The North Star Project, Summer Report Number Eight, St. Petersburg, Russia -- The Russian Walmart?
By Marin Ekstrom
St. Petersburg, Week #2
Ever since my arrival in St. Petersburg, I have heard rave reviews of Lenta, a “Russian version of Wal-Mart” that allegedly stocks any random supplies that cannot be found around our immediate neighborhood. Therefore, my roommates and I planned out a weekend trip to Lenta. The journey turned out to a simultaneously enjoyable and bizarre experience that offered intriguing commentary on Russian stereotypes and Russia’s contemporary identity.
We discovered that Lenta (which, by the way, translates as “ribbon”) is located in a neighborhood surrounded by Communist-era apartment buildings. We found this very amusing, as Lenta, with its wide parking lot and stacks of blue-and-yellow shopping carts, stands out in contrast as a corporate America-inspired hypermarket, a la Sam’s Club and Costco. Its advertisements even eerily resemble Wal-Mart, with identical colors and font used in its signs and overly enthusiastic people featured in promotion posters. The interior of the store offers further irony, as upon entering it, we all stood slack-jawed at the enormous amount and variety of goods available. Admittedly, Lenta is probably the same size, or slightly larger, than the average Sam’s Club or Wal-Mart supercenter in America. However, when fighting preconceived notions of Communist doctrine and chronic food and supply shortages, Lenta is a definite sign that we are not living in a Cold War-era perception of Russia.
After that brief moment of shock, our natural capitalist instincts kicked in (we are Americans, after all), and it was time to shop till we dropped! We scoured the aisles, marveling at the cheap prices, and ended up leaving the stores with huge bags of bakery baguettes, cornflakes, electric tea kettles, clothes hangers, packaged milk, wine, salsa (which is an elusive find in Russia), and a slew of other groceries and household supplies.
Once we returned to our dorm and unpacked all of our stuff, my roommates and I shared our ideas on Lenta. We laughed at the fact that we just visited a Russian hypermarket, which we considered an oxymoron based on our stereotypes of the anti-capitalist “Soviet Russia.” However, it also made us realize that we can no longer judge Russia on those antiquated biases, as the country is not only much deeper and complex than those shallow impressions, but it is also carving out a new identity for itself as we speak. The “new Russia” is at a crossroads, in which it appears to be distancing itself from its Communist past, but has not defined a new identity either. There are some signs, i.e. Lenta, that give the impression that Russia is heading towards Western-inspired capitalism. However, other evidence, especially in the sphere of political and foreign affairs, tends to paint Russia in a different light. Is Russia part of the East, West, or is it a unique Eurasian empire? Is it authoritarian, or slowly moving towards greater democratization? Is it a BRIC superpower, or will its economic potential slump if oil prices go down? Is it capitalist or socialist? I don't think that Russia can be defined in such black and white categories, and I think that it is impossible to predict what will happen. Nonetheless, peculiarities like Lenta remind me that I am in a “new Russia”, and I am appreciative to be able to explore the country in this exciting period of transition.
For all of the North Star Project Summer Reports, see HERE
The North Star Project: Collaboration between The Middle Ground Journal Student Interns, The College of St. Scholastica, and North Star Academy 8th Grade Global Studies Classes, 2013-2014 School Year Summer Reports.
Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:
This summer we will re-tool and re-design the collaborative program, drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This summer The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world. We will post their brief dispatches here throughout the summer, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.
Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, June, 2013
(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal's not-for-profit educational open-access policy.