Impressions of Russia

My wife and I spent last week in Russia, giving some lectures at the New Economic School and the International College of Economics and Finance and touring Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Here are some of the things I saw that surprised me.

Moscow may have the world’s best subway system. You can get anywhere in the sprawling city very quickly, and if you miss the train, another will be along in just a few minutes. I don’t recommend it during rush hour, but it provides the average resident with cheaper and more effective transportation than can be found in other cities I have visited.

On most U.S. subways, you will see signs or hear recorded announcements declaring that solicitation is strictly prohibited, but nonetheless will frequently find yourself asked for money. That doesn’t happen in Russia, and indeed I didn’t see homeless people anywhere in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. I was told that if you don’t have a job, the government will get you one, and suspect that the mentally unstable men who can be found on the streets of every American city would be in an institution somewhere in Russia. The only supplicants that appear to be tolerated are old women sitting or kneeling on sidewalks, pathetically holding small religious pictures. I may have seen a dozen of these as we walked around.

An American is struck by the labor intensive way things get done in Moscow. Crews to complete even the simplest tasks require a half-dozen people, for at least one of whom the job description seems to be to watch the others. The business room and fitness room in hotels each have a full-time staff member waiting to assist you, and at a modest bakery two people stood ready to relay my order to two cashiers who in turn instructed two others to get the food.

Guards are everywhere in Moscow (less so in Saint Petersburg), watching as you put your card in the subway turnstile, making sure you don’t try to go up blocked-off stairs, preventing you from using an unauthorized entrance. A small fleet of police buses appears to be permanently parked off Red Square, prepared to assist any protesters who might assemble to find their way to the police station.

Outside of the cities, the countryside looks very poor as one looks through the train window– little evidence of prosperity or industry, but lots and lots of mud, through which people make long trudges in order to get to a train that can carry them someplace where work is being done.

I also saw many monuments celebrating military sacrifices and victories, all defensive battles protecting or retaking Russian cities from attacks by foreign forces, such as liberation from Polish-Lithuanian rule in 1612, repelling Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, and Hitler’s horrific siege of Saint Petersburg in 1941-44, the latter still within the living memory of some still alive in Russia today.

We saw two ballets, both written in the Soviet era. Spartacus at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow is loosely based on a slave rebellion against the Romans in 73 B.C., while Laurencia at the Mikhailovsky Theater in Saint Petersburg depicts young lovers in a Spanish community oppressed by a local tyrant. In each ballet the artists express through dance their suffering under authoritative regimes and longing for freedom and better days, which an American might suppose captures some of the current sentiment in Russia. But I was told that Russian audiences today would see these productions in exactly the same context as the Soviets intended when they were first written and performed, and for which Spartacus received the Lenin Prize in 1954– as celebrations of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

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11 thoughts on “Impressions of Russia

  1. jonathan

    My Russian friends say you need a residence permit to live in Moscow/St. Petersburg and that is used to push the homeless (and “undesirables”) out and into the hidden background. Without a permit, you can’t legally work and I believe you can’t get official benefits either.

  2. 2slugbaits

    Comrade JBH We saw two ballets…

    What? So Pussy Riot was headlining that night?

    Outside of the cities, the countryside looks very poor as one looks through the train window– little evidence of prosperity or industry, but lots and lots of mud, through which people make long trudges in order to get to a train that can carry them someplace where work is being done.

    I’m a little bit surprised by this because you always think of Russian agriculture as being capital intensive, with more tractors on your daddy’s farm than workers.

    1. Hans

      “What? So Pussy Riot was headlining that night?”

      Bug, I just blew coffee out of my nose and mouth!

  3. MrGotham

    “An American is struck by the labor intensive way things get done in Moscow. Crews to complete even the simplest tasks require a half-dozen people, for at least one of whom the job description seems to be to watch the others. ”

    Actually sounds like just about any public sector undertaking in NYC.

    1. Brett

      I initially thought that might be related to the “no beggars on the subway because the government will find you a job” thing, but if they’re just kicking the homeless out of the city then maybe not. It’s probably just inefficiency and lots of poor laborers from the former Soviet republics.

      IIRC Russia’s a pretty “low trust” society, which might explain how there’s always somebody monitoring things.

  4. Steven Kopits

    Just what I was thinking.

    Some comparative stats.

    NATO vs Russia:

    Population: 6:1
    GDP: 16:1

    Not my Daddy’s Soviet Union, as my children might say.

  5. Bruce Hall

    Well, that subway system hardly represents anything about the Russian economy which has a per capita GDP of less than 1/3 the U.S. and a bit less than Uruguay. It does typify how wealth gets concentrated in the national seat of government. If you go outside of Moscow or Washington D.C., and find a secluded spot, you will be able to hear the giant sucking sound of the federal government extracting wealth from the nation. And monuments? You have to be careful where you walk in D.C. or you might bump your forehead at the foot of some monument.

    歌舞伎

    1. Steven Kopits

      Historically, communist states were good at things related to “mass”, as in mass transportation. It’s not only good in Moscow, it’s good through-out Eastern Europe, including Budapest. (Here’s the new metro in Budapest, by the way: http://gizmodo.com/the-new-budapest-metro-line-is-an-awesome-psychedelic-t-1553677166)

      On the other hand, roads and parking are usually substandard in the east.

      And I’d add, purely gratuitously, that nowhere in Europe can they make a decent frozen cocktail. That’s another thing America leads in.

  6. randomworker

    I could have written almost the exact same post after my 2 weeks in the Soviet Union in 1975. I am shocked at how your observations remain relevant to my own almost 40 years later. I am sure the Moscow skyline looks different. But otherwise?

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