Edit Blog Post
Published: February 21st 2012
I'm very happy to say that on the second try, I finally made it to Russia. My ill-fated first attempt in 2008 was aborted after a desultory stay in Ukraine and a depressing few days in Belarus. Long story short, I think I wasn't quite ready yet. It's easy enough to buy a plane or train or bus ticket and travel to a foreign country, but to be adequately prepared for the experience and the almost inevitable culture shock continues to be a different story altogether. Of course, it also depends on the approach at travelling you take, but let's not go there now.
This time everything was to be different. I get off the plane at Moscow's Domodedovo (a word with four o's, none of which are pronounced like /o/) Airport and set foot on the largest country on this planet with confidence thanks to two months of learning Russian prior to this trip. It's nothing short of miraculous how all of a sudden, those mysterious Cyrillic characters make perfect sense. How I can ask my way to the train station and buy my ticket and enquire when the next train to the city leaves, all using my very
basic Russian. How they don't look confused or get angry because you talk to them in English but instead really seem to appreciate the effort to speak their language, especially when you use a lot of 'excuse me', 'please' and 'thank you'.
The train ride to the city takes about 45 minutes. I get out at Peveletsky Vokzal and change to the metro, which I can't help but be a bit apprehensive about at this moment, thanks in part to my having read Edward's Metro Zombies
-blog in preparation. Thankfully rush hour is already over, so everything's a tad less stressful than expected. I line up to buy a 20-ride metro card, sold to me by an affable middle-aged lady who waits patiently when I clumsily count the coins and bills onto the tray in front of her.
I walk down the escalator, which penetrates deeply into the underground. One can tell that people are just going through the motions, they already know from experience what's most efficient, i.e. where they have to stand and walk, when to let others pass and when to push in. A dedushka (male equivalent of babushka) tries to lift his heavy trolley down the
stairs, and politely refuses when I offer to help him. He struggles even more when it goes up the stairs again, and two rough-looking young men just take the thing from him and lift it up without a word. They simply nod when he thanks them, and rush onwards to their train.
I squeeze onto the already crowded train with dozens of other people (at that time I thought that was a crowded train...little did I know...) to go one stop along the ring road and then alight to the purple line. There everybody hurries out past the people waiting anxiously to board on both sides of the doors. Following the perekhod-signs that indicate the transfer to another line, I walk up the escalator, through a long tunnel, and down an escalator again. At the platform, I look at the LED display that shows the time when the last train left and realize I just missed one, but when I look to the right, the next one is already approaching out of the tunnel and screeching to a halt right in front of me.
A bit less than half an hour later, I get off at the last
metro stop, on Moscow's outskirts south of the centre. The vast majority of Muscovites lives on the periphery of this gargantuan city, not many can afford to live much closer to the centre due to the ever-rising real estate prices. Here in the Vykhino district, the streets are lined with high-rise apartment blocks, all in shades of grey or brown and looking somewhere between depressing and menacing. There must be hundreds of those blocks, and I'm guessing that in this district alone dwell far more than 100,000 people, a faceless dormitory town where metro zombies lay their weary heads.
After asking about seven different people, I finally find the right block and the right flat. I meet my host Liza, who sits me down in the kitchen with a cup of tea to warm up. She works as a Russian language teacher, so I start pestering her with questions about grammatical and lexical issues, which she answers patiently and with a smile. Later she asks me:
"What have you heard about our elections?"
-"Um, not that much. Just that they were some...irregularities..."
"Yes, you could say that. It's a big joke, everybody knows it.
Putin gets 99,9% in Chechnya out of all places? Then they already replaced three governors where Putin's party got bad results. In little towns they drive around and let people know that they should vote for Putin, or else. People are intimidated. But you know, they are not taking it anymore. Did you hear about the protests? It was a big thing here, there haven't been such big protests in I don't know how long. Especially ones against the government, it would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. I was very shocked to read about it, I was just travelling, so I wasn't here."
-"Yeah, hopefully things will change for the better. But it's gonna be tough."
"That's true. But it's not like it used to be, people want to have better lives. And they are starting to have hope that there could actually be a change, that things can really get better. Everybody's fed up with the corruption. But Putin will do anything to stay in power, that's for sure."
