By Rebecca Thorne

They cannot comprehend it. ‘Why Russian?’ they ask without fail, surprised, curious, sceptical. ‘Why do you want to come here?’

We meet Peter in a restaurant in St Petersburg where he works as a waiter. He is delighted to be able to practice his English with native speakers and amazed when he discovers we can speak his language. He keeps finding excuses to return to our table and talk to us. It is obvious he loves to practice his English, and we humour him: his English is better than our Russian anyway.

Just before we leave, he hesitantly asks how much longer we are staying in St Petersburg. ‘We can meet up?’ 

We arrange to meet in a bar a few days later: three British students, Peter and his girlfriend. Peter orders lemonade, his girlfriend tea, and they laugh when we suggest vodka. ‘We don’t drink vodka,’ Peter says. ‘It is mostly the older people who drink it.’

His girlfriend understands our conversation, but isn’t confident enough to take part, whispering comments to Peter that he translates. We learn that they are both studying psychology at university here, but from September they will start a masters course in business psychology in Moscow. I ask if they will stay there after they graduate.

‘We would like to go to Iceland,’ he says. ‘Or perhaps Norway. But we don’t want to stay in Russia.’

When I ask if they have ever been to England, he laughs: no, of course not. ‘It is too expensive. And the visa.’ As a waiter, he earns about £2 per hour.

Peter is not the only one who wants to leave Russia. Vladimir, a sixteen-year-old who shows us around the city on our first few days, wrinkles his nose when he talks of his homeland. Yet when we suggest he visit us in England, he shrugs noncommittally: he clearly doesn’t believe it will ever happen.

I think back to a conversation I had with a Russian girl at university back home in England. She told me she burst into tears when she arrived into London Heathrow. ‘My family live in the north of Russia,’ she explained. ‘I study in the south. It takes me ten hours to travel home. I never thought I would come to England. It’s a dream come true.’ Tears rise to her eyes again at the memory.

These people were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty-five years ago, and never experienced first-hand the restrictions that were in force during that period of their nation’s past. Nonetheless, there remains a feeling of entrapment prevalent among young Russians. It makes me thankful that I was born in a country where I have never had reason to question my freedom, and that for me, the answer to the question ‘why’ can be ‘why not?’

Images © Rebecca Thorne
Read more about Rebecca's experiences in St Petersburg on her blog: