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My e-mail journal from Russia and Siberia (May 21 – June 11)
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My e-mail journal from Russia and Siberia (May 21 – June 11)


Moscow: May 22, 2007


Hi everybody,

I arrived in Moscow in a hot 27 C heat with a smog covering the whole city that I could see in the morning from my 22nd-floor-window where I spent the night. The flight was tiring and more or less uneventful. I enjoyed the view from the airplane on the last stretch from Frankfurt to Moscow. I was surprised to see so many lakes and slow rivers (looked like Louisiana bayous from up high but I am sure they have no alligators or bald cypress trees, nor catfish or crawfish) Another thing I noticed was that in contrast to the flight from Toronto to Frankfurt the passengers in the flight from Frankfurt to Moscow were 95% male. Is Moscow/Russia a tough place for the female sex?  We had to wait for a full hour in the line-up for customs in Moscow Sheremetevo. They had manned 3 booths for the citizens of Russia but only one open for the foreigners although we all had paid visa fees and invitation fees, while I assume the Russians didn't pay anything.  And yes, you still need to get an invitation from within Russia in order to get a visa.

After a long journey and waiting in line in 27 Celsius heat, I was easy prey for a taxi shark. He said he was all legal and had some yellow tag around his neck, yellow being the color of the official taxis here. At first, I declined and told him I was going to take the bus especially when I heard the outrageous price of $100. However, I was able to negotiate a still high but acceptable price. But instead of bringing me to a cab, he took out his cell phone and called one of his cars. We then waited about five minutes on a ramp until finally an unmarked car showed up. I have never in my life seen a more aggressive daredevil driver, and feared several times for my life. However, we arrived whole at the gigantic hotel complex of Izmailovo that was constructed for the Moscow Olympics, which as you may remember was boycotted by the United States as well as Canada, I think, and some other countries as well because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. And guess who is now in Afghanistan? Thus times change!

Moscow is very much changed, there are many new buildings including the huge Church of Christ the Saviour that was originally built on the banks of the Moskva river to thank god for the victory over Napoleon, then torn down by Stalin and replaced by a swimming pool, and finally rebuilt as exact replica under Yeltsin and Luzhkov with much fanfare and tremendous money in the nineties (while teachers and other state employees went hungry. Such is the power of religion.)

Well, I have to hurry now because my clock at the hotel computer is ticking, although I have some more observations to share. Just want to mention that I figured out the Moscow subway system, which (if you can read Russian) is very easy to use and functions astonishingly well. I got off at Revolution Square, walked through Red Square into the super-pop St. Basil Cathedral where I listened to an astoundingly acoustic performance of a male quartet choir. Fell again for a souvenir appeal and bought one of their CDs with Russian religious songs.


I have two more minutes and want to also mention that the rest of the day I spent in the famous Tretiakov gallery and a couple of cafes. It was very expensive.  I miss the Second Cup and Starbucks.


Vladivostok, May 25, 2007


I got some lung infection the second day in Moscow but took it very easy, slept two extra hours at noon and got over it on Wednesday. Arrived today in Vladivostok, seven time zones east of Moscow. I couldn't sleep on the plane so I am feeling very tired. It has been raining heavily and without reprieve here since morning, I tried to leave the hotel to find the railway station and buy a train ticket. But the pockets of my rain jacket filled with water instantly and my shoes and pants got soaked. So I returned after a couple of minutes, changed into dry clothes and went to the computer room. I hope that I will have more luck tomorrow. It is really a pity because there are some interesting views on the bays and mountains around this seaside city.


(Continued the following day)


I don't know which version of my first Moscow mail you received, but all of them talk about my ride in a cab. To overcome my fear of dying I started talking to the driver, a  young man of thirty years who would probably have won any drag race in the world. I asked him for instance if he was driving his own car (a BMW, luckily with good brakes). He was. Then how long he was cab driving: two months and only as a sideline. He manages a restaurant during his regular – I guess - evening hours. He says he needs lots of money because his wife is expecting a baby and that costs a lot. I said: “yes, once the child is growing up.”  “No, no,” he said the fees for a birth are $2000; then there are the medications and the ultrasound and other tests. I observed that a healthy woman (his wife is 23) doesn't necessarily need an ultrasound and a special obstetrician. He said, yes, you can get it free "but what kind of service would you get!" Evidently, he has no trust in the public health system, and perhaps parents nowadays want to make absolutely sure there is no birth defect. All that conversation took place in between his extended cell phone calls, something that didn't reassure me much. Muscovites just love the cell phone and I swear everyone is using it at least two hours a day, even in the galleries that are already overrun by noisy school classes.

I had to think about Helen's observations on Russian women tourists in Egypt who seem to dress like sluts with those high stiletto shoes, net stockings, minis etc. I noticed some of these types here as well but in general they are a minority. Of course, it is now extremely hot and it must be a real relief to bare the midriff and shoulders and cover only the bare minimum. But generally it is a pleasure to see the colourful diversity of dress in current day Moscow in contrast to the drab Soviet era when I was here last time (1970). Though tastes seem to be extremely eclectic.


