St. Petersburg: Back in the (not so Russian) USSR

Posted by jswt | Posted in Audio, Russia - St Petersburg | Posted on 21-11-2011


After 2 weeks in Moscow, we headed to St. Petersburg, which although still in Russia seemed a world apart. Gone was the bleak grey box architecture, gone were the dodgy roving bands of thug security/police, gone were the threatening scowls, gone was the 90s-trashy-hooker fashion sense… The city was beautiful! People were laughing! People dressed… normally!

The city is right up in the north west of Russia, across the border from Finland and near Estonia. Because of this, it’s always been a gateway to Europe and you could see the influence immediately.

Our first day there we had a bit of an afternoon wander and sushi lunch, and made it to Catherine the Great’s palace, which has been converted to a massive museum called the Hermitage. It was closed on Mondays, so we headed over to a huge beautiful church (editor’s note: they had one here! weird, huh?) to warm up. We then walked the main shopping street back towards the hotel and popped into another building which ended up being another church with a russian orthodox worshipping taking place – lots of subdued singing, candles and insense in a dark gloomy space with no seating. It was quite beautiful in it’s own way, and triggered a lengthy conversation about the substance and viewpoints of organized religion as we popped into a great little cafe for some tea and port. Someone must have been listening, because when we left we were gifted an extrordinary sunset on the way back to the hotel.

We had a cute little loft with fantastic skylights and giant windows overlooking a main square right on the main walking street, and as the weather was sleety and dismal and spent most of the week heads-down in work mode plowing through a project cuddled up on the couch in a blanket and fiending on Mixcloud dj sets.

Chris had Saturday off, so we went back to the Hermitage museum which was easily one of the best museums I’ve ever seen. Most museums keep you at a distance from the artworks and feel like a building set up for viewing art. Here though, you’re wandering Catherine the Great’s winter palace, just strolling along surrounded by an *unbelievable* collection of art. In the Louve you can see the Mona Lisa from about 10 feet away, with guards standing on each side, and protective glass overtop. In the Hermitage, there’s paintings by Da Vinci, Monet, Rembrandt, Michaelangelo just hanging on the walls you can get right up to and lose yourself in the genius of the individual brushstrokes. But it’s not just about paintings – the building is insanely opulent and a work unto itself, that’s just brimming with millions of pieces. We spent the better part of a day strolling around and only saw a portion of one of three floors. Words can’t do the scope and beauty of the place justice, so if you ever end up in St Pete’s, do not miss the opportunity to see close up what’s easily one of the best art collections in the world, and thusfar my favorite museum.

After this we walked over to the touristy (but still delicious) The Idiot restaurant for some eats in the comfy cavernous space that was decorated with a hint of russian grandmotherly kitsch. Free vodka shots to start the meal led to some full bellies and rosy cheeked spirits before we went back to the hotel for a quick nap and cleanup.

St. Petersburg has long been known as a bit of a seedy place, with more european attitudes towards sex and culture, but in the middle of the week we were in town the government had passed a law that would “prevent the propaganda of homosexuality” where children could be exposed – essentially banning anything that could be taken as gay, and making it a crime to bring it up in public or where children are present (ie: gay pride parades, telling your niece you’re gay, etc). The effects of such a law are pretty far reaching, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in Russia’s politics. Of course, the immediate effect of such a prohibitive law meant that all the gay people were immediately cleansed of their illegal wants and desires, and gay was no longer a problem in St Petersburg.

“Ohhhhhhh, those Russians” – Boney M, Rasputin

Of course, we didn’t really understand what was going on at the time, so we went out Saturday night to find Central Station – the main gay bar in St Petersburg (previously Greshniki). We had a bit of trouble finding the place, first wandering into a dodgy lobby of a building where giant bouncers and a large breasted woman told us it was 15k rubles to go upstairs, but we got unlimited drinks, food, shisha and ladies. Not quite the buffet we were after, we ducked around the corner and found the lit up sign for the club we were after. We stayed for a few hours, and it was a fantastic 4 level club with a cabaret, opium den styled chillout room, lounges, and a good dancefloor, but we just had a weird vibe there all night – it was kind of empty aside from the hustlers and regulars, and everyone just seemed on edge and shifty (even more so than regular russian shiftiness). We had a few drinks (and watched absinthe being served in the most amazing way we’ve ever seen -stacked glasses and fireballs, ohmy!), but definately felt some unease when we left the bar around 3am and melted into the crowd as quickly as possible and watched over our shoulders to make sure we weren’t being followed or targeted.

