The idea of volunteering first came to my mind when I was around 18-19. I was in the 12th grade and slowly realising that I’m about to graduate high school, which meant that my life as I knew it would change drastically and I had to think about what I want to do. Turns out that your thoughts don’t have any limits, which kinda means that you can do everything you can think of. Kinda. I probably can’t be the next Vissarion, the self-proclaimed god of Siberia, but you know – almost everything.
Although the thought about doing something out of the comfort zone through volunteering came to stay, I didn’t really do anything for that thought until I was 24. I probably had a subconscious external push by someone I saw, something someone said or just a weird dream. The point is, that I don’t know what happened, but I decided that now is the time to do it and went for it 100%, full-throttle, all the way – the decision was made. The world is huge and, as far as I know, the European Solidarity Corps (ESC) doesn’t try to hide it, which means that the different destination possibilities for volunteering are proportionally endless. Luckily I had an obsession to see, feel and learn more about Russia for some time already and I didn’t have the challenge of choosing a destination. Although I had another challenge – explaining to my friends and family why I chose Russia, when I had the possibility to go almost everywhere. It’s hard to reasonably explain an obsession. How do you explain something that is essentially just a feeling? I guess you can’t. Anyways, I had a few reasonable enough answers, which explained the decision just well enough to go to the next topic.
I flew to Russia on the 15th of February, 2020. Although I had been trying to study Russian daily for a few months before leaving then, truth be told, I understood very little and could speak even less. Still, I didn’t worry and I didn’t feel nervous – the decision was made. At that point I didn’t believe much in the effectiveness of learning a language on your own and I thought that the best (read: right) way to learn a language is to be in that environment 24/7, cry and adapt.
I’m from Estonia. Although I was born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the signs of the time that once defined us stayed around for decades, which means that moving to Nizhny Novgorod wasn’t actually all that different from the stuff that I had already seen back home. The sea of panel houses, marshrutkas working on bare faith and babushkas on the streets, selling everything they could to get something extra for their pension. Also russian language is something that you hear around the city of Tallinn daily, which all together made me believe that I won’t get to know what it means to experience culture shock. I was wrong. I was very wrong. The few weeks were a lot harder than I thought. Of course, it didn’t help that I sincerely believed that I’m some kind of a superman when it comes to adapting to new situations and the term “culture shock” just doesn’t apply to me. I was constantly tired, I didn’t have any motivation to do anything and just going to the Пятёрочка (popular grocery store in Russia) around the corner took a lot of mental preparation. And when the cashier says something out of the previously scripted dialogue in your head? End. Of. The. World.
Eventually, it gets better and everything feels almost normal. There’s not much else you can do than to understand that this is happening, this is normal, it will get better and you’re not the only one. It’s okay, trust me. Or don’t. You’ll have to endure this time any which way, heh.
The current situation in our world affects us all and my project was no exception. I waited years to go on a project and I chose the time when the pandemic escalated from zero-to-hundred in a matter of weeks. So it goes. I did have a few weeks of normal life at Nizhny before this happened but back then a big portion of my energy went to dealing with my new surroundings (culture shock) and mostly planning future events. I know, right? Now, I’m back home in Estonia, a month before my planned return. Looking back I spent more than half of my time in Russia at my apartment with my two flatmates – Marcin and Lubica. I feel really lucky to have had these two people stuck with me because, thanks to them, I learned something new every day and it really made it easier to slowly come to terms with the fact that I was facing. The fact that I couldn’t go walk around the walls of Kreml, which I had been postponing for a few weeks earlier, thinking I have time. The fact that I can’t constantly surround myself with fellow russians, drink vodka with strangers, try to fit in while desperately trying to mumble something in russian. The fact that I can’t ride the cable car over the largest river in Europe and see Bor, the city on the other side. And the fact that I can’t take multiple trains through Russia and trip to Siberia.
But that’s all fine. It’s all fine cause there’s no point in dwelling on your regrets making the situation even worse on your own. Because sometimes there’s just nothing you can really do. Of course it took me some time not to see this as a personal failure, come to terms with the situation and remember the stoic approach to focus on the things we can change, not stress our minds on the things we can’t. Eventually, we’ll get through this unique time and when we do, it’s important that we don’t forget what we felt.
I have no regrets and even though being in a new culture can be challenging at times, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Russia and my weird obsession hasn’t changed. I learned a lot from this little experience and I hope that I have the strength to identify the things that I actually want to do and not postpone them to the unknown future. Go to that international project, walk in those Kreml walls and take that trip to Siberia.
Do it now.
To be honest, I don’t really feel that I’m in a position to share a lot of my views about Russia at this time, as I didn’t get to see as close as much of this country as I had planned and I feel those views are still too raw, not ready to be taken out of the oven. But I do hope that maybe I managed to give someone that missing external push to do the things you’ve always thought about. Think about it.
When it comes to my relationship with Russia, I guess it’s already obvious that I have some unfinished business and I have to go back. Until then, I have plenty of time to improve my russian through tv series and speaking apps. To not forget these emotions and feelings that I had, I luckily have some photos from my time in Russia to remind me, some of which I’d like to share with you.
- It’s really hard to grasp the size of Russia but sometimes, while looking to the neverending horizon, you can almost feel it.
2. The notorious orange marshrutkas and signs of depreciation on a hotel that once used to be new and awe-inspiring.
3. Maslenitsa in one of the most beautiful places in Nizhny Novgorod, the Switzerland park (Парк «Швейцария»). First sign of the ending greyness of winter and the beginning of sunny spring. First of March.
4. For some reason I really like these small corner shops all around Nizhny, where you can get everything you need. Disappearing phenomenon in the western world and definitely has some kind of a nostalgic vibe to it.
5. KHL play-offs. Nizhny Novgorod Torpedos vs. Moscow CSKA. I had only been there for a few weeks but the national anthem and the surrounding atmosphere made me forgot all this and I was ready to root for my temporary home club as loudly as I could.
6. My humble attempt to fit in as a local gopnik while going to my home corner shop.
7. Accidental Renaissance. Weekend turned to Tuesday. I always wondered who lived in these boat-houses on Volga until on one day, when we were having our quarantine-walk with Marcin and managed to pull out a delirium-level-drunk mister from the freezing river. Picture taken after the incident.
8. My relationship with religion is complicated but the beauty of churches has never ceased to amaze me. This is something that Russia definitely has a lot to offer. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, 1881.
9. Higher, faster, stronger. An olympic piece next to a hockey stadium, on the side of a panel house back from the soviet times. Some always needed motivation to keep on going.
10. Before a long overnight train ride. Unfortunately not to the East but to the West and back home to safely wait for all of this to blow over. One day. Удачи!
Автор Hedrik Vellama.