After visiting the Tretyakov gallery in the early evening I walked along the high red Kremlin walls (2.3km) on the west side with a pleasant green park and the eternal flame memorial to the fallen soldiers of WWII and three immovable guards. The park was teeming with people, just walking, sitting on benches or necking in the grass. Two horse-mounted police patrolled the main walkway in a kind of folk-fest mood.  Everyone seemed to be quite cheerful. Mind you, this was in the evening and on my ride in the subway during morning hours you saw no-one smile or even talk (cell phones don't work in the subway).

They say that the Russian population is declining because of receding life expectancy. And it is true that smoking is epidemic. You can't avoid the smell of smoke almost anywhere in the city even in the non-smoking section of one of the cafes I visited. Beer and booze is for sale everywhere, but so far I haven't seen more than a couple of drunk people. Also they allegedly have a low birth rate but you would never believe it when you walk through the parks and other public places. The place seems to be teeming with kids.  Maybe they have fewer computers at home and like to go out more than in Toronto?

The hotel Vega Izmailovo where I was staying is somewhere at the periphery of the city. It has a strange kind of late Soviet modernist style. The outside looks like a drab cereal box made of concrete but inside the ground floor is all in polished marble with shops, cafes, and restaurants where everything is extremely expensive and could compete with anything similar in Paris or New York. In contrast, the walkways around the area are in disrepair, although, to be fair, construction and reconstruction is going on everywhere around the buildings. Nearby is the huge Izmailovo Park where I took my daily walk-about before doing my touristing. It was a lovely reprieve from the heat and smog in the city and it has a lot of family and young people's attractions that are being used.  Some of them though have been broken and abandoned and are sore spots in the otherwise beautiful green of tall birches, maples, oaks, and other trees.


However, I have left Moscow behind now and already for two days I have been in Vladivostok, a sea city with an open character and fresh air (good I brought my sweater with me). When I arrived here--7 time zones East of Moscow--the rain poured in buckets relentlessly from the sky for the whole day. I wasn't even able to get out of the hotel, and I gave up after a short 2-minute-try, completely soaked in spite of my Chinook rain jacket. But yesterday was OK and I went for a boat excursion to Russian Island where there used to be, or still are, a lot of military installations, and just admired the changing mood of the seascape and sky from grey to sunny and a windy rain-storm on our return. At the landing, I climbed into a WWII submarine on the waterfront. Vladivostok (meaning "Ruler of the East") is the seat of the formerly Soviet, now Russian Pacific Navy. Military symbols, weapons, monuments, buildings, uniforms, are conspicuous throughout the city, which used to be completely un-accessible to foreigners. Now there is a lot of new construction competing with a decaying infrastructure in evidence. The roads, for instance, are really, really bad. I often got the impression that the drivers here are drunk because they come swerving down the streets. I jump to the inside of the sidewalk, but then I realize that they are simply avoiding the gaping potholes and/or debris in their way.


Another thing that strikes me is the restoration of churches.  Like in Moscow the shiniest, most colourful and clean buildings are the restored or new churches that you see everywhere, often from afar. Frequently they are combined with previous communist (and officially atheist) public monuments which seems like an incompatibility but that's how it is. There are the huge monuments to the Red Army soldiers of the revolution and Lenin with his forward pointing finger combined with beautifully reconstructed church buildings, which he and his party were intent on destroying as he considered them "the opium of the people". But then Russia has always been a country of extreme contrasts between hot desert and polar cold, between Asia and Europe, between wealth and poverty. And somehow the huge sacrifices the Russians made during WWII (monuments and memorials are conspicuous everywhere) and the Orthodox Church that gives Russians a feeling of identity, calling the current generation to remember them, makes for a strong nationalism that is being nourished and exploited by Putin and his government.


By his chat my Vladivostok cab driver (about my age and a former Soviet army soldier) confirmed that the older and middle generation still hankers for the time before perestroika or Gorbachev when everybody had work (though often not very productive) and people were buying the country's own products (and now 80% of cars on the road are Toyotas, Fords, BMWs, Hyundai, etc.). He also pointed out a brown coal pit on the way that had been abandoned “because they said it was no longer profitable. Everything is now only done for the money.”  He also said that life is more expensive because you have to give to the mafia. I asked him if he as cab driver had to pay the mafia too. He said yes but he didn’t want to answer my question what “service” he had to pay for. Three days later on the train people told me that the mayor of Vladivostok was in jail for corruption and involvement with the mafia. On the other hand looking around Vladivostok one can see that the economy, though in a chaotic state, is growing rapidly. Russia – I read in the paper - actually has the second largest number of guest workers (foreign workers) after the United States. Most of them come from the newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Kazakhstan... and yes, you can buy Borat here in the video stores.


But I have to stop this teaching. Tonight and the next two days I will spend in a compartment of the Trans-Siberian Express on the way to Ulan-Ude, in the middle of gigantic Siberia, being the capital of the Buryat Republic, a state of the Russian Federation. Buryats are a Mongolian ethnic group that a long time ago adopted a Tibetan form of Buddhism.



