ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—Even in the brilliant light of the city’s famed white nights it was difficult to forget the first piece of advice I received when I arrived in Russia: don’t look the police in the eye.
As I traveled around the city my grandmother grew up in, I remembered the stories I had heard during the past few weeks—stories about police stopping new cars on the road and slipping cocaine into the trunks, claiming it belonged to the owners. I had heard, too, of doctors committed to psychiatric institutions after telling visiting officials that their hospitals were inaccurately portrayed, and of journalists meeting thugs on secluded roads after protesting the government-sanctioned destruction of a nature reserve. I listened to recounts of elderly women rushed to hospitals with stroke symptoms, only to enter into comas while they waited for nearly 24 hours without care. I was told that even when opposition candidates had cast votes for themselves, the final tally indicated that not a single vote was cast for any party other than United Russia—or, in other parts of the country, that United Russia received more than 100 percent of the vote. Some citizens longed for Soviet times, they said, because at least then there was law and order.
I wanted so badly to love the city of my grandmother’s youth. And I did, to an extent—the rivers, canals, world-class museums and beautiful churches—but I could never shake the feeling of insecurity that I’d gotten on day one. Despite Russia’s diplomatic show of being an increasingly open and democratic nation, there’s still a ways to go before the people have trust in their government.
Katie R. Zavadski ’13, a news editor, is a Comparative Study of Religion concentrator in Lowell House.