Al and Ruth Clem
Number of Cruises: n/a
Cruise Line: Uniworld
Sailing Date: July 24th, 2002
Itinerary: Russia River Cruise
Cruise Line's m.s. Tolstoy on charter)
Russia: from St.
Petersburg to Moscow – July 24 through Aug. 8, 2002,
aboard the riverboat, "Leo Tolstoy" – a voyage of discovery.
Rather than offer a day-by-day trip report, we will describe our impressions gathered along the way. We simply started in the north and worked our way south through rivers, lakes, and canals, taking 16 days including going and returning to the United States.
Starting in St. Petersburg (STP), we went east up the Neva River into Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake. Continuing east through the Svir River, we stopped at the village of Svirstroy, then entered Lake Onega, Europe’s second-largest lake, and headed north to Kizhi Island. >From there, we headed south, using the Baltic-Moscow Waterway, White Lake, and the Volga, stopping at Goritzy, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Uglich. These towns ranged from 600,000 population to tiny hamlets. Finally, using an 80-mile canal, we arrived at Moscow’s (MSW) North River Terminal, our destination. In all, we were on the "Leo Tolstoy" for 14 days.
Our ship: built in 1979 in Austria, the "Leo Tolstoy" is an immaculate vessel glistening in white and blue paint. Inside and out, she is spotless clean, painted and scrubbed by a crew of male and female workers who labored night and day.
Our cabin was small but well appointed, with its own toilet, shower, and lavatory. With its two narrow, single beds, our room was completely carpeted, and had a radio speaker, a big window that could be lowered or raised, and air-conditioning that sometimes was downright chilly. We could control the flow of cool air by turning a knob. One bed jackknifed to become a tweed-covered couch, while the other flipped up like a Murphy bed. There was a small built-in desk with its own automatic light, plus a cabinet for storage, and a large closet with hangers and shelves. Our steel cabin door locked from both inside and outside. Our almost-invisible cabin cleaner kept our quarters in spotless order, providing daily changes of towels and washcloths. Soap and toilet paper were replenished frequently. Bed linen was changed every third day or upon request. Pillows and quilts, covered with clean linens, made sleeping very comfortable.
Satellite TV was available in the bar. We wondered why no English-language channel such as CNN or the BBC was made available to us. The tour operator, Uniworld, requested suggestions for improvements – and this was one of ours. We developed an increasing sense of isolation, accustomed as we are to a stream of news in America. Being baseball fans, we yearned to know how our favorite team was doing. On a scale of 1 to 10, however, we rated Uniworld and our complete cruise-tour as a 9.75 – excellent -- and just short of an impossible 10.
As we chugged along and in port, we saw at least two dozen other riverboats that compared with the "Tolstoy" – all sparkling clean, painted white and blue, with their names in big, gold letters on their bows. Some, we learned, were filled with tourists from France, Germany, Russia, and other countries. At river piers, boats were lined up alongside one another, and the passengers from the outboard boats would use the other boats as passageways ashore. This system worked smoothly and with no security problems.
We encountered the large river yacht "Rossiya" ("Russia"), the official state vessel and used by the Russian prime minister on a good-will tour of the river ports during our cruise. We had to stop and let him and his entourage pass on several occasions, both afloat and ashore. Gave us a feeling of added VIP care as we sailed along.
We should mention that the trip involved entering and leaving at least a dozen locks along the way. These enormous concrete-and-steel boxes lifted and lowered our ship through the maze of canals, lakes, and rivers that provide a gigantic river highway through central Russia. We were constantly in sight of other ships, big ocean-going vessels filled with petroleum, logs, and other cargoes. One sobering thought: this waterway had been built mostly in the 1930s by thousands of Stalin’s slave laborers. Many paid for our passage with their lives.
Problems: a distressing sight – dozens and dozens of rusting, idle factories along the way, victims of "perestroika," the reorganization of Russian industry to meet the demands and opportunities of a market-oriented economy. Their fuddy-duddy, high-cost, subsidized, and planned products no longer were needed or wanted in Russia’s pell-mell rush to give the consumer what he or she wants today. Of course, closed factories meant high unemployment, especially in rural areas where there was little chance to find alternative work.
