In August 2021, without leaving Russia I got the closest I had ever been to Europe in the last two years. But what is Europe to me, a female teaching an international language for a living born in the late 1980s in a tiny town in what used to be the USSR? Besides, given my humble origin, I am quite well-travelled. Actually, it was in Europe, a part of the world abundant in history and beauty, that my love for exploring the world started. Growing up in the country where the Iron Curtain was still a poignant memory, I could only dream of traveling abroad. There is no paradise anywhere, but I think a lot of us in this country were born with the ‘grass is always greener’ idea. At least living in the European part of Russia I knew the Western civilization was technically close by. After a few trips to Europe do I feel European now as an adult?
Historically, in Russia there has been ‘perceived inferiority to Europe’. Our closer relationship with it started with Peter the Great (by the way, he built the first Russian fleet in my home region) who decided to open ‘a window onto Europe’ and establish his state’s presence in the Baltic region. For that purpose what we now call the capital of the North, St.Petersburg, which is still the most European place in this country, came into being. In the 19th century French became vogue for nobility who used this European language to highlight their social status as well as to feel more connected to Europe. These days more Russians (regardless of their origin) are able to travel outside the country. They no longer need French to develop an attachment to a more civilized world – one can as well learn English which is used in even more remote places. The world might have changed, but Europe is still one of the most sought-after destinations for traveling and even living for modern Russians.
There has been a sense of ‘us vs. them’ when it comes to Russia and Europe. It might seem irrational to compare what is only one country (even straddling two continents) with a group of more than twenty. But you’ve seen me using the word „Europe“ as if ignoring this. In fact, this is pretty much how we see Europe — as something abstract and ordered in a more civilized and sophisticated manner. I guess we just choose to stay oblivious to the astounding social, economic, political, linguistic, etc. heterogeneity of the European Union. Witnessing how little the name has had with the actual state of affairs over the last few years doesn’t seem to have changed this vision much.
Apart from the sense of inferiority and seeing Europe as a universally better-ordered world, in Russia there has been a growing movement of ‘romantic nationalism’ promoting the idea of the country’s superiority to the West. The so-called ‘rotten’ Europe has repeatedly been reported to be spreading ideas and values which are not acceptable to some conservative Russians. A lot of fellow countrymen (probably less-traveled ones in particular) choose to embrace what is the country’s ‘Asian’ identity associated with a more traditional way of living. Some foreign commentators use the term ‘Eurasean’ to describe more precisely how Russia is projecting itself globally.
In the 19th century there were two rivaling movements — Slavophiles and Westernisers. The former relied on the idea of the uniqueness of the ‘Russian way’ while the latter believed that emulating the Western lifestyle was what could help the country thrive. I guess Russians will always stay divided on how they see Europe. The world might have changed politically, but some issues will always be there (at least during our lifetime).
So, how do I feel about Europe? I would say my feelings have been mixed recently. All I know is that my rose-colored glasses are now off. Despite still referring to it collectively as ‘Europe’, I can see more clearly how divided the countries constituting it have been. Without going too much into politics, we can see divisions and inconsistencies in its language policies, for example. Besides, even before the pandemic, we never felt welcome there. Getting a Schengen visa isn’t much of a deal, but the very fact that you have to submit all this paperwork to reach the more sophisticated part of the world does make you feel a bit like ‘a second-class citizen’.
The pandemic has also made Russia the only sensible traveling option for us. It has been nice so far — there are places to see in this country without having to comply with the draconic European health regulations. I hope I am not just saying that not to feel so bad about my ‘withdrawal’ from foreign (including European) trips. Despite some disillusionment or simply growing out of the ‘grass is always greener’ idea, on my way to the westernmost part of Russia I couldn’t stop dreaming of reuniting with ‘Europe’ in the nearest future when the world (including the more ‘civilized’ parts of it) starts opening up. Even though I knew it wasn’t a trip to the real ‘sophisticated’ Europe (at least geopolitically), I came to Kaliningrad Region looking for some pieces of the civilization I had to admit I was missing a lot.