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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.