Friday, 30 January 2009

Like a stranger in Mockвa

Here are some fun facts about Russia, mostly derived from my time in well-known capital city Moscow.

1. Russians don't speak other languages, but seem to believe that if they speak to you loudly and slowly enough in Russian, you'll somehow understand them.

I mean, really.

2. Moscow's city centre was a UNESCO world heritage site until the 1960s, but then it got disqualified.

It is amazing it took as long as it did. Back in yon days of Stalin, he had the main cathedral demolished so as to make way for a huge palace of communism that would have a 100ft high statue of Lenin on top. This obviously doesn't exist - you'd have seen a picture or summat - nope, it was deemed physically impossible by basically everybody, so being a prosaic type Stalin built an outdoor swimming pool instead. That stuck around for some 50 years, before Yeltzin decided to shell out something like $800m to demolish the by now very popular public swimming pool and replace it with an EXACT REPLICA of the original cathedral. That is how Moscow 'works'.

3. Russians do not believe winter to be an inappropriate time for the consumption of icecream.

It is big business.

4. Any Moscow guidebooks more than a week old are basically useless.

On an instructive but technically fruitless search for some internet cafes and bars recommended in my TWO guidebooks, I discovered they'd all have been replaced by garish new clothes shops. This was a particular shame, as one internet cafe, The Phlegmatic Dog, got voted best in the world by some Yahoo survey or other. Probably because of the name. It has been turned into a Burberry store or something, which just goes to show that in this uncertain age, even a Yahoo poll can't protect you. The only buildings not in constant flux are those in the Kremlin and the crumbling relics of the post-Medieval/pre-Soviet days. These will probably fall down eventually anyway, as Moscow's limited remaining number of nice buildings are the subject of an epic wrangle-athon between federal and local governments, both attempting to suggest that it is the others' responsibility to fix. Sigh.

5. Moscow is missing about three centuries.

Sort of following on from the above point: if St Petersburg entirely embodies the Tsarist glory years to the extent that in places you'd barely realise the Soviet era had happened, Moscow has the aforementioned crumbling ruins of that era, lots and lots and lots of concrete 20th centurey awfulness, and - in the Kremlin at least - a bunch of churches that feel kind of alien, they're so epically old. Musty, mystic, beautiful Orthodox places, full of centuries' old icons and frescoes of unfathomable Biblical scenes, they feel ancient and mystic in a way Western churches don't.

6. As with most of our ribbing of American pronunciations, the British assumption that it's proncounced Mos-co rather than Mos-cow is based solely on the belief that we are British ergo we are correct.

If you say either pronunciation to an actual denizen of Moscow they will look at you with a mix of anger and pity. If you say Mockвa (that's 'Moskva') they will look at you with a mix of anger and pity but at least understand what you are saying, though they might pretend they don't.

7. Yes, you really can see Lenin's corpse.
It's all a bit odd. There's a well-seasoned conspiracy theory as says it's just a wax figure... certainly he looks kinda waxy, but I'd argue that a) whatever embalming process might be required to make a 92 years dead Marxist icon (sans brain - it was scooped out for study, underwent 40 years of analysis to find out what made him so awesome... they didn't find owt) not look like some sort of horrible puddle of leftover takeaway probably does SOMETHING pretty unusual to the texture of flesh, and that b) what with Communism not really being with us these days, the exact merits of continuing to fool the dwindling (and non-paying) crowds into believing a waxwork is the real deal are pretty questionable, whereas I can more imagine Putin and co's line of thought being "well, we've got this dead Lenin here, might as well make use of him". I dunno, the actual tomb he's in is very atmospheric, a sort of dark marble pyramid, but the body... I dunno, it looks like him, but the fact is Lenin ended in 1921, you don't really feel you're in his presence, real body or no, he's a simulacrim.

8. The Russian Metro is AWESOME
Not the free newspaper, of course. I wouldn't want to pass any comment on the free newspaper. Nope, the undergound system in both Saint Petersburg and Moscow is frickin' incredible - it's, like, a mile minimum between stops, trains come every two minutes and blitz forward at an insane pace, and the stations are all made out of granite and marble, meaning that they never need to be shut down for maintainance due to their epic durability.

9. Russian food = meh
After the increasingly weird stuff we ate in the Baltics, I was maybe expecting the Russians to take things even further - animated dill dumplings the size of three carthorses, dunked in a river of quivering lard. Nah. They're into pancakes. And not in a good way.

10. Continued oppression fail on my behalf
Haven't been stopped by the police once. Feel brutally rejected. Saw an American tourist posing for a photo with two cops the other day. THEY WERE SMILING. FFS.

Bonus fact (can't be having an 11 point list): middle-aged women are employed exceptionally well here. At the Hermitage every single room had one sitting balefully in a chair making sure you didn't wreck shit up; they man all the Metro kiosks; every carriage on the Trans-Sib comes with one. I sort of wonder what they do before reaching middle-age. Maybe they wait, hopefully.

If you're still with me dear reader, I'll give a quick summary of how things stand now, as I'm not going to do a whole blog about the first train journey I took, given there's a four day one just around the corner. The journey was okay. Met a couple of brothers from Sheffield by the names of Louis and Joe, who are actually on exactly the same tour itinerary as me. They're kind of hippies and a fair bit younger than me but they're nice guys and it's definitely very much appreciated having a couple of drinking buddies/people to experience the insane cold/deal with the inevitably arse-clenching culture shock of China with. I guess I'll be with them for the next two weeks or so. The highlight of our piffling 25 hour train from Moscow to Yekaterinburg (from whence I am writing this) was getting involved in some sort of vodka drinking bout in the restaurant car with a very strange man called Andrey. He spoke to us vigorously and incomphrehensibly for a good 15 minutes, completely unphased by our lack of Russian, before suddenly coming out with "ah, English? WHAT YOU SAY 'BOUT MY MOTHER?" It was pretty amazing, we were naturally laughing at him, but deliberately or not, the only line of English he appeared to know was a mercilessly terse distillation of British humour. He did get borderline threatening when we decided to go to bed - me and Joe were so pissed we continued to find it hilarious, but Louis (who'd abstained from the bulk of the vodka) was a little concerned he might, y'know, knife us or something. But it doesn't really matter, as we never saw him again and all lived happily ever after.

PS Apropos of nothing, but I've been watching a bit of BBC World since staying in hotels for the 'tour' part of this trip, and there's one amazing advert for South Africa that is possibly the most horribly bathetic thing ever. Some really posh chef or something is going on about how she loves the food in South Africa, and then po-facedly drops in a plug for her new recipe book: "it's called A Taste Of Freedom. It's a biography of Nelson Mandela, but with recipes". I mean. Wow. But hilarious, of course.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Please bear this in mind if you're considering taking any Chinese buses: