Although I am currently in the train halfway through Russia, I am still gathering my first impressions. And I can easily say I will have a lot of first impressions until I reach the next country. Because Russia is definitely different from any other country I’ve visited. There are a lot of stereotypes and predispositions in western countries about Russia and although I can confirm a few of them (which I will do later, including funny stories), most are at least exaggerated or just not true. And there is even more we just don’t know about Russia, or Russian people, if you can even speak about them in general since the country is so amazingly big it even spreads over 2 continents: One part lies geographically in Europe and the other in Asia.
My first contact with Russians was one that fitted quite perfectly within the stereotypes. It was at the border control, when I took the bus from Tallinn to St. Petersburg. The process of leaving Europe and entering Russia took almost an hour. As soon as we arrived at the border I noticed the wifi on the bus was switched off. Already a little nervous about my visa being accepted, this didn’t help. Our passports were checked 4 times. One time to exit Europe, 3 times for entering Russia. No smiles, no talking, just pointing and looking really seriously and scary. The 3rd time, we had to leave the bus with our hand luggage to get our final stamp, which had to be checked of course at the last check. I think our hand luggage was supposed to be scanned at this checkpoint by metal detectors like at the airport, but I think they were just standing there to scare people because we didn’t have to scan them. The woman behind the glass was a really big, strict looking lady. I gave her my passport with the customs ‘arrival’ paper I got and filled out in the bus. She looked at my passport and the form, then looked me straight in the eye and said something in Russian. Having looked so furiously at my passport she should have noticed it was Dutch and that the chances I spoke Russian were low to zero. But I think she thought that if she spoke very loud and clearly I would probably understand. Since I didn’t, I mumbled I didn’t speak Russian and then she seemed to know how to count in English because she (even louder) said ‘TWO!’ And waved fiercely with the customs paper in front of the window. Apparently I was supposed to give her not only the arrival part, but also the departure paper. So don’t mess with the Russian border control, or maybe in general with people (mostly women) at desks behind glass windows. I have another great story about that, when buying my train ticket to Moscow at the ticket office in St. Petersburg,. The Russian lady behind the window obviously wasn’t happy with her job and panicked when a foreigner appeared at the other side of the window. A foreigner who didn’t speak her language, had a last name with a sign (ö) (she didn’t have a clue how to get it from her keypad on her screen) and didn’t have a passport with her (which meant so she had to get my details from a copy on my smarter-then-her phone, because the screen went black every time she was struggling to type my last name and she had to pass it back and forth through the window hatch to let me type in the code). It is not hard to imagine how she got more frustrated every minute. Luckily I had not one, but even 3 Russian speaking assistants. Except for showing me around during the day, they were also kind to offer me to help me getting the ticket at the ticket office and dropping me off at the train station the next day. After I got the train ticket, one hour later, we celebrated this with a drink in a bar that was decorated in Soviet style.
So now let me talk about this side of Russia, the cool Russians I met, mostly young people who learned me about their culture and helped me to get rid of (most) of my stereotypes about Russia. When I arrived in St. Petersburg, I stayed with a host who drove me to a night marathon in which his friend participated and that was organised in a beautiful park in the centre. In the car I only heard Russian music on the radio and when we entered the park, Russian music was played from the loudspeakers (they have them everywhere in parks and alleys in cities in Russia). When the music at the starting point of the marathon also didn’t play the western music I was used to, I made the mistake of asking one of my hosts friends if they weren’t allowed to play western pop music in Russia. He started laughing and joked that their president said no to western music. One minute later I heard Rihanna pumping out of the speakers.. whoops. Of course, not only the Russian radio is commercialised… Big flashy billboards, brands or signs are omnipresent. It sometimes looks a little weird for me though, especially out of the city centre where the buildings are less European and more Soviet like: all the colourful signs on really grey, straight and bold buildings. What makes it even weirder for me is the cyrillic language. When you see a big yellow M, but a word you don’t recognise, or a Starbucks logo with a totally different looking name on it, you get a little confused.
Of course I didn’t want to eat at Макдоналдс or drink coffee in Старбакс кофе, so I discovered the Russian food and coffee. With some help and invitations from again, really warm, welcoming young Russian people. About the coffee I can be really short, because the Russians actually have more of a tea drinking culture, because the first thing I got offered at my hosts house was a tea. And later, at the marathon, I was surprised they even supplied the marathon runners with tea with lemon next to the coke, water and banana! Their way of drinking coffee (if you go to a small Russian cafe or restaurant) is really simple: they make a big pot with coffee with milk and (a lot of) sugar in it and they tap the coffee from that. It only costs around 50 euro cents. And instead of getting a hamburger at Macdonald’s, they get a pancake at Tepemok. Not a french crepe, but a thicker pancake stuffed with cheese, meat or sometimes even potatoes. It doesn’t even cost 2 euros. This was also something I noticed from the beginning of my trip through Russia: everything is so cheap! Maybe it was because I travelled in Scandinavia for the last weeks and I got used to a really high price level.. but still, it even was a lot lower than back home. The Euro is currently really strong, which is of course good for me because, for example, I could buy a sim card with 30 days unlimited internet for 6€, but not good for Russia. My Russian friends in St. Petersburg told me the average wage of a person working in St. Petersburg, and I was pretty shocked: 250 – 300 € per month. I couldn’t even pay my rent from that in Belgium. So when I take out money here, it is more or less a monthly pay cheque of the people here. Now I get why small shops or cafes never have enough change for me if I pay with “large” bills from 1000 or sometimes even 500 Rubles to pay for something small (that is the equivalent for 15 and 7 Euros). Imagine me trying to get rid of my 5000 Rubel bills I got from the machine…
Another thing I noticed is how clean the cities are. Moscow as well as St. Petersburg were incredibly clean. I quickly could see the cause of that though: workers and cleaners everywhere. Most of the time a group of 5 or 6 orangey dressed man or women dwelling floors, emptying bins, raking the autumn leaves, sweeping the streets or cleaning the rails of the escalators. There are cleaning tasks for every detail (like cleaning the red stars on top of the towers of the Kremlin in Moscow), which I guess, is a good way to create more jobs. Besides the cleaners, there is no way you can look past the uniforms, in all colours and sizes, you see walking and sitting around in the cities. I don’t know what they’re all for, but they all seem to be pretty important, because they look more as soldiers than security guys or police men. On the metro stations you could often spot them in group, about 5 young guys patrolling around.
However, the clean and secured environment doesn’t stop young (and older) couples to be really, uhm, “close” in public. Intense kissing while sitting on each others laps in parks, subways or cafes seems to be normal here. Quite an amusing contrast I think.
And the cliché about vodka? I haven’t really been in contact with it, except for the few drunken, passed out people on the streets with empty vodka bottles next to them, but my travel mate Sam can add a little story here. When he hitchhiked from Finland to Russia, he got a ride from a Russian. Three kilometers after crossing the border the car suddenly turned to an unpaved, dirty road that went straight into the forest. ‘I have to go to the forest’, he said. Sam was afraid it was going to be his end here, but on the other hand, the man seemed nice and he trusted him. After 2 km of driving, the driver stopped and jumped into the forest, while leaving the engine running. Sam heard the sound of glass and then saw the Russian man coming back with 2 plastic bags full of vodka bottles. “Tax free Vodka”, he smiled.
Next post up: a short look on Moscow Vs. St. Petersburg
Do svidaniya 😉