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American in Russia - General Observations

russia

The world is a mysterious place filled with wonder, joy and sorrow. It's what I love most about travel, escaping to a new country and feeling the pulse of its culture and people. There was no country more mysterious to me than Russia. Having grown up at the end of the Cold War I vividly remember the collapse of the Soviet Union and seeing tanks, large demonstrations and other chaos in Red Square in the years and months following up to this historical event. Russians, to some extent, were always perceived as "the enemy" but I never viewed them that way because people and politics - well any normal person knows the two can be readily separated in most cases. So what's the "pulse" of Russia and its people? This varies greatly depending on the region in which you're exploring. I'll write later about particular areas we visited, but for now I'll share some general impressions.

visa

1. Visa

For Americans, the first introduction into the Russian mindset comes with the visa process which can only be described as mind numbing. The main types of visas are homestay, tourist and business. The first seemed ideal because I was going to stay with a local but it was too time consuming as the Russian had to file papers with local authorities, wait for their return, etc. So I decided on the standard tourist visa. For this you need an official "invitation." How to get it? It's simple, you pay. And this I quickly discovered is the Russian way. If you want something done, pay for it. There's no common courtesy or standard service as we expect in America. For $40 a third-party service at waytorussia.net delivered an official invitation to me from "Cosmos Hotel" in Moscow. It was delivered via email within 15 minutes of payment.

The electronic visa form is not complicated or time consuming and you must also provide a written letter explaining the intentions of your trip, the cities you will visit on specific dates, where you plan to stay at all times, etc. You don't deal directly with the Russian Embassy as it outsources the visa services to a company called Invista Logistic Services. When I dropped my papers off I realized I made a small typographical error in the date of arrival, typing a 2 instead of a 3. "Can you just correct it on your screen?", I asked the agent.  Her answer, "No, you have to redo the form, reprint and come back. Or you can pay $25 for me to change it." Seriously? $25 dollars to change a 2 to a 3? Immediate swelling of the brain. Something so simple, taking less than a second to correct, cannot be done as a common courtesy? NYET!

The fun doesn't stop there. Upon arrival in Russia it's necessary to "register" at a local police station. For this more paperwork, usually handled by the hotel. My friend found a local hostel owner to help and she guided me through the process, taking me to the police station but warning me to not come in as "there will be too many questions if you're there." On my visa application and intention letter I only listed Moscow and St. Petersburg as destinations, yet we traveled to many other cities and regions. What would've happened if I was stopped in a place other than Moscow or St. Petersburg. Who knows? It never happened but I imagine it would've been a headache, resulting in more payments. Total cost for the visa was $230 USD ($40 for invitation and $190 for multi-entry three year visa).

It's a pity that solo tourism in Russia is almost impossible due to the visa requirements and lack of tourist infrastructure. With the country's rich and vast history it's an interesting but intimidating choice for a solo traveler under the current regime. Even if you make it there alone, it's nearly impossible to navigate because NOTHING is in English and it's very difficult to find English speakers. This really shocked me. I know the Cyrillic alphabet and basic Russian words and phrases and this helped immensely, but most foreign travelers do not have this frame of reference. I would advise anyone traveling there to at least learn the alphabet as many Russian words are similar to the English counterpart. It will make your life so much easier!

2. Service

I just want to say a little more about Russian service standards because they're nonexistent and very difficult for an American to deal with. Whatever you think about America, I can guarantee you will never walk up to a counter in a store and have the worker ignore you for several minutes, fiddling around with papers or doing something else. However, in Russia it seems commonplace. When exiting one parking lot in St. Petersburg, the lot attendant simply stared at us from his hut and eventually walked over after a minute or so. My Russian friend rolled down the window and then a staring contest ensued. No words exchanged again for what seemed like an eternity. What the hell is going on I thought? I think it must be a game to read each other's minds, figure out what's going on, guess what the other person wants. Well, in a parking lot it should be very obvious that we are simply trying to pay and leave. I don't have the time or energy to deal with such nonsense on a daily basis, but maybe you just grow accustomed to such standards if you live there. In restaurants, service is painfully slow though in most cases you're at least greeted by the server.

