Introducing Maria Lobanova of ProfIntern

Meet Maria Lobanova:

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Maria is a Saint Petersburg local and operates a business called ProfIntern. She recently contacted me and after a few weeks of talking and planning, I am happy to announce that I am heading to Saint Petersburg on June 11th to work with Maria for a few weeks and participate in the programs she offers to Interns and Volunteers so that I can tell you all about these experiences and how you can have them to, should you decide you want to intern or volunteer in Russia!

Last week, Maria and I talked for about an hour on Skype and I asked her some questions about her business and what it is that she does. She offers a unique experience to people who want work or volunteer in Russia – it’s kind of an alternative to tourism. Instead of just being a tourist, you get to immerse yourself in the culture and language, gaining real life experience that benefits you personally and professionally.

Maria finished her university education in the graduate School of Management, which is a faculty of the Saint Petersburg State University. Her concentration was in the field of Marketing and Sales Management. She loves to travel, practices yoga, and her family owns a house in Spain, where she spends some time every year and is learning the language. I look forward to getting to know Maria more in person when I am there in June!

1) Can you please tell our readers a little bit about ProfIntern – how the business came about and what is the objective?

Maria: In my third year of University, I was given the opportunity to travel and study abroad in a European exchange program. I chose to go to Vienna, Austria, since I also speak German – it was an educational experience (without an internship), but it affected me a lot, not only in my professional life, but especially in my personal life. Living abroad is something that opens up barriers and opens the world to you – you can make many new friends. I enjoyed my experience abroad very much and because I was a “client” in this field of international exchange, I understand it well and I know what people want when studying abroad.

After finishing at the University, I worked for a company as a director of the Marketing department in the B2B sector. I worked there for five years and decided it was time to move on. I was acquainted with a woman who was head of a company that works with exchange students, and so I became her representative in Russia. I worked for her for one year, but differences in law and business in Russia became frustrating for her and we eventually parted ways. That was when I realized that I had all the tools, education and experience necessary to start my own student exchange business here in Russia.

So this is how ProfIntern came about. I wanted very much to bring something significant to peoples’ lives and I think this is the way that I can make foreigners’ travel to Russia more meaningful. They can open new doors to themselves in both the personal and professional life – and I want to expand peoples’ horizons. I think it is a very good experience when you go somewhere, not just for tourism, but when you have to be there alone for some period of time and you have to solve some problems on your own. It is a good personal and professional step to a different future because something changes in your mind after that. Furthermore, I very much want to increase knowledge of real Russia among foreigners – so these are my main objectives.

2) Why is Russia important?

Maria: Staying now in Spain and working in the corporate sector for five years, I would say that many Russians are going abroad – both corporate companies that want to enter into some foreign markets, as well individuals who want to travel or buy property abroad. In every city you have some community of Russians and they are never idle. For instance, in Spain, local people can do nothing for ages – but Russian people who are in Spain are in close connection with each other and actively trying to do some sort of business or open some new opportunities, both to the Spanish people and to Russians. This is very much an active part of Russians abroad and they are very open, so having a good understanding of Russians and being in good relations with Russians, you can go further in your career and personal plans.

Additionally, many companies in the corporate world want to enter the Russian markets and I think that to do this, they should get an understanding of Russians, and for this they will need someone specialized and experienced who knows how to communicate with Russians. Because, I would say that we are almost Europeans, but we have our own history and our own mentality and if you want to be friends with us, you also need to know something about us. It is always the same in every country.

3) Are your main clients students coming to Russia for Russian courses, internships and volunteering programs, or do you also have business clients?

Maria: We also have services for corporate clients oriented around the foreign companies interested in entering the Russian market. We provide language courses for them (virtual via Skype, or here in Russia), as well as lessons in communicative Russian (how to write emails properly, how to answer the phone in Russian, etc.), and we offer business services – e.g. table discussions, partner searches, and others. Russia is an expanding market, you know, and more and more companies are interested in entering it or at least having partners here.

For instance, I had one German company who wanted to enter the Russian market and who wanted to find Russian partners here in Moscow. They described their business to me and what kinds of partners they were looking for and we at ProfIntern connected the German partners with some Russian partners in Moscow and we invited the German company to Moscow for a round table discussion of the main topics between the two companies. The partners of both countries were able to make some business agreements between the Russian company and the production company of Germany. So this is another more professional service we offer to foreign companies (though it’s not yet listed on the website). And of course, we also offer cultural activities.

4) What do you offer your clients that other businesses do not and what sort of experience do participants get from Interning?

Maria: The internships we offer are professional internships. This is the primary difference between us and our competitors, because there are other international and local companies who place interns with companies. But what they offer is not a professional internship – they ask the companies what kind of intern they would like placed with them and then they just look for an intern abroad. But we at ProfIntern work more on behalf of the client. A student can tell us what kind of internship they are looking for and we will try to place them in an internship in their desired field.

For instance, I had one client who wanted to be placed in an internship in Aerospace engineering, which is totally closed to foreigners in Russia; and what we did, we found an internship for him in the field of engineering. So he didn’t just do some useless work for the company where he interned – he was able to learn something new and beneficial for himself and according to his major. Our internship clients get hands on experience, which is valuable for their CV’s and they are the kind of people who are really thinking about their future and professional career.

Additionally, our clients are able to get a network of professional contacts – this depends a lot on how active they are in the company. But, we organize table discussions with our interns and top managers of the companies who are able to answer valuable questions for interns, such as: how to do business in Russia, what is marketing in Russia, etc. We also have good relationships with the graduate School of Management and some other universities in Russia where our interns can also take part-time educational training courses, or something similar. So our interns walk out of their internship in Russia with real experience that is tailored to their career and their major and how to relate to international business in Russia. This is the benefit of a company like ProfIntern.

5) Regarding volunteering, why is it so crucial in Russia and what experience do volunteers walk away with?

