Brant's Rant: Russia, "What a Country!"

May 31, 2007 | Comments (0) | by Brant Brown

My recent travels to the Soviet Union, er, Russia, did not, as expected, provide a bounty of international baseball talent. I found nary a batting cage, nor a game of stickball in the mean streets of Saint Petersburg. It probably didn’t help that the hockey world championships were occurring at the time, an event that would fall on deaf ears in the United States.

Nevertheless, the excursion was fruitful, in that it debunked many myths ingrained in my mind by my mid-‘80s education and textbooks written during the Cold War. Many would not know that Saint Petersburg is actually a very beautiful city, modeled after Venice, with canals, footbridges, and immaculate cathedrals around every corner. The people were generally in good spirits and friendly, and didn’t hassle you as long as you at least tried to blend in and throw around a phrase or two in Russian.

I spoke to a number of university students, all of which were very concerned about how they are perceived in the U.S. They swear they don’t all drink vodka, and they only wear fur hats because it’s so damn cold in the winter. In fact, Russians as a whole are very open to this “global warming” phenomenon.

The sun setting at 11:00 pm and rising before 5:00 am certainly messed with my body, but allowed me to maximize the daylight to see the city. Contrary to popular belief, they do have hot water, they do have modern technology, and there were not armed gunman on every street corner. We were warned heavily about pickpockets, but never encountered an attempt to hijack our rubles. Only one person hassled me, a homeless man with no legs. I simply outran him.

All in all, it was a fantastic experience, and comes highly recommended. Be aware though, that you cannot simply purchase a ticket on Orbitz and show up in Russia. Volumes of paperwork need to be filled out and approved beforehand. So, for those that will never get the chance to visit, I’ve prepared a top ten list of strange observations, along with some pictures. In descending order of amazement:

1) Vodka in Russia is good. We've all heard this. Well, it's the damned truth, not to mention it is cheap. Good ol' fashioned sippin' vodka. The really good stuff will only cost you $8 for a half liter bottle. The standard issue runs about $4, which is still better than the trash you get in the U.S. We brought a bunch back with us. I'll never buy vodka in an American store again.

2) Many of the events we attended were on the top floors of large buildings. You could not rely on the use of elevators. If there was an elevator, it likely did not work, or would only fit two people at a time. The legs got a workout.

3) The staircases were unique in pretty much every building we entered. Most of the buildings in the city were constructed in the 1940's or earlier, and were hastily put up with little funding. Therefore, most of the stairs are not symmetrical in any way. Each step varied in height and depth. Not necessarily easy to navigate after a half-bottle of the aforementioned vodka.

4) I did much of my walking about town in the wee hours following sunrise. At that time of day, you run into the little people taking care of the litter on the streets. They wear orange vests and sweep garbage into dustbins. But they don't use real brooms as you might expect. Their brooms are really just a bunch of twigs bound together and strapped to a large stick. Homemade if you will, but they seemed to get the job done.

5) Aside from Russian, the most common language heard on the streets is English. Except it's the Queen's English. Apparently their interpreters and general public learn English off of British tapes. Which is probably why "tea" means "coffee" and "chai" means "tea". Damn Brits.

6) There are few rules of the road in Russia. There are no speed limits. Crosswalks are a touchy affair. When lanes are painted, few drivers abide by them. It's really just a free-for-all on the road. I would never drive in Saint Petersburg (a typical Russian vehicle at left).

7) Parking is an issue, or at least it would be for Americans. Again with the cars though, few rules apply. Not quite enough room to parallel park? Then it's perfectly acceptable to pull straight in, hop the cub, and leave your trunk hanging out in the street. I should have taken pictures of this.

8) From what I understand, in some European countries, restrooms are referred to as "water closets", and are marked with a WC. Well, the same is true in Russia, though men's and women's water closets are usually not differentiated. On a number of occasions I would be standing at a urinal, only to have a woman come out of the adjacent stall. I think this needs to be adopted in the United States. We should be mature enough to not segregate our water closets by gender.

9) Like most major metropolitan areas, Saint Petersburg has an underground subway system. However, due to the unique geology of the city, which has the River Neva flowing through it and numerous canals, coupled with the intent to use the metro system as a nuclear shelter, make for about a 5 minute escalator ride down to the platforms (pictured at right).

10) Finally, we saved the best for last. Cultural differences obviously abound between two countries such as the United States and Russia. Yet to walk down the streets of Saint Petersburg, or to sit down in a coffee shop and observe the people, you would not be able to really draw any conclusions based on appearance. Except for one thing: the mullets. It would be safe to say that 50% of all Russian boys and young men sport the mullet, as well as unnecessarily tight jeans. The odd thing is that the young women mostly look like they belong in the OC, with their big sunglasses, fancy boots, and designer purses. Clearly they spend the majority of their money on appearances. Unfortunately, those women who are not as trendy also can fall prey to the mullet, probably in the 10-20% range. Sadly we concluded that their fascination with the mullet was not an ironic one. Only with diplomatic understanding and cooperation can we help them overcome this obstacle. Perhaps when Bush and Putin meet in Kennebunkport this July, they can put this issue on the table.

Other random notes:
  • The beef stroganoff we had one night was fantastic.
  • They love peach yogurt.
  • Russians have a very profound knowledge and understanding of their history, and are an extremely proud people.
  • The preferred beer in Russia is called Baltica. Different types of Baltica are numbered, so you order Baltica 3 (light beer), Baltica 4 (regular draft), Baltica 5 (like a Heineken), Baltica 6 (wheat), etc.
  • Most restaurants are underground.
  • The ballet will make you fall asleep.
  • Coca-Cola signs dominate the city.
  • McDonald's and Subway were the only American chains we came across.
  • We took a train to Helsinki, Finland for a couple days, which is a very old-school, cool city.
  • The Fins have shitty beer and a lot of bike paths.