-"Could I ask you something?"
"Sure, go ahead."
-"As you've just mentioned corruption, I would just like to know if it's true
what I've heard, that it is quite common or even necessary to pay, let's say, doctors some extra cash to get a prescription, or teachers to get better grades."
"Yes, of course it is."
-"Of course it is?"
-"Alright...well, has anybody ever tried to bribe you?"
"Yes, but only a few times. Mothers of students have been in my office, crying, begging me to give their kids better grades, offering me money, but I've never taken it. How could I?"
What place could be more adequate for a first glimpse of Moscow than the Red Square? If there are but three things anyone can name about Russia, the Red Square will be among these. Surprisingly, the 'red' doesn't stem from the Communist's preferred colour, nor does it allude to the blood that was spilt there during the executions of insurgents and criminals in the times of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. In fact, in Russian, the Square is called Krasnaya ploshchad, and 'krasnaya' can mean both 'red' and 'beautiful', the latter being rather archaic. In its original meaning, 'beautiful' referred to St. Basil's Church, but
Monument to Minin and Pozharsky
Statue commemorating prince Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, who gathered the all-Russian volunteer army and expelled the forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from Moscow, thus putting an end to the Time of Troubles in 1612
this was subsequently transferred to the square itself.
Strolling about this incredibly vast square (70m wide, 330m long), I get a sense of the historic significance and symbolic value it has for Moscow and the whole of Russia. There's Lenin's Mausoleum and the Kremlin Walls, facing the GUM department store. In the distance, I can catch a glimpse of the familiar colourful onion domes of St. Basil's Church. Behind me stands the palace-like State Historical Museum, the Resurrection Gate with its twin red towers, as well as the 1993 replica of Kazan Cathedral, the original of which was demolished at the direction of Stalin in 1936.
It's not all grave and dignified historicism, however. At the centre of the square they put a gigantic Christmas tree, hideously decorated, with plastic angels and Santas and reindeers beneath neon signs wishing everybody, well, the usual. Now I didn't come to Russia expecting everything to look like back in the Cold War days, but this blatant tackiness definitely doesn't fit the images in my head I've had of this country.
As I wander through Moscow's streets, I am reminded of the apparently inevitable fact that Socialism has to be followed
by unmitigated hyper-consumerism, probably to make up for the decades of capitalist drought. There are the same tired franchises as everywhere else, the same shops, cafés, restaurants, plus they have their own, uniquely Russian ones, which are all over the place in stupefying numbers. This place went from 'sorry, no choice' to 'everything you want - we got it (in all colours, flavours and varieties imaginable)' in just a few years.
Apart from their own coffeehouse chains - Coffee Bean, Kofe House (Кофе Хауз - more like Kofe Khaus) and Shokoladnitsa - there is the peculiar trend of the Russian rhyming restaurants. I find Kroshka Kartoshka, Kishmish, Shesh-Besh, Shashlyk Mashlyk, Yolki Palki, Pasta & Basta and Gogol-Mogol. All of them are chains as well, and you can find them scattered across the city. Usually there's always at least one in proximity to a metro station. I wonder how many new names are gonna be following this increasingly silly fad.
This is obviously not news, but the prices in Moscow are high - for pretty much everything. Coffee costs between 3-7€ in one of the chains, but you'd probably be able to get it for around 2-2.50€ at a
kebab shop or a stall that sells greasy, deep-fried flaky pastries. For a cheap meal, it's best to head to one of the numerous retro-Soviet cafeterias like Mu-Mu and Drova, which are really too modern and friendly to be authentic. The usual fare is different soups, salads, side dishes like rice, kasha (каша; different types of porridge or cereal), grechka (гречка; buckwheat porridge), mashed potatoes and vegetables, as well as the normally meaty main dishes. The drinks on offer include tea, coffee, beer, bottles of vodka, soft drinks, a delicious juice called Mors (морс), made from different forest berries, and Kvass (квас), a refreshing fermented beverage made from black or rye bread. Its taste can range from anywhere between exquisite and musty.