3. Sidewalks/Parking


IMG_4151

Sidewalks in Russia can be difficult to navigate for two reasons - they're covered in thick snow/ice or they're completely demolished as in this picture. The snow/ice situation is understandable as there's a constant stream of snow falling and it's a real challenge to keep paths clear under such circumstances. In some places, there are workers on the streets using old tools similar to thin axes breaking the thick ice. This is usually seen in front of restaurants or at gas stations. I wish I had a photo of it because it's a really archaic way of doing things and this must be one of the most miserable jobs on the planet. But why can't huge sections of sidewalk that are torn up be repaved or new stones laid? It doesn't seem that difficult and the benefits to pedestrians substantial. Again, I will compare with America where it's very, very rare to see such destruction in a public path. Why? Well maybe it's the threat of a lawsuit from a pedestrian fall that makes cities take corrective action. Authorities know there will be a price to pay for inaction, but in Russia violations continue because there are no consequences to pay. This is most obvious with the horrible parking situation there.

parking-585

Everywhere in Moscow you will see parked cars. It's really a spectacle and completely mind blowing to me. The problem seems so easy to correct. Simply write tickets, tow the cars, make people pay a price for violating the law and maybe the chaos will stop. It's so logical yet I never saw a police officer writing a parking ticket the entire time I was there. How can you expect anything to change if people are not punished? Every day on my way home from work in DC, I see cars getting towed off the street for parking violations on major routes. At all other times, there are meter maids walking around writing tickets for illegal parking or expired meters. These fines aren't cheap. This doesn't stop all illegal parking but you will never see such madness in any American city.

4. Roads/Highways

My Russian friend warned me about Russian roads and highways. Upon arrival in Moscow I wondered what all the fuss was about. The highway there seemed fine, congested sure but nothing scary. And then we set off for the long drive to St. Petersburg. And all I can say is the highway on this route is fucking scary. I'm sorry, but there are no other words. I don't have any photos because I was sitting there nervous and in a state of panic for a lot of the journey. I'm used to sharing highways with huge trucks but not on such narrow lanes, or dealing with trucks and other cars passing in head on traffic. It's like a cat and mouse game on this route. Wait for your side of the highway to open up to two lanes and then frantically try to pass the slow truck in front of you. Thank God I was with a very cautious driver who didn't take risks, but some maniacs flew past us when they clearly couldn't see what was in front of them. Extremely dangerous and life threatening for the driver and other cars around him. When we pulled off the highway to venture through some remote villages, the roads were in complete disrepair. Huge holes, no lanes, in some cases just dirt. I don't know what else to say really except that I never felt safe driving the whole way from Moscow to St. Petersburg or St. Petersburg to Vyborg. By the time we returned from Vyborg, I needed a serious drink and my hosts happily obliged with some horrible squirrel vodka. But this is another story. :)

5. Villages/Russian People


Photo1

The whole route to St. Petersburg I saw homes like this from the highway. In complete disrepair, sunken into the ground, abandoned. The only sign of life in some homes was smoke escaping from the chimney. It felt like the apocalypse had already hit these villages and no one noticed or cared. Really a depressing scene. What do these people do, where do they work, why don't they take better care of their homes? I still don't know the answers to these questions. On some occasions, we would see a person walking on the shoulder of the highway in the middle of nowhere. "Where did they come from, where are they going?" I would always ask. The short answer given? "This is Russia."

There are some things I just cannot understand about this way of life, especially the lack of self-respect or human dignity in some places. You can be poor and still take pride in your home, walk with your head held high. But in these places the sense of defeat and hopelessness is apparent. Really sad and tragic to me.

Russian people are stereotyped as being cold, expressionless and void of emotion. When you see scenes like this, it's easy to understand how such tough exteriors and attitudes can develop. Even in Moscow, where people typically live in apartment high rises or nicer homes, the attitude is very different from America. I didn't feel a sense of community anywhere in Russia, or that people genuinely cared or looked out for each other. Friends and family yes, but to general strangers or tourists absolutely not. In this way, the country is very different from America. Whether you like America or not, I doubt many foreigners come here and truly hate American people. It's a unique mentality, a general acceptance of what's different that I didn't feel in Russia.

What did I like most about Russia? For me, the winter weather is fabulous! I love the biting cold, snow, and the thrill of walking on a massive frozen body of water. Call me strange but I feel most alive when I'm freezing. I like the 24 hour flower shops and the romantic notion that men are still traditional and commonly bring women flowers. It's interesting that the country is still rapidly evolving today, for better or worse and I'll continue to track its course. The Russian sweets and cakes are so tasty and I consumed massive amounts of both during my visit. I also met some kind and curious strangers along the way, like this old man who stopped us on the street in Vyborg, kissed my hand and gave me an old Russian book. And the shy woman in a tiny village off the highway who let me enter her tea hut and take photos. And the drunk men who stared at me as the only woman in some seedy vodka bar in St. Petersburg. These people I'll never forget.


