Welcome back to the Scuttlebutt. Pull up a seat and let’s talk. This will be the first of several articles I’m going to do on our trip to the Baltic. They probably won’t be back to back, but they will be great for weeks when there just isn’t much else worth talking about. I’ll cover “the cruise ship experience”, “a comparison of the various nations, as judged by the condition of their cities” and a few other things. Today, so as not to bury the lead, we’re going to talk about the elephant in the room. Russia.
I don’t know who Gene Roddenberry knew that was from Russia, but, oh my Gods did he nail it! Based on my limited contact with the Russian people, Chekov is PERFECT. Let me tell you the tale.
We didn’t have problems getting off the boat and back on, which was good, I was expecting based on the briefings I had gotten, to get messed with. Didn’t happen. Yeah Russia.
That said, we finally got hooked up without tour guide, (as evil Americans you can’t go anywhere without being with a tour guide, just like in the bad old days of the USSR) and went on a drive to the city. On the way there, we passed a block that had been set up to provide “street artists” with a place to do their thing without destroying people’s property. Our guide stated that “no one approves of this, and outside of this very unpopular demonstration area, there is no graffiti in Russia. Those pictures above are some of the “nonexistent” graffiti I observed.
There is also “no crime” in Russia, but make sure you keep a close hand on your valuables when we get off the bus, because the pickpockets are especially bad here, and if the police have to take your statement they will not be very helpful… (because you see, if you were pickpocketed that would have been a crime, and there is no crime…)
There are no ghettos in Russia. Well, by the definition she was using, (an area where a specific minority is required by law to live, i.e. the ghetto in Venice where the Jewish were required to live) there really aren’t, but then by that definition, there aren’t any in America either… But by the modern American definition of a place where the poor and downtrodden live, often under state support… yeah they got ‘em too.
Everything that was ever done, was done either first, or best, or funded by Russia… Why, did you know, “Russia helped fund Lincoln’s war to free the slaves. It’s 100% true you can check it, on the INTERNET!”?
This quote, “It’s 100% true, you can check it, on the internet.” Was to be our constant companion for the next two days, trotted out every time our guide trotted out a whopper.
Before I go any further, let me mention that the data I’m presenting is based on a damn small sample. We talked to about half a dozen shop keepers most of whom we were herded to by the guides, three guides, and a couple people on the street. Total sample size less than 12 actual Russians. Half of which were licensed by the state, and I am sure were given specific things that they could and could not talk about. Still it’s data points, and what they couldn’t talk about (i.e. changed the subject) was as enlightening as what they said. Mentions of certain people and organizations are “not heard.” No one knows anything about Iron Felix, or Lubyanka for example.
Russia it seems, sees itself as having been in continuous existence since 862 AD. “oh yes, our government leaders have changed a few times, but we’ve always been Russia.” They are also huge fans of a couple of specific analogies: “Russia is mother, the leader (Czar/ President/ Commissar) is father, and the people are the children.” And “Russia is a woman, with nine faces, the innermost she shows to no one. You must treat her as a peasant woman, woo her and she will be yours, treat her roughly and she will beat you up.” We heard both constantly too, with “Don’t tell this to Trump, but…”
The thing I found most fascinating about the Russian people’s mentality though was their cognitive dissonance on certain things.
We were told repeatedly that yes Stalin did horrible things. Yes, he killed people. However, no one else could have defeated Hitler, and if Stalin had not been there to defeat Hitler, we would all be living in Nazi land. This was an unshakable belief, and the fact that if Stalin hadn’t killed every military leader worth a damn, for fear that they would run a coup against him bounced off this impenetrable armor like an air rifle pellet off the side of a T-80 tank.
We were also told that the Gulags went away in 1953, and no one was kept as a political prisoner after that… YEAH RIGHT.
It’s OK to hate on Khrushchev, “a fat, ignorant, ugly, peasant, from the Ukraine, and a complete disaster because of it, he was really ugly, you know.” And Gorbachev, “not really much better than Khrushchev, he almost ruined us.” Lenin is “a dreamer, and a lazy but vicious man.” The Oligarchs, “nothing more than capitalist criminals really, they stole our country for ten years.” And you can even say bad things about Putin as a person… but not too bad, and what we really need is a Stalin.
Our guide was a school teacher who works summers as a guide, was eminently proud of everything about Russia, “no one is out of work, there are jobs for everyone. No one is homeless, some people may not have the best of homes, but everyone that wants one has a place to call their own, even if the state must give it to them. We have MANDATORY SCHOOL, everyone must go to school for the full 9 years of the public-school system. (worth noting that this seemed to be a common theme throughout the Baltic, everyone is damn proud that every child is required to go to state funded school for the full 9 years. No, they don’t want to hear that American schools are mandatory too and are 13 years counting mandatory kindergarten. Sub note, whether the quality of those years is on parody or not is an entirely different question.) And everyone is given further education either in trade school or college depending upon what they show aptitude for! (No, they don’t want to describe how that aptitude is determined, or when, or what say the kid and or the family may get in this.)
