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Monday, 24 October 2011

Amazing Russia: After almost three years, I went ‘back in the USSR’

Been away so long I hardly knew the place
Gee, it's good to be back home
Leave it till tomorrow to unpack my case
Honey disconnect the phone
I'm back in the USSR

I have to admit: I do not have an independent view towards Russia and especially St-Petersburg, the city of 5 million inhabitants where my wife lived for more than 25 years. 

My wife is a born Russian and my mother-in-law, my wife’s sisters and brother still live there and we have some very dear friends there. On top of that, I visited the country and the city about ten times myself.

Especially my first trip to St-Petersburg was a shock: was this the former communist state where life was dark and grim, according to western propaganda? And where everybody was supposed to be living a life of pain and grief, until they got the chance to escape to the west? Why did I see then so many (old) pictures with happy and proud people upon it, having fun while being in nature, at the datcha (small house in a rural area), at parties and first schooldays?

And what was this colourful city with its amazing green, yellow, orange, blue and red pastel-coloured buildings, palaces, museums and churches? And with its beautifully lit and richly decorated bridges? Was this the communist hell-hole it was always told to be by our western leaders?

[all pictures in this blog are taken with a mobile phone by Ernst Labruyère]

And now, nine years later with every new visit, I’m still stunned by its sheer beauty and colourfulness. 

But yes, there are also parts of the city that are not so beautiful. Everything bad that you can say about the blocks of flats built in the socialist time is true: their ugliness is only surpassed by their bad building and finishing quality.

And the temperature inside ranges from Polar-cold (when the centrally steered heating is started after the winter set in) until Sahara-warm (when the heating is started before the winter set in). And every year there are at least three weeks without warm water, when the heating system needs to be maintained. Unthinkable to these western eyes, but reality for the people living there. But sometimes, after the ugly facades, true palaces unfold. Owners coming from the new middle class refurbished their ugly home to a beautiful designer flat with all kinds of luxury that you can think of.

But there are more ugly and disturbing things: outside St-Petersburg and Moscow (and a few other wealthy cities) corruption and clientelism rule. Politicians from the rural and poor areas forget their grassroots as soon as they set one foot in Moscow, knowing they are useless talking heads without any decision-making capabilities: if you can´t change the system, live from the system. That is the reason that Vladimir Putin and Dmitriy Medvedev can decide for themselves that they will remain president and prime-minister until 2028. Nobody will stop them, as it seems.

Local rulers build their own kingdoms and protect this against all costs: legally, but when necessary illegally, with violent and blunt force. This attitude has as a logical result that poverty, a total lack of empathy towards other people, neglect, melancholism, and desperation lurk for the people that are not in the inner circles: go with the flow and try to bend, not break the rules.

Wodka is king and drugs are its crown prince. Men die at an average age of 55, demolished by hopelessness and alcohol abuse and many people get divorced before five years of marriage are over.

Children and parents are driven over, while crossing a street on a zebra crossing, by teenage drivers that just bought their drivers license and didn´t know how to brake properly. An outrageous number of traffic victims is caused by drunk drivers, rich people with too fast sports cars and drivers that just didn´t know the traffic rules. And every time politicians pay lip service to new legislation, change and improvement, but normal people sigh ´that nothing will change in Russia, as nothing ever changes in Russia´.

And to be honest: I´m not too optimistic on the (economic) future of Russia. After a prosperous and extremely productive period between 2002 and 2008, where the country seemed to be refurbished and where it was working on a new zest, it now becomes clear that the country´s barometer goes up and down with the oil price.

Now, 20 years after the communist revolution came to a natural end, the country changed from a self-supporting country with a vivid, albeit totally obsolete industry, into a country that imports from everybody and their sister in exchange for their vast oil and gas supplies. Personally, I would have a hard time when being forced to name 10 successful industrial products from Russia.

But still: being there, the country and the city of St-Petersburg never cease to amaze me. There are a zillion reasons for that:

- Where do you find the top models of the leading German, English and Japanese brands being parked next to a 20 year old Zhiguli that itself is based on a 45 year old Fiat 124?

- Where do you find blocks of flats that look from the outside like they could collapse any minute, while being true palaces on the inside?

- Where do you find people that put everything they have on the table and don´t stop with feeding and quenching you until your belly bursts and you are ready to sing the Russian national anthem? And where a millionaire´s daughter remains in the kitchen for hours to serve her special salads and cooking for you?

- Where do you find a supermarket with 70(!) cash desks that can each have a line of more than ten people waiting before them at peak hours? Where 10 pallets of Class Z- paprika’s (see the next picture) are waiting to be sold within the next day? Where a kilo of potatoes costs you 1.99 Rubles, which is about €0.04? And a kilo of cabbage costs you €0.02? And where you can buy a complete trout or salmon for €2 to €4? And under this supermarket, below street level, there is a complete ‘kasbah’ of dozens of ‘stroi markets’: small utility and DIY-shops where you can get everything, ranging from ‘a piece of rope to a grenade’
Narodhniy Universam, St-Petersburg  Picture: Ernst Labruyère

-  Where do you find a metro system that leads you for €0.60 about 80 meters below sea level into a world of marble, great architecture and to arguably the best, cleanest and most reliable metro system in the world?

Various Pictures St-Petersburg Metro Pictures: Ernst Labruyère

- Where do you find a transport system with trams, trolley busses, normal busses, metro and mini-vans, called Marschrutka´s (i.e. marching route) that bring you from anywhere in the city until anywhere else within 1.5 hours for a token price of (less than) €0,75 per means of transport? Where taxis are about as useless as a donkey at sea?

Russia and the Russian people are often met with distrust and restraint in the western world and to the unknowing eye this often doesn´t seem undeserved. But before you judge Russia and the Russians, please take the time to visit St-Petersburg or Moscow and you could be in for a real surprise. I was, almost ten years ago.

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