Impressions from Russia
July, 2007 by Mitch Anderson
Part one - Moskow
St. Basil's Cathedral and Spasskaya Tower of Kremlin, Red Square, Moscow, 2005 © Dmitry AzovtsevThe Tupolev took me to one of the eight Moscow airports in about 2 and a half hours from Bucharest. The leg room was the smallest I have seen, the food was bad, but the flight was on time. The young immigration officer took about 10 minutes to clear my worn passport, and demanded from me to speak Russian. I guess he saw I was born in Romania… His supervisor told him I was OK, but I got terrible body language from the young man… Go figure.
The ride from the airport to the hotel was uneventful, the freeways are large and well paved, and you’re surrounded by communist high rises covered now by western style commercial posters. A Russian man I befriended in the airplane assured me that the moskovites are living exactly like Americans. I asked him if he ever saw America, and he said he has seen it on TV and that’s good enough for him. He assured me that the crime is virtually nonexistent in Moscow and I can do anything I please at any time of the day. He was right about that. I felt very safe in Moscow.
Shocking observation number one: Russians DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH, or any other language for that matter. Except for the hotel staff, you’ll be on your own unless you manage some Russian. Other Slavic languages wont help. I am pretty good with Serbian, but they don’t get a word, unless it is identical with the Russian pronunciation. The omnipresent taxi driver that speaks some English and wants to be your best friend while you’re in town, whom I’ve met in all my travels, does NOT exist here. The drivers don’t converse much, and even then they never ask where are you from. While I manage to speak some Russian to them, almost no one was curious how and why did I learn their language. I guess they really expect it from anyone.
Are Russians helpful? Yes, if you ask in Russian. The second day, I dared to go back from the Red Square to the hotel by subway. I depended on the map and the help of strangers, and it worked. I got back safe and sound.
I had to ask a lot and once I exhausted my Russian 200 word vocabulary, I switched to English at times in order to get directions. This resulted in a change of attitude from most of the folks and the end of communications. Russians have a love/hate relationship with foreigners in general, from what I see. I don’t know, but I think they also have a complex.
One way to surely piss them off is to do this while approaching a Russian:
"Please, Do you speak English?"
Then, if you try: "Parlez-vous Français?" you really piss them off: they wont even look at your map or answer you in any language. Don’t do it if you’re in dire need, but if you wanna have fun a couple of times, go for it!
Russian sign installers at height, Moskow, 2007I got picked for a lonely foreigner by a group of four Russians in a park in Moscow. I was invited to sit with them, two boys and two girls, around 30. Once I told them I was from Los Angeles, I got a blank stare. Then I added California. Blank again. Then I added America. The girls got offended; they said they weren't stupid, and that they know where Los Angeles is.
Then they all announced to me that they are Russian Patriots. I told them I was an American Patriot too. I got the blank stare again. I thought we were going to laugh, and build a bridge, we were all patriots, but it didn’t work out. I diffused the situation telling them about my twin children. The girls melted down: "how cute", but the guys didn’t see the point of such a discussion. Next they told me about their home town on river Volga, and how nice it is. I asked them if they had seen other countries. None of them had, and only one girl said that she would like to… the other didn’t see the point. They said that Russia has everything there is to see. The two men got progressively drunker and incoherent in the next half an hour, and their looks started to make me feel unwelcome. We shook hands, and I left to check the other youth in the park. Invariably the few hundred moskovites aged 20 to 50 were all drunk and had fun too. A lot of pushing and shoving, throwing some trash cans at each other, quite a show, but I did not dare to film them.
Your friendly family food store, Moskow, 2007In the next few days I found out that all the parks in Moscow, after eight, are the homes of hundreds of drunk men of all ages and even some women. They are mostly happy drunks, they sing and they invited me to drink over and over. I haven’t seen such a thing in my life. Lots of them wear suits and ties, so it’s not a low class phenomenon. And lots of them were under 30. Little food stores in the neighborhoods carry about 3 times more vodka and beer than foodstuffs. Larger supermarkets have devoted rooms for spirits and you can see 10 year-olds shopping for drinks.
