I arrived in Rostov-on-Don a week ago now. The journey was long, and something was different from before. Before, when I lived in Tver. I spent 8 months in Russia in 2013 for my year abroad, and since then Russia’s relationship with the West has changed somewhat drastically. When I told people that I was going to Russia then, the reaction was bemusement. Now it’s more incredulity. Why would I go to Russia at all, never mind consciously choose to spend another year there? And now, with the current political climate? Why not go to France and utilise the other language that I had printed in my degree title? But maybe that would be too easy. I love living in France, but when will I get another chance to really get to know Russia? There are so many more places to see!
The changes between then and now already became apparent during my journey. Asking to exchange money for rubles in Edinburgh, I was met with an oddly dour expression. “We wouldn’t do that”. Thinking this reaction somewhat strange, since I had definitely exchanged money in Edinburgh airport when I went to Russia 3 years ago, I asked again at another bureau upstairs. At least I was given a proper answer here, that rubles are no longer legal tender in the UK due to sanctions. This, I had not even considered. And it was the first instant of doubt that I had about going to Russia since the idea had been proposed earlier this year, or perhaps it had been after my recent reading of a book about the Russian political sphere of influence post-USSR and its deteriorating relationship with the West. How should I actually feel about going there? Should I be afraid? Do I have something to fear? I got onto the plane. So many empty seats.
When I arrived in Moscow, I saw straight away that many things here had not changed. Russian efficiency had not improved; this was evident as we were slowly herded through passport control and were then told that the flight from Moscow to Rostov-on-Don was cancelled, 10 minutes before boarding. At 7am, when I had had no sleep. Just par for the course here, eh.
So, arriving in a surprisingly rainy Rostov 2 hours later than planned, I was feeling pretty exhausted and eager to get to my apartment. I was met by the international coordinator, Ludmila, for the university, who suggested we have lunch together at the canteen round the corner. Memories can flooding back of the столовая in Tver, where we would eat cheap mystery meats and soups after class. I couldn’t help but smiling as I ordered голубцы, meat and rice balls in cabbage leaves. From the outside, it seemed like a lot had changed. But it seemed that life had gone on as usual here. Maybe things wouldn’t be so very different.
After a much-needed nap, Ludmila took me to a supermarket to buy essentials for my flat. She and her husband were so kind to me, taking me under their wing, offering me breads and giving me a brief tour of the city on our way back. I was back to being Анушка, Аня, Russian diminutives of my name. People rarely call me Anna here, which I initially found quite funny since, logically, my name is already short, but pretty much every name is changed here in informal conversation. It’s a Russian quirk that I love; hearing these names again made me feel instantly welcome.
A first day in a new city and so many different thoughts about what kind of life awaited me here. Apprehension, excitement, nostalgia and the unknown. Different from before but also so very familiar.