Teaching Dutch to Russian students in the beautiful city of St Petersburg, is an ideal opportunity for me to spend some time in the country that has always held a great fascination for me. Admittedly, I had my reservations about the severe Russian winters, but I found that one can get used to that. Just as one can to daily life here, in a society that is so very different from ours. For, despite the fact that St Petersburg feels very European, there are significant cultural differences.
At first glance the Russians come across as distant and surly, but once you get to know them better they turn out to be extremely helpful and always up for a party. They grab every opportunity to celebrate and without exception there is dancing involved. I have been here for a month now, and already I have attended three national celebration days!
When it comes to culture, there are also contrasts noticeable. The Russians are exposed to their rich cultural history from an early age. They are in fact brought up with this heritage, I learned when I spoke to a taxi driver, asking him about the city’s history. You can spot Russians reading literature while riding the subway, or see them attending an opera staged in a shopping center.
All this forms a huge contrast to the, as far as the Dutch are concerned, tasteless cultural tastes that are also portrayed in this country: Russian women often wearing striking clothes and heavily applied makeup, cities full of enormous billboards, flat-screens TV’s and electric advertising signs. The country has embraced capitalism, yet at the same time shows great appreciation of art and culture. Many Russians worry whether this appreciation will sustain in today’s commercialized Russian society.
I teach Dutch Studies to Russian students at the State University of St Petersburg and to students of the ‘Nederlands Instituut Petersburg (NIP)’. These students are, without exception, very motivated and very fond of our country. Especially at the university the students are critical, not in the least about the political situation the country currently finds itself in.
A day after the elections, I read this amusing anecdote: A raven is sitting in a tree, a wedge of cheese in its beak. Under the tree sits a fox, asking the raven: “Raven, did you vote for Poetin?” “Yes,” the raven answers, dropping the cheese from its beak as he does so. Quickly, the fox grabs the cheese and runs off. “Ah well,” sighs the raven, “it wouldn’t have made any difference had I said ‘no’…”
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