Irkutsk, June 2nd 2007


Sambaina! ("Hello everybody" in the Buryat language)

Though I like to think of myself as a linguist I learned only two words of the Buryat language: the one above and the other being baiyerla, meaning thank you. Buryat, I learned, belongs, like Uighur, Azeri, Uzbek, Turkmen and Turkish, to the Turkic family of languages.


On the 30th of May I arrived in Ulan Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic, about 30 km east of great Lake Baikal, which Russians simply call The Baikal without any attributes. This was after a 60 hour
train ride from Vladivostok with about 30 stops in towns most of us have never heard of. Some of you, like many Russians I meet on the way, may be wondering how I liked that endless ride and why I took it instead of flying, for instance. Part of the reason is because I want to live a stupid old childhood wish. When I was 12, I started life in a boarding school and I kind of liked it because I didn't have to do all those daily farm chores like feeding the cows, bringing in the hay, carrying the milk to the dairy,
digging potatoes, cutting the firewood etc., as I was expected to do when I lived with my parents on a small farm. Instead, I could completely dedicate myself to studies in which I excelled. On the other hand I
didn't like everything at the quasi-Jesuit boarding school either: the food wasn't as good as at home, you didn't have much freedom with all these hours of daily worship besides the classes and the obligatory self-study hours, as useful as they may have been. In this kind of life, the times in between, i.e. going on vacation after a finished term and returning to school later, or going on excursions or trips, were spent on trains. So trains became associated for me with a high feeling of freedom; the wind in my face, and the landscape rolling by like a movie, buildings, landscapes, people (especially girls), providing infinite food for fantasy and thought. At these moments, there was always the wish that the train might never stop, that it should roll on and on to Neverland. And that’s what I am kind of trying to relive or rediscover in my old age.

I do indeed enjoy the endless ride although the comfort level is not as good as on European or North American trains. But sleeping on a train bunk at night on a thin mattress, tucked into a clean sheet and blanket, is like sleeping in a cradle that is being rhythmically rocked by the moving train. You feel safe as a baby in a sturdy steel case. Even the creaking of the old coach structure and the sudden thunder of oncoming trains can not destroy this feeling of trusted security. The constant rocking actually works like a massage to my bad back that gave me quite a bit of trouble just before I left on my trip.


The first night I got assigned to bunk 8 in carriage 11 of train 76, The Sibiryak. There are four bunks in a compartment of most cars and mine was one of the two top bunks. I shared the compartment with another man and two women. I made a bit of small talk with the lady, in her 40s, who is a teacher, now on the way to a professional development week in Khabarovsk about 500 km North of Vladivostok. Her husband who had given her a little bouquet of lilies of the valley, joked that she was going for a second perestroika. This was a political makeover originated in the 80s by M. Gorbachev, and not remembered fondly by the older generation. I asked her if teaching methods had changed a lot in the past two decades and she said that before you knew exactly what you were expected to teach, you just had to follow the textbooks. But now you had to think for yourself and make your own plans, and that was something she
seemed to have mixed feelings about.  Once the train had been underway for a while, the lady indicated without words that she wanted to change into sleeping clothes now and everybody just left the compartment until each one had had a chance to change in privacy.


Once we arrived in Khabarovsk, all my fellow travellers got off the train and thanks to Roman, the Azerbaijani-born provodnik (coach attendant), who seemed to take a liking to me, I had the compartment all to myself for the rest of the trip to Ulan Ude. Roman would bring me a Russian-styled glass of coffee in the morning and would join me with a glass of tea and chat until the lady with a basket of delicious hot pirozhki would pass by. I would buy one of these huge pieces filled with cabbage or marmalade for only 10 Roubles (50 cents). Wonderful, Mmmmh... In the course of the two days I learned a little bit about Roman’s life, that he makes about $400 a month (he showed me his pay stub), has a wife, a daughter and a son. His son, he said, is in jail, sentenced to ten years, of which he has served 3 so far and there will be a review on June 22, but no hope of release in the near future.  I could see that he had a hard time understanding, not to mention explaining, why his son had become violent and killed a man in a fight. They often bring him food on their visits “because they feed them poorly in the jails”, he says. Roman had spent his life in different parts of the former Soviet Union. He, like most men I met in this country knows about Canada because of hockey. They mention the names of the stars like Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretsky, and others whom I don't even know, being not highly interested in sports.


Once a day on the train I would make my way to the restaurant car where they served a delicious Solyanka, a rich beef and vegetable soup with sour cream and lemon slices served with dark Russian rye bread. Generally, the relatively pricy restaurant cars were not busy, and most passengers brought their own food for the journey or bought it from private vendors of dried fish, pirogi, water bottles, etc. on the platforms of the major train stations. On the second evening, a blond lady, a bit tipsy, joined me with her beer at the table under the obvious disapproval of the restaurant staff. She told me she worked on a hydroelectric power dam project with some German engineers, and she showed me her big arm muscles. She was going back to Novosibirsk, apparently to see her daughter. She had a very low opinion of Russian men: “They beat women.” She asked me to accompany her to her platskartny (minimal service) coach near the head of the train. However, she managed the rattling and swaying corridors of the moving train well enough and when we reached the door of her coach she thanked me with a peck on my lips and I returned to my coupeiny coach.


