14 September 1999 - So Long Russia

Leaving Russia, Jim felt mixed emotions. I felt relief. We witnessed an untamed country, the largest in the world, during an exciting, although unstable time in its history, but after two-and-a-half months in Russia, I was ready, mentally and physically, to move on. My frustration with Russia sprouted immediately when I realized everything in the country is difficult. Drinkable water, milk for coffee, toilet options, toilet seats, lodging, roads, diesel, Internet, petty rules, abundant bureaucracy, hiring a taxi, obtaining answers, and even mailing a postcard is a chore.

Several times I waited in line at dark, Soviet-built concrete post offices for the lone woman, never a man, who could sell me stamps only to be motioned to another line where another woman posts the stamped mail. Service and efficiency are unexplored here. People don’t want to help or be bothered by needs or desires of customers. In fact, most workers act as though they are granting a favor if any service is offered. Arriving in a restaurant, perhaps one of only two in a small town, and generally fairly empty, the wait to order might be 20 minutes. After seeing how this worked, we would head to the kitchen to order direct with the cook, only to learn 99 percent of listed menu items were not available. Then another ridiculously long wait passed before the ubiquitous fried cutlet, greasy potatoes, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes arrived. The predictability of bad service was discouraging.

Speaking English and being non-Russian is an expensive proposition too, but this is true in many places when one doesn’t speak the local dialect. Here, when negotiating taxi fare, a Russian will be offered a rate that is a mere fraction of what a foreigner is asked to pay. One driver tried to charge me 200 rubles for a short trip around St. Petersburg, while our Russian friend Sergei secured the same fare for 20 rubles. And, the museums bilk tourists too, charging foreigners 10 times more for entry than Russians pay. At times the Russian desperation, “Let us get it while we can,” really pissed me off.

But even more difficult to swallow are the individuals, unmotivated and lazy, who do not even attempt to profit when an opportunity sits under their noses. Yes, this is true of people in every country, but Russia’s population seems to be more like this than not. Perhaps I am more observant as I travel longer on this extended journey. I remind myself every day that culture, customs, lifestyles and people are different everywhere, but even so a work ethic is in all people. Yes? Can a government, or prior government, strip that from a population? In a village out in Siberia, Jim and I offered the hotel cleaning lady a quarter of her monthly salary, US$5, to wash our few clothes of laundry. She could not be bothered. I’ll never forget her looking at me and muttering in Russian, “I don’t feel like it.”

More frustration mounts while speaking with a bright Russian man, in his mid-40s. Nicolas says people who work hard “take away from the poor”. We discussed land ownership, hard to come by in Russia. Nicolas insists if Russians were allowed easy access to land, they would peddle it to foreigners who might then take over Russia, and he is serious as he says these words. He wants the government to protect the rights of the people by giving them no rights to land ownership. Belief in free markets is, at least, a lifetime away in Siberia. How will things improve for Russians, I ask him? He has no answer. He wants the government to take care of things.

In mid-September 1999 Barclays announced they were pulling business out of Russia due to the unstable financial climate, and certainly more businesses will cut losses. Many worldwide will be astonished since the press does not realize or report how bad things are in the former Soviet Union. Even when reporters write and speak about corruption, bribery, crooked politicians, absurdly rich New Russians and the paltry income of the majority – the situation described is worse. The ruble is crumbling. Resentment is rising. Many workers have not been paid in months. Recently, Yeltsin ordered government employees to be paid back income, but the upcoming election is the only motivator for his printing more money, which deepens the problems of the weakening currency.

Moreover the sheer size of Russia makes east and west two entirely different beasts. Journalists rarely leave the comforts of the west. CNN reports from Moscow, Dagestan or Chechnya, but the wilds out in Siberia are another world, and often the reporters do not make it even to Dagestan or Chechnya instead relying on video from there with a reporter doing the voice-over from Moscow. Stories of discontent are abundant in Russia. The Buryat Mongols and the Tatars do not particularly want to be a part of Russia; in fact, they don’t think themselves Russians. When the economy and mindsets sour more, these Mongols and Tatars will demand independent statehood. Japanese businessmen are “infiltrating” the Far East near Vladivostok buying hotels and businesses, and enjoying sex holidays cheaper than Bangkok. Chinese, from Heihe across a narrow river separating Russia from China, come over to work the Russian fields, then sell the produce roadside. This infuriates the Russians, increasing their resentful toward their neighbors, but the Chinese seize opportunities while the Russians complain of lost ones. Siberia was once a part of China and who is to say it will not be again?

No road runs east to west in Russia, creating more of a vacuum for the out-of-touch officials in Moscow. In order to pass from east to west, we were forced, along with scores of Russians, to load our car on the Trans-Siberian for a pass over swampland. I have permanently-etched memories of this experience, since there was no ramp to drive our car onto the flatbed of the train, making the loading process a horrible challenge, and for the first time in my life, I fetched water from a well, filling water bags for the journey. When I first lifted the handle to pump water from the well, nothing happened, and after a while I looked to an old man outside a nearby shed. Looking at me as though I was from another planet – I mean how could anyone not know how to work a well! – he motioned that I should push harder and faster on the pump. I did and water flowed.

The roads that do exist, except in Moscow, are third-rate at best, but this is an accepted way of life for people. Countless times we asked about road conditions and truck drivers told us, “Great road,” and then we would find an unpaved, gravel one-lane path! I learned early on in this journey that all answers are relative to what we know. For these truck drivers, the roads are great, but they have certainly not driven the German or Japanese autobahns. The few good roads, by our standards, were secret military roads under the Communists, and now these common roads receive no upkeep. As we see the decaying and crumbling of Siberia, in mindset and infrastructure, coupled with the distance from the capital, I wonder how long Moscow will retain control. How long will the east accept second-class status?

