Russians often ask me what surprised me the first time I came to St. Petersburg, or, how Russia differs from my expectations. The problem with this is that the only answers I have are kind of offensive. I had surprisingly few preconceived notions about how St. Petersburg would look, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be this dirty.

When I lived here in the summer of 2002, it seemed everything, including me, was covered in a layer of dirt. A month after I left, having worn sandals all summer, I still had dirt embedded in the lines of my feet. I tried to understand why. Was the wind from the Gulf of Finland constantly stirring up dust? Was it all the renovations that were taking place before the city’s 300-year jubilee in 2003?

It isn’t that they don’t clean things here, though maybe they don’t clean them well. But in the summertime they spray off the sidewalks every morning, and in the winter people are incessantly cleaning up sidewalks, mopping floors, wiping things down.

It isn’t the climate. The first time I went to Finland, with its near-identical climate, was at the end of the summer of 2002, and I was astounded by how clean and beautiful it was after having gotten somewhat accustomed to the dirt here. I was in Helsinki again two weeks ago, and even during a winter remarkable for its slush-inducing conditions, the buses and trams were spotlessly clean.

Aunt Kelly and I concluded that it must be pollution. Russia is heavily industrialized, highly dependent upon fossil fuels, and has few environmental laws. Exercising outside can be unpleasant because the degree of pollution is noticable even on the clearest of days.

So tonight, when we were discussing patriotism in a class I was teaching, it took a lot of restraint not to say something mean when the group’s former teacher, who was sitting in on the lesson, said that patriotism means to her “these streets, this air, this nature, everything.” Lovely and poetic, but I thought to myself, “This air?? This polluted air? Are you so blinded by nationalism that you can’t see how dirty your country is?”

Heading to the metro after class, it finally happened, what I’d been dreading all winter — I slipped on the ice and actually fell down. I fell into a pile of dirty snow, which, thankfully, was powdery and not slushy. I was able to brush it off without getting soggy. Nontheless, it was another reminder of Petersburg’s dirtiness. I feel like I’m dirty all the time. My boots are dirty, my backpack’s dirty, my coat’s dirty. There’s no way to be clean unless you simply never leave your house.

So when a new acquaintance popped the question tonight, “What surprised you the first time you came to Russia?” I admitted it. “Well, um, actually, it was how dirty it is.” I said. “But I love St. Petersburg!” I added hastily, a bit too enthusiastically, a bit dishonestly. I like St. Petersburg, but these streets, this air, this nature… they are dirty.