Maria: Volunteering in Russia will give people a new perspective of Russia. We don’t have a lot of support from our government now – in comparison with Europe, for instance. Volunteering is not such a developed thing here and volunteering organizations need people to help them understand how volunteering should even be coordinated - not only helping to do some concrete projects, but help with organizing the entire process as well. There are many NGO’s – both international and Russian – which do work in various sectors, such as:

1. Critical care for children, teenagers, adults, families and elderly people
2. Development of culture and education in St. Petersburg
3. Development of healthy life-style
4. Looking for missing children
5. Help for homeless animals
6. Racism prevention activities
7. Environmental projects
8. International summer camps for volunteers

NGO’s offer great opportunities to volunteers and interns because working in Saint Petersburg, you can get connected and get involved in an international project, but still gain the experience of being in Russia. For example, one well known NGO that we work with - JCI – has very interesting opportunities in the fields of entrepreneurship (BIG program), education for high school pupils (Compass), and Open Russia, which needs volunteers to help with all their processes. So volunteers and interns will have the ability to not only gain experience working with NGO’s, but they will also get to see the overall picture – how it all works and what is the difference between the Russian NGO and the International one.

There are also many local volunteer companies who are ready to place foreign volunteers because they really need the international support. Many many people do need help in Russia and if they see that you want to help them from your heart, they will become your best friends forever! One of my favorite local volunteer organizations trains people how to become clowns so that they can go to hospitals and make the sick children smile and laugh! This particular volunteer opportunity is a longer term one for volunteers, but it is just one example.

For more information about volunteering in Russia through ProfIntern, please refer here.

6) Personally, I understand the importance of such a company as ProfIntern, but can you please explain to the readers what ProfIntern offers in terms of support and placement in Russia and why it can’t be done without such a company?

Maria: First of all, Russian law has limitations regarding employment. There is no such word in Russian law as an “internship”. Everything that is connected with internship is considered employment. For foreigners, this makes getting an internship very difficult because if somebody wants to intern in a Russian company, that person should be “officially” employed. And for the company, it is very expensive to employ a foreigner – they would need to pay a one time fee of approximately 1,000 Euro and additional monthly fees of about 150 Euro. So there is no sense for a company to place a short term foreign employee, such as an intern, because it does not benefit the company. 

We at ProfIntern know the loopholes in Russian law and we know how we can officially and legally place foreigners in Russian companies with professional internships – they can even get certificates or letters from the company mentioning the experience they gained through their internship. Without such a company as ProfIntern, it is not possible to be placed in such a professional internship. Additionally, because of the Russian laws, companies prefer to deal with an intermediary between the client (or intern) and the company. ProfIntern is this intermediary, as we speak the native language and live in the country and therefore, we can go to the company on behalf of our clients. We are the agency who will be liable for the foreign intern coming to work and stay in Russia, not the company.

Also, because of our Soviet history, most of the older generation that work in Russian companies often do not speak English and therefore, we prefer to place interns who speak some Russian or who want to learn and improve their Russian. But we can also place foreigners in the International companies which speak English. So you can see that ProfIntern is able to accommodate foreigners in Russia in accordance with the law and the needs of the companies – this is necessary if someone wants to work and live in Russia. 

I would like to add that we are very flexible to our clients and their needs and we have different types of packages. For instance, if a student does not need us to arrange a place to stay, or if they do not want to take Russian language courses, the cost will  be much less, but it will still include all things necessary to work at a company. There are also designed packages on our website that a student can choose from – these include language courses and cultural excursions. Finally, we can create a custom program for the student who has an idea of something they want to do in Russia, but need us to help them accomplish their vision. An example of the custom package would be the German company I mentioned that wanted to find Russian business partners and we helped them accomplish their goal. We are very knowledgeable and very flexible to the client – this is what makes ProfIntern different! 

From my personal experience having lived and studied in Russia, I realize that even tourism to Russia can be tricky without a company working on your behalf. Getting a visa alone can be painstaking. It’s just how things are and I think it is really cool that Maria was able to start such an agency to help foreigners find their way to interning, volunteering, or doing business in Russia. And I’m super excited to be participating in a program which she will be arranging for me in June so that I may see how it all works and tell you about my experiences. And hopefully, they will serve as inspiration for my readers who are curious about living and working in Russia. Also, for those of you who are curious, ProfIntern began in Russia and Maria represents the Russian market, but there are also internships available in ItalyChina and Lithuania through ProfIntern. So please stay tuned as I head back to Saint Petersburg in June and write about my time there and the work I will be doing with Maria!

Russian Easter

This is a guest post written by Maria Lobanova at ProfIntern. I’m going to be collaborating with her this June in Saint Petersburg and am very excited to tell you more about that in the coming weeks!

You may find the original article on her site here: http://www.profintern.com/articles/russian-easter

The photos are my own of some Russian style Easter eggs I decorated a few years ago.

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If your visit to St. Petersburg falls on the period from April 5 to May 8, then you are likely to participate in one of the most important holy days – Bright Resurrection, or Easter. This year it is on the 20th of April.

If you live with a host family, you may have already known that the last week before Easter is called Holy Week, believers observe a strict fast, sometimes limited to just water and bread; they call Thursday of the Holy Week “Maundy”, clean up their homes and go to the bath. Starting from Thursday people paint eggs and bake Easter cakes. On Saturday before Easter the cakes and eggs are consecrated in the church.

In St. Petersburg, as well as in other cities of Russia, believers meet the Resurrection of Christ in the churches. Formal night service ends with a procession towards the morning.

On the day of Easter it is customary to share the money and treats with poor people, that’s why on this day you can meet a lot of people asking for alms at the churches entrances. This is the best time for volunteering and chariting.

One of the most important attributes of Easter is a painted Easter egg. Since ancient times it is considered to be a symbol of fertility, spring and foundation of a new life. However, the most important dish on Easter is Easter cake. It is a symbol of the resurrection of Christ and His presence at the banquet table.

