From the 20-25 January 2013 I visited the city of St. Petersburg, giving lectures in two prominent academic institutions – the University of Humanities and Social Sciences and the European University at St. Petersburg. During and after my stay, I was left with the following impressions:
St. Petersburg is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, either under its mantle of white, crispy snow in February, or even more so in the soft late evening glow of June – a period known as the “White Nights”, when inhabitants stay out sunbathing on the tidy, sloping banks of the Neva river until almost midnight.
Both Peter the Great and Catherine the Great laid out their city with detailed care and great taste. They employed Italian and other European architects from the top drawer and created an urban wonderland of matchless allure. This city competes confidently with Paris, Versailles and Rome in its bold geometric layout, its imposing white façades and its attractive clear-cut canals (second only to Venice). The subtle sprinkling of Russian churches, especially the Church of Spilled Blood, remind one that one stands on Russian soil, so easy to forget in this celebration of Italianate splendour.
The city’s amenities match its beauty. Few galleries or museums offer as much as the Hermitage, few theatres compare with the Mariinsky Ballet. My hotel – the Ambassador – left nothing to be desired in terms of room quality and services.
If I seem to enthuse over the physical aspects of the visit, I would not like it to relegate to second rank my impressions of my hosts and of other personal encounters during my stay. I had visited the city in the Soviet time and, though I was charmed unequivocally by the town then, I was struck by the transformation of Leningrad of the 1980s into 21st century St. Petersburg. My chief host, Professor Alexander Zapesotsky, the President of Humanities, is arguably Russia’s leading interculturalist – a devoted disciple of the legendary Likachev. He invited me to speak on “Cross-cultural competence is the basis for success in international business.” The audience consisted of 80 graduates and post-graduate students as well as professors. As my remarks were extended over a 2-day period, it was more of a seminar than a lecture, involving healthy participation by those present. My second workshop, a 4-5 hour session with a similar audience in the European University, evoked another keen participatory response. Oleg Kharkhordin, Rector, and Kirill Bykov, Director for GR, were affable hosts.
In both universities I was impressed by audience quality, in marked contrast to those I had addressed in earlier times in Moscow. Soviet-epoch audiences listened dutifully, but their reactions were restrained, smiles guarded, feedback almost non-existent. The audiences I now addressed in St Petersburg were warm, sympathetic listeners, showing keen interest in other cultures. The age group was about 22-50; they all evinced willingness to ask questions. Their responses indicated that they were knowledgeable, though many of them had not crossed national borders. Their questioning was open and without any evident bias.
Russia, with its vast land expanses, shares frontiers with many nations. Consequently Russians all around the perimeter are familiar with the habits of a considerable number of other peoples and consequently inherit a certain amount of intercultural insight.
Russia is in fact one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world (alongside Canada and the United States) therefore cross-cultural discussions are of great interest and very meaningful for Russians.
The more I interacted with them, the more I realised that they possess the totality of what I would consider essentially European characteristics – generosity, courtesy, compassion, love of learning, sense of humour, eloquence, etc. They also possess a few sterling Asian traits such as adaptability, self-sacrifice and stoicism in adversity. In summary, I sensed strongly their breadth of vision – a quality that must serve them well in the future.
What is their future?
What indeed is Russian cultural identity? From what I have seen of Russians over the last couple of years, I am optimistic for them. On top of the wealth of qualities that I have outlined above (and which must imply capacity for leadership in both European and Eurasian contexts), the country is reputed for its rich and comprehensive artistic history (literature, music, ballet, opera, theatre, painting, architecture) as well as its advances in the fields of science and space technology. The nation’s extensive assets in oil, gas and minerals should provide a steady improvement in standards of education and living in general. Russians have already begun to travel abroad in large numbers, thereby broadening their knowledge and worldview from year to year. It would be a mistake to underestimate or discount Russian influence in the coming decade.