IMG_4671

I think Russia is a fascinating country, filled with a rich and complex history and I would return to visit other regions, though not alone. For me the country is only navigable with a local and I must take time to thank my dear friend macos for being such a gracious host. Without his effort, knowledge and insight this trip wouldn't have been possible. Russia and its people, to me, are still very mysterious and strange because the way of life there is so different from America. I've traveled to over 30 countries and have other frames of reference, but the mentalities of our two nations is the greatest disparity I've ever felt.

Next time I'll tell you about the magnificent city of St. Petersburg.


Comments

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yarowind
Mar. 10th, 2013 06:44 pm (UTC)
Exсellent! View from outside !:)

>>For Americans, the first introduction into the Russian mindset comes with the visa process which can only be described as mind numbing.

Americans do not need visas to many countries, so many things seem strange. For russian - visa is required in many countries. U.S. visa - pretty simple, but the British - a real hell!

>>Total cost for the visa was $230 USD

US visa cost 160$:)

>>I don't have the time or energy to deal with such nonsense on a daily basis, but maybe you just grow accustomed to such standards if you live there.

This is the Soviet legacy. Now the situation is changing for better, you just no luck :).

>>hey're completely demolished as in this picture

I would not call this a typical picture. Usually it looks better:) For example, look here
http://elena-morosova.livejournal.com/234305.html

>>Everywhere in Moscow you will see parked cars!

Yes, it is a problem. Paid parking - unpopular. Authorities are hesitant to go to this. But come.

>>And all I can say is the highway on this route is fucking scary.

Yes, after the Russian roads have nothing to fear. This is a good driving school :)

>> It felt like the apocalypse had already hit these villages and no one noticed or cared. Really a depressing scene. What do these people do, where do they work, why don't they take better care of their homes? I still don't know the answers to these questions.

After collapse of the Soviet Union, many people lost their jobs. Especially difficult in small towns and villages. There's really no jobs. Young people leave, the elderly remain.

peacetraveler22
Mar. 10th, 2013 08:12 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the explanations. Yes, I recognize Americans are lucky because we don't have to deal with the visa situation very often and for Russians it's commonplace. However, I don't believe it's necessary for Russians to get official "invitations" for most countries nor register at the local police station upon arrival. Maybe I'm wrong. This is the strangest thing about the Russian process.

