Random notes on Russia

As I wind up my last few days in the Russian Far East, I’ve compiled a short list of odd things I’ve noticed:

Elevator confusion

In my elevator at the hotel in Vladivostok, I couldn’t find my floor number (9). It took me a minute, and then I realized why. The numbers went up and down, rather than across.

For example, I was expecting this:

9 10
7 8
5 6
3 4
1 2

But instead, they went like this:

6 12
5 11
4 10
3 9
2 8
1 7

Obviously not a big deal, but enough to temporarily confuse me, which isn’t hard to do.

You talking to me?

Pretty much every conversation between two men speaking Russian to each other sounds like an argument to the death. Sometimes it is. Other times it’s just someone ordering soup at a restaurant.

Also, though I surely don’t speak Russian, I definitely have noticed that the Russian Far East accent is far more pleasing than the Moscow accent, which has a sneering sound to my ear.

And we’re on!

For some reason I truly don’t understand, I’ve been interviewed on TV at least four times and radio once. It’s very humbling, but I’m baffled by the attention. It’s also slightly embarrassing when I’m asked questions I have no idea about, like my impressions of Russian media or who I think was at fault for a recent Russian-Georgian conflict. I’m honest and say that I don’t know, but I feel kind of sheepish.

I’ll have the borscht to go

Granted, my introduction to Russian cuisine was airline food, so that’s not a fair assessment, and when I’ve eaten at a Russian home, the fare has been very good. But, I would not put Russia on any culinary must-do lists. Maybe I’m still smarting from the breakfast buffet at my Vladivostok hotel, which featured such morning delights as eel, kim chi and eggplant soup.

Of course, I’ve also had some real delights, including banana crepes with chocolate, beef stroganoff, black rice with seafood and some of the best sweet and sour pork I’ve ever had.

Green means go; Yellow means go faster; Red means whatever you want it to mean

In Vladivostok, at least, traffic lights seem to be a luxury provided to few intersections. And even those that have them seem to use them more for decoration than for practical use, at least judging by the reaction of drivers. It’s as if they are mere guides or suggestions, rather than actual laws. In Khabarovsk, it seems they are both more prevalent and binding.

Rules are for breaking

All in all, I’m struck by what seems to be a culture of rules, few of which are followed. Could this be a holdover from Soviet times? I don’t know.

More observations — and photos — to come.

The Russian People

For most of my travel through and around Vladivostok, I’ve relied on Volodya the driver. Manning a white Toyota Land Cruiser, he cuts a direct and forceful path through the traffic here.

I would describe Volodya two ways. First, he looks like Béla Károlyi, the gymnast coach from Romania. He coached Nadia Comăneci and Mary Lou Retton, amongst others.


Anyway, Volodya looks like Bela. But he’s silent. Utterly silent. And expressionless. For three days, I barely heard a “da” or “net.” Until yesterday.

Yesterday, he suddenly spew forth several paragraphs of Russian in one gigantic outburst. It’s as if he saves up all his words for a month or two and then lets them out only when they’ve reached a critical mass.

The Russian journalism professor who was with me said Volodya was talking about his upcoming weekend off and how he would be spending it alone the woods killing birds. Then Volodya laughed.

High heel flat tummies

On the other end of the spectrum are the many Russian girls who seem to be entirely focused on looking beautiful — and most succeed. In my classes, for example, many — if not most — wear high heels and makeup. They seem determined not to turn into the stereotypical Russian babushkas.

My class
My class

A friend of mine terms these girls — who fawn over each other in a curious sort of way — high heel flat tummies. It’s a pretty good description. All I can say is, I hope the Russian boys deserve them!

Above is a picture of the students in my class. In many respects, they’re the same as the students I teach in America. Some are interested, some are not. Some try to hide that they are playing on their cell phones, others take overly extended bathroom breaks. But, they are a fun bunch and I’m glad to have the chance to spend some time talking multimedia journalism with them.

To Red Square, comrade!

My itinerary called for a 12-hour layover in Moscow, which I was actually rather pleased about. I figured that would give me enough time to leave the airport and sojourn to Red Square, which is exactly what I did. After checking my large bag, I toured the airport in search of lockers to stash my two heavy carry ons. Unfortunately, I found none and resolved to lug them around the city. Heck, it would give me a nice workout anyway.

As is often the case, the airport was about 40 miles outside of town. I was advised that Moscow traffic is terrible and that I’d be best served taking an express train downtown. Indeed, I found the AeroExpress train waiting outside the airport, promising a swift 45-minute trip to the city, from where I could take a subway to Red Square.

Aeroexpess Train
Red train to Red Square

I stepped onto the platform with my roundtrip ticket (500 rubles, or about $15) and set my bags down on the wet ground. Within 20 minutes, a long red train pulled up to the platform. I stepped in and plopped down into one of the poorly cushioned seats.

