Being here in Rostov-on-Don is both totally new and extremely familiar at the same time. Since I have already spent time in Russia, there are many aspects of life and culture here that I don’t find so surprising this time around. Compared to my Spanish colleagues, for whom this experience is their first time in Russia, our ‘first impressions’ somewhat differ. I already feel used to life here, and think the city is pretty great so far, but my comparison is Tver, not the West. It’s interesting to compare my own impressions of the city with those of other foreigners, and reminds me of my initial reservations and culture shock I had 3 years ago.
So what have I found surprising here? That it’s totally modern! That has been my biggest shock so far, and a welcome one. There are Western shops and brands everywhere, everything from Vans to H&M to Hugo Boss to KFC, people have cars other than Ladas, the streets are relatively clean and drivable, the water runs clear and their are no pumps in the street from which you need to siphon your weekly water supply. What a revelation, is this what modern Russia looks like? Not to sound totally patronising, the opposite in fact. Whereas Tver felt very much like the typical provincial town still stuck in a moment of history when , Rostov is the kind of buzzing, current, easy city that I had hoped for but imagined only existed as Moscow or St. Petersburg. Everything else, all the other problems and negatives just…are. Everything works so slowly here, there is so much bureaucracy and documents for everything, the buses are a daily throwback to the 70s, and the buildings are often in a state of disrepair, but when you can get a Pumpkin Spiced Latte and stock up on the latest MAC products who cares!
And herein lies an important point about globalisation and my own personal Western bias. Admittedly, I googled what shops there were in Rostov before I arrived. I was so excited to see H&M, Zara, Lush… Things that would remind me of home and bridge the gap between cultures. But of course the presence of Western shops is not the sign of a perfect society. And obviously I’ve found so much more than shops and brands to comfort me. The people here have been so amazingly friendly and welcoming, non-judgemental about my poor Russian, interested in other cultures, and dare I say it, normal? Dissatisfied with many of the day-to-day problems in Russian society, as with the inequalities and ignorance of politicians and citizens alike. People complain about Russia and people complain about Russians.
At home they say that People Make Glasgow. I think it’s pretty true here too. Shops and cafes are nice, but they are superficial, they don’t mean anything. I would happily collect my water in the street again and be with these people. It’s been so refreshing to meet people with liberal attitudes, which was hard to find in Tver. Maybe it’s the Southern sun. My second first impressions, are that Rostov is a modern city, but not for its KFC. For its people.