After a nail-biting wait for our multi-entry visas and a cancelled trip to Budapest, I organized an intrepid expedition of myself and three other friends to Vyborg, Russia.
The first reaction I got was, “Why Vyborg?”
My host mom told me very matter-of-factly that I am the first host student she’s ever had who’s gone to Vyborg (I’m her 75th host student), and while one of the Russian as a Second Language (RSL) teachers leaned over and whispered quietly, “Vyborg скучно (boring).” Added to that, the second after I booked the hostel and train tickets I soon learned that the main attraction of Vyborg (the Vyborg Castle Tower) was closed for renovation until 2019.
Despite all of this, I was undeterred. Something in my gut told me Vyborg would be an interesting place to visit and so we went anyway armed with our backpacks, basic Russian, and a guide I found online from a couple of years ago entitled “24 Hours in Vyborg.”
Upon first arrival, it was snowing, freezing cold, and none of us had downloaded a reliable map onto our smartphones. After wandering around, we soon discovered that, like most places in Russia, 9am is a bit too early for anything interesting to be open on a sleepy Saturday morning. The “24 Hours in Vyborg” page advertised a pretzel and mead place we were all keen on finding but instead our maps kept leading us to condemned buildings and a closed corner store. However, we finally around 10am stumbled upon the one thing open in Vyborg in the morning—a cute little café that had a surprisingly modern “New York” vibe.
There, we found a friendly cashier (recently relocated to Vyborg herself) who explained to us that she’d heard there was supposed to be some sort of performance at Vyborg Castle. Intrigued, we decided to drag our frozen-cold selves there.
The first thing we noticed upon arriving at the castle (where we noted the main tower covered in ремонт [construction]) and we all exchanged laughs. I guess construction everywhere really is universal thing in Russia. I asked the ticket teller if she’d heard of the performance and received a weird look and a pamphlet on the Russian revolution that I only loosely understood.
However, once we stepped from the ticket teller and into the actual grounds of the castle, we realized we had stepped into the 1917 Revolution. People were dressed up as Bolsheviks or Menshevik soldiers or simple townspeople. Someone walked around the crowd handing out red or white flags. There were barricades set up everywhere and signs reading “Freedom or Death.”
My friends and I ended up settling ourselves on a hill to watch the action. Someone gave a long speech about Vyborg, its history, and the centennial about the Russian revolution and then the battle began. It was fairly chaotic. The soldiers fired blanks at each other, lying on the ground pretending to be dead. An ancient tank was driven out across the rickety cobble stones. A fake smoke bomb was detonated leaving the air around us foggy. We got to wave our flags from the side (red won of course). And then everyone went to go take pictures with the tanks and the signs.
After that, we wandered up toward the main tower where we stepped into a medieval market fair (albeit one where you can also buy the compulsory bust of Lenin). Off to the side, there was a market stand where you could shoot guns at targets (causing us to all jump every few minutes when a shot was loudly fired). There was a stage where a guy with a guitar sang Russian folk songs. You could also buy hunting knives, leather whips, and hot mead.
Since we were freezing, we bought ourselves some hot mead and walked over to the fire pit to plot the next part of the day. There also warming themselves were some guards who noticed us surreptitiously drinking our mead and asked us about the cost of the mead.
“90 roubles,” my friend chimed back in Russian.
And thus, we began talking. They were surprised to learn we were Americans and we talked and warmed ourselves about cultural differences, politics (everyone seems to want to know what we think about Putin and Trump), and Vyborg. It felt very empowering to actually be able to talk about real things with random Russian strangers in Russian and understand each other. And again I was surprised by the warm friendliness and hospitality with which we were greeted and welcomed.
After about an hour, one of the guards even invited us to climb the tower. We gazed apprehensively up at the tower covered in ремонт but the guard assured us all would be fine. Thus, we ended up crawling through the scaffolding and construction in the dark with our backpacks to the top of the tower.
The view of Vyborg from there was absolutely amazing. Coming from America, a relative baby in terms of country age, it’s so interesting to be able to see medieval towns. Vyborg has such an interesting history of going back and forth between being part of Russia and Finland, and you could see the Russian and Finnish influences on the town from above.
Thinking back, I think it’s such a crazy accident that we were able to stumble on a Russian Revolution Reenactment on the centennial on the Russian Revolution in teeny little Vyborg, Russia. It’s amazing how happy accident lead us to have interesting conversations with locals and for us to be able to climb the tower that for everyone else is closed till 2019.
So perhaps it just goes to show that anything can happen in study abroad and the more open you are to adventure, the more adventure you’ll find!
Cheers to happy accidents!
(and no, Vyborg is definitely not boring)