The train, like much of Russia, struck me as a strange amalgamation of Soviet and capitalist thinking. It’s like the commercial, “You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” only here it’s “you got capitalism in my communism!”

Example 1: The airport was clearly built with large, visually heavy concrete blocks, but now there’s an effort underway to cover the concrete with a Gehry-esque draping of mirrored windows flowing in and out like falling fabric.

Example 2: The train is quite spartan with hard surfaces designed for easy cleaning. And yet at each end hangs a “SAMSUNG LED!” TV playing a loop of highly produced commercials for Radisson hotels, luxury cars and other consumer goods.

In Moscow

The ride into Moscow was uneventful and I enjoyed looking out the window at the forests, dilapidated buildings, train yards and such. When we finally pulled into the Moscow station, I found my way to the subway and then a map of Moscow.

Staring at the map, I realized I had (a) no clue where I was and (b) no idea how to get where I wanted to go.

I stood there for a few minutes, waiting for someone else to step up to the map too, hoping I could buttonhole him/her and get some answers. Sure enough, a young man stepped up and I was able to pantomime “here,” eliciting a finger pointing at one station on the map. Then I said, “Kremlin?” and got another finger on the map. Problem solved.

The ticket dispensing machines offered English as an option, so set with my two-trip pass, I entered the bowels of Moscow. As in Prague, the subway stations highlight some of the best and worst of the former Soviet bloc.

Each station features tall ceilings, ornate decorations, granite walls and other luxurious elements, as if they wanted the station to be featured in a special mass transit issue of “Architectural Digest.” And yet at the same time, the lights, housings for cleaning equipment, small security sheds and other elements were devoid of any style, grace or design. Yellow fluorescent lights, exposed conduits, sheet-metal sheds — all bespoke of a “fuck it” mentality that strikes me as coming out of the latter half of the Soviet period.

Once the subway trains arrived, I realized I had made a fatal flaw in my quizzing of my map companion. Although I knew which station I needed to go to, I had no idea which train would take me there. As trains on both tracks arrived simultaneously, I figured I had a 50-50 chance to pick the right one. So I turned left and hopped on board.

Naturally, it was the wrong train.

Don’t Be (Red) Square

When I finally got turned around and made my way to the Red Square station, I stepped out into the warm damp air and looked around. All around me where stalls of trinket vendors hawking everything from fur hats to decks of cards to nesting dolls and more.

I couldn’t see any buildings that shouted “Red Square” to me, so I began wandering about. As I walked, I saw someone dressed as Shrek, a giant Spongebob Squarepants and plenty of hot dog vendors. Then, almost by accident, I looked to my left and saw through an archway the unforgettable St. Basil’s Cathedral.

St. Basil's Cathedral
St. Basil's Cathedral

Walking through the Kremlin’s gates, I found myself remembering countless spy movies shot at this location. The looming brick buildings, the beautiful twisting domes, the Lenin Mausoleum — it looked at once familiar and utterly foreign.

I could imagine military parades and freezing winter nights on this spot, but as I walked about, it was full of people — and about a dozen wedding parties with brides in flowing white gowns and grooms in shiny gray suits — milling about under a warm overcast sky.

Once again I was taken aback at the strange combination of Soviet and western icons. To the right was Lenin’s tomb. To the left, cafes and luxury stores, including a Hermes shop.

After about two hours of wandering and enjoying the Kremlin’s beauty, I bought a few souvenirs and headed back to the airport. Tired, sweaty, and hungry, it was time to try to get some rest before taking the next leg of my flight.

En Route to Russia

There’s nothing like a trip to the other side of the planet to get me to update my blog. This time, I’m headed to Vladivostok, the one-time home to the USSR‘s Pacific Fleet. (Actually, I’m already here, but am behind on posting, so…)

Anyway, I’m here to do a week of teaching (followed by a few more days in nearby Khabarovsk). I’m teaching journalism students in both cities, as well as meeting with some local journalists. The purpose is to provide some insights into American journalism and what’s happening online. Ironically, many Americans are wondering the same thing!

Heading East… Far East

I left Friday evening and my journey took me the “long way” to Vladivostok. Instead of flying west, I headed east, landing first in Moscow. Consistent with my findings as I’ve traveled abroad in recent years, all of the signs were in both the local language and English. Although this is certainly useful, I can’t help but feel a twinge of embarrassment. For one, the proliferation of English signage suggests both a culture creep and an expectation of catering that feels a little, well, obnoxious. Second, I know how few signs in America offer anything other than English. It seems to be a double standard that would do little to increase American likability.

That said, I was grateful for the signs, especially in Moscow airport when I spotted one that directed everybody — except those from Kazakhstan — to the immigration agents. The Kazakhs were redirected down a set of stairs to Lord only knows where. Those poor people get no respect.

Anyway, I’m keeping my posts short on this trip. My goal is to post a few short bits a few times a day. More to come.