Russia still has some peculiar quirks in its industries. A vast country filled with an abundance of forests, Russia nevertheless exports logs to neighboring Finland where these logs are turned into plywood…and returned to Russia for sale. Butter on our table came in little sealed plastic gizmos, marked as "Finnish butter". Why wasn’t Russia producing this product? Nobody could tell us.
Food: far better than we expected. Breakfast was served buffet style, while lunch and dinner were served by a staff of smiling, English-speaking waitresses. A daily menu was provided at each table in the colorful and spotless dining room. The table silver, china, and glassware sparkled. Napkins and place mats were very colorful, and their colors changed with each meal. Nothing dull or drab about the dining room, a treat for the eyes.
The cold breakfast buffet could be supplemented by ordering from a choice of several hot dishes. Eggs cooked to order, sausages, Russian pancakes (bliny – thin, crepe-like things, served with jam). Waitresses wore name tags on their uniforms, always seemed to be smiling and helpful, and their service was quick. Most were of college age. And some were very pretty.
Lunch and dinner provided a choice of entrees. We found the food to be well prepared, nicely presented, with some Russian-style surprises in the way vegetables were cooked. Many of the lunches and dinners featured fish dishes that were superb. Each table was kept supplied with pitchers of purified water, complete with ice made from purified water. Barmen came by with a trolley of wines, beers, or soft drinks. These were charged as extras and could be put on one’s tab.
Shore excursions: these extras were described at a first-day briefing session. We chose those tours we wished, sat down with the shore excursion leader, charged our tickets on our credit card, and received our tour tickets. If we changed our mind, we simply re-visited this lady.
Some shore excursions were included in the price of the cruise, and we found these trips to be uniformly excellent. English-speaking guides were extremely helpful, knowledgeable, and ready to answer questions. Shore transportation was provided with spotless-clean big buses, mainly Mercedes-Benz, with air-conditioning and toilet facilities.
High spots of the trip: we went into cultural overload after seeing so many magnificent palaces, museums, and churches. The abundance of art is stupendous, especially the church frescoes and walls of golden icons.
Not to be missed: the optional tour to Peterhof, once home of Catherine, the Great. Left a burned-out shell by the Nazis during World War II, Peterhof has been restored to its former glory. With its golden domes, its yellow-and-white exterior, its fountains with golden statues, its vast arrays of flowerbeds – Peterhof is simply breathtaking in its beauty and grandeur.
The Kremlin, in our imagination, was a to be a dark and forbidding place. Instead, we found it to be a colorful delight. Vast brick-red walls enclose a space of about 10 city blocks, jam-packed with churches, treasure houses, palaces, and gawkers. In the Armory, we stood with our mouths open, gazing at rooms filled with golden articles encrusted with jewels, Faberge eggs, gilded coaches, elegant gowns, icons covered in silver and gold, and an accumulation of royal gifts dating back 600 years. We thought we had seen everything when we had seen The Vatican, Versailles, the British Crown Jewels, the Louvre, and the treasure of the Incas – all these cannot hold a candle to the vast store of the Russian royal families. We had thought that all these treasures had been stolen or disappeared during the Revolution. Not so. They are all here on public display, guarded only by dumpy-looking, bored, elderly women.
Kizhi Island, on the northern part of Lake Onega, must be seen to be believed. Here is a collection of old Russian wooden buildings, standing amid meadows of wildflowers, connected by meandering paths. Its centerpiece is a Russian Orthodox church, constructed entirely of wood and held together with wooden pegs. It boasts 22 onion-shaped domes sheathed in aspen shingles. From the lake, the church rises out of the morning mist like a dream, shimmers silver-gray in the light, and looks as if Walt Disney had gone wild in its construction.