More about the good stuff. Russia works. They might not have the best system, but they have a system. Streets are clean, buildings are repaired and people just do their job for the most part. There is no concept of service yet, but there is a concept of discipline and duty. Most faces are bitter and unfriendly, and you rarely get a thank you at the store, but no one cheated me or tried to. Trains, planes and people ride on time, traffic rules are obeyed, and you dare to cross at the zebra crossing. (Don’t try this in Egypt or India)
Russian space management in fruit industry, 2007The pricing is nonsensical. At a fast food store I paid 18 dollars for a salad and a lasagna. The salad has been carefully weighted and a tomato piece has been removed for being too over the limit in the $18 price. Now, this was in a working class neighborhood in a restaurant with paper plates and plastic forks. The next day, I had a nice lunch in the Red Square for about 20 dollars in a proper restaurant.
Taxi drivers are cheats: a ride to the hotel from the Red Square is 40 bucks, while a ride from the hotel to the Red Square is only 20 bucks. More than that, any old car here is a Taxi. Just wave them and then negotiate a price to your destination. It worked for me a couple times. Again, it gave me an opportunity to tap into the local culture. A young man that drove me one day for 40 minutes had no curiosity of where I am from or what I was doing in Russia. We shared a silent bond while listening to Russian rock. I cut the ride short, unable to bear the cigarette and the exhaust fumes in the car. He insisted to take me to the destination. I passed.
George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin exchange handshakes, 2007Russia is facing a demographic collapse: children are virtually in-existent on the streets of Moscow, and the large playgrounds with 20 swings barely host one or two youngsters. At the present time, Russia is losing 800,000 people per year due the low birth rates. Putin is offering a TV set or a fridge to families that have the second kid. Still, not too many takers. Scores of young people don’t get married. From what I heard, women seem to have a disgust of their alcoholic prospects and they just wait for a better deal, and time just passes by.
A Maserati on the streets of MoskowFlashy cars are to be seen everywhere, however I feel these people are not yet materialistic. Maybe that’s the problem. There is no entrepreneurial spirit, most shop owners just seem to be happy to live from day to day, there is no plan for growth and cashing out... There is a lethargy in the air of this country. I could not figure out where it is coming from, the alcohol or communism?
Part two – St. Petersburg
English Embankment in Saint Petersburg, 2007Quite a difference, Russia’s second largest city has an identity of its own. People’s faces are brighter, lots of them do speak English or other languages, and they seem more patient and willing to help. There are a lot less alcoholics on the streets at night and the whole place is so relaxed and so European.
The historical part of the city is superb and could rival Paris in beauty at any time. Also called the Venice of the East, I think it’s a lot better than Venice: better maintained, and more prosperous and elegant. It could also compete for the lovers’ capital of the world. Elegant young people are holding hands and hugging in beautiful parks decorated with marble statues that could rival Italy’s Florence. Graffiti and vandalism are nowhere to be seen; I wish I could say that about Italy’s historical cities. Interestingly enough, the new developments of St. Peterburg, built by Communists, blend pretty well with the historical town. Large plazas with beautiful fountains still contain Lenin’s statue and beautiful government buildings are decorated not with baroque sculpture, but with hammers and siecles.
Saint Petersburg Metro, station Awtowo, 2006 © Matthias KabelIn the middle of my enchantment with St. Petersburg, during my third day, I got a reality check. In the Subway someone pickpocketed my wallet. I did not feel a thing. (Even this is to be appreciated – I prefer it anytime to an armed robbery) Just got out of the train and checked my pocket… could not believed it happened to me.