I suspected that people in these villages are elderly which also explains the inability to care for their homes. I still find it so tragic. And you didn't answer the mystery question! Where do those people walking on the shoulder of the M10 in the middle of nowhere come from and where are they going?? Maybe they are forest creatures disguised in human form. :)))
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this is likely a mentality thing - (Anonymous) - Mar. 13th, 2013 03:39 am (UTC) - Expand
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I applied for UK visa in Boston - xpo_xpo_xpo - Mar. 29th, 2013 05:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
anatole
Mar. 10th, 2013 07:53 pm (UTC)
Great story about us, sounds very good :)) will share it among friends via FB.
peacetraveler22
Mar. 10th, 2013 08:06 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Next week I'll start writing about specific cities I visited - Moscow, Novgorod, St. Petersburg, etc. Those photos will be more pleasant I promise.
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peacetraveler22
Mar. 11th, 2013 01:25 pm (UTC)
Peter, all these people cannot be drunks. There are too many homes that look like this, driving for 12 hours and seeing the same scene over and over. I think it's a general sense of despair and hopelessness that causes them not to care. Even in the ghettos of DC and other parts of America that are filled with drug addicts and crack whores the homes don't even come close to the horrible condition there. And, what, you think Russia should return to socialism? :))
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livejournal
Mar. 11th, 2013 09:30 pm (UTC)
American in Russia - General Observations
User letplaydoctor referenced to your post from American in Russia - General Observations saying: [...] Оригинал взят у в American in Russia - General Observations [...]
moonrainbow
Mar. 11th, 2013 10:56 pm (UTC)
I wrote to you above that what you could see on your route were the signs of crisis of the Russian civilization.
It is a long, ongoing crisis. You can probably track its beginning to the rapid urbanization of the country during the USSR, that triggered the decline of small villages. But it has greatly accelerated with the economic disaster and the consequent demographic downturn of the country from the moment of the breakup of the Soviet Union.
More than twenty years have passed since, and it is clear now that what was claimed to be quick reforms with future adaptation virtually killed the economy of towns and villages all over the country. While big cities transformed - to a larger or lesser extent - to the modern centers of trade and commerce with smaller footprint of industry that dominated them before, small towns and villages were not able to adapt. The income fell down dramatically and remains low ever since. Worse, very often the single enterprise of that town/village (a factory, a kolkhoz - communal farm, etc.) went bankrupt and would never reopen again. Even successful companies lay off people (this is called "staff optimization"). In all cases, people lose jobs and do not find them again at home. There are too many towns where the state is the biggest and most reliable employer.
As if that was not enough, the state no longer acts a social protector. Since years, it behaves like a company manager looking to maximize instant benefits to themselves. Such a manager would save costs to get bonuses and buy a new yacht, not caring about what happens to the company next year.
Similarly, the state is saving costs on infrastructure and buys Olympic games.
Saving cost on infrastructure means: refusing to build and maintain roads and communal networks, cutting funds to health and education, closing local hospitals and schools and laying off their staff to fund just big hospitals in the regional centers - that can’t help the town people 50 kilometers away, and are often not better.
This tells the local village and town population a clear message: “We don’t need you. Leave this place or die.”
Unsurprisingly, people hear this message. Active population is leaving to big cities. Most of young people have already left their home villages with no provisions to return. Those who stay have nowhere to go and will die in their rusty, dreadful homes.
North-West of Russia is the region where traces of this crisis are probably extreme. It is not as vast as the North or Siberia, and it is not as fruitful as the South with its black soils and big farms. Two large megapolises - Moscow and St. Petersburg - suck the active population out of the villages and towns. The highway between the capitals does not boost the economy - on the contrary, it only makes things worse: life next to this road has all the discomforts of a big city (noise, dirt, ecology) with no compensating infrastructure.
Therefore, villages are being abandoned by active people. With the increased intention of the state to save cost on social spending, the process will accelerate. It is already affecting towns with 10+ thousands residents. People leave them to go to regional centers like Novgorod. Regional centers are losing population to megapolises such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. And villages – they just die. Russia loses hundreds of small villages every year. There are thousands of places with no permanent population, at best with country homes for city residents.
Russian civilization is shrinking. People move to the west and the south with better climate and more lively towns. Big cities keep growing and concentrate more people, towns shrink to become villages, villages lose people and turn to ghost settlements, village homes decay and turn to ruins to be replaced with forests. There is no indication that this is going to change any time soon. Not until we see investments into transport, social infrastructure and economy around the country that bring hope to these deserted places. Not with the state authorities we have today.
This is just one aspect of the crisis. There is more, but I think this already explains things you have seen on the route.
peacetraveler22
Mar. 12th, 2013 02:30 am (UTC)
Thanks for the well written explanation. I did find the scenes on this route shocking for a country like Russia that continually tries to take a seat at the super power table. Of course there are abandoned and depressed towns in America due to factories moving, unemployment, etc. However, in general, small towns in the U.S. are the heart and soul of America. It's a real pity that these people are left to die in misery in your homeland. In my opinion, any government that refuses to act as social protector to some extent is asking for the eventual demise of order among its citizens. It will be interesting to see how things continue to develop.