Across the country, I found the Communist mentality still prevailing. Where diminished, a new notion of get rich quick, no matter who or what is hurt, has taken root. No moral fiber holds things together. People, no matter their mindsets, do not believe in government. They know the police are crooks. So are the politicians. And, the crooks own the media so the population cannot trust the written word or the television pundits. If a businessman is the least bit successful, the mafia insists on a piece of the action, called “the roof”. A businessman pays to protect his “roof”. And, if he fails to cough up the cash, then he loses his electricity, gets beat up or finds a broken front window at his shop. At this time in history, who or what should the Russian people trust? Some suggest religion, but for the moment, spiritual beliefs and values are not filling the void, and courts offering a rule of law are not the answer either.

The ones who profited and continue to prosper from this moral absence are the infamous New Russians. One might have been a vodka factory manager/foreman who became “owner” of the state-owned facility as soon as the Communists were out of power. Men simply seized power when democracy was hailed as the new government. Rich beyond belief, I found these men to have outlandish, showy taste quite proud to flaunt their newfound wealth in Versace-like suits, driving the most expensive black, always black, Mercedes Benz cars. Even tasteful New Russians suck their teeth, but I think this might just be a national trait. One of my favorite stories involves a New Russian, who owned a Mercedes 600 S, which he failed to have serviced. The US$100,000 car ran out of oil ruining the engine. So the New Russian took it to the Mercedes dealership in the middle of Siberia, left it and bought another one. I am not making this up! No matter how much money a man makes, he should use his head. Yes? This New Russian brags and tells the “success” story, repeatedly, as he waves around his smallest finger, laden with a heavy gold ring.

The police use their heads in different ways – to hassle and harass. They are brutes, with power as their only claim. Many go months without being paid, and these are not pleasant people, forcing bribes and erroneous tickets on the public in order to have money for themselves and their families. One ticketed me for speeding and passing on a solid line. I was driving in a work zone in heavy traffic and not passing anyone! Didn’t matter. He wrote me two tickets, while demanding I pay or be arrested. I paid and he put the paltry sum of money in his pocket. Once we reached Moscow, I went to report this crook and the officials laughed at me. I could not even report a corrupt bully. The police know this, and therefore, their domain is whatever they want, except of course, salary and respect.

Overall, I found people accepting of their plight across Russia, especially women. Even those attending university know the best job options upon graduation will go to men, solely based on sex. “This is life,” they tell me, one adding. “Why would we form a group to challenge this discrimination? This is the way it is.” Most young girls, teenagers and young women do not harbor aspirations beyond university, if they dream that big, instead thinking marriage will be a happy fix to their miseries. Women have few role models, and without fail, women could not believe I was unmarried at 30 and without child. They told me repeatedly, from city to city, “No one would have you here.”

A growing number of young women are not accepting what life deals, opting to prostitute their bodies in order to make decent money. Never would I have believed the number of women selling themselves across Siberia if I had not seen it first-hand. “This is freedom and there are no jobs,” one middle-aged Russian journalist explained when I asked him about the abundant prostitution I saw in the Russian Far East. One young, heavily made-up woman told me, “I make more in a night selling sex than I would make in a month scrubbing floors.” Prostitution is seen as a way out – a form of advancement. I struggled over this as I saw more and more young women lining the front of every crummy, old cement Soviet-built hotel, where we stayed. I certainly did not want to pass judgement on the women, mostly old-enough to know what they were doing, because I believe a woman’s body is her temple, and she can do with it as she deems appropriate. But, what will happen to them in five years? At 18, 19 and 20, I thought I knew everything, just as these women do now, but they will grow up, age and perhaps no one will want to share a life with them. What will these young things do when they cannot sell their bodies? Who shall care for them when they are permanently injured from yet another abortion, the common form of birth control? What will be their state of mind? Yes, people often talk of prostitution being the oldest profession in the world, but I guess I never imagined it would be so prevalent and abundant throughout Siberia. The dire state of things here give women little hope for more. There was no dulling of my senses the more I saw, with each passing city. For me, it hurt. I hated it.

Perhaps the Churches are the saving grace of Russia. They claim history, tradition, honor, beauty and meaning. I felt such affirmation in all things good when I visited these wonderful structures, churches and cathedrals filled with gold, incense and ancient icons. Unfortunately attendance is comprised of older people, with very few young in the pews, and the churches do not seem to encourage favor from the youth. I watched a priest make a 15-year-old-Irkutsk girl cry because she did not know the scriptures he quizzed. And the ever-present babushkas in the churches are too similar to sergeants telling people don’t do this and don’t do that. Does God really need a military? Perhaps like the police, the old women, keepers of the church, claim their only source of power through ordering others around.

Although, generally, I remain sad and discouraged over Russia, the country does claim some fabulous offerings. Seeing Swan Lake at the Bolshoi was a dream come true, and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic established my love for Rachmanioff. I spent a glorious evening with Jim, his parents and 15 Russians at Bear Lake drinking, eating and soaking in the banya, and, oh, how I marveled at the exquisite sights: magnificent Peterhoff, the enormous Hermitage, the fairy tale-like St. Peters Basilica at Moscow’s Red Square, the endless fields of sunflowers in the east, and the vast stretches of countryside untouched by man, where I began to think we shall never run out of trees, we must just build roads to get to them, and so much more. Certainly time will help me understand and shape better my perspective on Russia. Already though I realize I am richer in mind for exploring this confused, or perhaps confusing, country.