Transsiberian Part 10 - Russian-around!

28-03-2015

We leave Russia for Mongolia. Having some time to reflect on the various trains we've been on, I'm compelled to write a small summary of Russia, given the current headlines in the media and the various news we hear on the twitters and such like. The big two issues at the moment, for Westerners at least, are the issues with human rights (specifically LGBT issues) and the invasion of Ukraine. Lets start at the beginning though - Tsarist Russia.

Some of the Tsarist rulers were quite forward thinking (Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, etc) but were quite often followed by ones who were not. Periods of enlightenment were short and difficult. Russia often took one step forward and two steps back. Witness the Hermitage and it's opulent splendor whilst the serfs suffer in poverty. When things got so bad with the Tsars, Lenin comes in and over-throws the regime. He wasn't exactly the nicest man in the world either, setting up the secret police and such. This revolution came pretty late in Russia's history and must have come as quite the shock, especially when it was soon followed by a brutal dictatorship run by Stalin. Then WW2 happens, and Russia is rocked by war and great loss. It's no wonder then, that Russia isn't a great fan of most of the world. It's had a lot of internal troubles to deal with through-out it's history.

One key fact in all this is that Russia seems to want autocratic rule. It's almost as if the Russian populace has Stockholm Syndrome. After Stalin and the Soviet period ended, we have a set of Presidents, culminating in Putin who sets about the image of a strong leader - the right man for the job. Russian people want this deep down. It's all they've ever really known. The idea that introducing a capitalist society and democracy will follow is naive at best. Putin understands this I think, and goes to great lengths to show he's the boss.

Things have happened late and happened quickly in Russia. Capitalism hasn't had that long to get going really. Russia has taken some of the best bits of capitalism but rejected others. A recent video on YouTube by a Russian graphic designer has gone viral - explaining the idea of a Russian Occupier (in the Occupy movement sense - You do see quite a few of the V for Vendetta masks around Russia actually). In this video, you are told that "western ideals mean nothing to me", and you get a sense that Russians believe that things were better when everything was united. Perhaps rejecting Western ideals because they are seen as a sort of colonialism?

I'm reminded of the Willim Gibson quote - "The Future is here, it's just not evenly distributed". Simply take a look at the cars on the road. Lots of cars from Japan and Germany but plenty of battered Ladas are still around. The currency has tanked as well. Great for us tourists, not so great for Russians. At the same time, saying someone is a new Russian is like saying someone is part of the noveau riche. I can't really square the uber-rich of Russia (famed throughout the world it seems), with some of the people and places we've seen on this trip. I feel there is a really big divide here between the haves and have-nots.

Russia, like many countries, has it's internal issues. Putin, being an ex-KGB man and knowing his people somewhat, decides the tough man persona and an external enemy is what is needed. Rattle the sabres and show that we are right and that these decadent Americans who know nothing of Russian ways are wrong. Not only are they wrong, they have strange ideals and abhorrent ideas about sexuality and family life. This is where the LGBT issues come in to play I think. Russia seems to still be very traditional, with religion forming a large part of that. There's more to it than this for sure, but it's a factor in Russian nationalism.

Russia was never really allowed an eighties. Tapes and bootlegs were no doubt passed around. In Kazan we spotted an amazing leather jacket, made by a father for his daughter so she could "look stylish". It's made from party member books from the Soviet period. Little things like that stand out for me. Today, there are plenty of things that remind me of the eighties. Clothing styles, interior decor and such. But it's a different sort of 80s. Much is being revamped, regenerated and reworked where it needs to be.

It seems to me that Russia, during the soviet period had an uneasy relationship with it's intelligentsia. The Arts, in particular suffered quite a bit. Engineering, maths and science had an easier time of it but still suffered too. The space race is interesting because their chief engineer was rewarded for all his efforts by being sent to the Gulag under Stalin's regime. I find it tricky to understand how a country can make great leaps in engineering and maths whilst such actions happen. As has been revealed though, the Russians went through many, many failures. I guess that is one advantage of a totalitarian way of thinking.

Some cliches are still true. The Russian people we've met do seem quite serious. They basically give zero fucks. It's not that they don't care about things - far from it. They just don't have similar systems to ours. An example. In our guidebook, we are told of American who, on not being offered an evening meal, got very upset calling the service an outrage and demanded a complaint form. Apparently, the train official's response was something along the lines of WAT?

Lenin is still everywhere! After our trip the Lenin statue count is at 8. Doesn't sound like a lot but we weren't going out of our way to find them. This doesn't include busts or pictures or medals and such. If it did, the count would be in the hundreds. This is all due to Stalin really, but I get the impression that Russia has accepted all this and pretty much moved on. I suppose it's a little like Brits talking about the war. We can make gags about it now and it forms some part of the national identity but we've moved on.

Other cliches that are true. There are many, many depictions of Lenin everywhere! Dill is also used in almost every Russian meal and public places are very well heated (too much in my opinion). Some things aren't true though. We've found vegetarian meals with some ease, and only idiot tourists and the police wear ushankas (the furry hats with the flaps). In fact my hat has basically been baptised now; we've had at least 3 Russians giggle and comment on it. I suspect they approved of the gag.

One thing I have learned as we traveled east, is that Russia is a federation. I never paid that much thought. I figured, meh, Russia is Russia. It isn't! Visiting Buryatia, you get a clear sense that although they are content (I guess) with being part of the Federation, they are proud of their heritage. To my eyes, they aren't Russian at all. Their attitudes are different too. I think a similar argument can be made for the United States. When a country is so big, how do you govern it well? How Russia presents itself on the world stage is not really who it is.

I've been subtly trolling Russia with my scarf as we wander around. I often wonder what a random person on the street, here in Siberia would think? Probably that it was all worthwhile and the government was probably doing a good job but more concerned with local issues, just like home. Or maybe not? It's not something you really want to bring up as a tourist, unless a local brings it up first. And we are tourists. It's really hard to understand a place fully, even if you've lived there for a while, but I definitely feel a bit more clued up since being here.

I turn my attention to China next; another country viewed with suspicion by the west. Lets hope we can tunnel past the great firewall!