My favorite Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a play entitled “Flight” (Beg in Russian) detailing the struggle of the émigré to find meaning in a foreign and unknown land. Being an expat myself, the sentiments that he attempted to convey ring a familiar bell; familiarity being the focal idea here, one that is strongly associated with comfort. In London, the social and cultural melting pot of Europe, I often wondered how migrants with dealt adaption, and it became apparent that the most obvious method to alleviate the pangs nostalgia is through ones national cuisine. So to cut a long story short, what has any of this got to do with Saint Petersburg? Well this week I owe gratitude to Alexandr for showing me how Uzbek culture has strongly rooted itself on Vasilyevsky Island, predominantly through, as mentioned earlier, food.
Initially, I found it odd that someone would offer a tour about Uzbek culture, when Russian culture is precisely what tourists come to Russia for. Of course, this perplexity was precisely what attracted me to it in the first place and Alexandr was to provide further clarity. In fact, not only is Alexandr’s tour popular amongst visitors, but also the locals themselves looking to find out more about the city that they inhabit, the people around them, or possibly as to why plov, traditionally an Uzbek dish, is more commonly consumed than Russian okroshka. So without further delay here is a modest extract about what Alexandr had to say on the matter of immigration and the amalgamation of contrasting cultures himself:
What is it about this island in particular that attracts foreigners, namely immigrants from Uzbekistan?
“Well actually there is no real ethnic neighborhood in this city. There are some areas like ‘Sennaya Ploschad’ where everyone works on the markets, so the concentration of immigrants is very high. However, if you walk around this area [Vasilyevsky Island] and the area across the river called Kolomna, you will find a high density of immigrants because the property is very cheap due to the fact that most of it is ‘bad’ in terms of living conditions. But here in this area, I’m not exactly sure why, there are a lot of Uzbek restaurants dotted around the area 500 meters apart from one another.”
It’s interesting from an ethnological perspective to observe urban spatiality and how people root themselves within this space.
“Well in Russia, as I said there are no ethnic neighborhoods due to the fact that the local residents are not overly immigrant friendly, so they tend to just gravitate to areas that are cheap.”
It’s so bizarre to live in a big city where such neighborhoods do not exist; it’s so commonplace in London. Has it always been like this or is it a recent phenomenon?
“During the time of Peter the Great many parts of the city contained clusters of various ethnicities like German, Greek, French and Tartar, but this does not exist anymore. For example on this island there were many Lutheran churches, so of course this attracted Germans.”
So cut to the chase, tell me about Uzbekistan. What is it that is peculiar about this country in particular?
“Actually Uzbekistan used to be one of the most developed regions in the world because it was on the intersection of a lot of the trade routes like the Silk Road, there were a few cities, which were not only trade centers but also educational centers with high concentrations of scholars, who spoke Persian, which was at that time the language of the elite. However, the people living in the villages spoke Uzbek. Then Turkic tribes came to the region, bringing with them Turkic culture and the language, blended with the origins of Tartar, Azerbaijani, Kyrgyz and the other countries around them into a kind of cultural melting pot. Well over time some these people began to migrate north into Russian territory, of course the Soviet Union had a big influence on this influx of people.”
It’s interesting to note how immigrant cultures have an impact upon society in general. How do you think such cultures have discreetly impacted Saint Petersburg?
“Well firstly, they do menial jobs. Recently I read an article about a past decision, granted by the mayor of Saint Petersburg. Apparently the people asked why he was hiring all of the immigrants in place of Russians when there were very little jobs available. So he agreed to hire only Russian citizens to work in low-level sectors like cleaning the streets and very quickly the city got dirty. In terms of food, there are many canteens or small locations in which to eat the kitchen staff is mainly foreign. They prepare food in the style that they know and they also introduce their own native dishes to such places. So now if you go to a regular Stolovaya you can find plov or something foreign.”
On that note, ethnic diversity is not only limited to and inherent of the international capitals, but it is wide spread; it occurs frequently and at random. It is inevitable that certain ‘alien’ traditions will permeate into ‘ours’, and whether we like it or not, it creates more complex dimensions to our often seemingly dull lives and is thus a phenomenon to be celebrated with open arms. If you are interested to see and taste exactly how Uzbek culture perpetuates itself Saint Petersburg, Alexandr’s excursion ought to be imperative on your itinerary.