Easter and Easter cake are reflected in the architecture. Be sure to visit the Svyato-Troitskaya Church, which people call the “Kulich and Pascha” (Easter cake and Easter): it is the round-shaped church with the bell tower in the form of four-sided pyramid.

People celebrate Easter with their families or meet with their relatives at the big table rich in different dishes; it is customary to bring some painted eggs and say “Christ is risen!” – “Truly arisen!”, kissing each other three times. Russian Easter is also characterized by a variety of games. The most popular is egg tapping (when one holds a hard-boiled egg and taps the egg of another participant with one’s own egg intending to break the other’s, without breaking one’s own), and rolling eggs from a small slope (the second egg should hit and budge the first one).

Enjoy the Bright Resurrection with your Russian friends and share your experience with us!

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Cultural Insights.

One of the most trying parts of adjusting to life in a foreign country is learning to understand and adapt to the cultural differences between your home country and the country you are living in. Russian culture is very different from US (and Western) culture and it can be a bit of an adjustment. At first, I think I found aspects of the culture very difficult – but as time went on, I realized that if I wanted to enjoy my time there it would be better to recognize these differences and learn from them. For those of you who saw this Buzzfeed post entitled, “16 things Russians do that Americans might find weird“, it was kind of my inspiration for this post, except I want to share my own list (some items may cross paths).

* The home of a Russian can be like a revolving door. Americans tend to be very private and are not always as open and social as Russians are. We keep to ourselves and if we plan a social gathering, we plan it ahead of time and everybody goes home at the end of the evening. Not necessarily so with Russians. My first semester, I remember coming home regularly to find new visitors at the apartment – having dinner, hanging out, sleeping on the floor, in the spare room… you get my point. Since I was renting a bedroom in the apartment, I always felt intimidated and didn’t know how to respond to all these people I did not know. I would usually just say hello and go to my room and hide. If a friend or family member needs a place to stay, no big deal. A dinner party turns into an overnight – no big deal. These sorts of things would cut too far into American privacy. As time went on, I began to enjoy this aspect of Russian culture. I adjusted to people coming in and out and moving in and out and I actually still have friends on Facebook that I met through my host sister and my time living in the apartment. In fact, now that I’m home, I miss all of the social interaction that would take place on any given day and I’m very grateful that I chose to live with babushka.

* Russian Tapochki. Speaking of living in a Russian home or having guests to your home, tapochki (Russian for slippers) are one of those Russian cultural norms that have become engrained in my mind. You don’t have to be living in Russia very long before you start noticing that you immediately check your dirty shoes at the doorway and slip on your slippers to wear throughout the house. And if you have guests, it is always good to keep extra pairs of tapochki for them to wear when they are over. Walking around in socks is not acceptable. Whenever babushka would see me walking around in my socks (which was usually after I had been for a jog), she would always ask what I was doing and tell me my feet would get all dirty. The result has been that I can no longer walk around my own home here in the US with socks or bare feet without feeling like I am doing something terribly wrong. My tapochki always remain at the doorway ready for my arrival home.

* Dressing up to do ANYTHING. As a bonafide American slob, I have no problems taking my dog for a walk wearing my sweatpants or pajamas. Or going to the local convenience store in my pj’s. In Russia, this would just not be acceptable. Especially with Russian women, who dress up for any occasion – usually equipped with 5 inch heals and lots of make up. When I am there, I never go outside in public without making sure I am somewhat presentable.

* The money tray. I still have not been able to break this habit. I remember my friend telling me that when shopping at a Produkti or a grocery store, it is considered rude to hand the money directly to the cashier – why would they want to come in contact with your dirty hands, after all? That’s why there is a little money tray by every register. The idea is that you put the money on the tray and the cashier will take it and issue you change in the same way. I am regularly guilty for my American habit of just handing the money directly to the cashier, which usually ends with a not so nice glare from the clerk.

* Calling females some variant of “Girl”. Another cultural difference I had trouble with – referring to every young woman as “devushka” (which is like girl or young lady). Need to ask directions on the street? Address her with “devushka”! Calling your waitress, yell “devushka!” The Buzzfeed article is slightly wrong in that the older a woman gets, the form of girl often changes. You can refer to a woman older than a girl (usually 40′s/50′s) as “zhenshchina” (woman) or “babushka” (grandma), which is reserved for the old Russian woman (usually wearing the scarf on her head). It goes against every grain in my body to call a female “girl” or “woman” or “babushka”, so I usually just said, “excuse me please.”

* Paying for everything with cash (and exact change). Russia is a cash culture. Sure, they have banks and credit/bank cards, but most small groceries and restaurants will only accept cash. Additionally, many of the clerks at the small produkti’s will roll their eyes at you if you give them a 1,000 ruble bill (which is about $30 US dollars) when paying for something that’s only 100 or 200 rubles. And it’s quite common for a cashier to ask you if you have the necessary change for the till. Sometimes, they will even go so far as to poke at your wallet looking for change for you, if they think you didn’t understand. Yup.

* Soviet eccentricities. Some aspects of Russian culture will never be understood without taking the time to understand how things were in Soviet times. I remember my host sister saying that there are many eccentricities that still exist among the older generation. For instance, the Soviet command economy was regularly experiencing shortages of different items – one such item was matches. My host sister told me that some of the older generation will still leave their stove running if they are running low on matches, even though matches are easy to find nowadays. I suspect the bag-hoarding (which is very true) is also a left over byproduct of Soviet times. Then again, you have to pay for bags at the grocery stores, so reusing them saves money; plus, they make perfect trash bags at home.

* Having connections. The prevalence of connections in Russia is another thing that dates back to Soviet times. Again, with the command economy shortages, an economy of favors developed called blat - to have blat meant that one had connections and could obtain needed items through these connections, from daily necessities to personal favors. While blat may not be as prevalent in modern day Russia, there is still a certain amount of favor-networking that takes place, very different from anything I’m accustomed to here in the states. I remember when I asked a friend back home to connect me with someone for an interview for a paper I was writing, one of my fellow students commented “Way to do like the Russians – using your connections to get an interview”. If you want to read a really interesting book about the economy of favors that developed during Soviet times, Alena Ledeneva wrote one all about blat.

