We spent 10 days there cycling from Moscow to St Petersberg, and here are my thoughts:
1. Controlled? – Not really communist at all now. No evidence of us or anyone being monitored: you got the feeling that we, or any of the Russians, could go anywhere they liked and do anything (legal) that they liked.
2. QUEUES! Everything is inefficient, every till, every toilet every shop seems to have a queue. Why don’t they have more staff? There’s no shortage of people. Why don’t they have better systems? I think it’s a) they don’t understand systems b) they don’t care because there’s nothing in it for them c) the type of people they are – see later for these
3. Systems: everything from the booking in procedures at hotels, to the airport, to every restaurant, to the bag rules for entering the Kremlin, was ridiculously inefficient. For example the Kremlin – nothing is stated about bag size on any notices, but when you get to the front of the queue you discover that small is OK but medium is not, and it’s the whim of the guy to decide what’s medium. In our group my little rucksack was the only one he didn’t like, so I then have to go to another queue to have it checked in (for free though) and then rejoin the first queue, at the back, without my bag.
4. Restaurants – you wait ages and then you get the wrong food, in the wrong order, cold. My starter came after my main course. Some people’s food never came at all, they got no dinner. You couldn’t make it up! No apologies offered for any of this. And it was not a language problem because we had a translator, and anyway the menu says Starters, Main Course etc, and we are pointing to what we want, so how hard can it be??
5. Language – very few people speak English, and Russian is really hard to pronounce. Even Hello is a big long weird word: Zdravstvuyte. And the alphabet has lots of odd letters to it’s really hard to read even place names let alone a menu. This is Hello in Russian: Здравствуйте
6. Nothing in it for them – a hangover from the communist days I suppose, I kept thinking “If they sold those they could make lots of money / if they put the price up / if they made it easier for us” but then if you’re on fixed pay why would you want MORE customers? What difference does it make if you have happy customers? Do you WANT repeat business, it’s just more work. I guess there’s an owner somewhere, but for everyone else it makes no difference, they obviously don’t so bonuses or shares or even training. At the Ballet a coke cost the same as in the corner shop – what are they thinking??
7. A few people have worked out the game, and are running businesses and making a LOT of money. With even half a commercial brain you could do better than everyone else. But I suspect that business might be tough there – people might object to you encroaching on their patch, and I wouldn’t want to upset a Russian – see next section!
8. Type of people – if you go to India the people have a natural service mentality, they want to be your friend and make you happy. And of course on top of that they know that if you are happy you’ll buy more, and come back and buy more. “It’s trade to prosper”. Maybe because there are so many people packed in, living together, it’s all about relationships. But The Russian personality isn’t like this, (maybe because of the harsh weather, I don’t know), it’s much more “Be tough to survive”. We met a guy, an ex Afghanistan paratrooper who now drives a truck across Siberia in the winter for days on end, an amazing man, he looked and sounded like a bear, and he gave us some apples from this tree, so he was friendly (thank goodness!) But there wasn’t much joking around to be had, unlike maybe Morocco or Italy or Brazil where they are always up for a laugh.
9. Situation of the people – they have been stuffed by the system. Having been supported by the communist system, now suddenly their little farms are no longer viable, and they are being left to go bust. The country villages are dying as the young people move to the horrible cities. They don’t have the commercial knowledge to replace their dependency on communism. It’s a period of change and they are getting no help. It’s really sad.
10. Power of the Media – they genuinely do think Putin is great, and they genuinely do think that America wants to invade Russia. As if! But then maybe we are victims of our media in the same way, who knows what’s really true. But really, all those miles and miles of scrub, it didn’t look very much worth invading to me…
11. Size – the rouble was plummeting, just in the week we were there it went from 70 to the pound to 100 to the pound, so meals etc were very cheap and getting cheaper. But nobody was bothered. If you never leave the country, and most of them don’t want to, don’t’ need to, and can’t afford to, then who cares about prices outside. If food, cars, houses etc are all made and priced internally then you can live in your bubble without needing to care about exchange rates etc. Even Mercedes have a car plant there, so everything is in roubles. The EU and US sanctions mean nothing because everything they need is made in Russia.
12. Cheese – except cheese. They can’t make or get Parmesan or Feta, they have to use their own rubbery unexciting cheese, so the pasta and the salads were very unexciting.
13. Buildings – worth the trip for these. Red Square, St Basils, The Kremlin, and all of St Petersberg, especially the inside of The Hermitage were incredible. If you looked at each item in the Hermitage for one minute it would take you eight years to see it all! Also the monasteries (e.g Novgorod) and Orthodox churches, both inside and out, were beautiful. But most of the towns were dilapidated and sad – not exactly Italy’s crumbling beauty.
14. Scenery – like the worst bits of Canada repeated endlessly. If you want beauty its Scotland or Norway, if you want interesting it’s Iceland, if you want epic it’s the Himalayas. Sorry Russia but you’re not on the list for scenery, though I’m sure there are some good bits in amongst the millions of miles.
15. Overall – fascinating, some great buildings, see it before it either becomes America (will take quite a while) or becomes a no-go zone (could happen any day now), but once is enough and a week is enough. And India is better.