June 20, 2021

A Russophile Picks St. Petersburg

A Russophile Picks St. Petersburg
Sunset over the Neva Paul Richardson

"I help others integrate and make memories."

Integration was the main theme of my conversation with Stacey (Watson) Dernova, an eight-year American expat in Russia and owner of Ships Are For Sailing (SAFS), a tourism company in St. Petersburg for Russophiles and the Russo-curious.

Dernova invented the term "Russo-curious" to describe people who are curious about Russia but not obsessed with it (i.e., for shame, they do not subscribe to the print version of Russian Life). They may want to visit and may have read a book or two about Russia – voluntarily. This is the pool of potential Russophiles who just need to be pushed over the edge.

As we sat on Haymarket Square – made famous by Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment – at a table with a mix of Asian and Italian cuisine now so common in Russia, Dernova shared how she helps people integrate, what makes her business unique, and how Russophilia is like a virus.

Stacey Dernova
Bending over backwards to capture memories of guests in Red Square. / Stacey Dernova

Dernova arrived in Russia on September 2, 2012, which she now refers to as her Russiaversary, a holiday she invented and that many St. Petersburg expats now celebrate. My Russiaversary is November 28, 2017, for example. Dernova calls us "Peterpats." Dernova did not celebrate her Russiaversary at first. But, after a few years of overcoming the obstacles presented by expat life, she realized how far she had come and decided it was worth celebrating. Today, I would argue that Dernova knows more about this city than most born and bred Pitertsy do.

Dernova first came to Russia on a 1.5-month study abroad program. She was not yet a Russophile or even Russo-curious, but chose the program because she was studying languages: "I wanted to work as a translator, and I understood that there's more work for 'exotic' languages. So, I decided to learn Russian. At first, I didn't really want to come to Russia." The program included time in London, which was more appealing. As she recounted the transition from London to St. Petersburg, she said, "But then I had to go to Russia," intoning Russia like it was gross. She thought, "This is going to be weird, and I have no idea what I'm getting myself into."

Instead, Dernova fell in love with St. Petersburg. She returned after graduation and has not looked back.

In Dernova's view, it can be challenging to get by in Russia. When she first moved to St. Petersburg, it was without a smartphone and without knowing anyone. With limited Russian, she struggled to find information in English and to integrate. This eventually led to SAFS: "I knew I wanted to make it easier for others to navigate the city so that they could leave with something positive. I have seen so many people come and go disappointed because they weren't able to integrate. They just didn't know enough of the language and culture, and they didn't have enough support." This includes wannabe Peterpats and tourists alike.

Stacey Dernova
Dernova gives a COVID-era tour to two other Peterpats – including the author, right. / Stacey Dernova

Dernova's top tip for those thinking about relocating to Russia is to find an online group to pose questions to in advance. That way, once you arrive, you will have a built-in support system and people to hang out with. One of those groups is the St. Petersburg EXPATS Facebook group, which Dernova has moderated since 2014. Another is the International Women's Club (IWC), of which Dernova has also been a member. She says, "Even though things have progressed here, I think it's still challenging to move to Russia. It's difficult to find things."

One thing that was difficult for Dernova to find was mayonnaise. It comes in totally different packaging than in the United States: in a packet rather than a jar.

Dernova recommends that, if you are hoping to move to Russia, you should "check your expectations at the door" and "come over with an open mind." In her experience, Russians are slow to integrate foreigners into their friend group, especially if they know you may not stay long. While this may be true around the world, Russians make particularly devoted friends, so if they know you are leaving soon, they will not commit to you for life.

Many foreigners come to Russia to teach English and find that, if they get tired of it or want a career with more growth prospects, few jobs are available unless they create them for themselves. Even aside from the language barrier, higher taxes and a law that requires Russian companies to prove they could not find a citizen to do the job, make it difficult to find jobs here.

Dernova also started out teaching English but said, "I really enjoy sharing what I love about St. Petersburg with other people, and I wanted to do that full-time. Since no companies would take me on, I decided to find my own way. So, I created SAFS."

Stacey Dernova
Cyber Tea Party, with Dernova rocking an Imperial Porcelain mug. / Stacey Dernova

Her "passion project," Ships Are For Sailing (SAFS), is named after the quotation "A ship in the harbor is safe, but that's not what ships were built for." Peter the Great, who built St. Petersburg in 1703, wanted all residents to be sailors and made sure they had boats – boats that left the harbor once in a while. SAFS helps people plan tailored trips and shares the latest news on local events. If you need to know where to celebrate Victory Day or how not to get plowed over by an electric scooter, SAFS makes it easy to navigate St. Petersburg in English.

SAFS also offers off-the-beaten-track tours, whether by foot, by car, or by canal-plying boat. (Now is a good time to dust off your Russian verbs of motion.) I recently went on "The Russian Dream" tour on the history of the first Peterpats. Foreigners were here from the beginning, recruited by Peter the Great himself to help build his dream, a navigable paradise out of a swamp. SAFS offers a Putin tour of key places from his childhood, The People's Palace tour of the metro (subway) system, An Unorthodox Tour of churches and, soon, a tour exploring the New Soviet Man of Leningrad. During the pandemic, SAFS has offered a Cyber Tea Party and Virtual Vodka Experience.

Which tour is the most popular? Right now, the Putin tour. Dernova stresses that it is apolitical.

Stacey Dernova
Dernova snapping a photo at Catherine Palace. / Stacey Dernova

Quite often, Dernova says, tours with Russian guides are "not fun." You go on vacation only to be lectured at. SAFS aspires to make tours that are "fun and memorable." A SAFS tour often includes "something that guests can try, take home, laugh about, and remember." Dernova wants people to look back fondly long after their visit. She has hand-selected some of the best guides in the city who are passionate about what they do.

What makes SAFS special is that it was created by a Russophile for Russophiles. Dernova targets her tours to like minds, creating experiences on topics that interest her as a Russophile. She has loads of ideas for the future direction of SAFS, including an education component and a line of unique souvenirs – and we do not mean mugs with the SAFS logo. Some of her ideas involve repurposing Soviet artifacts.

Stacey Dernova
A happy guide school graduate. / Stacey Dernova

As our bubble tea ran low and we asked for boxes for our leftover calzones, I asked Dernova if she thinks Russophilia is an affliction. She agreed, emphasizing that, "Once you've been infected by the Russia bug, it doesn't let go, and you just can't forget about it." It is like falling in love, and it is often hard to explain to outsiders why you are in love with the object of your affection. Indeed, when I first moved to Russia, I felt that I had found my people. They are native English speakers with whom I do not have to explain my Russia obsession and can joke in two languages. Dernova concurred, saying, "Back home, a lot of people ask if you're crazy" for living in Russia. "But those who have experienced it understand, and those who have never experienced it will never understand."

SAFS and its founder can be found here, or you can join her community on Instagram.

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