* Russia is a tea culture. Sure they now have a Starbucks in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and many Russians love coffee, but in general tea is where it’s at. One of the local Russian food chains in St. Petersburg is called “Chaynaya Lozhka“, which means teaspoon.  Everywhere you go, you can pretty much get a good pot of tea and sit and have a nice conversation with friends. And lingering for hours over a pot of tea is normal. I love seeing all the Russians on the train as they fill their little cups from the samovar and drink tea with their little packed lunches.

* Dill is king. The last thing I will leave you with today in regards to Russian culture is the over-abundance of the use of dill in every kind of cuisine. Russians adore dill so much, it just kind of makes its way into everything. Don’t get me wrong, I love dill – can’t make borsch without it, and dill pickles are one of my favorite pastimes, but sometimes there is just too much usage of dill. In fact, there is a FB page (Dillwatch) started by expats in Russia who capture all the abominable uses of dill – buzz feed recently posted an article about it (however, I will say that the Lays cucumber & dill potato chips are wicked tasty). In reality, dill is a wonderful herb thought to have many beneficial properties in Russian culture. Don’t diss dill, but be prepared to see its usage in ways you never thought possible because Russians absolutely dig the stuff.

While this list certainly doesn’t cover all aspects of Russian culture, it is a starting point. The longer I spent my time in Russia, the more I fell in love with the culture. It is very different from the United States, but that is what makes it so interesting.

My Greek salad, garnished with dill.

My Greek salad, garnished with dill.

Living in Russia – part two: quintessential russia.

For those of you who read my last post, Life in Russia – part one, I’d like to follow it up with some other aspects of daily life in Russia – what I like to call quintessential Russia. Many of the images below are things I love and miss seeing day in and day out. The one photo I don’t have is one of the stray animals – Sochi is not the only Russian city with stray animals. You can pretty much find them anywhere and while it’s very sad, most of the time they keep to themselves and take care of each other. I became so accustomed to seeing them in Saint Petersburg, they were like a normal part of the landscape. Some Russians even take in street cats and dogs and domesticate them. Hopefully, in the future there will be more places for the stray animals in Russia to go.

Another common site in Russia is the babushka – selling anything she can on the side of the road. This is something I miss very much – these babushki sell their produce, flowers, socks, pastries, perfume, etc. because it’s how they get by. The image below is of a babushka selling her lettuce in central St. Petersburg – it was the middle of summer, which is why she is protecting herself from the sun. I always bought stuff from street vendors because they need the money. Flowers were my personal favorite. If you find yourself in Russia, please support these people. They will always figure out ways to communicate.

babushka's selling produce (and flowers) on the sidewalks.

A common window you might see in St. Petersburg. I just love the curtain in the background and the old wood.

A window in Saint Petersburg; the little things say so much.

I’m sure you’ve all heard about the manholes in Sochi. Well the photo below will show you a real manhole in Russia (this one is in St. Petersburg). Many Russian cities are old and require regular work on infrastructure. It’s not uncommon to have an entire sidewalk or dvor (courtyard) dug up and then covered with wooden planks so people can keep on walking through. I used love jogging over them, hearing the clanking and hoping I wouldn’t fall through ;) You’re on your own in Russia – you’ve got to take care of yourself and it’s actually quite liberating.

I'm sure you've heard the journalists in Sochi complaining of the man-holes. well, this is a REAL manhole, right in St. Petersburg (so common, I think of them as normal).

A common school bus in the city center – very much resembles the common marshrutka.

a school "bus." in the city, these are everywhere and resemble the common Marshrutka.

While you won’t see statues of Stalin anywhere (except maybe that one in the park in Moscow where his nose is bashed off), Comrade Lenin graces the streets of many former USSR cities. And when in Moscow, you can actually see his body, which is still preserved in Red Square.

statues of Comrade Lenin.

Soviet era block-style housing. One of my favorite sites. It’s pretty incredible to see the same apartment buildings scattered all over the former USSR world. For whatever reason, I just find them fascinating.

Soviet era block-style housing. No matter where you go, block-style housing will be there.

The produkti (Продукты) – like a small grocery store, produkti’s are pretty much everywhere in Russia and sometimes open 24 hours a day, or so they say. You can find most necessary food items at a little produkti, not to mention some toiletries, wine/beer and spirits. They’re kind of like an everything shop.

the Produkti - kind of like a mini grocery store.

I guess I do have one image of a street cat – or maybe it belongs to someone. I’m not sure, but he/she is adorable :) This kitty was in Seltso, Russia. Cats are everywhere in Russia.

cats hanging around.

Babushkas. The iconic symbol of Russia. Most babushka’s wear scarves on their heads. As I mentioned previously, they are often seen selling things on the sidewalks and you will regularly happen upon them during daily life – the babushka below was playing her domra for money in St. Petersburg during the summer months. I really really miss seeing babushka’s, especially on sunny days when they would be out selling flowers.

babushka's.

Stencil graffiti. It’s everywhere – below is the dynamic duo that was Putin and Medvedev.

stencil graffiti - this one just happens to be of Medvedev & Putin.

Interesting street signs. This one below is warning not to drive off the road into the River Neva.

funny road signs.

The fruit & veggie stands – I kid you not, they are everywhere. There are even little fruit & vegetable produkti’s. So if you run out of the house without remembering a healthy snack, or if you forgot something at the grocery, no worries! There is likely a produce stand right around the corner somewhere.

the fruit-stands on the sidewalks.

It doesn’t get much more quintessential than this: an old Lada and a black cat in the alley way to a dvor (courtyard).

cats & ladas.

