Beneath the surprisingly palatable and “normal” façade, however, it was easy to see that there was something rotten in the state of Russia. Talking to local people and looking at the advertisements and snippets of daily life that could be seen through the fog of tourism there was a clear disparity between the polish and the surface underneath. On the macro level I was amazed to see that Soviet symbolism was still rampant not only in architecture and historical monuments but in modern advertising and propaganda. On a micro level, it is clear that the citizens, though living on the surface of the country, could sense the rot underneath—a feeling with which I am horrifically familiar. In a shop in Saint Petersburg my friends and I asked a girl for directions and ended up having a conversation with her. When she heard what state I was from in the US she was ecstatic, telling me that one of her good friends lived there and she hoped she could visit him someday. After a few more minutes we invited her to have a drink with us after work and hearing more about her life over those drinks was the most eye-opening part of my trip. She works at three jobs to help support her family as well as going to school for graphic design. She desperately wants to get out to somewhere in the EU so she can escape the cycle of poverty her family is trapped in, but her English is broken and visas out of Russia are insanely, prohibitively expensive. She is clearly doing her best and was so optimistic and sweet it broke my heart every moment she talked about the US with longing. She was so clearly in love with the Minnesotan guy she had met and could so vividly imagine her better life that having it out of her grasp hurt even more.
On our last day in Russia we made a visit to a university that is affiliated with the one I attend here. Beneath the 10-foot statue of Lenin we met the students from the University who were asked to show us around their town after a few lectures from both sets of professors. The girl guiding my friends and I was an engineering and management student. She also spoke less than perfect English, but told us that she hated where she lived and wanted to move to Saint Petersburg so that she could actually have a good job and a different life from her parents. Even though her school works very hard to place graduates in the region they come from, she couldn’t see the use of living somewhere where the community is dying. Her town was full of history and beautiful churches but she seemed so disheartened by all of it at only 18. Seeing these girls so close to my age struggling with burdens so different but so similar to those with which my peers and I back home struggle was incredible and humbling. Wherever we live, we live with the same fears, the same aspirations, the same push to something greater against the same power structures and the same crumbling societies. I wish them the best. And I wish that someday, somewhere, we may see girls doing better.