The church has made a HUGE comeback, and for something that was illegal for virtually the entire communist era, has both an enormous following and an amazing number of surviving churches. It’s pretty much a monolithic church scene, I think I saw one synagogue, and one Lutheran church, everything else was Russian orthodox.
The organization of the tours was amusing, we went back and forth across the city many times, instead of working our way methodically, which was a great way to spend as much time with the tourists in a bus being preached to, and as little time as possible actually showing them things.
The guide did point out that you could tell the era of construction for a building at a glance. Stalinist era looks more impressive and “prettier” than anything else, Khrushchev era stuff is “classic ugly communist block construction” Gorbie’s stuff is a bit classier than that, and the modern stuff that looks just like any city in the world is post-soviet.
The pre-revolution stuff of course, is beautiful. Sadly, many of the palaces from various pre-rev houses is still behind various fences, sold off to developers because the state couldn’t afford to repair them, especially if they were outside the “line of defense” where the Germans were stopped during the war.
Our guide was very proud of the fact that she owned two places, one in the city, and a dacha in the countryside, just like 75% of the city. Mind you she never expects to be able to retire, “because you can’t live on the retirement, so I will work until I die, two jobs about 60 to 70 hours a week total.”
The way the Royal family was treated is a matter of some shame, though it’s blamed largely on England and the United States, “because you know, no one would support the idea of royalty by then, all of the kings were gone”. (I must remember to tell England, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, etc… that their crowns are null and void, Russia says so.)
Food was relatively reasonably priced, and we were dropped at what may be the best steakhouse in all of Russia (Stroganoffs).Tthey carry aged A4 Wagyu and have their own aging room where you can go and pick out the piece you want a slab of.
The military and police were present, if you looked, but no more so than oh say Sweden for instance. (of course, there was a riot in Sweden the day we were there, no it was not over me being in their country.)
The city was clean by American standards, and yes, they still have people employed to sweep streets with hand brooms, I saw a couple.
The Government has spent an amazing amount on restoration of the palaces and cathedrals of the city, and I mean a truly amazing amount. Lots of gold leaf, as in pounds and pounds. At the same time, the people are still poor, by our standards. Most people according to our guide do not own a car, or they own one car for the family. They do own two places, she was very insistent on pointing out. (Based on conversations, she got her dacha within the last couple years at most, maybe within the last year, she was in her 50s) As a school teacher, she earns 500 to 1K dollars a month (translated based on current exchange rate) Her pension is 200 dollars a month, if she retires. Gas is around 8 bucks a gallon, food is about equivalent to big city prices in the states, everything is condominium, no “apartments” as we know them, the mortgage is about 500 a month, and taxes are about 40% not counting VAT, etc. hence the two-job thing.
The safety standards on construction were, well, a bit lower than ours, I saw scaffolding on a LOT of their buildings, where restoration was in progress, OSHA would have a COW at some of it.
We did a special tour called “out like a local” on the nightlife of the city, including a boat tour of the canals by night, with vodka… This was a hoot! Went to a bar that had some 50+ infused Vodkas (every flavor profile you can imagine, and a few that you really shouldn’t) and a few beers, then out on the water for tour and more vodka, until about 2300, then back at the tours at 0730 the next morning. Yes, we were functional, no we weren’t very hungover, but it had gotten downright drunk out that night. (our foursome, a foursome of Aussies with all that this implies, a German or two… all people who can seriously put away the hooch.)
Sadly, my biggest disappointment was the Hermitage. We didn’t get to go into the main museum, the “General Staff building” that we did go through was half empty, and we went through it practically at a run. Also, it’s hard to credit a statement that this is the finest museum in the world, the equal of the Louvre, or the Tower of London, when you don’t mention and have never heard of (seemingly) the Smithsonian. Look, I may be America-centric here, but I’m pretty sure that the 15 or so buildings of the Smithsonian, are right up with the best in the world.
We had fun, it was very educational, both in what we learned of the history, which I didn’t cover much of in this piece, and in what we learned of the people. I would like to go back (if that is possible after this gets published…) and see some of the things we didn’t get to, (there is a museum of the Ballistic Missile corps, and several other military museums that I would have like to have seen, as well as a section of the pillboxes at the “high tide line” of the German advance…)
If you get the opportunity, finding out what it looks like from the other side is always of value. It probably won’t change your opinions on much, but knowing WHY they say what they say, and how they see things, is never a bad idea.
Yours in service,