Discovering Russia(s)

In addition to interviews with international faculty, The HSE Lookis launching a new feature – a column about their life in Russia, what they discover in different cities, and interesting venues at HSE and beyond. If you have an interesting experience to share, please contact us at In this issue, we present a column by Victor Attila Albert.

People often tell me that Moscow is not the ‘real’ Russia. I’ve heard this said of many other cities: London is not the real England; New York is not the real US; Rio is not the real Brazil. However, the notion of a real Russia is quite misleading, unless we only think in stereotypical terms. Perhaps one day I’ll find this ‘real Russia’: at the dacha, while playing chess and drinking vodka and eating Olivier-style salad – a living and breathing Russian stereotype (disclaimer: I have done most of these things and confess that it did feel ‘really Russian’, but I digress!). In the meantime, it would seem better to assume that in a massive, multi-ethnic, multi-faith federation of continental size, there are – to borrow a phrase from my other adopted home, Brazil - many Russias, which interrelate and mutually influence each other.

Like many of my fellow colleagues (and students), I am curious by nature. Nevertheless, that curiosity can be satisfied in a place like Moscow, where so much is concentrated in one place, as it’s the centre of politics and business, and also the centre of cultural and leisure activities that make life here so fun and interesting. So, sometimes it is important to push yourself out of your comfort zone and usual interests and go travelling, to discover and explore these ‘other Russias’. Of course, like other visitors to Russia I’ve been to St. Petersburg (and more than once), which is impressive and – despite its status as a big modernizing project - has a more human scale than Moscow. While I do enjoy galleries, museums and so on, I’m just as happy to explore everyday life, experience and try different stolovayas, local cafes and bakeries, or to see a local band or even a good street musician (if you can dodge the swarms of Peters the Great that crowd the centre of town and offer to be photographed with them).
In addition to St. Petersburg, I’ve also spent a few days in Nizhny Novgorod, which, a few hours from Moscow, was an obvious place to continue this exploration. We stayed over the river from the old centre, near a square that featured a large statue of Lenin pointing the way forward. This part of the city, characterized by the modern functionalism of the Soviet era contrasted sharply with the baroque buildings lining the streets of the old centre, which is a place for tourism and commerce. The most impressive thing for me, though, was the white Kremlin and the view it afforded of the confluence of the Oka and Volga Rivers. The immensity of the Russian steppe is hard to gauge from just a train window, but this view at the intersection of two such important rivers helped me to understand how Russia’s geography has helped to shape its history, as Trotsky famously notes in his introduction to the Revolution.
My department has helped me in my cultural exploration, through various teaching and study trips. Most notable among them (as my colleague Arnab mentioned previously in these pages) was to Rostov Veliky last year, which is home to a large monastery by the shore of Lake Nero. Visiting this monastery, in the cold and under overcast skies, you are struck by the solitary beauty and solemn life of the devout. From Rostov, we visited Yaroslavl, which had an interesting combination of old and new, nice places to stop and eat, and also a beautiful river walk where we stopped to get cups of tea to warm ourselves. Next, in the Golden Ring, I plan to visit Vladimir, where we have a close colleague who will provide important background information. So, the visits won’t only be a slideshow, but one that informs a larger understanding of Russia’s political and social history.
Apart from these visits in and around Moscow, I also have plans to visit Kazan and Irkutsk (and its great lake) next year. I am told that it is possible to do winter trips on Baikal and camp out on the ice. For this Australian, used to the sun and warmth, that might be a step too far! At a later date, I would love to visit Russia’s Far East, Primorsky Territory and perhaps Kamchatka.

These are big, geographic explorations, which I love. At the same time, you don’t have to travel far to explore. You can do your own exploration in the kitchen, by learning to cook new dishes, by reading a history book, by joining a sports team or checking out a band, or (like I do!) explore via the language, a long and arduous process, but one so necessary for anything much that is socially meaningful. Yes, the grammar is hard (and the genitive plural case, e.g. “bratiev”… was that really necessary?), but if anything can be said to be the ‘Real Russia’, it is the Russia experienced every day through conversations and interaction in its native language. This is what I plan to do.

Victor Attila Albert is an Assistant Professor at Public Policy Department, Faculty of Social Sciences. Victor completed his PhD in Social Anthropology at La Trobe University (Australia) in 2013. His research interests include social movements and participatory democracy, urban planning, and a range of public policy issues, including housing and environmental policy.

Read more in The HSE Look July 2018 issue