Edited at 2013-03-12 03:32 am (UTC)
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kot0hoc
Mar. 12th, 2013 07:37 am (UTC)
ЗБС!)
casper1972
Mar. 12th, 2013 07:46 am (UTC)
нда, фото парковки много говорящее :)
scherbina307
Mar. 12th, 2013 02:19 pm (UTC)
да пошёл ты нахуй, белоленточная гнида, наша страна самая большая и мы победили германию
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Вы, по-моему, дурак. - pro100_petrov - Mar. 14th, 2013 05:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
evstratov_and
Mar. 12th, 2013 07:49 am (UTC)
In Russia, of course there is chaos in the villages and corruption and very bad roads and drinking. (This is all in the main legacy of the USSR collapse). However, in Russia there is a lot of good. Historical monuments, nature, nice and open people finally.
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nichtzinik
Mar. 12th, 2013 08:06 am (UTC)
Great post :)
followed you here and on twitter. Nice to meet person interested in Russia :)
peacetraveler22
Mar. 13th, 2013 12:40 am (UTC)
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed.
alborod
Mar. 12th, 2013 08:28 am (UTC)
Come back in a few years - it is better to reveal some doubts on a second visit :)
peacetraveler22
Mar. 13th, 2013 12:41 am (UTC)
I will definitely return to visit other regions.
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tro_ololo
Mar. 12th, 2013 08:42 am (UTC)
You said a phrase that I said for my American friends many times - Russian people have sad faces because of surrounding life, all these ruined buildings and dark colors destroy their mood. Foreigners don't understand that untill they see all this stuff with their eyes. Furthermore, in winter we have long nights, and many people go to work at night and come back at night, they don't see the sunlight at all. It's even a question of health.
I may add that Russians have angry faces because they always wait for someone abuses them. One Russian guy said "Boorishness is the Russian national tradition". Somehow I agree with this. According to my experience of living in the small Russian towns, if you have a normal face, people punch you in the public transportation, they are rude and mean if you ask them something like direction, try to buy goods in a shop or whatever, but if you have an angry face like "Don't touch me or you will complain!", others actually don't touch you with their bad mood and wills to be rude. It became a way of surviving in the present-day conditions.
nekonyaa
Mar. 12th, 2013 11:00 am (UTC)
"Улыбайтесь, это всех раздражает" - "Smile! It irrates everyone". Thats how it work in crowded mass transportation systems in Russia:)
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seaman21
Mar. 12th, 2013 08:47 am (UTC)
hello from mow
Hi! i am pretty disapointed about highway description. XD I think it's just fun.
do you have any description about roads in us?
peacetraveler22
Mar. 13th, 2013 12:48 am (UTC)
Re: hello from mow
Haha. Sasha (macos) wrote a big post about American roads. They are paradise compared to this shit I traveled on! http://macos.livejournal.com/747958.html
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(Anonymous)
Mar. 12th, 2013 08:52 am (UTC)
Марат
Русские всегда жили как скот. Всё чего добилась страна при СССР получено под жесткой рукой хозяина. Вот почему большая часть русского народа считает Сталина героем и лучшим правителем.
(Anonymous)
Mar. 12th, 2013 02:01 pm (UTC)
Re: Марат
Не, при царе нормально было, даже в Сибири. Землю впрочем большевичьё до сих пор не вернуло, ну да ничего, её тут много, похороним оставшееся.
Re: Марат - gora80 - Jan. 11th, 2015 06:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
Ким Филби - camedy_club - Jan. 11th, 2015 06:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
solepsizm
Mar. 12th, 2013 08:55 am (UTC)
Hi! Nice to meet you. I lived in nyc for 1 year and then came back to Russia. And now I have a different impression from my country. After I came back Im trying to make my country better.
peacetraveler22
Mar. 13th, 2013 12:49 am (UTC)
Hello! New York City, I don't like it at all. I prefer small towns. I'm glad you're trying to make your country a better place and wish you much happiness and success.
ton_an
Mar. 12th, 2013 09:05 am (UTC)
Thank you very much for this report! It's clear that you try to be honest and objective. Unfortunately, there are really a lot of sad things to see here in Russia, but it must be still interesting :)

There are some things I just cannot understand about this way of life, especially the lack of self-respect or human dignity in some places. You can be poor and still take pride in your home, walk with your head held high. But in these places the sense of defeat and hopelessness is apparent. Really sad and tragic to me.

You already have some comments with explanationof the situation. In my opinion, the most critical was the informational support of Soviet Union collaps. Initially the "Perestroika" didn't mean the complete change of political base of the country/ The majority of population of SU preferred to keep it alive, but there were also people interested very much ion breaking it down. So, the massive attack on Russian mentality was started. For many years we heard only negative things about Soviet Union, and Russion people particularly. Still you can often read in Russian blogs that we have no reasons for self-respect at all. This is realy bad athmosphere for the recovery or even for simply normal live.

The Soviet Union was not a perfect country, of course, but it was normal country. Just too different from many others, but not the worst place to live. I know one Norwegian, who had a lot of business relations with SU and he dreamed to move to SU when retarded. He didn't see all layers of life in SU and most of problems, but still I'm agree with him that the advantages were more important. Finally, it was not simply empire broken, but also the mentality of its' population as well. One way or another, it still matters until now.
eric_mcarthur
Mar. 12th, 2013 09:49 am (UTC)
"The Soviet Union was not a perfect country, of course, but it was normal country. " ---- Yes, if you think it's normal when people were put in jails just for the reading of "wrong" books, or couldn't change the place of their living without authorities' permission. And many, many other absurd things. I wouldn't call this "normal", but I know that for many russian people that's just a routine. Especially if they don't care about books.
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