Arriving in Ulan Ude I stayed over at the old Soviet style Buryatia hotel. The first thing you notice here is that about 60% of the population look East Asian with large, wide, rounded faces, very similar to the Koreans I am familiar with in Toronto. My very basic room on the 10th floor looks out on the main square called the Square of the Soviets with the hugest, somewhat cross-eyed bronze Lenin-head overlooking it. Lenin himself, like many Russians, had some visibly Asian features, in his case Tatar. The square is also huge, ideal for marching parades, and is surrounded by government buildings such as the Constitutional Court of the Buryat Republic and the very useful post office with its public Internet access. From the square emerges the Champs Elisée of Ulan Ude called Lenin Street, which interestingly passes under a huge triumphal arc in honour of Tsar Nicolas II, whom as you know, Lenin (or at least someone of his party) had murdered. The arc had been purposely destroyed during or shortly after the October revolution and was recently rebuilt. Lenin Street further down turns into a very pleasant pedestrian zone with lots of benches and restored historical façades, chic stores and restaurants and also a public library, which I discovered too late unfortunately as a place of retreat.


Ulan Ude was festive: the Russian orthodox Old Believers from all over the world are presently having a congress in town and you can see bearded men and colourful costumed women.  The Old Believers are a sect that didn't accept a general church reform in the 17th century, and kept on to the medieval rites customs and costumes, and were therefore persecuted. Those here live among the Buddhist Buryats who practice a Tibetan form of Buddhism and they have a huge monastery or shrine called a datsan about 40 km south of the city. I dared to board one of the ubiquitous minibuses that was crammed with Buryat pilgrims (a ride costs only $1.50) and off we went to the Ivolginsky Datsan. Although I had read in my guide that it is imperative that you walk clockwise around the complex I got distracted by the souvenir stands at the exit of the huge complex and went against the flow of the procession that came out of the monastery, and that was of course counter-clock-wise. But a lady took me gently by the elbow and turned me, the inconsiderate foreigner, around while asking me politely where I came from. Sorry, Canada, I let you down! I could just as honestly have said that I am from Switzerland instead. After that, I took my place in the procession, which to my surprise took more than an hour.  I turned dozens of prayer mills on the way (may it help all the supplicants), occasionally hitting my head against the low roof ends, bowing in front of every Buddha or Bodhisattva statue (and there are many in many pagodas), walking backwards out of the pagodas, cleansing myself with smoke from bowls with burning incense of some kind and leaving sacrifices (mainly small coins) on the boards that line the procession path. Many worshippers left actually 10, 50, 100, and even 500 rouble bills in front of many statues. Once I noticed one of the young red-clothed monks unceremoniously moving along and dumping the bills into a bag and taking them away.  And thus the procession seems to go on the whole day, bringing in quite a fortune. However, instead of money some people leave goodies such as bottles of vodka, bubble gum, packages of cigarettes, or just rice kernels, etc. as sacrifices in front of the statues. The money is being used to restore and preserve the important traditional Buddhist center that was pretty much destroyed during the militantly atheistic1930s.


There are signs on the way that the holy monk so and so would take your special petition and pray for you if you filled out a form for a fee. I was almost tempted to try it. Instead, I bought a bottle of holy water because I was feeling thirsty.


On June 1st the Square of Soviets was festive because it was the official Day of the Child, and at the same time it is the beginning of a long school break here. There were scores of school classes from the region, all of them in grand traditional costumes, performing dances, songs, skits, and plays with extraordinary skill and relish. In the afternoon, I felt like retiring from the crowds on Soviet Square and Lenin Street and move out through one of the side streets where a green restful park seemed to beckon. However, I had   tried at other times to get out into "nature" just to discover how little people here care about the environment and public places in their neighbourhoods. Everywhere, rivers and whole mounds of beer and vodka bottles are barely covered by the green grass and bushes that grow between them. Nevertheless, I lay down a little while on a clean dry wall that once skirted a now completely dysfunctional pond that once boasted a large fountain only to be wakened by a woman who asked with a slurring voice if I had a cup. When I denied having one, we had one of those inebriated Russian conversations: Where are you from?  Do you believe in God? Do you have children? (She has 2 girls) Why are you here? After a while I couldn't help asking what work she did. She said: I am not working. For that I have a husband. I slowly extricated myself and went back to the more harmless crowds that enjoyed themselves on clean sunny Lenin Street and Square of the Soviets, from where I had wanted to escape for a while.


In the meantime, I have arrived in famous Irkutsk that looks like Paris compared to Ulan Ude, with many attractive and wide clean streets. But unfortunately it is cold (possibly snow tomorrow) and until this afternoon it was raining. But that is lucky because that way I am spending a lot of time in an Internet cafe and writing this long email.


Greetings y’all.