Music seems ingrained in the Russian soul. Aboard the "Tolstoy," we were entertained by a musical quartet in the lounge and at many dinners. A pianist (with electronic enhancements), a very talented violinist, a gifted baritone who sang in Russian and English (although he couldn’t speak English!), and a ball-of-fire accordionist – and of course you could buy CDs or tapes of their music, for sale in the bar.
As one evening’s entertainment, a costumed Russian folk orchestra came aboard in Moscow. They played a two-hour program, accompanied by a marvelous tenor from the Russian Army chorus. Again, tapes and CDs were available.
We chose this particular tour, "Waterways of the Czars," because it gave extra time in STP and MSW instead of the quick in-and-out shore tours offered by others. We especially wanted to see the art on display in The Hermitage in STP. This vast collection numbs the mind. We were told that if one spent a minute looking at each item in the collection, stared day and night, it would take 15 YEARS to see it all!
Frankly, I felt somewhat let down by The Hermitage. It is simply too big, too poorly lighted, and too crowded. Its world-famous collection of Impressionist and modern paintings is jammed into what appears to have been the palace servants’ attic space. The museum’s 20-some Rembrandts are packed into a stuffy room, crowded by mobs of sweaty people, and dimly lighted. True, some Hermitage halls have been remodeled, painted, and beautifully lighted. But these contain only some of the largest canvases. In my opinion, Chicago’s Art Institute, New York’s Metropolitan, and the Louvre and the d’Orsay in Paris far outshine The Hermitage. Less can be more, and too much can provide a mediocre experience.
It is important to remember that this vast collection was crated and put on special trains in 1941, hustled to Siberia, and thus saved from the Nazis. All mankind remains in debt to the curators who started building crates in 1939, hiding this fact from Stalin who was blind to the approaching invasion. We were told that if Stalin had known of the curators’ "defeatism," he likely would have had them shot.
Only a block off Red Square we found our biggest surprise: an underground shopping mall built on three levels. It contains dozens and dozens of shops, glistening escalators and elevators, a marvelous food court, fountains, statues, and a 200-screen Internet cybercafe. Cost: about a dollar for 45 minutes of unrestricted use, with English-speaking young staff members who are eager to lend a hand. It’s called "Time On Line." A young lady at the front counter gave us a sheet with complete instructions in English, and a staff member led us to a computer with an English-character keyboard.
We went to an included ballet performance at Catherine the Great’s own theater in the Hermitage in STP. The ballet was "Giselle," and even I enjoyed it. The music was outstanding in this 18th-century theater, renovated in pink and white marble.
Included was a performance of the Moscow Circus. You may like a circus or not, but the Moscow Circus is a smashing program not to be missed. The program began at 7 p.m. before a packed house of tourists and locals, provided a 20-minute intermission, and roared on until almost 9:30. Aerialists, jugglers, acrobats, bareback riders, animal acts (including bears on bicycles and driving a Jeep), clowns – a non-stop, two-hour program, timed and choreographed to the split-second, with marvelous music and lighting. It can only be described as stunning. Somehow it reminded us of The Ed Sullivan Show brought to life a thousand-fold. We were limp from excitement when it all ended and we staggered out to our waiting buses.
Little adventures: in STP and MSW, we did some exploring on our own, using their subway systems. They are a marvelously quick way to get around. And they are very inexpensive. A ruble is worth about three cents U.S. Subway tickets in STP were six rubles – yes, 18 cents – and in MSW were only five rubles – 15 cents. And a single ticket allows you to use the entire Metro system for as far as you want to go. What a bargain! Some hesitant or timid tourists used local cabs, paying as much as $20 to go from downtown MSW to the terminal pier; we made the same trip on the Metro in about the same time for pennies!
To buy tickets, simply walk into any Metro station (identified with a sign with a big, red letter "M") and walk up to the window marked "kassa" (think of "cashier"). Hold up two fingers and you will either get two tokens (in STP) or a round-trip ticket (MSW). Put the token into the slot at the turnstile or put in the ticket (it pops up immediately from the other end of the machine), and you walk through.
