Sunday, July 11, 2010

General impressions of Russia

We only visited a minute part of Western Russia, the largest country on the planet, 10 000 kms wide (6 300 miles) from West to East, with 14 neighbouring countries - Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Mongolia, North Korea, Norway, Poland, and Ukraine.  
58% of Russia consists of Siberia and much of that vast land is uninhabited. We can only comment on the small part of Russia that we visited on our 1300km cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow.

Driving into St Petersburg from the airport, the countryside looked tired and depressing, like many airport environs we passed through light industrial areas (nowhere near the old city) to get to the River. The terrain was exceedingly flat with lots of tall chimney stacks from all the factories and huge, nuclear-looking towers that are actually water boilers for providing heating to dozens of city apartments. The summers are short here and winter temperatures drop to below -30oC. Heating used to be cheap but now, like everything else, it is very costly. The bumpy roads from the airport had potholes and other signs of wear and tear and the many light industrial buildings were bleak and grey. We did not see any houses, only row upon row of blocks of flats. In the past, individuals weren’t allowed to own land but now it is possible to buy land and build homes or start a business, but only the very wealthy can afford to do so. Everybody lives in apartments – rows and rows of un-plastered concrete blocks 5 to 8 stories stories high.
During the soviet period, thousands of these apartment blocks were built to house the people – some tiny, one room studios with no heating or private bathrooms, only shared toilets and showers. One or two families would occupy these tiny apartments.
 A coat of paint would soften their facades and brighten up the whole appearance of these concrete jungles but at the moment they are a dismal reminder of the Soviet era. Wealthier families who could afford a Dacha – a summer home outside the city – could not build anything larger than 25m² or have any heating. Since then, more modern buildings have gone up but they are very expensive – between $1 and $2m for a small, two roomed city apartment.

It wasn’t until we sailed down the Neva and out of the city precincts that we saw a few summer homes on the banks of the river.
In the USSR it was very difficult for individuals who were not government officials to own cars so there was no reason to build good roads. Since the ‘new era’ hundreds of thousands of people have bought cars and it became necessary to repair, widen and improve existing roads and to build outer ring roads around the cities.
Traffic and pollution is a huge problem in both St Petersburg and Moscow.  One good thing about the previous era restrictions is that a very efficient public transport system was established and it is easy to travel about on bus, tram, train and river. The old roads still have tram lines and overhead cables although they are only used in a few parts of the city now. We were told about a growing Russian Mafia (who some say were linked to the KGB) who have amassed great wealth and influence since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and who control the black market.

On Day 3 we drove into the St Petersburg’s old city centre and were surprised at how beautiful it is. Peter the Great travelled extensively in the west, including to Paris, and came back determined to establish a western type city on the Neva. At the start of the 1700s, he drained marsh land in the river estuary and in just 9 years (and many hundreds of thousands of forced labour deaths) the city of St Petersburg was ready for occupation.Wealthy families were ‘encouraged’ to build mansions in the new city and it has the elegant, graceful look of Paris with wide boulevards, oak and plane trees and streets lined with every fashion label shop you can think of. Today you’ll find Kentucky Chicken, Pizza Hut and even a McLenin burger chain.
The Mayor of St Petersburg is a woman and our guide told us that she has focused on cleaning up the facades of buildings and monuments and adding flowers to the city parks and gardens.
Nowhere was this effort more evident than in Pushkin, a suburb of St Petersburg, with no industries or factories it is a beautiful ‘green’ suburb with flower baskets, lots of trees and beautiful monuments – like Catherine’s winter palace. In St. Petersburg no building in the city centre is higher than 4 stories so the church towers, steeples and domes are visible from all angles.
The many canals, rivers and bridges, decorated in wrought iron and elaborate light posts give it a Victorian air and a well deserved nickname – The Venice of Russia.

Moscow was a revelation! We didn’t know what to expect but it wasn’t
the large, clean, gracious city with up to forty percent of its space devoted to parks and gardens. There are few sky scrapers. Most of the buildings are only a few stories high and many are elegant with pastel, pilastered facades. The metro has been described as "the people's palaces" and is by far, the most ornately decorated transportation system in the world. The stations contain bronze sculptures, Florentine mosaics, fresco ceilings, chandeliers, art nouveau benches, stained glass and ceramics reflecting the tastes, cultural perceptions and stereotypes of the Soviet Union. Even the interior of the coaches have paintings - no litter here and no graffiti!
The many golden domed Orthodox Churches give the city an almost
eastern look. The city is dominated by the walls and fortifications of the Kremlin which was the biggest surprise of all! Behind the walls are
gardens, courtyards, statues, five churches and cathedrals, elegant government buildings and a view over the red square. The Moscow Canal – built by gulag prisoners in the Stalin era - gives Moscow access the White Sea, Black Sea, Baltic, and the Sea of Azov – which is why Moscow is sometimes called the "port of the five seas". The biggest problem in Moscow is traffic and pollution. It is also the 4th most expensive city on the world according to Mercer.

The Russian People
Our guide told us that the large majority of the people in Russia are poor. Many take summer jobs away from their families in order to exist through the long winters. The contrast between the magnificent,  opulent palaces and gracious buildings with the new developments around the city is noticeable and stark.  Our guide (a St Petersburgher) seemed bemused by the changes that have occurred in his country and his city.  I’m not sure if he has soviet leanings or whether the changes have been too rapid. Once upon a time everyone was subsidised with apartment, heating, transport, jobs etc. There was no crime because the KGB were police, judge and jury and were allowed to arrest anybody without reason and impose sentence. Now, they are on their own to create their own lives based on how hard they work and how much they earn. Apartments are very costly, heating is expensive and there is tough competition for jobs. The poor have become poorer, they have over 10 million illegal immigrants and crime is a problem. There are crime riddled, no-go areas in most cities. The conundrum is that they have democracy - whether they want it or not.

When we queried why so many of the hospitality staff on the boat were from the Philippines, we were told that although Russians were hard working and efficient, they were not naturally warm and friendly and that they hardly ever smiled. This didn’t go down well with paying passengers and more and more were replaced by Filipinos who are naturally warm and smile constantly.  They also have a lovely sense of humour and, unlike our guide or some of the Russian crew, we could share a joke with them.
In our little book “Russia by River”, Howard Shernoff tells us that the Russian people are amongst the warmest in the world. That wasn’t our experience, or the experience of most of the other passengers. 
The few Russian people we met, besides those working on the boat, were stern, aloof, and invariably without humour. These included somewhat surly waiters and waitresses in restaurants, disinterested shop assistants – some were short and abrupt and at times verged on being rude – and aloof staff in the museums or other monuments we visited. Few people made eye contact, few responded to a nod of the head or a greeting and most never smiled.  Only one Russian smiled at us on this trip - a dear old woman selling flowers on a bridge. We gave her some money and gave her back her flowers. We got a lovely, toothless smile in return. With many locals, it was as though most of them were afraid that they were being watched and could not be seen smiling at or talking to foreigners. For years, America was the great big Bogeyman, but now they have to welcome American and other foreign tourists and treat them as friends.
 For years they couldn’t trust anyone, not even their neighbours, and now they are expected to welcome foreigners from all over the world with open arms! It must be very difficult to change the mind-set of a people even though the politics have changed at the top.

Russia is very different from any other European countries we've visited.  As Shernoff says," In Russia the streets look normal and the people look more or less like average Americans.  But that appearance belies a culture, history and a way of thinking ... that couldn't be more different than any other you've encountered elsewhere. This paradox makes Russia alternately maddening, mystifying, enchanting and exciting."

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