Nqobile Tshili, [email protected]
THE enchanting experience of traveling to Moscow and Saint Petersburg in the Russian Federation left a lasting impression. As part of the InteRussia Fellowship Programme for International Journalists, I joined a diverse group of journalists from African countries to immerse ourselves in Russia’s culture and alternative perspectives provided by Sputnik News Agency and Radio.
We were attached to the biggest media news agency in Russia, Sputnik News Agency and Radio whose aim is to give the world alternative content from what the Western media propagates especially with regards to Russia and the Ukrainian conflict.
Contrary to the Western portrayal of Russia as an aggressor in the Ukrainian conflict, our journey unveiled a more complex reality, with many Russians having relatives living in Ukraine.
Issues like the banning of the Russian language in certain Ukrainian regions were unreported in the media, but experiencing it first-hand allowed us to see beyond the headlines.
But what struck me more is how the Russians seem to be going about their business seemingly oblivious of the “war torn” country they live in.
Beyond the geopolitical backdrop, Russia’s architectural wonders captured our imagination. The majestic seven sisters, skyscrapers built during Stalin’s reign dominate Moscow’s skyline.
These grand structures, like the Moscow State University and Hotel Ukraina, symbolise the fusion of political ideology and architectural design, which continues to influence modern-day construction in the city.
We visited the Moscow State University and on the left and right of the tower there is a sculpture of peasants’ parents.
Sergey, one of the tour guides who took us through the tour of Moscow explained that the sculptures of peasants’ parents is meant to encourage students walking into the university that they should not be limited by their background when embarking on their academic journey.
He explained that even to date, the construction of skyscrapers in Moscow is influenced by the seven sisters as was envisioned by Stalin more than 70 years ago.
What I also found intriguing is that the political ideology was translated to architectural designs and still influences modern-day construction of high rise buildings in Moscow.
As we navigated Moscow’s vast expanse, the city’s efficient public transport system, which serves 17 million residents, left us in awe. The metro, hailed as the underground palace of Moscow, transported us seamlessly across the city.
Reliable, cheap, and accommodating, the metro serves as a model for Zimbabwe to emulate in curbing our often chaotic transportation system.
On the official first day a member of the Gorchakov Fund, visited our hotel room to take us to where our first meeting would be held. He brought along a card which we later called the metro card.
The card enabled us to access the metro station and his instruction was very simple; “Do not lose this card, you are going to use it wherever you want to go in Moscow either by rail or by bus.”
We relied on the metro train for most of our trips in Moscow and the train starts operating at 5AM to 1AM on a daily basis and reaches every part of the city. The metro station in Moscow is called the underground palace of Moscow largely due to the architectural design of the station and its efficiency.
Before taking a ride into a metro train, one has to appreciate where they are going as there would be several trains moving on different lines going to different stations.
The train is used by most residents in Moscow and is highly reliable and cheap with a trip costing less than US$0,50 and once in the metro you can change trains without any cost.
In case one misses a train, they are guaranteed to get into the next metro after two minutes and in case you miss your station, there is always a train moving the opposite direction.
The same metro card also enables one to use the local buses but I observed that the buses were not as popular as the train. An efficient and reliable public transport system could be something that Zimbabwe needs to learn from Russia and can rid the country of the chaotic illegal taxi operators.
On Sundays, Moscow’s parks come alive with various artistic performances, providing a serene escape from the bustling city. Zimbabwe can learn from this rejuvenation of recreational spaces to create vibrant public places.
Preserving cultural heritage, the Peterhof Museum in Saint Petersburg stands as a testament to Russia’s rich history. It is a majestic palace which was built by Russian Tsar, Peter the Great between 1714 and 1723. This man-made wonder and other heritage sites showcased Russia’s ability to capitalise on its resources, an aspect Zimbabwe can leverage.
One of the tour guides Alena Malykhina stated that the museum is visited by at least 2 000 visitors daily and is among the top tourists destinations. The Peterhof Museum Reserve still has some artefacts that the monarchy used to use. However, some of the artefacts had to be replaced after they were destroyed by the Nazis in the 1940s during the Second World War, Malykhina said.
St Petersburg City, was declared a heritage site meaning most of its exterior buildings are not renovated. The city has become a tourist destination for maintaining its infrastructure unchanged. While in Zimbabwe, most of our tourists’ destinations are natural, it was fascinating to observe that in Moscow and St Petersburg, their heritage sites and tourist destinations are manmade and the locals have an attachment to them. Hence, Zimbabwe with its natural and manmade heritage sites can learn from Russia on how to monetise on resources that it has.
The language barrier could be the biggest downside to enjoying the full Russian experience. While the Russian people are warmly and would extend a helping hand where they could, the language barrier became a serious hindrance to communication.
While the language barrier posed challenges, Russia’s establishment of cultural centres in African countries offers opportunities for students to learn the language and tap into Russian Government scholarships. Learning the Russian language puts students at a strategic position to acquire scholarships extended by the Russian Government with statistics showing that the population of African students has tripled within a decade in Russia.
Despite the absence of traditional Russian sausages in their fast-food outlets, Russia’s cuisine still delighted our palates with a diverse array of flavours.
Luckily, we visited Russia during summer, escaping the notorious Russian winter. The sun’s late setting and early rise surprised us, making the most of our time in this captivating country.