Krasnoyarsk: June 6th 2007


Privyet (Hi),


Irkutsk is a fine city but twice as expensive as Ulan Ude, at least regarding accommodation. One thing everybody seems to know about Siberia is that nobody wants to live here, that at best it is a kind of purgatory, if not outright freezing hell. And it is true that for at least since the 19th century it has been used by the tsars, and later the commissars, to get rid of criminals as well as people who spoke their minds, or had a differing religious or political philosophy. Dostoevsky was sent here, so was Lenin, later the last Tsar himself, then famous poets and writers like Mandelshtam and Solzhenitsyn and many others. Some of the places further up north like Yakutsk have been called prisons without walls and bars because nobody walking away from these places would stay alive very long. There simply isn't anywhere to walk to before the winter, the hunger, the bugs, the Siberian tiger, or the bear get you.


However, Irkutsk, is a very civilized city with big broad streets, fine restaurants, theatres, museums, and a beautiful promenade along the splendid river Angara that is, it seems to me, three times a wide as the Seine or the Thames. Last night I walked along the river with the mostly young, jolly crowd in the evening sun. I really feel old in this country; you don't see many aging people around here. Guess many die before they reach old age.  I had some supper at my favourite cafe, the Carlson, and when I came out I could see the fireworks lighting up the sky over the river. Police kept traffic away from some major streets, and people kept coming from the river up Lenin Street (there is one by that name in every town here) just to the corner of my hotel where the streetcars, buses, and marshrutki (minibusses) stop until well after midnight. When I returned to the hotel I had the shock of my trip (may it stay that way): I didn't have my passport with me. I panicked, ran back, and there it was in the rather torn envelope under the table where I had been sitting, just barely beside the shoe of a gentleman who was now obliviously occupying my previous place. I was lucky again. I will try to keep my wits together now.


The previous day when it was cold, I decided to walk to a couple of the historical Decembrist houses. Almost all really old houses in Siberia are wooden log structures with many decorations. There is no limit to imaginative woodcarvings or cuttings around the windows and gables of a Russian house, called an izba in the villages.  Especially the windows and gables are adorned with decorative woodcuttings. Now the Decembrists, you may or may not know, were a group of young officers (and that meant noblemen then) who tried in a coup to force a constitutional government after tsar Alexander died in December 1825. A few leaders were executed and the rest sent to hard labour in Siberia by the new tsar Nicolas I. They became heroes for all future revolutionary movements in Russia. However, it was their womenfolk who made a real impact on Siberia. In an incredibly arduous trek, these "spoilt” noblewomen, many of them with kids, followed their spouses some 5000-6000 km east to the silver mines of Nerchinsk and established themselves nearby. Later, their husbands' hard labour was converted into exile, and they were allowed to stay in the town of Irkutsk, where their women had brought some civilisation into the crude wild eastern settlement by organizing schools, theatres, and concerts--something that can still be felt in the atmosphere of this lovely city.


I decided to visit the historical Trubetskoy Decembrist home. When I got to the area where the guidebook said it should be I found only some shabby wooden houses and fences. Feeling kind of forlorn I noticed a young woman who was doing the same thing and when I looked at her she pulled a copy of the Trans-Siberian Railway travel guide from her handbag and pointed at the identical copy which I held in my hand for consultation. Turns out she was looking for the same building and soon we discovered an inconspicuous note on a fence that said the Trubetskoy house was closed due to major renovation and, yes, you could see that.


Now the charming young woman was from Paris and spoke English very well but almost no Russian. So she was glad I could explain the notice and we decided to see the other Decembrist house which was not too far for walking. We found the Volkonsky house which was staffed with three or four elderly Russian ladies who didn't know any English or French but who were eager to talk about the quite interesting house and its exhibits including a room about Leo Tolstoy and his Siberian connection. Tolstoy had married one of the Volkonsky girls, and had planned a sequel to his novel War and Peace which would have fictionalized the Decembrist revolt. Another curiosity of the building is its hot house with exotic plants (remember we are in Siberia). The ladies showed us with pride a picture of a one-pound pineapple that had been grown here.


Because we had had a good conversation, I wanted to invite Virginie to eat dinner together in a restaurant, but she said she had to leave tonight for Ulan Bator (Mongolia) and needed to do some e-mailing at a cafe before that. The cafe had a lightening fast connection and that is how I found the super-fast computer on which I was able to type my last report. Virginie, by the way, was travelling alone by train from Paris to Berlin, to Warsaw, to Moscow, to Irkutsk, to Mongolia, China, Vietnam, and Malaysia where she will leave the train and take a plane to Sidney. I told her that I thought she was very brave. “Well, people think, I am crazy”, she said. However, crazy, is not the impression that she makes on people. In contrary, she comes across as a very practical, common sense woman. 


Have you been to the Baikal? That's what all the Russians ask if they know you have been in the area, and did you eat omul fish and bozi and pelmeny? Well, since I was in Irkutsk I decided it is time to listen to those Russians and walked to the bus station and crammed into one of these marshrutki, that take off on their more or less fixed course once they are full. The whole ride is an hour and 15 minutes. Although the Baikal is the deepest lake in the world (about 1400 meters deep, I believe) and supposedly has the greater volume of fresh water than all our Great Lakes combined, no-one has thought of building a city on its shore, and that is probably very good. Because its water is crystal clear, you can allegedly take a cup and scoop from the lake and drink (I didn't try though). The lake has the shape of a 1000 km long banana and is also a unicum in that it is not getting shallower due to sedimentation but actually a little deeper every year. The reason for this is that the lake water is filling a growing geological rift that will eventually rip apart Eastern and Western Siberia if not the whole Asian continent and at that point will turn into a sea. I don't think we will see that happen in our lifetime.