And there are Ladas Ladas everywhere! On the streets, parked on the sidewalk (yes, I said sidewalk), abandoned under a pile of snow, or parked in a park somewhere. You can never escape the Ladas and that’s okay because they are just so darn cool!

and more ladas. they're just  everywhere.

Pochta Rossii (and in front of block-style housing no less!) Pochta Roccii is the Russian post office.

Pochta Rossii - the Russian post offices (alongside block style housing).

The next two images are also very quintessential in that the electrical lines are always interfering with everything. Below, an onion domed church. Onion domed churches (Russian Orthodox) are another example of iconic Russia.

onion domed churches.

And comrade Kirov! Another remnant of the Soviet past – statues commemorating communism’s heroes are everywhere.

Soviet statues (this one is of Comrade Kirov).

Men breaking ice on top of the roof tops. This is another one of those realities I would love the journalists in Sochi to see – sections of the street blocked off while men throw ice off the roof tops into the streets. I got hit numerous times by ice chunks falling outside the roped-off areas. But it’s a necessity, as the roofs can collapse under the weight of the accumulating ice.

the notorious ice-breakers in winter.

Another Russian window, like one might see on a country dacha. I just love this image (taken in Bryansk).

another window (dacha style) - this one in Bryansk.

Which brings me to the next quintessential image – the country dacha. After spending hours and hours on the Russian rail, one can’t help but notice the number of these little homes dotting the countryside.

A small village in Russia (as seen from the train).

More Ladas – and Romance! Russians are not shy about showing their affection in public. I just love this image of the happy couple next to the Lada (at Peterhof Park).

Ladas & Romance.

Remember those manholes? Well during the holidays they decorated this walkway, typical of those covering the manholes, to make it look all whimsical! This particular walkway was there the entire year I was in St. Petersburg. It’s gone now and I must say, I was kind of sad to see it missing.

another covered up man-hole, decorated for the holidays.

Finally, the old wallpaper (such as in my bedroom). I love looking at old photos from Russian interiors, because the old wallpaper always stands out. Oh how I miss that little room.

my bedroom - oh how I miss that wallpaper!

So there you have it. A bit of quintessential Russia. I’m sure there are other things that I have missed, but my time there is not yet finished. Russia is just such an interesting country – it has such character and history. Я скучаю по тебе Россия!

Living in Russia – part one.

I’ve noticed that this past week with the start of the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, I’ve been getting way more blog traffic with search topics related to what I set out to write in the beginning – what is life like in Russia? I get the feeling people think Russia is this exotic place, full of frozen tundra and oppressive authoritarian leaders who make their citizens’ lives miserable. While that may be true for some, my perception of life there is different – keeping in mind, I have the vantage point of an expat, not a Russian citizen. This past week with the journalists covering the “atrocities” of the Olympics in Sochi, I was literally laughing and crying because it is just so Russia. The facade of all that money spent on the facilities, Potemkin Village references, all the things breaking and people screaming “corruption!” Not to mention the number of people who lost their farmland & homes to the construction zone and the stray animals being executed (I would have liked to hear more about this, but journalists seemed too intent to complain about the brown water and toilets). Anyhow, I got really upset at all the negative attention to a country I love because if they could learn to approach Russia with different eyes, I think they would enjoy it more. Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to Russians to be so pessimistic – I understand that many people don’t like Russia’s leaders, but there’s no reason to just cast off the people of Russia with all the negative press.

So, that being said, here are some of my observations about living in Russia as an expat for a year. How much I’ve actually written about this, I’m not sure. During my year abroad in St. Petersburg, I was so focused on my studies and trying to get by day to day – I literally tried to absorb all the moments as they happened and hold tight to those. Well, I guess now is a good time to take a break and write a bit about daily life in Russia, beginning with a photo of the bedroom I rented and lived in for one year. It’s a good introduction to living there.

my bedroom in St. Petersburg.

my bedroom in St. Petersburg.

The room I rented was in an old apartment in the center of Saint Petersburg. I loved that apartment. It was not cheaply updated and tacky like many of the apartments foreigners might opt to rent. It had old wallpaper, antique furniture, and a distinct Russian character. During the summertime, the hallway walls were being redone and I remember seeing German & Russian newspapers from WWII behind the old wallpaper as it came down. According to the daughter of my landlady, the apartment used to be a Kommunalka  that was joined with the apartment on the adjacent side of the building (in fact, they shared a balcony). For those of you who are not familiar with the Kommunalka, it was a communal apartment created during Soviet times to accommodate the massive number of citizens who were flocking to the cities from the countryside. A typical communal apartment has a long hallway with rooms off to either side of it and a large shared kitchen, toilet and bathroom. One of the things I noticed immediately is that most toilets in city apartments are separated from the bathtub – so one can take a shower without blocking use of the toilet.

Kommunalka’s did not entirely disappear with the collapse of the Soviet Union. My best friend rented a room in a Kommunalka on Vasilyevsky Island in St. Petersburg. I would sleep over there regularly in the summertime and it was so interesting – she had a whole room to herself. But next to her there was a family with a baby sharing a room – mom, dad and baby all lived in a bedroom together. The baby would regularly escape the room and come into my friend’s room to visit. Down the hall lived a little old hunched-over babushka whom I found very intimidating, as she was always looking at me suspiciously. Everyone living in my friend’s Kommunalka shared a very large kitchen area with an ancient looking stove, two toilet closets, and one bathtub. They had a rotating cleaning schedule to make sure everybody was sharing duties. It seemed kind of like living in a small dormitory with families and babies.

While Kommunalka living might not be as common as occupying or sharing a whole apartment, it still exists and apparently it is a bit less expensive. Though I wasn’t living in an actual Kommunalka, it was very similar to communal living. My landlady lived in one room, I rented another, and the third room had four different occupants during the year I lived there (one of which was her daughter and grandson during my first semester). We shared a kitchen/dining area, toilet & bathroom. I had a section in the kholodil’nik (refrigerator) where I could put my food and a designated pantry section. Despite (or perhaps as a result) of years of living in close quarters during the Soviet Union, Russians very much value their personal belongings. Sharing a kitchen and bathroom does not mean it’s okay to use others’ food or personal items without asking permission. My landlady’s fine antique tea cups were politely off-limits to me, even though they were in the cupboard – she was wise to do this too, as I have wicked butter fingers when washing dishes!

the book case in my bedroom (loved that Samovar on top!)

the book case in my bedroom (loved that Samovar on top!)