Sunday was our last day, and I worked for a few hours and when the sun popped out I was ready to go for a wander with my camera and ended up strolling thru some interesting industrial neighborhoods full of abandoned buildings and ended up at a monastery that had a great church in the middle of a cemetary.

Stuck around for some of the service, and then wandered back through town and up the main street back to the hotel where I met up with Chris and some people from work so we could hop the metro and head to the Mikhailovsky theatre to catch a ballet. I’m not the biggest fan of ballet, but it was quite decent, and the stunning old theatre made the night. Side note: beware coat check lineups in russia after a show. You’ve never seen little old ladies turn into such vicious, elbow throwing nasties who will crush you for a foot forward. Had we not been in Shanghai shortly before, this might have been traumatic.

So that was about it… Lots of work, a few decent days out, a cozy little hotel room, friendly people. I’d go back in a second to spend more time wandering the Hermitage, but that aside it’s still a city that I’d love to go back to if given the opportunity.

Moody Moscow

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Russia - Moscow | Posted on 13-11-2011


For halloween night I dressed up as an “airline passenger” in my convincing costume complete with seat, luggage and Airbus A380 which found me waking up on the opposite side of sunrise in Moscow, Russia.

Chris had already been in Russia for 3 weeks when I arrived and had been having a very tough time in very remote locations like Kazan and Yekaterinburg, and was happy to get back to a “real city”. He got in Sunday night at 4am, and I was slayed by jetlag, so luckily we had a tour guide lined up to show us around on Monday – S is a friend of my sister’s who’s wife is working at an embassy in Moscow, and had been living here for 3 months out of their 2 year stay. He kept apologizing for his lack of knowing his way around the city, but it was much better than our own and he was a serious relief as we were in no state to be deciphering cyrillic and trying to navigate the metro lines. He took us to Red Square and the Kremlin and a great (cheap!) lunch at a cafeteria that spoke a little english, and really made us feel welcome in what was an obviously hard, cold place.

Moscow is a city of 20 million people that’s suffering some growing pains as the quick growth and influx has sent prices skyrocketing and has a traffic system that isn’t coming close to keeping up. There is some nice architecture, but the majority of the city is blocky, grey communist concrete structures that don’t exude much joy.

Lemme just say straight up that Russian men are *not* attractive, and the women tend to look amazing until they hit about 35, when apparently the businessmen just go out and get a mistress to throw new furs upon. The women *all* dress like campy prostitutes from 15 years ago, and even going to the grocery store requires fishnets and 6″ heels. There’s a huge need here to flash new money and to be seen on the scene. It’s crazy how much trashy shit people wear – it’s like they’ve skinned an 80s hooker and crawled right in.

The musical taste of the city can be summed up as “Camaro trance”.

The people do not smile, and they do not talk. There are roaming groups of police which you never know exactly who they are – police, military, security, or even just some guys in uniforms. If you make eye contact or draw their attention, they can ask you for your papers which is usually a gateway for a shakedown or some sort of payoff. It quickly comes clear that it’s just easier to blend in and be unnoticed than to draw any attention, especially if you’re an english speaker who doesn’t want to be made an easy target. Luckily I was let off easily the couple times I was asked for my passport – I’ve taken to carrying a photocopy and leaving my original in a safe spot in countries like this, so that they can’t take my passport and hold it ransom. Of course, it helps a lot that I’m travelling on a Canadian passport, as it was greeted with a neutral nod rather than what I might have expected on a US passport.

So it was *very* nice to have S there to show us around, speak english, and smile as we walked around the city… He had to go pick his daughter up for trick-or-treating, but definitely got us grounded and orientated, and was a fantastic tour guide.

The next few days were a blur of jetlag haze (I always forget how long it’s going to kick my ass — remember: 1 day per hour!), so I bunkered down and did some work since I was somewhat intimidated and uncomfortable wandering the city by myself.

On the Friday, a few people were going to do a walking tour, so I tagged along and got shown around the city by a nice political studies major from the university who gave us some insight into the history of the city, and frequently held his tongue whenever opinions or personal beliefs seemed to enter the tale. After his tour, we hopped the metro to find an outdoor market, but instead ended up at what we referred to as “the creepiest amusement park ever”, and then took an extreme shortcut through the woods to the next metro station, stopping along the way for homemade pickles from little old ladies at a market.