Here’s where the fun starts. Step briskly onto the escalator – and I mean briskly because the escalator really MOVES. And you are headed for a ride on the biggest escalator you may ever see. It must have been 100 yards long, leading down and down. Well-lighted, clean, free of any graffiti.
Some stations are quite beautiful, especially those in central MSW. Some in STP have no platforms. Instead, there is a series of steel doors, which open when the train arrives, the openings lining up with the doors in the subway cars. That way, nobody can be pushed onto the track during rush hours.
How would I rate the subway ride? Noisy as in New York, not as quiet or comfortable as in Paris. Much cleaner than either New York or Paris, however. We noticed that some young men had a bad habit of leaving empty beer bottles aboard the Metro cars. Yes, there is a lot of street consumption of alcohol, a big no-no in many other countries.
During off-hours, we always had seats. Russians are great readers, we found, and out came books, newspapers, or magazines as soon as the passengers sat down. Each car had a map of the city's subway system. But since it was printed in the Cyrillic alphabet, we took along the system map provided free in our "Tolstoy" cabin, printed in both English and Russian. Just follow the colored lines. Quite simple. The stations are called out over the subway cars’ p.a. system, but are almost unintelligible. So watch for the signs at each station. Not nearly as well marked as the London system, but not difficult if you take your time when you transfer or are looking for the line you want. Once, when we could not find the subway station entrance, we asked a young woman selling Coca-Cola which way to the station. She walked us the 100 yards to the entrance.
Friendliness: Russians we encountered seemed quite reserved – at first. Many young people wanted to practice their English. Once the ice was broken by my few, halting Russian phrases, all broke out in smiles and were most helpful. Police were quite useful in giving directions. I wore a small pin of the American flag on my shirt collar. I could see many eyes riveted on this pin. Many persons smiled, giving me the "thumbs-up" sign.
Odds and Ends: Russian ice cream is superb. Street vendors sell it in many forms from refrigerated carts. A big scoop of ice cream in a cone costs about 30 cents. Little kiosks sell bottled water for about 70 cents for a two-liter bottle (bottled, according to the label, by the local Coca-Cola plant). Note: make sure you buy the non-carbonated water. Otherwise, you are in for a bad surprise when you brush your teeth. Yes, brush your teeth using bottled water. The "Tolstoy," incidentally, provided an abundance of hot and cold water for showers, day or night. Very soft water, too – great for shaving and for shampoos. Just don't drink it. They told us not to.
Russian beer is quite good, and we tried several brands. It comes either in lager style or in a dark brew, something like Guinness. They serve it cold. About 70 cents for a big plastic cup, served from street kiosks and beer stands. Just look for their colorful umbrellas. The beer comes from kegs. We did not try kvas, a Russian non-alcoholic drink made from rye bread. The days of a common drinking glass are long gone. Pepsi and Coke are sold everywhere. McDonald’s can be found even in hinterland cities; there was an especially nice-looking one in Yaroslavl. We checked out a Mickey D’s in STP. Just as in America, it offered clean rest rooms and every seat in the restaurant was filled.
Street vendors offer all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and baked goods. Little old ladies sell flowers, plants, berries, and garden produce. On streets, vendors sell watermelons piled high in steel cages. In subway stations, musicians play tunes on accordions, balalaikas, violins, and cellos. Anything to make a ruble or two.
Yes, there were a few beggars who appeared to be gypsies or pensioners who receive next to nothing from the government. None bothered us. Note: do NOT wear jewelry, be street-smart, don’t carry anything in your hip pocket, don’t carry a shoulder purse, be aware of people around you, especially young men with coats over their arms.
Cleanliness: we were pleasantly surprised. Almost all the persons we saw were well dressed, clean, and well behaved. Children are doted on. The birth rate, especially in STP and MSW, is extremely low. Public toilets (called "toi toi") are available for a five-ruble fee. They look like porta-potties on U.S. construction sites. Public drunkenness is tolerated to an extent not seen today in America. Police look the other way.
