In the last years I developed that strange feeling of wanting to go back to my roots and explore the country where my family is originally from: Russia. I grew up bilingually (German and Russian) and as a child I wasn’t much interested in my family’s background or Russian culture itself. My interest for the country and my background was triggered only after highschool when I started to understand how Russia and Russians are presented in the media and what picture most of my friends and the people I talked to had of Russia. I wanted to be able to tell them how Russia really is and how amazing its people are. I also wanted to improve my Russian, so I decided it is time to live in Russia for some time.

Last summer in 2019 I applied to become a volunteer within the programme of the European Solidarity Corps, which is an initiative of the European Commission. I was accepted as a volunteer. My project was as exciting as it sounds: Strengthening Youth Commitment for Civil Society in St. Petersburg.

I arrived in late September 2019 and fell in love with St. Petersburg right away. I have been abroad for work, study or volunteering many times before, but this time I felt home almost right away. St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. The architecture is just stunning and if you love culture as much as I do, then you should definitely visit “Piter”, how the city is called by the locals. There are so many museums, theatres, cathedrals and other places to visit and there are so many events each day. I was really overwhelmed at the beginning. The first weeks in Russia were really exciting for me and at the same time really exhausting. Even though I grew up up with the Russian language at home, I never went to a Russian school to learn it properly. So in my first weeks I focussed on catching up with the language as fast as possible, exploring the city, meeting new people and getting to know my new work and tasks.

BridgeIt is an open platform for organising international volunteer, youth, expert, educational and activist exchanges of various formats. It is located in the center of St. Petersburg, which made it so easy to do after-work activities. My tasks in the organisation were diverse. The volunteer’s own project was the German Speaking Club, which I moderated and prepared each week. It was really interesting to meet with locals and to discuss various current topics, such as human rights, feminism or sustainability. Other tasks included writing visa invitations in Russian, translations (Russian – German – English), communication and administrative tasks and PR tasks. I also helped to organise events on Russian, European and international development of civil society, as well as workshops, study trips, youth exchanges and cultural events in the fields of non-formal education, intercultural communication and sustainability. Once or twice a week I also promoted European Solidarity Corps vacancies among young people in Russia in social media. From time to time I helped with the organisation of internships for foreign students in St. Petersburg.

I had a 35 hours week (7 hours a day), which included my travel time to the office and back already. So normally I started working at 9 am and finished work at 2 pm, apart from the days when we had the speaking club, which took place at 7 pm. Sometimes we also had events on the weekend.

In St. Petersburg every day was kind of an adventure for me. I have spent a lot of time with other people, but also by myself exploring the city. It got quite normal after work to go to the museum or a walk in a new district I haven’t been to before. Sometimes I walked for 10-20 kilometers after work, just because I got lost in the beauty of the streets, the canals and the Newa. The metro, which I had to take each day (2 hours back and forth) got my new favourite place to read a book, practice Russian and to observe Russians.

During my time in Russia I also had the possibility to travel and explore the country and neighbouring countries. I visited Finland, Estonia and Latvia. I had an On-Arrival Training in Nischnij Novgorod, and a Mid-Term Meeting in Vladimir, where I also went to Suzdal. I went to Murmansk and Apatity to see the northern lights and to ride with huskies. I visited Moscow, Korelia and Veliky Novgorod.

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic I had to come back to Germany in March 2020 and since then I worked remotely. I am glad that I was able to continue volunteering, even though my tasks changed slightly. Most of our projects for spring, summer and even autumn were postponed. My tasks mostly focussed on promoting the EuSC programme, moderating the German speaking club, which takes place online via Zoom now, translations and tasks related to social media. But it also gave me some space to become more creative and the freedom to come up with my own tasks, which I felt were necessary.

I have learned a lot during my volunteering year. I got to know the NGO and activism sector in St. Petersburg, Russia and other cities in Europe, which are the fields I am most passionate about. I have met many amazing and inspiring people and listened to many great stories and project ideas. I have improved my level of Russian really fast because I got so many tasks in Russian and was invited to many events in Russian, which I am really grateful for. My volunteering year convinced me even more that I want to stay in the NGO sector working with the civil society, youth and human rights. I am glad I got the chance to live in one of Europe’s most amazing cities and to volunteer in such an interesting organisation. During those 6 months in the country I learned a lot not only about the work, the culture and its people, but mostly about myself. This experience gave me the chance to explore a new country, which I can now proudly call my second home. Now, I love to tell people and my friends how amazing Russia is and how welcoming the people are, tell about all the travel opportunities and the amazing food. And I can proudly say that I have two cultures.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to go abroad and live in a country and get to know the culture and the locals by yourself, before judging it. This experience I made in Russia showed me again how wrong my imagination was, even though I grew up with Russians, the culture and the language. I hope I could convince you to do the same. Whether it is Russia or any other country you always thought you don’t know enough about and you probably have a wrong picture of it in your head: Go there, live there, meet the locals and convince yourself.