In some parts of the city I feel like being in Berlin, others remind me of London, others yet more of Bucharest. But make no mistake about it - Moscow is Moscow, a mephistophelean moloch of megalomaniac measurements. The architecture is both intimidating and fascinating. In the centre, you get eight-lane roads lined with Stalinist office-buildings, grey behemoths closely resembling those constructed in Nazi Germany. Around the corner, there are Orthodox churches, museums and palaces built in
faux-classical style, Socialist-Realist statues and monuments, parks, huge squares, as well as the odd small street with pre-October Revolution buildings sporting pretty, non-Soviet (well, naturally) façades. No matter where you are, one of Stalin's Seven Sisters, those grandiloquent 1950s high-rises combining Russian Baroque and Gothic styles, is usually within sight.
I take the metro to Park Kultury, walk across the bridge over the Moskva River, and turn left to get a closer look at an oversized statue of what - as seen from the bridge - appears to be a bloke standing on a pirate ship. 10 minutes later I stand right in front of it - and it still looks like a bloke standing on a pirate ship. My trusty guide book tells me it's actually supposed to be a Peter the Great-statue, much-maligned by sceptical Muscovites who were rather averse to the idea of paying tribute to the capricious tsar, who didn't think much of Moscow and moved the capital to St. Petersburg, by building a 94.5m-high sculpture. Understatement doesn't seem to be a Russian thing; you commission someone to build a statue - he doesn't fuck around, he goes all
out. In this case, it was a Georgian who designed it, one Zurab Tsereteli, multi-talented painter, architect, designer and sculptor with a curious record of building pompous, ill-proportioned abominations around the world, many of them controversial and hotly disputed.
Right across the street from the statue is the Muzeon Sculpture Park, the 'Park of the Fallen Heroes', where Soviet statues that are no longer required found their final resting place. There's Lenin and Stalin, of course, also Leonid Brezhnev, Stalin's successor, Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, some random idealized workers and soldiers, as well as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the great thinkers of economic and sociological theory. I like the statues and busts of Lenin the most. He always looks so grumpy and weary, at times melancholic, that it makes me wonder how this could possibly be classified as an idealized depiction. I guess class struggle is not to be taken lightly after all.
Later that night, I tag along with my host Liza to the Rock 'n' Roll-bar. I haven't had the opportunity to take a shower or change clothes after a long, hard
day of sightseeing, so I feel rather out of place with all the posh, done-up people crowding the place. But despite the fact that I feel tired, smelly, old, and not in the mood, I try to see it as a good chance to do some anthropological observations. Plus they have a special on that night: 20 cocktails for 1000 rubles, quite a good deal really, even if a few of them are plain disgusting. I stick with the safe, girly options with lots of mango juice.
Liza meets an Argentinian friend of hers, who works as a Spanish teacher in Moscow. For some reason he doesn't want to speak Spanish to me, though, and always replies in English. Must be an Argentinian thing, this is not the first time that's happened to me. After a while, they start dancing, and as if everybody just waited for someone to take the plunge, a lot of other people immediately hit the dancefloor, that is, the area between the bar and the tables. Curiously, Jordan the Argentinian is the only guy dancing, the rest is all girls. It takes a few minutes for the masculine specimens to notice this, then, most
likely having sensed the pheromones, they start their awkward mating dance. The females, having already indicated that they are available for breeding, are extremely receptive to these audacious advances, and couples are formed quickly. The tradition of frantically screaming 'whooooooo-hoo-hooooooo' when the first tunes of a highly popular song sound is meticulously practised, but Michael Jackson's 'Black or White' gets one of the most high-pitched, hysteric reactions, and they all dance like no tomorrow? Things ARE different in Russia, indeed.
Roxette's 'Listen to your heart' is the perfect chance for the couples to get a little closer, and first tentative pecks are exchanged. Pink may not fit in with the whole rock & roll-theme, but it is just right for the girls to 'go wild' after the romantic slow-dance, before things are getting too serious. The blokes, however, seize their chance, some doing the old 'oh, you are so wild and you were about to fall down, so I conveniently grabbed you by the boobs to prevent you from getting hurt'-spiel. Quite a smart choice by the DJ, after the song they all need more drinks. Jordan looks a bit depressed. I ask him what happened. "The girl I
was dancing with all the time asked me how old I am. I said '32'. After that, she said she'd go to the bathroom and never came back."
