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Bumbling into Russia

On June 12, 1987 President Ronald Reagan advised  “ General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. Almost immediately questions arose. “What was it like over there? What did they teach in school? Should we have feared the Russians for as long as we did? Why couldn’t we work with their medical community in developing a cure for cancer, sending men and women to outer space, or discovering other fuel sources? Why did they fear other governments? Would we ever be able to travel there?” Several-years later, participation in a round table discussion group on the democratization and Westernization of the former Soviet Union created a stronger curiosity. Then, after traveling through twenty-three countries and all seven continents, with images of  St. Petersburg appearing in the media almost daily in the Spring 2003, experiencing a small portion the Russian culture became imperative.

In the spring of 2003 I began to make very modest offers on Web sites for a discounted flight to major cities in Northern Europe, which were accessible to St. Petersburg by boat or train and one was accepted. I flew to Helsinki, Finland donning a small pack containing a “throw away” camera and clothing adequate for three weeks of culture travel with stays at inexpensive hostels. Any preconceived notions about the rigidity of the Russian psyche were confirmed in obtain a tourism visa at their embassy in New York City when the window shade collapsed at precisely twelve noon with the advice to return at 1:30pm as they were closing for lunch.  During the break I waited outside in the 90-degree heat and humidity. Finally, at 3:50 pm, the small Russian man wearing a neatly pressed uniform peered from the slightly ajar door and allows my entrance by pointing in my direction, glancing at the sidewalk and muttering something unintelligible. After entering cautiously, my passport was handed to the same man who abruptly closed the window four hours earlier. He reviewed the document with a jewelers-eye and stated “NO” while shaking his head and offering a tight grin coupled with, I’m tellin’ ya , a glaring look. “What ?” He offers that there are no blank pages in the document. “So what. Just put it over one of the stamped visas.”  My reply, with a knitted brow and tone of voice reflected the attitude of someone who spent four hours on a hot, humid city sidewalk. Quickly, the smart little Russian that allowed my entry appeared and sternly requested my exit. Then I calmly let it be known that I was not happy with their attitudes and would see them all in Siberia.

The flight to Helsinki, Finland was uneventful. After making a ten-minute observation of the city center in the sputtering rain, I purchased a train ticket leaving for St. Petersburg, Russia my ultimate destination. The train was old, European in style, and extremely hot with passengers sitting directly across from one another. SO close our knees touched and everything!  While crossing the boarder uniformed Russians collect every riders passport, as is customary. After the authorities review them in another rail car for approximately an hour, all documentation is returned.   I was handed my passport with a few unintelligible sentences in a language presumed to be Russian. I ask the Russian passenger while raising my brow, “ What he just say?” acting curiously.  She laughed and replied, “ I think he likes you.” Great.

At approximately 11:00pm the steamy, squeaky train rolls into St. Petersburg. The entire area surrounding the station was a sea of public drunkenness. A cocktail party for the poor and impoverished. Dressed in khaki Gap trousers, a blue blazer purchased at a Salvation Army in New York City for $10.00 US, and a back- pack I begin asking where I can find a hostel. (With a blue blazer you can go anywhere.) This was met with laughter more than once. After twenty minutes, I  laughed and realized I had better grab a cop. If I was’nt so mezmorized by the entire scene I would have been beside myself. I find one of Russia’s finest donning a pressed yet seasoned uniform. and him where you can grab a hotel, he laughs as we both realize he should not be expected to speak English. I say, “ Spacibo” twice, which means thank you, while both hands raised shoulder level palms facing outward to disarm him. He laughs realizing the sincerity and offers that he doesn’t speak any English. Great. I act as if I am surprised by this revelation, raising my brow with a smirk. Then I gesture by placing both hands together and resting my head horizontally on them. He shakes his head and throws his hands up looking to the sky. “Nevsky Prospekt,” I say the only street I could pronounce. It is the Broadway of Russia. He shakes his head pointing to the subway.  Looking at him quizzically while crossing my arms and pointing my fingers? He points the direction. Then, I hold my palms upward and clap slowly similar to a casino dealer at the end of a shift. He taps me on the chest twice, meaning two stops.  Now we are communicating!  Reaching into my front pocket I produce a few US Dollars and some change and say, “ no rubles, no rubles,” while shaking my head and putting up my hands, open palmed. Meanwhile, he is escorting me through a side entrance used for cargo. He opened the stainless steel gate next to the turn-styles and across from the attendant behind a glass case, by unlocking a sophisticated security system. It was a lock on the gate, which required a very large thick key that had, count ‘em, two teeth.  The subway was so deep that many people sat on the escalators and read. The younger Russians passed on the left with their open containers of beer, what Americans refer to as “a fourty” or a “foudee” depending on which city you hail from. Some say the subway is deep because of the canals throughout the city and others say it is deep because it doubles as a fall out shelter. Nobody knows.