Although this is very interesting, I was a little (well just a very little) disappointed when I arrived at Listvyanka because all you could see was the water with a few boats and far on the other side, a long, somewhat vague and hazy sierra of snow covered mountains. But since they are so far away they don't make a big impression. A southern looking man shared this impression with me. He was the first Tajik person I had met in my life, and he said “You should see Tajikistan. Whenever, I go to my country and see the mountains I have to cry. They are so beautiful. You have to cry.” Also the guide book had told me that at Listvyanka you could observe the nouveaux riche Russians at play, I didn't notice any particularly golden boys or girls out here but rather average families. So I ascended one of the valleys that all lead away from the lake up into the somewhat steep hills. There is only one street in each valley and it is lined with houses on both sides and all of them seem to have a dog who barks when a stranger like myself walks up their one and only street. The occasional people that come down the road pretend not to notice me. You don't say “hi” to strangers in these parts. However, if you ask for help or information they will without fuss help you. But don't expect anybody to understand English.  


First there are the old drab concrete apartment buildings, next come old, often decrepit and decaying single storey log homes further up, and then deeper up the valley, close to mother nature, come the new big constructions, frequently two-storey wooden or stone buildings with BMWs or LEXUS cars in front of them, and that is the current end of civilization. From there, it is only cow trails and then a narrow trail into the woods where I relished noticing all the local as well as common spring flowers. I walked until I got tired, returned to Listvyanka and finally Irkutsk.


Next time something about Krasnoyarsk where I am writing now and which will be my last stop in Siberia. The rest of my trip will pretty much be on the train and the plane and so you will probably hear from me again when I am back to Toronto.


Toronto, August 8th


Since I got much encouraging feedback from many of you, I feel I should complete my Russia reporting although it is now two months later.

So, here goes:

Well, as you know, I am at home now and I am still in one piece, wasn't mugged or robbed, not even of my shoes as happened when Linda and I visited Peru. I had been warned by many people, particularly by Russians themselves, to watch out for crime. And on my first train ride a lady asked me if I hadn't been afraid of coming to Russia. Well, what exactly was I supposed to be afraid of? But all the warnings did make me a little uneasy, and I kept looking over my shoulder at the beginning of the trip to see if someone was eyeing my pockets or taking a special interest in me, making sure my valet was always tucked away deep in my pocket.  But no, pretty much everybody ignored me, quite in contrast to 37 years ago when I was last here under Brezhnev (remember that big party boss? If you don't you are just much younger than I am).


Back then in 1970, a foreigner on the streets was something of a sensation, and of course, I was a dashing 24 year old, who seemed interesting also from other points of view, and so I and my friend of the time were frequently approached by curious young Soviet citizens. This time only once did a young woman approach me on the train out of curiosity. She had overheard that I am from Canada and wanted to know what I thought about Russian people and Russian food, and she also wanted to practice her English. Having just started my discovery journey, I didn't want to pass judgment already but rather wanted to hear her own views.  She was going to Biribidzhan to visit her grandmother. Biribidzhan is a small autonomous region of Russia on the Chinese border that was created as a homeland for Jews in the 1920s but never became too popular as such. I mentioned to her that I heard that most Jews emigrated in the 1990s. Somewhat defensively she said that some of them returned, that friends of hers went to Canada and returned after a year because they found it too hard to get used to the culture there and couldn't find work. She also thought that Russians weren't that much interested in travelling to other countries although they are now free to do so. The young woman was educated as a teacher but works in the financial services sector now, arranging credit for her clients. She said that she likes people who are making money, in contrast to most of her fellow citizens of the older generation who think that making money is something odious, a character defect. She says that older people who say that the times before perestroika were better are not credible: "I know how it was, I grew up when my family was stationed with the Soviet Army in East Germany". She admires her current boss who is a great leader, a person who "makes lots of money and also cares a lot about his employees". She is married and both she and her husband are working but don't have children. After a while she excused herself because she had this "little vice", and she produced her cigarettes and a lighter.


However, you don't always find a conversation partner to kill the long hours on the 9000 km long train ride between Vladivostok and Moscow. So I used much of the time to read Russian newspapers, a contemporary Russian thriller (Abdulaev's Heir to the oligarch) and (what a contrast!) a paperback edition of Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago I had bought in Moscow. The latter I had read in English translation a long time ago and wanted to savour in the Russian original because it is an epic and lyrical tale which involves the whole of Russia as a topic as well as scenery including in particular Siberia and the Trans-Siberian railway of the early years. Pasternak's Russian is a real challenge, and a lady who saw me reading it said, that it was too difficult for her. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it even though I had to consult my big Russian dictionary almost every page. But then I had lots of time and this was a good opportunity to enlarge my Russian vocabulary.