Money: official policy states that retail trade must be conducted in rubles. Fact: the U.S. dollar is accepted almost everywhere. The smaller the establishment, the greater the eagerness to accept dollars. Change was made by street merchants in either rubles or dollars. We suspected many of these dollars wind up stuffed into mattresses. Banks are not trusted, many have failed, and devaluation of the ruble may happen again. ATMs were found in STP and MSW, but we saw none elsewhere. We used an ATM in MSW with no trouble at all. Take along a hefty supply of small U.S. bills.
Freedoms: this was our greatest surprise! The amount of time, money, and effort to rebuild, restore, refurbish, and care for church buildings is simply beyond calculation. And these churches are attended by many, including a lot of young people. Public buildings are undergoing a good scrubbing and painting. The effect is a vast collection of golden domes, yellow and white palaces, and enormous piles of earth where sewers and water systems are being upgraded. You have to watch where you step. We saw an automobile that had tipped backward into one of these excavations!
While the largest religious denomination is Russian Orthodox, we found Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, and Moslem houses of worship. Our guides said that church attendance once could get a person into trouble (or, at the very least, viewed with suspicion), all this has changed in a wave of religious freedom starting in 1991. All our observations confirmed this fact.
Politics: we were dumbfounded at the freedom of expression. Jokes abound, mostly about political leaders and the Communist party. One common T-shirt shows a print of Lenin with a big McDonald’s Golden Arch behind him, bearing the words, "McLenin’s"! On the back side it says: "The Party’s Over!"
We visited Lenin’s Tomb on Red Square, a squat, square building of dark granite. After standing in line about 15 minutes (the tomb is open to the public only on certain days, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.), we passed the checkpoint where cameras were not allowed, and walked over to the tomb’s front entrance. Dark stairs took us down past grim-looking guards in immaculate uniforms. Down and down and down in the gloom we shuffled, feeling our way in the darkness. And there he was – lying in a glass box, lighted from above, his hands slightly curled, his beard and head almost glowing. His skin seems stretched over his skull, slightly wrinkled, an almost-orange color. It’s a genuinely creepy experience.
Lenin was only 54 when he died of a series of strokes in 1924. In today’s Russia, he seems almost irrelevant, widely respected, but no longer revered by the masses; they have headed in a new direction.
Prediction: one day, maybe within 10 years, the tomb will be "closed for repairs" (as are so many other buildings), never to re-open. And Lenin’s body will join the dozens of other Communist leaders whose graves line the Kremlin wall just behind the tomb. Some of these graves are marked with marble busts (Stalin’s is carved from the lightest shade of gray) or by plaques with names and dates. Khrushchev, incidentally, only rated a plaque. We wondered why.
Note: Lenin’s Tomb is much smaller than its similar counterpart in Hanoi, the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. The embalmers who preserved Lenin’s body developed a secret skill, and Ho Chi Minh’s corpse must be flown back to MSW from time to time for a "refresher treatment."
Among living Russian leaders, public opinion seems to have arrived at judgments that surprised us.
Yeltsin is considered to be a national embarrassment, with his bluster and drunken outbursts. He promised much and delivered little. Gorbachev, while admired and toasted in the West, is looked on as a man who brought progress too quickly and landed the Russian economy in the soup. Putin, a native son of St. Petersburg, seems widely respected and admired -- a man on a mission who is bringing increased improvements to the lives of the Man and Woman on The Street. He faces a lot of foot-dragging by old Communist Party hacks who are more interested in keeping their goodies fostered by the status quo. Most Russians wish Putin well.
Better days ahead: the economy is in trouble, but on the mend. Give Russia 10 years of peace and progress, and we will see vast improvements. Right now, the country we saw is on an enormous (and overdue) binge of cleaning, painting, plastering, building, renovating – trying to overcome decades of decay and neglect in the care of public and private facilities.
Once outside the showplace communities of STP and MSW – well, we had our suspicions that improvements move at a slower pace. There simply is not enough money to get everything shipshape in a hurry. The work will take decades – but it will get done. The proof can be seen in a simple fact: we never saw a country where there is more pride in keeping streets, subways, and other public places clean and tidy. It was hard to find a bit of trash adrift on the streets – anywhere. No cartons, no cigarette butts, no plastic wrapping – central MSW is practically litter-free. Amazing.