After resurfacing on Nevsky Prospekt I began to walk, looking for a reasonable hotel. The hotels were all high end. I felt safe, as it was still daylight.  I had no cash anyway. Then, a collegiate dressed Russian fella walks beside me for a few steps, catches my eye and says, “ You need a place to stay?” This is common practice in many European cities.
“Looking for a cheap hotel.”
He says, “ I rent you a room.”
“Sleep with one eye open,” I say.
“How much?” 
“15 US” he replies.
Well, not a bad option, what if it starts to rain or there is a sudden drop in the temperature?

After several city blocks of empty sidewalks lined with vacant buildings, we came upon a reasonable hotel and my man marches through the empty lobby to the front desk.  I have been awake for twenty hours and probably could not answer the first bell. He mutters some Russian to the unimpressed front desk clerk and she mutters some Russian back. He looks me in the eye and says, “ No rooms” while hiding his glee. Great. We walk several blocks back onto Nevsky Prospekt while making small talk, very small talk. His English being limited, my Russian is non-existent.

After walking a ways on Nevsky Prospekt, outside the Magrib Night Club there was a line. Mostly ex-pats, Russian “models”, and those purporting to be sophisticated. We walk directly to the front of the line and my new friend says something in Russian to the bouncers about me being his friend who just flew in from, “ AMERICA,” while looking in my direction and at the rest of the line and smiling.   I obtain some Rubles at the ATM on the stairs while my pack is searched. They suspected that I was a Chechnyan rebel; eventually I checked the backpack in the coatroom, received a ticket and everything. We are not in the place fifteen minutes and my Russian friend is involved in a heated discussion. It turns to an argument drawing attention. The bouncers re-appear and he is asked to leave, then is given the option to be escorted out. Eventually he was physically removed. I was amused, and would have laughed but attempted to distance my self from the situation. Then, a couple speaking English approached me. They inquired as to the mix up and my involvement. When they learned that I had come to Russia from America without a hotel reservation they were confused and asked while smiling,  “Whats a matter with you?” After “chatting” to the beat of loud dance music for roughly an hour they ask that I stay with them. Not one to argue, no one would have heard me anyway; I graciously accepted their invitation. Well, I spent the weekend at their apartment, which was situated right on the Fontanka Canal awaking to the smell of fresh pancakes in the air. Their home was complete with hard wood floors, ten-foot ceilings, and water view.

From there I set out along the canal seeking a reasonably priced hotel. Naturally, I did what any ignorant traveler would do, I asked a peasant. No reply, slight language barrier. Then, a well-dressed woman who was walking with her daughter is asked, probably from church. The young lady was also well dressed and donned a bonnet. They were walking home from church. At first the matriarch tried to ignore my inquiries, then the young lady of 7 years, courageously spoke up in English. She then acted as an interpreter. Well, through these two a cab was hailed. Not a licensed and sanctioned, but one of the gypsy types that only the locals are privy to. A year, make and model could not be determined. The cabbie did not speak a lick of English and did not want to. Initially, he resisted the woman’s request when he learned that he would be transporting a foreigner. She spoke to the shabbily clad man from the curb. Then the two appeared to argue. He was seated in the driver seat and half of her tourso was in the passenger side.  Finally, she pointed at him and shouted a few last sentences before waving me into the front passenger seat.

She was instructing the man to transport her “cousin” to, Educacenter 3 Alexander Nevskogo Street, St. Petersburg. Then the woman asked to see my money, counted it, and paid the man. She pointed at him angrily, shaking her finger and speaking sternly. Once there, a young Russian security guard allowed my entrance and I met with the manager, Slava. He appeared confused. I was not enrolled in any language or culture courses, I only needed a place to stay. As we are filling out the necessary forms I realized my passport is on a mantle in the apartment where I had spent the weekend. I placed a phone call and the host read the number over the phone. Later I produced the original, which revealed my travel history of all seven continents and 25 countries, and this helped to explain my rationale for traveling to Russia.

During my stay in St. Petersburg time was spent at Peteroff Palace- a vulgar display of the disparity of wealth, the Hermitage-evidence of “the fortunes of war”( much of the art belonged to another government at one time or another), Nevsky Prospekt-the Broadway of St. Petersburg, Anichkov Bridge-acts as  stable to four imposing horse statues , the Summer Garden-which was light 24/7 during my stay , the cathedral at Smolny-a study in symmetry, and the Marinsky Theatre-host to the famous Russian Ballet. I boarded a ½ day cruise through the labyrinth of canals running through the city, which is often referred to as the gateway to Europe. These canals are an integral part of the import/export of goods in Russia. All bridges linking the island are up from 2am through 5am. As the small boat motored along the Fontanka Canal, I belted “TOMAS” several times. The very loud noise startled the other passengers with the sound waves bouncing off the tall buildings on both sides of the boat. He and his wife, Patrice, an attractive Russian, came to the window and waved for a prolonged period while genuinely beaming.