The dancer's sense of rhythm is, well, about as good as the average German's sense of rhythm. This becomes none more obvious than when Elvis Presley's 'Jailhouse Rock' and Chubby the Checker's 'Let's Twist Again' are played. How could this broad range of songs to make a fool out of yourself to be complete without 'Misirlou'? (THAT Pulp Fiction-song, for those who don't know) After the obligatory 'wooo-hooo! woooohoooo-hohoooho-hohohh-hoooooooooouuuu11!!!1!111' the awkwardness unfolds. Turquoise eye-shadowed Natashas in white tops suddenly think they're Mia Wallace and nerdy, immobile Ivans turn into Vincent Vegas, if only for two minutes. Truly a sight to behold, albeit from a safe distance.
A word on being a travelling vegetarian in Russia: it is not as bad as your guide book or that stoned dreadlock hippie with 47 stinking festival bracelets in Goa make it sound. In fact, there are even a few vegetarian restaurants and sandwich shops around. I'm not sure if it's just a fad or if it's a
sign that people are becoming more aware of dietary and environmental issues, and more accepting of alternative lifestyles. Hell, if they know that there are people out there who don't eat dead animals, that's already something, that makes them smarter than Spaniards.
At most eateries you can rely on the trusty old Big Three: капуста, грибы & карто́шка - cabbage, mushrooms & potatoes. You can find them inside pies, dumplings and turnovers, which are usually deep-fried and dripping with grease, but can be delicious. Soups are also a very important part of Russian cuisine, but most of them contain meat or at least some sort of meat stock. So unless you're in a vegetarian restaurant, soups are not really an option for strict herbivores.
The great thing about the vegetarian restaurants is that they are mostly very dedicated and keen on providing quality food and ingredients to make it as appealing as possible even to meat-eaters. I went to a nice little restaurant called Avocado, and they go all out with their dishes: everything from soups to burgers, from Russian classics to fajitas, from sprouts and raw food to tofu and seitan can be found on their menu,
and even the waiters were friendly, attentive, and very patient with my dodgy Russian.
On New Year's Eve, I make my way to my new hosts Masha and Senya. They pick me up from the metro station in a beat-up old Lada, which is a good and an important thing to experience at least once when in Russia. It doesn't take us long to find the same wavelength, and shortly after we sit in a little eatery, where their French roommate Rosalie joins us, joking and laughing and trading stories. I learn that the small restaurant is run by Old Christians, adherents to a faith that separated from the Russian Orthodox Church centuries ago. All the food is organic, homegrown and meat-free. We feast on kasha and mushrooms, rice and polenta patties, and have delicious pies filled with fresh berries for dessert. Their homemade kvass is also very tasty.
We talk about Russian stereotypes:
"Some tourists come here, and they have this impression, they think that Russians never smile. They think we are so unfriendly and stone-faced and we drink vodka all the time. Where do they get this image from?
Statue of Peter the Great on the Moskva River
At 94.5m the eighth-highest statue in the world
Sure you don't see people on the metro smiling, but when you get to know Russians, you see that they are just like anybody else. Sometimes it feels like other people see us as some kind of monsters." Masha says.
"Yeah, but they probably don't know any better", I reply. "They might go to Russia as tourists and never really talk to a Russian. It may also have a lot to do with the language barrier. Their impression might be of unfriendly ticket sellers and babushkas pushing and shoving in the metro. And it's different meeting Russians in private or public spaces. I've found that once you get to know Russians, they are some of the kindest and most hospitable people. It's been great here so far."
"Yes, so far", Senya says, faking a heavy Russian accent, grimly fixing me with his eyes. "But just you wait. You will be killed and your children will be eaten."
What alarms me most about this is the grammatical inevitability of it all.
Later that night, we make our way to a friend's place for the New Year's party. I get a warm
reception from everybody, one guy especially seems to take a liking to me. His name is Andriy. Later on, he comes up to me and says, smiling broadly: "Can you give me your email-address? I want to stay in contact with you. I like you." It only sounds unintentionally slightly homoerotic as his English is not that fluent. He is actually attending the party with his wife.
