Friendliness and Friendship
“Дружба подобна сокровищнице: из нее невозможно
почерпнуть больше, чем ты в нее вложил.”
“Friendship is like a treasure trove, you cannot extract
from it more than you have put in.”
A recent survey in Travel + Leisure magazine placed my hometown, St Petersburg, among the five ‘most unfriendly’ cities in the world, a fact remarked upon by the Economist’s ‘Gulliver’ business travel blog. While Petersburgers like myself might take comfort from the fact that we at least finished two places above Moscow which was last in the list (as well as the fact that there is little shame in appearing in a ‘bottom’ ten alongside destinations like Marseilles, New York City and Cannes) I nevertheless wish to offer a different point of view.
Firstly as the Economist notes, most of the results of this survey are likely to be down to the views of T+L‘s American readership. But an equally important factor is the manner in which ‘friendliness’ is expressed in different places. It is true that customer service in St Petersburg may not yet be up to the standards demanded by some travellers (with notable exceptions such as the Four Seasons Lion Palace of course!). But it is also important to realise that in Russia true warmth goes beyond ‘have a nice day’.
Outsiders who stay longer than a weekend in St Petersburg, or anywhere in the country, often comment on the extraordinary friendship and hospitality shown to guests by locals once you get to know them. It may sound clichéd, but friendship in Russia is a higher ideal which has to be worked at, and consequently is unlikely to be achieved in an afternoon, a fact reflected in the above quotation from poet and one-time St Petersburg resident Osip Mandelstam. However, many visitors to St Petersburg or Moscow unfortunately do not get to the stage of experiencing the wealth of Russian friendliness which emerges with true personal investment.
Another interesting fact is that, conversely, when Russians visit countries where ‘service with a smile’ is the order of the day, such welcoming but skin-deep cheerfulness – whilst appreciated – can also make Russians wonder how they would distinguish between this and true ‘friendship’.
This is not to say that St Petersburg, and Russia more generally, should not be aiming to raise their game in the customer service sphere. After all, one should be able to exude day-to-day ‘friendliness’ whilst still retaining a sense of true ‘friendship’. But the above may help to explain something of what short-term visitors see as Russian ‘coldness’.
Indeed, my own efforts to argue in favour of my native town are probably just as stereotypical as the results of this non-scientific survey! As TimeOut Russia remarked a couple of years back in a light-hearted comparison between Russia’s two biggest cities:
‘A native of Moscow is fully able to say, “I don’t like Moscow,” and no one will judge him for it; a native of Petersburg on the other hand doesn’t express his feelings directly, but if he hears that someone has compared his town unfavourably with Stockholm, he will nurse a grievance…’
Those who do come from the ‘northern capital’ are proud of it, and are willing to jump to the city’s defence. So I would say come to St Petersburg, stay awhile, and get to know the people. Do not let yourselves be lured into judging a city’s charm and friendliness purely based on ‘Hollywood’ smiles… Wouldn’t you agree?