After touring St. Petersburg and absorbing as much culture as humanly possible, I set out for Moscow. The train station at Moskovsky Vokzal has been recently renovated and in good condition. However, there are some undesirable elements such as orderly public drunkenness. Approaching the ticket window and I asked to purchase a ticket for an overnight train to Moscow. The train left at 1:10 am and was due in to Moscow at roughly 7:00 am. After waiting in the proper line, smiling at the large peasant woman behind the glass and saying passively, “spacibo,” and gesturing with my thumb and index finger that I have only a few rubles, and manage to purchase a ticket  $9.00US, or 270 rubles. The lady who sold me the ticket actually showed interest in my well being and ensured I knew exactly which track the train was departing from. This surprised the rest of the line as well as myself. She was actually kind.  

The train left from platform14, train #113 at precisely 1:10am. It was ten cars long and very crowded. My fellow passengers were mostly young people and what appeared to be day laborers. The trains were hot with wicker seats and a surprisingly clean, narrow rug running down the center of the aisle. The cooling system only worked when the train was moving. It was the small vent at the top of the car, not air conditioning. If I ever wanted to know what it was like to be a soldier on leave or liberty in Eastern Europe during World Was II, this experience satisfied any curiosity. Germans need not be present.

The other passengers ranged from college age students, to children, to laborers and the elderly. They were all very white. Many of the other passengers appeared to be needy in one respect or another, whether it was a shower and a shave or a clean shirt.  Many were very drunk and carried on, especially the laborers at the front of the car. Their drunkenness was felt by all of the other passengers. They were loud, very loud and totally destroyed the very practical bathroom. The bathroom, being a sink basin with no running water and a well with a raised platform serving as a toilette. It housed steel footprints, shoulder width apart. There were no lights. Ventilation you ask? Suddenly the train came to a screeching halt. Many passengers were unaffected. The drunks woke up only to light another cigarette. It appears that sudden stops along the rails are routine with the engineer controlling the speed manually, trains not operating properly, and freight trains interrupting many journeys. Therefore, rail schedules are as unreliable as the trains themselves.  Returning on a high-speed train in roughly five hours was more comfortable.

The days preceding the flight home were spent in Helsinki, Finland, which has done battle with the Russians and Germans in both World Wars. A day spent at Semolina Island is not only a good place to relax and enjoy some sun and fun but is interesting visit from an historical perspective. 

The spiritual highlight of this little journey was nothing more than some banter in a Finnish bookstore. After all spending time in St. Petersburg and remaining oblivious to the fames poet/ political activist Joseph Mayakovsky would be silly. I was interested in obtaining some of his works that had been translated into English. Much of his poetry is influenced, not only by the political unrest preceding and then following the Russian Revolution, but also by the suicide of one of his close friends. Many of his poems are viewed as being subversive.  Then at the ripe old age of 35 Mayakovsky committed the same selfish act as a result of Joseph Stalin being annoyed with his prose and hunting him for several years. Well, when inquiries are made regarding his work the crusty old Finnish women peers out from behind a stack of old dusty old hardcovers and decides to go the philosophical route.

“He killed himself, ya know,” says she while exhaling in what appeared to have been done for shock value. 
Then while glancing down feigning to be moved state, “I know.” 
She snaps, “Do ya know why?” with a tone that went right through me.
“Cause Stalin was after him,” I say.
Then she asks if I knew of Stalin and says, “ He wasn’t very nice ya’ know.”
With a knitted brow I say. “Yeah he was a prick,” satisfying her feeling intellectual one-up-man-ship.
Then when I suggest that Mayakovsky may have killed himself out of curiosity, she chuckles and replies in a tone usually reserved for a spouse, “Why the bloody hell would any one do that?”
While smiling and raising my brow, “To get to the after-life, what you don’t believe in the after life?” She snaps, “I only believe in what I can see.”
Left with no alternative, I smile and look at her being very pleased with myself and say, “I guess I’ll see you later” while exiting the store.

After interviewing many Russian citizens and absorbing some of the culture, a few broad conclusions can be drawn. Contrary to what the American media want you to believe, not every Russian citizen warms up to foreigners, nor does every citizen welcome the new free market economy.  Actually, the market is not “free” at all. Corruption and graft intensely plague the society at every level.  Russia seems divided between those that welcome change, are creative, and those who find change and free expression more difficult.  Generally, the conflict exists based on age and regional differences, and whether that region is urban or rural as well as one’s status in the previous regime. St. Petersburg is one of the more progressive areas having been labeled the gateway to Europe for generations. Today, it remains a premier tourist destination. If one is interested in politics, history, culture, or global issues and perceptions, than investing one’s time in Russia is more than wise. We may never get the opportunity in our lifetime again.

 It is great to be an American. I am glad to be home…… aahhh where to go next?     

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