From Russia with Love – Part 4

World War II…
I am German, I live in Japan. Two nations which have (luckily) lost in the Second World War. The consequence of that though is that any kind of Victory Day celebrations have never been on my radar screen. There was a vague memory of the European part of the war ending some time in May buried in my mind, but since I’m in Japan for so long, the real end of the Second World War has become August for me when Japan capitulated after two atomic bombs. So when I planned this trip to Russia any V-day considerations were none existent. I grouped the trip around Japan’s Golden Week holidays and that Amorphis gig I wanted to catch. Also the first two days in St. Petersburg did not reveal any V-day indications. It was only when I stepped out of the Hermitage after an entire day there and tanks had appeared on the square before the Hermitage that V-day rolled massively into my line of thought.
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Next posters sprang up everywhere and the mysterious orange and black striped ribbon, which is coming from the ribbon of St. George, as you can read here.
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The state TV had then aplenty of Second World War themed stuff going on, and the news were full of it, too. V-day hampered my attempts to see the Red Square in Moscow. Military presence everywhere. Wow.
A smart man whom I had for a teacher in some process consultancy related seminars, told me the following (I don’t know his source for the information and of course it is a model that simplifies reality). Western European cultures and interestingly also the Chinese and Japanese cultures have the tendency to consider the past as not so super important, the present is soso important, but we are future oriented and the future is very important to us. In the Thai and Indian cultures the tendency is small past, small future, but big present. And in Russia it’s a big past, a soso present and a small future.
And yes, from my two weeks in Russia I can fully confirm that the past is an extremely important thing in Russia. Of course there are patriotic tendencies and politics to consider as well, but it does not all seem state induced, there seems to be a genuine interest in the topic.
There were tons of movies, new and old, on Russian TV where someone wore a Second World War or later a soviet uniform.
Nobody forces you to wear the orange black ribbon but many people do, well I’m not so sure about peer pressure here, of course. I seem to pass off as Russian when walking the street and a young man offered me a ribbon, which I kindly declined in English.
It was amazing to see the enormous presence of military in general and the Second World War in Russian life. Of course my impression is a bit deformed, since I arrived just in time for all the V-day stuff, but there are in general many more uniformed people in the cities than in any other country I’ve been to so far.
Here three pics from my “scared selfie” series that I took half for fun mostly in St. Petersburg where I “got close” to a lot of military equipment.
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In Moscow then, I had the ambition to see some of the actual parade, but the thankfully English speaking hotel staff said spontaneously upon my question, where is the best spot to see the parade: The TV.
She was right. On V-day, 9th of May, I switched on the TV in the morning and even from TV footage it was clear that no humble mortal would be getting anywhere near the parade. Only the dignitaries sat on the few seats of the makeshift stalls at the Red Square.
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I watched most of it on TV until I got bored and left to do some sightseeing. In the afternoon, after the parade was over, a second part of the festivities took place, common folk walked the streets in a procession down the main road to the Red Square and then dissipated. (the best thing in this pic is the pigeon ;-))
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Most of the people carried pictures of their ancestors who either fought in or lost their lives in the Second World War. I tried to join the procession but found myself thoroughly fenced off and I did not have the required papers (or bribes?) to be let through at some access points where people negotiated with guards for entrance. I am not sure if all of this was organized, I doubt it. It looked like most people participated in this procession because they wanted to. Stuff concluded with fireworks at the Kremlin. They happened at 22:00 and were short. I saw them on TV as well, since it was too bloody cold for my taste to venture out. Anyway, a day later the show was over, the Red Square was finally accessible and things returned to normal. It was interesting to see all this hustle about a day whose celebration I wasn’t even aware of.

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 😉