And yet most city parks looked neglected. Weeds grew high, dirt paths served as sidewalks, and a generally messy appearance prevailed. STP offers some lovely landscaping around tacky-looking apartment blocks that look like gigantic shoeboxes. The open spaces in between these blocks looked like cow pastures. We never saw a single car (other than glistening, black government limos) that had been washed recently. Russia has a lot to learn about maintenance.
Clothing seemed of much better quality and much more colorful than those seen in pictures in the past. Denim was commonly worn by young people. Some wore outlandish clothing, with blouses laced up bare backs, shoes with fantastically pointed toes, tight mini-skirts, and T-shirts emblazoned with familiar rock music themes.
Everyone was busy soaking up the brief summer sun, lying in the parks, strolling in the sunshine, knowing that about eight months of winter loomed ahead. At about the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska, STP enjoyed summer daylight until well past 10 p.m. and dawn at about 3 a.m. A spell of hot weather struck while we were there, and many young ladies in STP – tall, leggy, blonde, and very easy on the eyes – provided a non-stop show on wide Nevsky Prospekt and other boulevards. Some were stunningly beautiful, looked like models. Others looked like sacks of potatoes.
Dogs are abundant. The number of dogs on leashes -- large dogs such as German shepherds, Dobermans, and Boxers -- surprised us. Gangs of dogs ran wild in the parks. Other stray dogs sat on the piers, looking for handouts from crewmembers and passengers.
Along the rivers and lakes, we were struck by the lack of bird life. Some seagulls, cranes, and ducks. We suspected many birds were hiding in the reeds along the riverbanks or were still in their northern breeding grounds.
Bees bothered us as we sailed along. Mosquitoes were a problem only at night and when we docked. We recommend a good supply of sunscreen lotion and a bug repellant containing deet. Not once – not once – did we see or suspect any cockroaches aboard the spotless "Tolstoy." A glance into the galley confirmed the ship’s good housekeeping.
Living conditions: the number-one problem remains housing. Guides described the apartments we saw (and we saw thousands and thousands) as Czarist, Stalinist, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, or Putin apartments. The Czarist apartments were built before 1917, were spacious, in quite good repair, and almost impossible to find or afford. Stalinist quarters were a bit less grand, but still well built, roomy, and tough to find. Khrushchev apartments were low ceilinged, cramped, crumbling, and common. Brezhnev quarters were a little better but hardly comfortable. Putin apartments are astronomical in price, glitzy, with all modern conveniences, the wave of the future, and the digs preferred by The New Russians, our next topic.
The New Russians: counterparts to our Silicon Valley yuppies, these are looked on by common folk as greedy, lucky, show-offs, lovers of luxury with rubles to burn. Some NRs were propelled into prosperity by Communist Party connections. Others took advantage of the new freedoms afforded by the expanding economy – country homes, trips abroad, unbounded luxury, and questionable finances. The "classless society" of Marxist-Leninist doctrine has disappeared, the masses remain, and the Czarist elite replaced by this thin layer of luxury – The New Russians. And the masses are seething. The result? A lot of sharp elbows, a lot of bitter jokes, a lot of naked ambition, and a lot of interesting days ahead.
Things to buy: we called Russia "The Land of Stuff" because of the enormous abundance of souvenirs. Wooden dolls ("matrushkas") that fit one inside another. Military caps festooned with colorful badges and pins. Watches -- I bought a beautiful, self-winding, military watch that (so far) keeps good time…for $28 in Uglich. My wife bought two enameled wristwatches there for about $22 each. Incidentally, Uglich offers some of the best souvenir-hunting on the cruise. Another great spot: the rows of hawker tables on Sparrow Hill overlooking MSW. The included city tour stops there. Stalls offer chess sets, woodenware, dolls, lacquered and handpainted boxes, jewelry, hats, clothing, needlecrafts – the offerings are endless, of generally good quality, and low in price. Yes, you can and should bargain with most vendors. It never hurts to try.