Winter is cold in Russia – we all know this. What I didn’t know is that the state subsidizes heat in the cities and every apartment is like an oasis to come home to. It was not uncommon for me to be walking around in a tank top and shorts during the winter months when I was at home in the apartment. But here are a list of things that could happen on any given day and for which you just have to get used to. First of all, it’s not uncommon for the hot water (or all of it) to be shut off on a moments notice. If there were any sort of renovations in the building going on, you might see a tiny little sign on the entryway saying they were going to shut off the water – or you might not and it might just go off.  I remember one morning waking up and it was -30 C outside. I went to go take a warm shower only to find that there was no hot water. I opted to just wash my hair that day. Having the water shut off on random occasions became a normal thing that I would just shrug my shoulders at and cheer when the faucet began to spout water again. We tried to keep a giant jug of water handy at all times, just in case it went off. That way, we could still flush the toilet and wash dishes if needed. And yes, Russian water is usually a brownish yellow color – that color remained somewhat consistent throughout most of the Russian cities I traveled to.

Many of the buildings in St. Petersburg are old and have old pipes. This was why my landlady (babushka) didn’t trust me to filter water (in case you read the previous post). She usually woke up in the morning and let the faucet in the kitchen sink run for ten minutes before filtering and boiling it for tea and coffee. If I woke up ahead of her in the morning and filtered/boiled the water, she was not sure I had let the faucet run for long enough and sometimes dumped out the water I had boiled. So after she showed me how to make sure the water was fresh, it became a normal habit for me to wake in the morning and go straight to the kitchen sink to turn on the water and let it run. And I bathed in that mucky looking water without any troubles the whole year I was there. Bottled Evian water not necessary. It’s actually quite humorous because my experience with Russian water has made me really suspicious of water here in the US. I immediately noticed the taste of chlorine upon my return and now refuse to drink the water, even if it’s filtered because I don’t trust fluoride. 

Other things that became a regular occurrence, aside from the water being shut off, were things regularly breaking (especially the toilet, which was eventually replaced with a new one). We’ve had problems with every new shower head in the apartments we rented while traveling in Russia (and the Ukraine). They would either break, or there was the one time we flooded the apartment below us in Kiev while doing laundry because we didn’t put the draining hose in the bathtub. Turns out this is also common in Russia but the apartment where I lived in St. Petersburg had the hose drain through the sink, so I wasn’t aware of it. Like the water, sometimes the electricity would go off spontaneously and not come back on until the end of the day. While I don’t recall losing heat, I have heard of others losing it in the dead of winter in St. Petersburg. And yes, in public bathrooms most people don’t clog the toilets with toilet paper (though I never really caught on to this). In fact, some public “toilets” are just squatty potties – porcelain bowls in the floor that you squat over. This is mostly common in train stations.

another view of my bedroom.

another view of my bedroom.

The little punches that would get thrown at you on a daily basis became a normal routine part of living in Russia and after awhile, you no longer noticed them. This is why I was chuckling at the journalists complaining in Sochi this past week – as we all used to joke around about, “In Soviet Russia, key unlocks you!” (Personally, I had trouble with the keys and locks on the numerous doors I had to get through to even reach my apartment). Or how about, “In Soviet Russia, elevator lifts you!” I had a friend who got stuck in an elevator at another friend’s apartment building once – it stopped about a foot down into the elevator entrance. All we could see was her feet. Fortunately, the maintenance man came to the rescue. After that I made it a point to always take the stairs.

So there you have it – a brief introduction to living in Russia (or at least St. Petersburg). My personal opinion is that living there is fun and interesting and it keeps you on your toes – you have to watch out for those man holes after all! Which brings me to my next post topic, which will be mostly photographs of “quintessential” Russia – the things I loved seeing day in and day out and which I still miss – man holes included. I will leave you with one last photo – it’s of the entryway to the building I lived in. Something I noticed immediately after seeing a few different apartment buildings in St. Petersburg was the common theme of green and cream-colored split walls (I’ve also noticed the same sort of color scheme in pictures of prison buildings in the US, old and new).

the corrider that leads to my home (I was all the way at the top).

(I was all the way at the top).

and I will add this photo, the dvor (courtyard) to my building.

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roofing in Saint Petersburg.

This past summer when I returned to Saint Petersburg, I wanted to try some things that I’d not done there previously (such as the communal sauna). Roofing was another such activity I had not attempted during the summer of 2011 when I was living in SPB. Roofers – as they are called – are people who love traipsing across the roof tops of Saint Petersburg; many of the experienced roofers manage to get key access to buildings with roof top entrances. To my knowledge, going up on the roofs is prohibited, but apparently that’s not super important. In fact, on this website, you can book yourself a roofing tour. Our tour guide was Vsevolod (Sevo for short).

He took us up onto a roof top that was located along the Fontanka canal. As we entered the apartment building corridor, Sevo explained to us that we must be very very quiet while in the building and on the roof top, and we must step carefully on the ridges of the roof, so as to not fall through the thin aluminum roofing. A word of advice for those interesting in taking a roof tour when in Saint Petersburg, if you are afraid of heights (or if you have vertigo), this probably isn’t for you. Also, wearing shoes with good traction is important – the aluminum roof tops can be slippery. There were two female tourists who also came along and they ended up just sitting on the roof because they did not wear appropriate shoes and were afraid of slipping.

