From Russia with Love – Part 2

Part 2: Everyday life in Russia
No Russian? Basically you are screwed. I have hardly ever been in a country yet where they speak so little English. Amazingly you somehow get by also without speaking the language.
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One word in advance, I felt quite safe during my entire stay in Russia. There was not one hairy situation. Which, however might also be due to the horrendous amount of security everywhere. There must be millions of people employed in security jobs. Every department store, every subway station, every museum has metal detectors and security guards. You just gotta accept that and comply nicely with a smile and if you do you might even get a smile back and one guard at Kitay-Gorod subway station, my home base in Moscow, saying his only English words to me, “take care and good bye”. They are just people too and might look scary but if you are nice to them, they are mostly nice to you as well. There are also police men walking through town all the time. Blue uniforms, police, green = military. They are everywhere. The train ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg and back was very important to put things into perspective. While downtown Moscow and St. Petersburg are shiny and pretty, offering one culture world heritage site after the next, the country side is so sad.
The ride takes four hours by bullet train and the almost completely flat landscape consists of four things, birch and fir trees, mud, villages, run down factories.
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Whatever the 143 million Russian eat, is it not growing between St. Petersburg and Moscow. I saw maybe ten potato fields and that’s it. I saw not a single cow, sheep, pig, not one animal during the whole 600 km between the two cities. The factories are all old and completely run down or in ruins.
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The houses in the muddy villages without asphalt streets, accessible only via mud roads, are more shacks than houses and most look old and cold. I wonder if they have decent plumbing and running water. They seem to have electricity. It is cold in this country for maybe eight or nine out of twelve months. While it was and exceptional 25 degrees on the day of my arrival, the weather was dismal temperature-wise during the remaining entire two weeks. It was never over ten degrees Celsius and it snowed twice in Moscow while I was there. I was super happy for having brought my winter coat. I really really needed it.
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I don’t know what the people living in these shacks between Moscow and St. Petersburg do for a living, it can’t be farming. In the big cities, outside of the old and shiny city centers are huge mostly old and ugly concrete blocks where the people live who work in the city and its factories. One thought lingered when I rode through the country side and that is, when I have to be poor I pray I’ll be poor in a country where it’s warm!
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Some praise though for the subway systems of St. Petersburg as well as Moscow. The trains are old but are frequent, I’ve seen no delays, they are safe and used by “normal” folk also at night. People are sleeping in the subway, which I always interpret as a good sign of safety, there are kids around. Even if everything is in Cyrillic, you can still somehow read it and figure out where to go. I didn’t get lost once in the subways. You can get to basically all the major attractions via the subway in both cities and I didn’t try out the buses.
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In supermarkets they have mostly European stuff that I am quite familiar with, they even have a lot of German branded products. Food is bread and potato based. I relied on food courts and fast food I must admit though, unable to order anything or read a menu in a restaurant, I needed food where I can point at.
To conclude, you get by without Russian, but it needs some patience and modesty on the traveler’s behalf and I don’t recommend Russia to inexperienced travelers. The supermarket staff is astonishingly friendly though and count the Rubels correctly out of your hand with a smile at the poor foreigner who has no clue. I wonder though what they will do next year with all the foreigners who will come for the soccer World Cup 😉