Credit and credit cards: Russian merchants like cash payment in full. I saw a sign in MSW’s huge G.U.M. department store encouraging the opening of a time-payment account, arranged through a bank. But payment on the never-never plan is rare in most places. We suspected that tax evasion is a national pastime, encouraged by hiding cash or buying gold and storing it in bank accounts abroad or buried under the outhouse.
Uniworld advised us to inform our American credit-card company that we were going to Russia in case any card charges came through while we were there. Apparently, there has been too much credit-card fraud from lost or stolen cards, and the companies have installed tight credit checks. We saw signs on store and restaurant windows in STP and MSW showing that they accepted credit cards, mainly VISA and Master Charge. A few accepted American Express.
Russians differ from Americans in that home mortgages are unknown, we were told. Terms are cash for land and homes, including apartments and summer homes (dachas). Autos are paid for in cash, and we saw plenty of them, both Russian-made and foreign-made. As in America, yuppies seemed to prefer BMWs and Mercedes-Benz cars. We even saw some British Range Rovers, German Audis, and American Cadillacs!
Traffic control is quite good in MSW, less so in STP. Traffic flows along at about 40 m.p.h. in MSW, with some boulevards containing up to seven lanes of traffic in each direction plus parking at the curbs. To cross main streets, we learned to use the underground pedestrian walkways. Clean, well-lighted, safe, they afford the only safe way to get across. Stairways contain tracks for the use of baby carriages and wheelchairs. We were surprised that STP and MSW otherwise afforded little help for the handicapped. So many stairs, so few elevators.
President Putin, being a native of STP, is trying to bring his hometown up to MSW’s modern status. The city will celebrate its 300th birthday in 2003, having risen from a swampy delta by the dictate of Peter, the Great. The city was not a favorite of Stalin’s, being the old Czarist capital and a hotbed of intellectual elitism. We were told that he neglected the modernization of its infrastructure. He may have been guilty of letting one citizen in three die of cold, starvation, and disease during its 847-day siege by the Germans during the war. In any case, STP is busy catching up, cleaning, and restoring itself to its former glory – with a big boost from the national checkbook.
We noticed the abundance of electric trolley buses and street trams in both STP and MSW. These appeared rather shabby, dirty, and rundown in STP and quite nice in MSW. Cars in the MSW subway were more modern than those in STP. Trains ran about every three minutes in both cities.
What Russians want: in a single word, they yearn for stability. For three generations, since 1917, they have undergone violent changes – revolution, civil war, multiple waves of Moscow-dictated oppression, starvation, isolation, war, mass murders, imprisonment, loss of life and property, a Cold War that sucked the lifeblood out of their economy. Yet, they have survived. They are survivors par excellence.
Cynical, sly, ambitious, willing, industrious, talented, skeptical, clever, family-centered. Doleful, wearing a mask of weariness, yet ready to burst into wild laughter and song. Too much alcohol, too much tobacco, too much waiting for the other fellow to move first. Wistful for a bit of Mother Russia they can call their own. Proud of the Motherland – yet disdainful of leaders who have let them down, time and time again. Only a few statues of Lenin remain. Many statues of Lenin and other Communist leaders were torn down in the early 1990s. There is a "graveyard" of these old statues in a MSW park. We saw few emblems or signs bearing hammers and sickles, yet we saw many golden double-headed eagles, the ancient imperial symbol of Russia.
Like a child at an opening door, Russians peek at the outside world, curious but hesitant. Many are reluctant to abandon the false promises of security from Communist days -- yet hungry for the goodies they know exist in the world beyond their borders. We were told that 70 per cent of Russians surveyed were skeptical of their new freedoms. They are dipping their toes into a new way of life. Some are eager to move ahead. Some hesitate. Some would prefer the Communist past. Time will tell which way Russia will turn. All the ballots have not been counted.
I have often said that mankind fell into a deep pit in 1914 and is just now getting its fingertips over the edge. For Russians, this is their daily reality.