As expected, the food is bountiful and heavy. There are lots of different pies, one of them containing cabbage only, heaps of different pickles and sushi with a big bowl filled with soy sauce next to it. The pirog is not bad, but how much cabbage can a man eat? Not even a kraut could eat more than a slice of that pie. I take a liking to the tangy pickled garlic chives, but stop my assault when I hear that the pickles are meant for the vodka drinking later on.
After a while, the doorbell rings and Дед Мороз (Father Frost) arrives. His mighty white beard is only surpassed by his bathrobe, barely covering his hairy legs and black socks. He's brought a trolley full of stuff, and after asking
everybody to give a little introduction of themselves, he draws little papers from a hat containing all our names. Some things remain obscure to me due to language issues, but every person whose name is drawn has to play a little game or fulfil a task, and is given a little gift as a reward. I am quite amused at their determination to follow these little rituals, and admittedly it is fun.
The atmosphere is joyful and for some reason, everybody except me is dressed up in costume. That changes when an Austrian guy shows up with five German girls on his tail. The hosts seem to be a bit less than happy about his unannounced company, and I transform into an Argentinian for the rest of the night. The German chicks quickly isolate themselves from the rest, lingering around in their own group inside the kitchen, drinking vodka and babbling on in German, which, whenever i catch an earful of it, unfolds itself as some of the most execrable drivel I've had the misfortune of hearing in a while.
At midnight, hugs and wishes are exchanged, and the host streams a video of a guy in a
suit spoofing the President, taking the piss out of Russian politics, economy, corruption and quoting the general ridiculousness of it all. After that, the real President Medvedev gives his New Year's speech, which is not taken as kindly as the one before. If it's anywhere as insincere as the German President's speech, I can sympathize with their negative feelings. The Russian National Anthem follows, and most ignore it, just two girls are quietly singing along, and I listen devoutly, as I've always loved that anthem.
When the Austrian guy, who turns out to be as obnoxious as the ditzy Teuton floosies he's brought along, comes up to have a chat with me, I tell him all about my beautiful home country Argentina, and that he should travel there, he'd really like it. He responds with a story of too much diarrhea in third-world countries, which I take offense to (how is Argentina a third-world country?), so I excuse myself to go talk to my new Russian friends, for it is infinitely more interesting and meaningful.
When I overhear a conversation going something like "Why does he pretend to be from Argentina?" -"Oh, he doesn't want to talk to
the Germans. He doesn't like them a whole lot." and realize that it's in Russian and I'm actually able to understand what is being said, I pre-ejaculate a little in my pants.
Thanks to the constant draught inside the flat, I feel my sinuses swelling up, and soon I start sneezing and coughing. Masha's inner babushka (the nice one) reacts to this immediately, and she forces me to drink a double vodka with pepper, promising I'd be better tomorrow.
We go out for a little stroll along the river, wishing everybody who passes us С Новым Годом! and stopping every now and then to watch the odd fireworks. Everybody seems to be really happy, but with a little melancholy edge to it, which prevents the merriness to descend into mindless, inordinate hedonistic pleasure for the mere fuck of it, think amusement scum in Vang Vieng, Cancún and Heidelberg.
As my nose is getting ever more runny and a headache is forming, I'm glad when we call it a day shortly afterwards. Masha is so worried about me that she puts me into her bed next to Senja and decides to stay up for the night, as they
have to leave quite early in the morning to catch a plane to Georgia anyway.
When I wake up, everybody except a French-Mexican gay friend of theirs is gone. I find a lovely note from Masha, thanking me in the kindest words for staying with them, as if they were the ones to thank me. Next to it sits a little felted chick with sunglasses and a pierced eyebrow that Masha made for me while she was waiting for the night to pass. I am quite touched by their unconditional openness and friendship, and start packing my bags with a heavy heart.
After a light breakfast and a lot of tea, I spend the rest of the day trying to recover from my cold. Later that night I hop on the metro to Leningradskiy Vokzal, where I wait around for the night train to St Petersburg.
Tot: 2.712s; Tpl: 0.159s; cc: 38; qc: 149; dbt: 0.104s; 2; m:saturn w:www (184.108.40.206); sld: 4;
; mem: 2mb