country in the world, and what I now consider to be one of my spiritual homes. This seemed to make sense to my Russian language teacher who upon discovering my paternal grandfather was Armenian, exclaimed "Aha! now it makes sense why you are going to visit there!". I'm guessing this connection for my teacher was that Armenia used to be a part of the Soviet Union?
My family, friends and work colleagues though were, quite frankly, surprised and even dubious about this new adventure that I was adamant I was going on. From some acquaintances and colleagues I even received cautious warnings, to "be careful" - whilst others had excited reactions - and it became very apparent that even in Australia, Russia provoked quite extreme reactions from people. However seeing as I seem to have the same effect on people as well, I figured I would be fine and excitedly embarked upon the longest distance journey I had thus far been on in my life.
Welcome to Russia!
So it was on the 24th September 2017 I arrived in St Petersburg by way of train, from Helsinki - and in St Petersburg I found a city to rival my great love of Paris! Embarking the train there at dusk our driver Nikolas, serenaded us with Tchaikovsky on his harmonica, then generously drove us around the sights of this great city as the sun set.
What surprised me what the beauty of the city at night - all the buildings so gloriously lit up, their light bouncing off reflections in the water of the River Neva. The buildings were mainly the same height which fostered a feeling of beauty in symmetry and were architecturally mesmerizing. The River with ships docked alongside was amazing and appeared to be the heart of the city. Tours consisted of visiting the most exquisitely beautiful churches and cathedrals to rival Italy & France as well as the awe-inspiring Hermitage museum. St Petersburg to me felt very much like Paris, yet different and I felt at home and safe.
If St Petersburg can be described as "romantic" then Moscow is... "electric". I felt alive and slightly on edge there upon arriving. A tour of the grand metro stations with artwork, mosaics, bronze statues and chandeliers was amazing and then it was onto Red Square at night. And it was here I had my big "Russia" moment...
Walking alongside the GUM department store, past a small church I looked straight ahead and saw one of the stars on top of a building and the red brick walls of the Kremlin. My heart beats faster, I walk out onto Red Square and then slowly I turn my head left, and there it was - St Basil's Cathedral.
I can't put into words the feeling that came over me. All I can say is that it was as if I was in a trance; I stopped and stared for what would've been minutes, then walked forward and stopped. I was standing in the heart of Russia and it really only hit me then that I was there when I saw St Basil's. A few minutes later I was jumping up & down, bouncing around like a child at Christmas and dancing in the middle of Red Square much to the amusement of my friend. Red Square is amazing during the day but utterly spectacular at night!
So why did it only hit me then that I was really in Russia once I saw St Basil's Cathedral? I don't know the answer to that question, I only know that I was unprepared for the wave of emotion that flooded over me and the tears of amazement & wonder that sprung from my eyes. France had always been the country I'd had a life-long romanticized love for (other than my own Australia), so this emotion for Russia truly shocked me.
After a personally challenging year on many levels, Russia managed to heal me - perhaps I was already healed but this was just the shift of perspective I needed to place a tough year behind me. And that's why I love travel so much, why I love exploring and learning about new places and languages and cultures. You realise there is so much more to the world than your own frame of reference. There is so much beauty here on earth, and so much good in the world, if we only actively seek it out.
I spent my birthday in Moscow and came home to Sydney a few days later. But I left my heart in Russia, or at least a big part of it. So I guess I will have to return to try to find it again. Or maybe I will return but decide to leave that part of it with Russia, where I feel it now belongs.
"To Russia with love, from Lauren"