Posted by: ritagone | September 26, 2012

About Russia…with Love!

While it is fresh in my mind, I’d like to put down some thoughts about our recent trip to Russia.  They are in no particular order, just as they come to mind, not necessarily the most important or profound thoughts first or last.  Just randomly gathered and entered on paper before they fly away into the hinterlands of my dotage.

First, I learned once again, as I always learn when traveling, that most of what we see and hear on American TV about a particular country and its culture is wrong.  WRONG!  Oh, they get bits and pieces of it right, but don’t kid yourself: a huge bunch of it is filled with error.  Michael and I had the privilege of meeting with a very successful American businessman in St. Petersburg who came there when he was 25 years old with nothing but his entrepreneurial fervor and a belief that Russia and St. Pete had a great economic future.  Today his business center sits on Nevsky Prospekt: think 5th Avenue, Wall Street, Rodeo Drive.  He develops real estate by buying buildings in disrepair and renovating them, then renting them out or selling them.  His business employs dozens of Russians and is now worth over 700 million dollars.  Tell him that Russia is sinking economically and you will get a strong argument.  Tell him that an entrepreneurial young man can’t do well there and he will contradict you.  So it’s not all bleak and dire.  Oh, there’s negative government intervention.  But where isn’t there negative intervention?  So I’ve learned that perhaps the news media isn’t always totally and completely solid sources of information. (Duh!) Sometimes you have to go to the sources themselves.

Secondly, the image of Russians as dour, stone-faced, somber people is rapidly fading.  Back in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, with Communist oppression breathing heavily down their necks, that was truly the case.  Nowadays, there’s a bit more freedom and a bit more lightness.  (I say this knowing that for evangelical Christians, this is not the case.  Putin does not like evangelical Christians and feels moderately threatened by them.)  But for the majority of Russian citizens, life is better now than it was decades ago.  They have more money to spend.  This is verified by the number of cars on the road.  If you live in a U.S. city where traffic is a major problem, go to Moscow.  I guarantee you that you will never again curse the traffic in your town.  In Moscow, the number of cars has increased dramatically: in 1991, there were 60 cars per 1,000 residents; in 2009, there were 350, and Muscovites continue to buy more cars than roads can be built to drive them on.  It can take you four hours to go a mile in Moscow; the traffic jams are unbelievable.  If traffic is a sign of wealth and prosperity, Moscow is overflowing with affluence!  Everywhere we went in Moscow and Ryazan and St. Petersburg, people were on iPhones.  Capitalism is not a dirty word.  They are happily spending money and eating Big Macs.

Thirdly, when you talk about hospitality, you don’t usually think of Russians.  But you should.  Again, the image of Russians being austere and somber is from decades long past, when the Communists forbid smiling on the chance that smiling would lead to laughing, and laughing would lead to so much frivolity that an uprising or revolution would surely take place.  Today, the Russian young people have a lot to smile about.  They have better jobs and a better future than their parents did, and they seem more hopeful, and hope always makes people smile, even if it doesn’t always get realized.  And what they have, they share willingly and joyously.  So when we were in Ryazan, we were invited to the flat of a single young man named Tolia, who, with his friend Sergey, cooked up a dinner fit for a king.  Or two.  Or twenty.  There was enough food on that table – every thinkable Russian dish – for many more than the eight of us who were the invited guests.  We ate and ate and ate and didn’t make a dent.  We sampled various kinds of vodka: with horseradish, with pepper flavoring, straight.  We laughed, we listened to stories of how Tolia had remodeled the flat with his own two hands (he owns his own construction business).  It was one of the most memorable evenings of our trip, as much for the hospitality and fellowship as for the delicious variety of food.

Fourthly, I now cast my vote for St. Petersburg as my favorite city in the world.  Someone asked me spontaneously the other day if I were offered a trip to Paris or a trip to St. Petersburg, which would I take?  I immediately, without thinking, answered St. Petersburg, and then I had to think about why my answer came so fast.  I think St. Petersburg is beautiful in a classic sort of way: a city built on a river with canals and bridges a la Venice or Amsterdam, with palaces and churches everywhere, lit up nightly by government decree.  A subway system so deep that it takes you below the water, so that as you go down the escalator, you feel like you’re descending into the center of the earth.  You look across at the people ascending, and there is a strange optical illusion: the angle is so severe that the lampposts in the center between the escalators and the people themselves are at a 30 degree tilt, making them look like they might fall over as they go upwards!  It’s the weirdest sight imaginable, and one of the great, unforgettable charms of St. Petersburg to me.

There’s so much more about Russia that I could write.  I wish as you read this that you might contemplate going there some day if you haven’t already been.  It’s worth the long flights, the visas, the language barrier.  Believe me, as travel experiences go, Russia is right up there with any place you hold dear.

I’m hopeful that we will return.

That’s how much I love Russia.

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Responses

  1. I love your thoughts and musings about our trip. Each paragraph lit up a memory for me. Thanks!


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