Personally, I am not a lover of heights, especially ones I can easily slip on and fall into the streets below; but it was pretty cool and I would definitely do it again, albeit I’d want to go to a different building top. And Sevo was a pro. He definitely knew what he was doing. Somebody caught us all up on the roof and started yelling at us and chasing us to get off the roof (why they were upset, I do not know). We had to make a very quick exit through the dark and rickety attic of the apartment building and Sevo managed to get us all out in the knick of time – something I am sure he is used to having to do.

Unfortunately, I am not a good city-scape photographer and I feel my pictures just look like a lot of roof top abstract art, but they still can give you a feel for the old and beautiful architecture of Saint Petersburg. And there are a couple good views of the Fontanka canal and the boats passing through.

So, if you are in Saint Petersburg and looking for something different to do, roofing is always an exhilarating option!

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I love the bright green Lada crossing the bridge – quintessential Russia.

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our fearless “roofer” Vsevolod (Sevo)

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our fearless “roofer” Vsevolod (Sevo).

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although this one was not taken from a rooftop, I still love it. 

welcome to my new site.

Hey Everyone!

Welcome to my new site for http://lifeinrussiablog.com!

I hope you like the new theme and layout, but I’m still working out some kinks – like my images are taking forever to load and I am ending up resizing many of them, re-uploading them to the blog and reposting them to the different posts. My apologies for this – I am trying to figure this out with the transfer support.

But I hope you like everything else, regardless :) As I mentioned before, I look forward to bringing you more stories and images from Life in Russia as well as sharing my travels through parts of Russia and other former-Soviet countries. In March I am going to the Czech Republic and would like to post some images from there, as it was formerly a satellite country of the USSR. And this summer, my husband and I will be spending a month living at our dacha in Estonia, which will hopefully provide some more stories to share with you. It will also be good for my language skills, as we will be living in a predominantly Russian community not far from the Russian-Estonian border. After our month there, I am hoping to plan some more time in Moscow and would like to get out to Tyumen region (in Siberia) and Yekaterinburg. When solid plans are made, I will share those with you all.

In the meantime, if you have not yet, please check out the new Facebook page I created (finally!). I try to post photos and other things “Russia” there daily, as well as to Google+.

Also, some images I would like to share with you from another photographer, Elena Chernyshova – I came across these this past week and they are absolutely incredible and very moving. Being a photographer, this is kind of what I dream of doing. Please, take a look at her images from Norilsk, Russia when you have a moment:

http://elena-chernyshova.com/wordpress/blog/2013/05/04/jour-de-nuits-nuit-de-jours/

Additionally, I entered my photos from Chernobyl in another photo contest, as I continue to hope for a grant so I may do more photo projects in Russia. If you feel inclined to send me your vote, it would be greatly appreciated :) Here is where you can vote for me: https://lindzcomer.see.me/yearinreview2013

Thank you all so much for reading and commenting on my site. I love hearing your thoughts and sharing these images and stories with you all.

Best Wishes!

Lindsay

 

an old building on ulitsa Shvetsova, in the "Soviet" area of Saint Petersburg between metro stops Narvskaya and Avtovo.

an old building on ulitsa Shvetsova, in the “Soviet” area of Saint Petersburg between metro stops Narvskaya and Avtovo.

 

Russian white nights.

The Russian winter is cold, dark, depressing and sometimes just downright brutal. Having arrived to Saint Petersburg at the end of January, 2011, my first taste of life in Russia was one of freezing cold temperatures, wet slippery streets and sidewalks, falling “killer” icicles (and ice flying off the roof tops), short days and very little sunshine. It’s no wonder that people from Saint Petersburg break out their bathing suits at the first sight of spring and go sunbathing at the beach by Peter and Paul fortress – snow still on the ground or not.

But then comes the longer days in April and May, and eventually comes the white nights in June, and it’s as if winter really wasn’t such a big deal. One goes from wanting to sleep all the time in winter to not being able to sleep at all in summer – from 11 a.m. sunrise and 4 p.m. sunset in winter to a 4 a.m. sunrise and 1 a.m. “sunset” in summer, which is more like a period of twilight. I remember talking to my landlady’s daughter as the white nights were approaching and she said, during white nights there is no place she would rather be than Saint Petersburg. It really is a magical time – people seem to come out of the woodwork and be out and about until all hours of the night. And then in June is the celebration of “Алые Паруса” – or Scarlett Sails, as shown in this older post of mine.

This past summer, it was so wonderful to be back in Piter for the white nights – it was like being home. Granted, it did make sleep a bit difficult, but it was no matter of concern – just draw the curtains tight and pretend like it’s night!

These photos are from the white nights this past summer. It will give you an idea of how incredibly stellar Saint Petersburg is this time of year. Although I also love the Russian winter and being able to sleep 12 hours if I need, there really is nothing like the white nights. The city comes to life. See for yourself! And please note – I’m pretty sure all these photos were taken between the hours of 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., just to give you an idea.

Nevsky Prospekt.

Nevsky Prospekt. 

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a boat on the Fontanka.

a boat on the Fontanka.

an older man riding his bicycle.

an older man riding his bicycle.

 

an artist - all packed up for the day.

an artist – all packed up for the day.

the circus building.

the circus building.

a young woman riding her bicycle.

a young woman riding her bicycle.

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fishing on the Fontanka.

fishing on the Fontanka.

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ulitsa Belinskogo.

ulitsa Belinskogo.

ulitsa Nekrasova - right down from where I lived on ulitsa Mayakovskogo.

ulitsa Nekrasova – right down from where I lived on ulitsa Mayakovskogo.

an old lada on Liteynyy Prospekt.

an old lada on Liteynyy Prospekt.

Lebyazhya Kanavka around 2 a.m.

Lebyazhya Kanavka around 2 a.m.

Troitskiy Moct (Bridge) is up!

Troitskiy Moct (Bridge) is up!

an artist painting by Troitskiy bridge.

an artist painting by Troitskiy bridge.

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Troitskiy bridge.

Troitskiy bridge.

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Dvortsovaya (palace) embankment.

