Saturday, 24 January 2009

Westerner in goes to Russia and doesn't get oppressed fail

Oh deary me, so if one is to believe in chaos theory, tempting fate, and that film where Aston Kucher travels between dimensions or something, it is entirely possible that the complete torpedoing of the UK economy was caused by a blog I wrote some four months ago about how Blighty's financial collapse didn't really affect me. Ho-hum, probably not going to Japan now, might have to do something irresponsible in SE Asia.

Unsuprisingly, rather than our quite friendly-sounding 'the credit crunch', the Russians opt for the rather grimmer 'the crisis' to describe economic affairs - I was actually wondering if I'd missed a war or something, until I finally cottoned on what our tour-guide was talking about.

Anyway, Russia. Obviously it and the rest of the world have had their ups and downs, but I'm honestly not having a gun pushed to my head by a burly chap called Boris when I say that if anything it could stand to be, I dunno, maybe 15 to 20 per cent more evil? After all the bureaucratic blah getting my visa, it was just scanned by a weary-looking guy in army fatigues who then wordlessly waved me on - compared to the browbeatings you get on a trip to the US it was pretty goddam piffling. Even Cyrillic - surely the ultimate evil of the empire - isn't really that bad when you get used to it, just a fairly simple code. In fact when I did my first conversion, the 'passport control' sign at the border, and realised that it changed to the Western alphabet the Russian phrase is 'passport kontrol', I had a brief fantasy that maybe Russian was just English in Cyrillic. Um, it really, really isn't, but it was a lovely if particularly brainless thought while it lasted.

So yeah, a bit disorientating, and maybe it's residual Cold War paranoia but one really does get the impression the locals think you're a total idiot if you don't speak Russian and fully grasp Cyrillic, but it's been fun, albeit not particulary drunken. The latter is probably down to not really having much in the way of a posse: I can't quite work out how many people are staying in my hostel - sometimes it seems to be nobody, sometimes a filth-encursted but genial old Russian, ocasional glimpses have been caught of some super-haughty French girls. One thing IS for sure - my 12 bed dorm is occupied only by me, which is kind of a good thing, as another person might object to the measures I've had to take to get it to room temperature. The Russian approach to central heating appears to be that if it's cold outside one should make it proportionally hot inside - with all the windows open and a cooling fan on, the raging inferno of the radiators was just about combatted.

Wow, that was exciting, I just described central heating to you.

Anyway, St Petersburg. It's good; as I daresay you're all WELL AWARE, Peter The Great built it to be his 'window on Europe', ie a complete rip off of the best bist of Austrian, German, Italian, French and British cities, in order to show said nationalities that the Russians were just as damn cultured as everybody else. This he did by building it in the the middle of an inhospitable swamp, atop the corpses of sundry POWs and serfs, bound in servitude under a feudal system everyone else considered to be, like, totally barbaric. Screw the serfs, though: pretty much every building going in the town centre looks impossibly grand, no matter how banal its actual purpose - the city centre branch of Zara is housed in a sort of green glass palace that makes me feel a bit self-like just looking at it.

The sheer extent of the grandeur is actually a bit of a shocker: I knew what the St Petersburg of yore looked like, but given it got more or less totalled in the seige of Leningrad, I guess I'd expected there would have been more Soviet-style concrete monstrousities erected by way of replacement. In fact the rebuilding has been 'nuff sympathetic to the original Tsarist look of the city, which is kind of a surprise... The Hermitage in particular slightly messed with my understand of what exactly Stalin and chums were up to - it's an almost unfeasibly magnificent building, chock full of priceless art and artefacts, almost none of it Russian or former USSR, essentially all acquired with money based on the blood of them there peasants, but the it seemed the Reds seemed fairly cheery about hanging onto it all and showing off its general awesomness to the now liberated people. Essentially St Petersburg's splendour is a testament to why the Revolution happened, but rather than turning it into a shitty concrete hell, or, I dunno, flogging the art, the regime sort of shrugged and said 'yeah, but it's really nice'. Gross over-simplification, obviously, but if you can't be rhetorical in a blog then where?

So this could get very long, but to in a nutshell spent a day in The Hermitage actually OD-ing on art (after spending three hours wandering around one of the floors, I suddenly realised I'd only seen half of it and genuinely hyperventilated for about five seconds) and can confirm it lives up to its reputation. Yesterday I went on a walking tour conducted by a super-enthusiatic young lady called Katya, which was also a hoot - she basically loves everything about St Petersburg more or less unquestioningly, so got a good mix of pornographically amazing buildings now used to store, I dunno, biros, and the more crumbling, rotting side of the city which most tourists miss as it basically got the mother of all facelifts a few years ago in celebration of its 300th anniversary.

Favourite bit was a huge public courtyard in the centre of an apartment block; over the years a loose and mostly organisiation free series of locals, vistors and toruists have been covering its surfaces - floor, walls, a kids' playground - in tiny mosaic tiles, adhering to clay outlines laid down by somebody or other. It's really impressive, all the more so considering the actual buildings are in pretty shoddy condition - as if they're dead and some sort of beautiful calcification has crept in from below... wonder what it'd take to do the same thing in the UK? It's a lovely concept, I think.

Right, getting my first Russian sleeper train in a couple of hours, suppose you could maybe argue it was the beginning of the Trans-Siberian... need to go back to the hostel to see if they've finally processed the documents that proved I was in Moscow... if they haven't I might be seeing how that 10 to 15 per cent works out.

Presumably if you're for any reason still reading now you might actually be enjoying this, so I'll leave you with three observations, you masochistic twat.

There is almost no graffitti in the city, due to it being punishable by, I dunno, a stern beating. Thus quite striking was one wall covered in spray stencilled images... it was all musicians - Sinatra, Bowie, Morrissey, White Stripes, etc etc - except slap band in the centre of all of them was a latter day Bill Murray. ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE.

I saw an old man taking a bearcub for a walk today.

And finally: yesterday I had cold cabbage pie, and felt I should mark the occasion, as it's probably the most peasant thing I'll ever be arsed to do.


1 comment:

Mark said...

bloke who looks like a thumb