Russia is beautiful
I have been procrastinating this blog post about our recent trip to Russia for over six weeks now. But today I listened to a report about the Leningrad Siege1 from the German State-radio “Deutschlandfunk” and felt deeply ashamed.
Every German school child learns at least something about the crimes Germans committed against Jews. But to my knowledge the crimes committed against Russians are hardly ever mentioned in German Schools. Maybe the most horrifying crime was the Leningrad Siege. But the above radio broadcast managed to talk only shortly about the guilt of the Germans and spent the rest of the time blaming Sowjet leadership for not having evacuated the town earlier or later leadership for their historiography of the Siege.
I am not a historian and can not say what the truth is here. But it is a shame. Why did the report not mention the destruction of cultural heritage by the German army? We visited the beautiful Peterhof next to St. Petersburg. There is a small exhibition in the park that shows pictures of what remained of this wonderful palace after the Germans were gone.
Western media is very noisy to mourn the loss of cultural heritage the Buddha statues of Bamiyan, looting in the Egyptian museum or destruction in Palmyra. But who in Germany remembers that we haven’t been any better just a few decades ago?
So dishonesty like this enraged me already since some time already when my wife and I decided to spend our vacation in Russia.
It was interesting to note the reactions of friends and family when we told them about our plans. The prejudices generally were:
- Moscow is loud, polluted, gray, boring and drear.
- Criminality and Corruption are high.
- Russian kitchen is meat heavy, heavy and monotonous.
- Russian woman are generally very beautiful.
Let me say that I could only find evidence for the latter.
We experienced Russians as both friendly and unfriendly. We were baffled by the unfriendliness of Russians when they work at a cash point or cloakroom. However on the other hand I like that they don’t seem to be afraid of losing their jobs.
But more often we had positive encounters. Russians move in the metro so that we can sit together or young man offer their place for Ioana. When we waited one hour in line to enter the Eremitage we met a Caucasian family and did not finish talking when we finally reached the entrance. When we went to a West Coast Swing party in the evening we were offered a lift to our hotel. When we searched the Grand Maket museum a mother and a daughter from Moscow addressed us and we went to the museum together. Later we arranged to meet in Moscow so that they could give us a tour.
Western propaganda wants to make us believe that Russia would follow an aggressive and expansive politic. To my knowledge, Russia has not started any conflict since the October Revolution. And even before that, Russian expansion was limited to the scope of gaining access to the Mediterranean Sea.2 We saw many monuments in Moscow and St. Petersburg that remind of the horror of war. I don’t recall that many monuments in Germany that call for peace.
Most prominently we visited the “Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad”. I don’t like the naming and the heroic style of the monument. But I can not imagine how a Russian who passes by this monument daily could support an aggressive politic.
Moscow is beautiful
The first impression of Moscow is the absence of advertisement. There is no advertisement at the train station, in the metro or by the street. I would be interested to learn about why this is. But in any case it is pleasant to the western eye and it would be wonderful if our cities could benefit from the same peace.
The streets are extraordinary clean. One hardly finds a graffiti, waste or even dirt. Everything looks as if somebody just finished cleaning it with soap. Not only is everything clean but the streets also look newly made and the sidewalks are made of something that look almost like marble to my uneducated eye.
If something isn’t nice yet, then there is a construction site to make it nice. I was surprised to see so many renovations going on. This is unusual to see for me while the whole European Union suffers under an ill guided austerity dictate imposed by the Germans.3
Granted, we mostly saw the center of Moscow and it is clear that not all of the city looks like this. However the center of most German cities I know or even Zurich can not keep up with Moscow.
And we have not even talked about the parks. We visited the “Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy” in the evening. I was overwhelmed by the view of the illuminated fountains, accompanied by music playing from speakers at every lantern.
I am happy that we also took the time for a short trip to Gorky Park right before we had to leave. In Germany one would need to pay entrance for such a park. And even than it would not be so beautiful. Even the toilets in this public park were remarkably clean. There were play fields for small children, skateboarding areas for teenagers and an area just to hang out. The latter even had power plugs so that the teens hanging out there could charge their phones.4
We visited the Ostankino Tower in the evening. It was breathtaking to see the lights of the many million people metropole. I remembered that I read an article recently about how the US military evaluates the possibilites of using nuclear bombs against Russia.5 I urge any war strategist to stand 500m above Moscow and to imagine to press the red button and killing all this people.