We were kind of kept to the sidelines on the tour, which I later learned was due to the nationalist rally going on that day. Russia is in the midst of a upsurging Nationalist movement – the same standard lowbrow politics that appeal to the disenfranchised, undereducated and angry everywhere that blames outsiders for all their problems and forgives the ruling class from resolving their actual problems. Political posters around the city feature an angry scowling candidate with the words “RUSSIA IS FOR RUSSIANS” (which I consider kind of funny, since having been here I can safely assure Russians that no one will be knocking down their door to take it – they can keep it all they like). Luckily we were clear of the gathering, as nothing much happened at the rally so the skinheads and angry youth descended into the metro system issuing some of the old ultraviolence upon anyone who didn’t speak russian or looked remotely foreign…

But to segue off politics and to try to keep this positive, the city has a *fantastic* metro system, with beautiful stations that are way down below ground, and have trains coming every 2 minutes that get you all over the city quickly. There is also rumors and rumblings about an entire second metro system under the metro system called Metro 2. There’s a story about the brown ring route that circles all the other routes – that Stalin had the plans to approve the metro lines, and put his coffee down on the paper. When he picked it up to sign off, he liked the brown coffee stain idea, and no one wanted to rock the boat, so the brown line ended up part of the system. The metro came in handy for a couple dinners out (sushi, shisha and first snow with S from S. Africa – oh yeah!), a quick lunch with S and his wife, and a bit of urban hiking, but overall the city isn’t laid out for pedestrian access and doesn’t have a lot to offer as far as wandering goes.

One of the highlights of our stay was an invitation on the tour’s day off to come visit the newly restored Bolshoi Theatre – Moscow’s flagship theatre that has just undergone a 6 year renovation and reopened 10 days before we got our tour. The building was *STUNNING* and easily one of the most beautiful performance rooms I’ve ever seen. Part of the renovation involved lifting the entire building up, carving out 6 stories of space underneath and building operations offices and ballrooms underneath, all of which were equally beautiful and jaw-droppingly beautiful. Getting the chance to stand on stage and tour backstage at the Bolshoi theatre was definitely a memorable treat.

On the last Saturday there, Chris had the day off and the promotion had organized with me to have him kidnapped so they could drive us out of town 40km to the Monino Aviation Museum – a crazy insane collection of old Russian military and experimental aircraft that was only recently opened to foreigners. We saw some really impressive aircraft, a lot of which were very similar to famous US planes, and released a couple years after the US planes thanks to the cold war spy effort. Other cool stuff was some sputniks, some mini-test shuttles that were dropped from outside the atmosphere, and some bizarre amphibious vertical takeoff planes. (Check the Wikipedia entry for more details). We followed the museum up with a drive through the Russian countryside, lunch at a really odd Kazakhstani restaurant, and then 3+ hours of insufferable Moscow traffic to make it the 40km back to the hotel.

That evening Chris’ had a work dinner with his team that I got to tag along on. They’d booked dinner on a 4 hour boat ride that cruised through the heart of Moscow past a lot of famous sites and was made extra cool by the snow that started to fall over the lit up city. Good company, good conversation, good food, good view, and a really nice night to wind up 2 weeks of Moscow.

I was doing my best to have a positive outlook on Moscow, especially as I didn’t have any other Russian cities to compare it to or understand how the Russian cultural aspects influenced the city. But, now that I’ve left and can put it in perspective, I can’t say the city worth visiting: it’s grey, bleak, the people are mean, the police are ever-present and unpredictable, and there just isn’t a lot of joy to be found.

I do definitely understand better the Russians I’ve met having been here though. I’ve always struggled to connect with what I’ve taken as a shifty darkness, but now I can’t consider it that… it’s hard to consider someone unethical when you realize that the ethics of a culture shift, especially in a post-communist country where people have spent hundreds of years surviving only by getting what they can, by whatever means possible.

Let me finish with an example, which is a story I heard while in Moscow: There was an opposition journalist and editor-in-chief of a local newspaper named Mikhail Beketov who exposed corruption in government and was severely beaten to be point of being left wheelchair bound and unable to speak as a result. When the US State Department pressed Russia about human rights violations and the case, the Russian government announced an award to encourage whistle blowing of government corruption. The first winner who was held up as an example? The now disabled journalist in his wheelchair.

I’m sure that message from the government was heard loud and clear.
And in Russia, that’s business as usual…