Oh, well, I called someone from home to send me 500 bucks. Getting the money through Western Union from a local bank was an experience on its own. While my passport and confirmation number checked out, the bank manager wanted to see I didn’t overstay my Russian Visa. She also wanted to see my registration with the police in each city I have been ( I had that), and the immigration entry card. This is when I lost my patience, and I told her that only the border police is entitled to demand such a thing, and the Bank is not affiliated with the Police. She threatened not to give me the money. I was absolutely penniless so I gave in. The whole thing lasted about an hour. Again, luckily I spoke basic Russian. So for the western people here was her logic: No foreigner should get money unless the bank verifies that he registered with each police station of the places he stayed in.
Pizza Hut in Saint PetersburgOn the plane to St. Petersburg, I made some new friends. They invited me for an evening so I got to find out more about the state of the Federation. It seems that the very high prices are mostly due to the lack of competition. Here’s how it goes: you want a pizzeria, you pay an official for the business permit, and you also pay him, for years to come, a monthly bribe to make sure that there wont be a pizzeria near you, ever. Then you just serve bad pizza at five bucks a slice, and you call yourself a "Balshoi" Kapitalist.
Not all sectors are affected by this corruption, for instance, the wholesale food industry is too large to be gauged like this, and it works. Supermarket food is good and affordable. So is Vodka, but that’s another story. I inquired about the legal system. Enforcing a contract in a court of law is still next to impossible, but another business man on the plane told me he doesn’t particularly mind that. He said that if you cheat people, it’s very likely you’ll get whacked, and you can do the viceversa to the ones who cheat you. There must be a "Waking for Less" in every town priding in great service. I smiled, but he didn’t, he meant it. I remembered that during the Roman empire, you had to guarantee a loan with your life… that is a way to decrease bankrupcy...
I had a great evening with my new friends, most of them spoke English, and before I left, one of them, Serioja, sang for me beautiful Russian ballads that he composed himself.
Taxi speeding in the night on the streets of MoskowSince the Metro system gave me a bad feeling, I continued using the "Any car can be a Taxi" system. It allowed me to meet new people and strike up basic conversation. The "Where are you from?" question seemed to be more common here, and for the fun of it I would answer that I am an American at times, a Romanian and a Serb at other times (since I speak decent Serbian too). The American identity got a pretty good response. They all believed that Los Angeles must be a wonderfully beautiful city and life there is great. Older folks seemed somewhat uncomfortable, they must have felt that they were riding in the car with the "enemy".
My Serbian identity (because I was mostly speaking a broken Russian mixed with Serbian) got me a few "welcome to Russia, Slavic brother" comments, especially from the older folks. After all, Russia entered WWI to save the Serbs from the Austrians, but the younger folks didn’t seem to remember… They were mostly blank-faced to my Serbian introduction. So was the reaction to being Romanian. They would just repeat, ah Romania, in order to make sure it’s not …. Rwanda or something else, and that was it.
Russian mounted Police stunts.There was a mix-up with the Moscow-Frankfurt plane connection so I decided to take the train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki. In the train I was thinking that Lenin took 90 years ago the same route to come to St. Persburg and start the revolution… At the border crossing with Finland, I was a bit nervous: Are my papers in order? Did I register properly as a foreigner in all the juristrictions visited? What will I answer to the three soldiers with Kalashnicovs and sniffing dogs…? Instead of all that, a 19 year old blue eyed girl, an immigration officer, showed up with my passport and repeated twice "Mitch Anderson" just to polish her English pronunciation. I responded promptly: "Eta Ya" (That’s me) and she gave me a smile and the passport.
Russia is changing, and for the better. A new generation that has not been raised in fear and oppression, will build a better society, I have no doubt.
And that was that.
Can’t wait to be back in the USSR…
2008 © Mitch Anderson.
Mitch Anderson is the producer of the film "The World Without US" . This feature-length documentary debates the implications and consequences of US military involvement in the world today. Future scenarios in the absence of the US intervention are well debated and substantiated by experts and ordinary citizens whose lives have been affected by the American presence in different regions. World renowned author Niall Ferguson PHD brings his insights along side James Lilley (Former US Ambassador to China) and many others. For more information and trailers please see http://www.theworldwithoutus.com