Reading current local newspapers while you are travelling can also provide a pretty good commentary on the things you see on the way.  Thus one national paper had a heading "Is Russia turning into a police state?" and notes that there are nine million Russian citizens working in the law enforcement and security fields.  It didn't mention if this number includes the members in the armed forces. This is a huge percentage of the population considering that a total of 70 million people are in the work force in Russia. Indeed, you see quite a variety of uniforms on the streets, and most of them don't look like cuddly fuzzy bears: there are the OMON (Special Forces), DPS (traffic cops), the Federal Police (ROSSIIA) and many other private and government security services and bodyguards. Since Russia's population is about 140 million this means that there is one police person for about every 14 citizens. Well, what do you expect if you have a president who was for years in the KGB, in East Germany at that? I was once joined at a cafeteria table by four of these muscular uniformed guys with their harsh eyes. Not once during their lunch did one of them make eye contact with me, and I am not sure if I would have liked it.


Here is a digest of some other newspaper articles I picked up:


 The head of the Russian orthodox church in Russia met the head of the Russian orthodox church in exile (domiciled in New York) which had separated from the Orthodox Church in Russia because during the Communist regime it had lost its independence from the state and become compromised by an officially atheist Communist party. Considering the material and legal restoration of the church in Russia during the past 16 years, the two factions reunited.  Putin loved playing the facilitator of this historical and patriotic event.


The singer Lev Leshchenko suggests that Russia needs a monarchy because it allows for victory over corruption – the “main problem of our state”— and wants to establish the “dictatorship of the law” (a phrase from Putin)


A new rather weird "Eurasian party" claims the whole Eurasian continent, i.e. all of Asia and all of Europe, under one empire. Its leaders admire Genghis Khan as well as Stalin for moving closer to a pan-Eurasian empire that will be the antipode of the American empire. None of them seem to have any socio-political or economic program, only an empty (so-far) geopolitical goal to regain and expand the lost Soviet empire.  Looks like their leaders are from the Old Believers, and typically wear beards. They haven’t asked neither the Europeans nor the Chinese nor the Indians yet if they are interested.


Another fringe party is called Patriots of Russia, its leader is Gennadii Iur’evich Semgin. Their main program is to have the state take back all “illegally privatized property” and have the rich pay high taxes. Problem is that many of the superrich "oligarchs" who got their wealth during the chaotic privatization in the 1990s have left the country with a big chunk of their investments.  It is unlikely that such threats will make them come back and re-invest in Russia.


Alexander Abdulov (actor) in an interview avers that America engineered the orange revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kirghizia. He admires Uzbekistan’s dictator Karimov (who brutally suppressed an opposition demonstration) because he was “luckily strong enough to prevent the same thing happening” in his own country. He also admires China because there “they (the Americans I assume) would get whacked on their heads.”


There are frequently recurring themes in the generally pro-government newspapers like the following statements:


- We never used the nuclear bomb. The Americans did, and against a largely civilian population. So, who is the greater threat?


- When the Soviet Union put rockets on Cuba, what did Kennedy do? So, what do you expect Russia to do when the US puts rockets up in the Czech Republic and Poland, allegedly to defend against an attack from Iran? Iran is perhaps 2000 km away from the Czech Republic while Russia is only a few hundred kilometres away.


- When Westerners criticize the brutal war in Chechnya, shouldn’t they also condemn the US-led war in Iraq and Afghanistan?


- Another topic are the re-burials of former enemies of the Communists such as the last tsar’s family, the White generals Denikin and Vladimir Kappel, who fought the communists during the civil war. The famous sculptor Ernst Neizvestny who now lives in America doesn’t see it as a contradiction to have former enemies buried side by side. He points out that in the US generals of both sides of the Civil war are being honoured by public monuments. I guess both sides fought honestly for their vision of Russia or the United States respectively.


- The writer Anatolii Pristavkin criticizes the rampant abuse of children in Russia, pleads for better protection of children’s rights. He notes that the number of illiterate children has increased dramatically after the fall of Communism.


- One of the perennial themes is the outrage over the removal or desecration of monuments to Red Army soldiers fallen during the Second World War in Estonia and Poland. All newspapers and politicians can't say it often enough how outrageous and offensive this is for Russia and Russians who liberated Europe from Fascism. Taking so much offence at other (very small) countries for not paying enough respect to the fallen of the Soviet army (of 65 years ago!) shows a somewhat disturbing lack of understanding for those people who suffered not only from Hitler's but also from Stalin's brutal dictatorship. It also indicates a lack of historical self-criticism or coming to terms with one's own past in Russian society.  Not that there are no voices of critically thinking citizens at all in the press, but by and large they seem to be rare.