Dvortsovaya (palace) embankment. 

Merry Christmas everyone!

Dear Blog Followers,

I would like to take a moment to wish you all a very Merry (and Happy) Christmas! Thank you all for taking the time to read my thoughts and experiences and to see my photos of Russia and other former Soviet countries! Please stay tuned for new posts (very soon) and in the coming weeks, I will be expanding the blog to bring new tales of Russia and former Soviet countries :) You all rock and I wish you the very best, this season and always!

Cheers!

Lindsay Comer

Merry Christmas to all! Saint Petersburg, Russia, 2011.

Merry Christmas to all! Saint Petersburg, Russia, 2011.

Murmansk, just after Christmas; this photo was taken at 11:30 a.m.

Murmansk, just after Christmas; this photo was taken at 11:30 a.m.

 

Red Square, Moscow, Russia; snowing in Red Square, just after New Year, 2012.

Red Square, Moscow, Russia; snowing in Red Square, just after New Year, 2012.

 

a day at Peterhof.

Considering I’ve never actually dedicated a post to Peterhof, and also considering there was a blog reader who asked me about it recently, I decided it was high time I do a brief write-up and photo gallery from a day at Peterhof.

This past June when I was back in Saint Petersburg for a visit, I decided to go back to Peterhof for a day. I had been there two years previously, but the weather had not been as nice as this past June and I wanted to go get some photos of the park.

The park at Peterhof is famous for it’s Grand Palace and many fountains. Seriously – this place has a lot of fountains and the park is quite extensive. One of the things I love about some of the large parks surrounding the palaces outside of Petersburg is that you can seemingly walk forever in them and have a relaxing day in nature. One of the perks of the park at Peterhof is that it’s right on the Baltic Sea. In summertime, the park comes to life with tourists and locals alike.

I decided to take the Elektrichka (local train) to Peterhof and walk from the train station into town. You can also get there via Marshrutka (which is like a shared taxi or mini-bus), but it takes a bit longer. The park has an upper garden and a lower garden. The upper garden is free of charge and really quite lovely and peaceful. The lower park (where everyone goes to see the fountains), requires paid entry and is well worth it. You can take a picnic and make an entire day of it.

I won’t go much into detail, as I have many photos highlighting how lovely the park is (and I was also camera spying on lots of people there!) But I do want to provide this website for further information about the park and how to get there, in case you happen to be visiting St. Petersburg. Also, there are a few small fast food joints on the premise, so if you don’t want to bother bringing a lunch, there are other options.

Sometime in the future, I want to go back to the park at Peterhof in winter and photograph everything there in the snow……..

a man waiting on a train platform (while on my way to Peterhof).

a man waiting on a train platform (while on my way to Peterhof).

train platform - Novyy Petergof (New Peterhof).

train platform – Novyy Petergof (New Peterhof).

a woman with her son - approaching the center of town, Peterhof.

a woman with her son – approaching the center of town, Peterhof.

Russian cyrillic spelling of "Country Chicken".

Russian cyrillic spelling of “Country Chicken”.

the center of town - Peterhof.

the center of town – Peterhof.

two women tending the flower beds in Peterhof park.

two women tending the flower beds in Peterhof park.

in the upper park - Peterhof.

in the upper park – Peterhof.

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the woman with her umbrella.

the woman with her umbrella.

the upper park, Peterhof.

the upper park, Peterhof.

a little boy happily playing with the ducks in the fountain pool.

a little boy happily playing with the ducks in the fountain pool.

a young woman with her children in the lower park.

a young woman with her children in the lower park.

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a mother and daughter getting a photo taken with the people in costume.

a mother and daughter getting a photo taken with the people in costume.

the Grand palace and many fountains.

the Grand palace and many fountains.

a little girl sitting near a fountain.

a little girl sitting near a fountain.

the statue of Eve.

the statue of Eve.

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The Marli Palace.

The Marli Palace.

a bride and his groom.

a bride and his groom.

the circle trees along the hillside - one of my favorite images at Peterhof.

the circle trees along the hillside – one of my favorite images at Peterhof.

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The Marli Palace.

The Marli Palace.

the pool in front of the Marli Palace.

the pool in front of the Marli Palace.

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stairway on the hill.

stairway on the hill.

I love this view of the trees on the hillside with the brick wall below.

I love this view of the trees on the hillside with the brick wall below.

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a little boy in his stroller.

a little boy in his stroller.

the Hermitage Pavilion.

the Hermitage Pavilion.

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by far my favorite picture from Peterhof - the couple walking next to an iconic old Lada.

by far my favorite picture from Peterhof – the couple walking next to an iconic old Lada.

a couple embracing in the Baltic Sea.

a couple embracing in the Baltic Sea.

the little girl in her pink polka-dot dress and bonnet.

the little girl in her pink polka-dot dress and bonnet.

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all dolled up.

all dolled up.

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the Grand palace.

the Grand palace.

sitting ducks.

sitting ducks.

more views of the Grand Palace.

more views of the Grand Palace.

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newlyweds posing for a photo.

newlyweds posing for a photo.

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another statue and fountain.

another statue and fountain.

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among the dandelions.

among the dandelions.

peaceful Peterhof.

peaceful Peterhof.

fountain - in the middle of the maze.

fountain – in the middle of the maze.

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a little girl playing under a fountain.

a little girl playing under a fountain.

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trying not to get wet!

trying not to get wet!

a little girl getting soaked playing near the water-squirting rose garden.

a little girl getting soaked playing near the water-squirting rose garden.

another palace (not sure of the name of this one).

another palace (not sure of the name of this one).

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The entrance to the lower gardens.

The entrance to the lower gardens.

the cathedral at the Grand Palace.

the cathedral at the Grand Palace.

the center of town, Peterhof.

the center of town, Peterhof.

the little elderly couple eating their ice cream cones on the train ride home :)

the little elderly couple eating their ice cream cones on the train ride home :)