Sunday, 19 May 2013

From Russia With... A Fresh Perspective

Often times during my second visit to Russia I got the feeling that I was conducting my own cultural anthropological experiment. The same way famous anthropologists wandered into primeval forests and lived with native tribes in order to understand them, I felt like a pioneer, wandering into a country so vast and significant yet such a mystery, at least among my peers back home, and on a mission to find out the truth about its people.

Here are some of my experiences and anecdotes about Russia with the intention, hopefully, of dispelling certain stereotypes or foster understanding of its people and culture.
Kremlin - the palace of the central government of Russia
Moscow itself is a unique metropolis due to its geopolitical and economic status in Russia and relations with nearby countries. It has a deep history. Today it teems with culture. It is one of the most expensive cities in the world, yet it attracts people from all walks of life from poor illegal immigrants (including prehistoric looking Asians from the -stan countries) to multi-billionaires like Roman Abramovich. Aside from my sidebar to St. Petersburg, I have spent my time wholly in Moscow, wandering and getting to know the city, learning Russian, and meeting people for language and culture exchange.

One stereotype Russians are aware they have, and that they jokingly questioned me about, is that they are serious people. The Russians I met were ashamed to admit that the majority of them never smile on the Metro, and that shopkeepers are brutal and straightforward, and don't understand the concept of customer service.

Well, I think the former complaint can be excused, after all it's an urban big city phenomenon. I feel that people are generally less friendly (and in more of a hurry) the bigger the city, based on my experiences throughout Europe and even in Canada. And Moscow is the biggest city I have ever visited, with estimates of its population between 12 and 19 million. So it is no surprise that people are less friendly here. In addition, I was told people are friendlier in the countryside of Russia.
One super friendly Russian - my Couchsurfing friend Vitalak

Pretending I can play guitar with Vitalak's replica of Flea's guitar from Red Hot Chili Peppers
While most of my Russian friends are not heavy drinkers, Russians are generally known as such. While I didn't notice much heavy drinking, quite often, I've seen people with a beer in their hand while walking down the street, sitting on benches in parks, in the Metro and on the bus. It's a curious phenomenon to witness, as someone from a country where drinking in public is illegal (it is in Russia too, but never enforced). At least it seems that public drinking is done responsibly and respectabley.

Like friendliness level, alcohol consumption increases in the rural areas. I've been told Russians don't just drink vodka either; they drink anything and everything. It's just that vodka is the most common and cheapest liquor available. Apparently poor airport workers in Siberia even know of a way to separate alcohol from antifreeze...
Lenin's Tomb in Red Square - he is still a hero amongst older Russians; not as much amongst the younger

Corruption is still a problem here in Russia. And it starts at the very top. Its current president, Putin, has secured a stronghold on the presidency through less than integral means. And anyone who crosses Putin will likely be punished, whether it's nosy journalists, outspoken celebrities, or the general public. I may even be on his black list now for these comments.

There's a running joke made famous following a recent political election. The election was rigged, but exposed itself on TV when a voting poll mistakenly totaled 146%. Now whenever a Russian is quite certain of something, they sometimes say they are 146% sure.
Screenshot from the rigged election. Total voting = 146,47%
This corruption trickles down to street level and can be observed in police enforcement. Cops can stop you anywhere without reason, slap you with a ghost fine, then hint at a bribe in exchange for your freedom. I was randomly asked for my passport by a cop at a Metro station. But did I really look like a suspicious character in my bright orange jacket and a bright multicoloured toque?

On the bright side, when cops aren't out for your money, they are pretty slack about the laws. People can drink just about anywhere, and cars can virtually do whatever they want on the road in Russia. My driver to St. Petersburg stopped on the highway shoulder after missing an offramp and backed all the way up to catch it. My favourite road scene is seeing cars towed by other cars, tied by means of a simple rope, to avoid hiring tow trucks.
Posing near the Kremlin on my last full day in Moscow

This unique twist of freedom, among other things, is what makes Russia a fascinating and beautiful country. It's the only place where I've seen local food markets selling vegetables past its prime at discount rates, preventing waste. The general disregard of rules allows the Russian version of Facebook, vKontakte, to stream music, outright ignoring copyright laws. Besides this, Russia is amazingly diverse, with tens or hundreds of small culturally unique tribes or "republics" living in mountain regions of the south, and up in the frozen north. It's moving up the world stage, set to host Sochi Winter Olympics and, soon after, the World Cup. If they don't remove barriers to obtaining tourist Visas by then, if you are willing to endure the complications of getting the Visa, I recommend going to check out this country which is far down most peoples' travel lists.

I think the general North American view of Russians is confined to a few stereotypes, which are not so flattering. I was eager to play journalist, to dispel these negative stereotypes, or at the very least uncover the cause of them. After all, we are all humans that have simply grown up in different environments and become accustomed to them.
Another one of my many awesome Couchsurfers in Moscow - thanks Philip and Yulia!
Russia's roughness around the edges is part of its slow and sometimes painful smoothing out process from a long, embattled 20th century of political oppression and war. People haven't forgotten the Soviet Times, which shaped who they are today. In fact I often heard sentences beginning with "In Soviet Russia..." However, generation by generation, the bitterness and pessimism from the past is fading from memory. The people are sometimes harsh, but at least they are honest and unabashed, and definitely very interesting to talk to.

Russia has grown on me the more time I have spent here, especially Moscow and the many great people I have met here. I would love to come back to spend more time and visit other cities, and even experience the wildnerness of Siberia. But for now, it's mission accomplished...

I'm coming back to Canada!

Bonus picture for fans of Master & Margarita! - Patriarch's Pond

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