But we also had fun. There was music and Ioana and I danced West Coast Swing on a glas plate that gave us a look 500m straight down. We maybe hold the record of having danced West Coast Swing at the highest level of a building?
lying by omission
We visited the russian political history museum in St. Petersburg. One day was barely enough for us to visit one of the exhibitions there and we learned a lot. The most interesting things are those that were omitted in my history classes at school.
Did you know that almost all western countries invaded Russia after the October Revolution to fight the Bolsheviks? I only learned this in preparation of this trip but not at school. Why didn’t they leave Russia alone since this was an inner conflict? Did you know that Napoleon might not have been defeated if Russians hadn’t burned down their own capital? Did you know that the French Revolution was not about Liberty, Equality, Fraternity but about property?6 Did you know that Stalin offered England and France a partnership against Hitler and was rejected?7 Only afterwards did Stalin agree on the German–Soviet Non-aggression Pact.
We saw a scene in a Russian film in which two men and one woman visited another man. At the leave-taking the host shacked hands with the two man but not with the woman. I have been told that it wasn’t until long ago that it was improper for men to shake hands with women that weren’t close friends.
Many things in Russia are still done manually. It might not be bad that this jobs exist instead of being displaced by machines:
People watching the moving stairs in the metro to stop them in emergencies.
Many more waiters in restaurants then necessary. (However not necessarily better service…) Many restaurants even have dedicated receptionists.
Many more cleaning staff in the city, in parks or at toilets than in the west.
Ticket vendors in the metro instead of only vending machines.
We were surprised that so few people speak English and lucky that Ioana learned enough Russian to solve everyday problems.
If you want good and fast food in Russia try the Teremok chain! The pancakes are delicious!
Russians appear to read a lot. And they read serious literature. You see a lot of Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in the metro. Our friends from Moscow explained us that the Russian school curriculum includes a lot of literature reading and mother and daughter had an intense discussion whether this would actually be a good thing or whether school should rather concentrate on stuff that helps to get a job.
We saw a small demonstration in memory of the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt.8 There are a not a few Russians who think that it would have been better for their country had the attempt been successful.
I drank tap water in Moscow and St. Petersburg daily and liked it.
The Grand Maket in St. Petersburg is interesting. But unlike the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg it lacks almost all humor. Also it is annoyingly patriotic.
The receptionist in our Hotel in Moscow was surprised that we had not received a document about our stay in the Hotel in St. Petersburg. He informed us that we could be fined when we leave the country if we can not provide a complete documentation of where we stayed in Russia. However at the airport nobody asked us about this. YMMV. IANAL.
In Peterhof there are attendants everywhere and they whistle if you dare to leave the path or climb a balustrade to make a picture. Just imagine how western parents would react if an attendant would dare to whistle because a child misbehaves! In the Kremlin you have the honor of being whistled by the police instead of just attendants.
In western cities you see a kind of vandalism called love locks that damages bridges. Moscow found a nice solution to the problem by providing metalic trees where lovers can put their lock and an attendand who takes care that the locks are not put anywhere else. We counted more than 10 trees completely covered with locks.
I hope we will have the occasion to come back to Russia and that I will eventually learn Russian.
“Zweiter Weltkrieg - Als die Blockade von Leningrad begann” by Robert Baag; link omitted on purpose.↩
To my knowledge, it was the CIA who first sponsored the mujahideen and its leader Osama bin Laden in Operation Cyclone and thus forced the USSR to get involved in this conflict that happened directly at its border.↩
The currently missing investments needed just to maintain the current German infrastructure is estimated to be at least 100 billion Euros. Public schools alone miss over 30 billion to not degrade further.↩
I definitely don’t approve how teenagers are made dependent of their phones. But I am still impressed by the facilities that are offered for free.↩
(The Telegraph: “Stalin ‘planned to send a million troops to stop Hitler if Britain and France agreed pact’”)[http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/3223834/Stalin-planned-to-send-a-million-troops-to-stop-Hitler-if-Britain-and-France-agreed-pact.html] 18 Oct 2008↩