Anyway, after a 20 hour train ride, I arrived in Krasnoyarsk on the mighty Yenisei River and first inquired when I would have to leave by train to make it to Moscow by the 10th of June. The lady behind the glass window told me it was the 7th. As usual, there was no lack of offers from cabbies for a ride to the hotel Krasnoyarsk. When I arrived there, I was surprised that there were no free rooms left at this big hotel, something I didn't expect after my Siberian experience so far. However, the blond receptionist offered to call the hotel "Tourist" after I asked her for a suggestion. They had a room if I was willing to put up with a half-renovated one and I was quite willing, desiring just a place to sleep with a half-decent washroom and running water. How would I get there? She motioned with her hand towards the exit and said: "Just across the bridge".  I couldn't see any bridge when I went through the exit, and it was pouring buckets. Since I didn’t want to stroll around in the heavy rain looking for the right bridge, I once again took a cab. As it turned out this bridge is the one and only bridge for cars and pedestrians in the big city of Krasnoyarsk, the other one, a few km downstream, is for trains only. And no wonder, because the Yenisei River even here in its upper part must be about one to two miles wide. I realized that when later in the afternoon I walked back across the bridge to the city centre on the Northern shore. It took me more than half an hour, and on top of that strong gusts of wind sometimes threw me almost into the fast moving traffic, sometimes towards the edge of the bridge.


I visited the regional museum built by an architect who for some reason thought Egyptian design was the appropriate style for Siberia. However, the exhibits inside focus on the conquest of Siberia by Russian explorers as well as Soviet and more recent history, and are thought-provoking in many ways.


The next day I decided to go for a hike in the Stolby Nature Reserve, about 20 km southwest of the city. I asked a gentleman for the right bus or minibus (Marshroutka) route. Buses and minibuses are the main means of transportation in this and other Siberian cities and they move people very efficiently. You see people crowd the bus stop areas, but buses and minibuses pass in a never-ending stream. They briefly stop, people hop off and on quickly, and the bus moves on. Because most people use public transportation, service is good and you hardly ever have to wait longer than 2 to 5 minutes before the next bus or marshroutka with the same route number whisks you away. Unfortunately this frequency may change in the near future because every month more and more private cars hit the road in Russia, causing traffic jams called probka (‘bottle cork’) in Russian. In addition, public transport is still cheap, about 50 cents per bus ride or a little more for the marshroutka (minibus)! Besides the driver, on each bus a young, usually short, thin and nimble teenager (no uniform) easily squeezes through crowds and approaches all passengers who have just boarded the bus to sell them tickets. I like it because you never have to worry about getting on a bus without a ticket or not having the exact change for the fare. And the young people are cute and seem eager to be helpful.


I had a great day walking about 7 km on a road through the forest to the entrance of the nature reserve, meeting now and then a jogger or morning walker. When I finally reached the actual reserve with miles of trails between the various volcanic (igneous) rock pillars, I went nuts with enthusiasm and took dozens of pictures of the monumental rock formations that often looked like gigantic Henry Moore sculptures surrounded by majestic forested hills. I returned to the city tired but grateful for a beautiful day of hiking in pure air.


The next day I brought my luggage early to the train station to be free for a day of sightseeing until the evening when I would board the train for a 60 hour ride to Moscow. I visited the house of the famous Russian painter V.I. Surikov, who hailed from this city.  It has a wonderful green backyard garden where students were busy sketching and drawing. When I entered the artist's house, two ladies made me put cheap elastic overshoes on top of my size 14 shoes whereby the plastic overshoes immediately ripped. However one of the ladies kneeled down and with great care got another tight fitting pair on my feet without ripping. The house has the typical period furniture and some beautiful aquarelle Siberian landscapes of the area around Krasnoyarsk from the end of the 19th century. Surikov is famous for his monumental paintings of dramatic and often tragic historical events in Russian national history, such as Peter the Great's execution on Red Square by the Streltsy army who had opposed him. In contrast to these "heavy" paintings, the landscapes of Siberia shown here and even more of Italy and Spain where Surikov travelled, are of a light and transparent beauty. 


After the Surikov House I walked on a few blocks to the small Surikov Art Museum which is housed in a beautifully designed 19th-century single story building.  Besides some works of Surikov, it also shows other Russian and European art. Here as elsewhere in such museums an elderly lady seemed to sit in every room earning a few scarce roubles to stretch the meagre pension that seniors currently get in Russia. It looked like I was the only visitor at this time, and there were three women eager to give me a tour, occasionally quarrelling among themselves about a piece of information. At the end I graciously thanked them and bought an interesting set of portraits of Russian women by Surikov that the lady in charge here had put together. Between the two rather quaint and under-funded museums, I noticed a commercial art gallery with works of contemporary artists of the area in a modern business building with a receptionist in a business suit. The works here were modern and had some appeal for me. Judging by the attendants and other visitors they are probably bought by the new stylish upper- or middle class. By the way, young people here like the great international fashion designer names like Dolce and Gabana, Lacoste, Gucci, etc. Many girls also love blue jeans, sport Playboy bunnies, and some times wear net-stockings. I presume, however, that most of the stylish clothes you notice everywhere on the streets are cheap, Chinese knock-offs or imitations. But what do I know about fashion?


On the last two and a half days on the train, I shared a compartment (kupe) with a young soldier by the name of Sergey. Sergey is a cute 21-year-old man who spent probably 40 out of the 60 hours on the train sleeping. In the waking hours, he would go out between the cars to smoke, read a little in the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda and solve crossword puzzles. He was like some young people, a little shy and at the same time very fast talking with a rather low voice and usually averted eyes. Since my ears are no longer very sharp and my Russian far from perfect, our conversations were usually short. However, I learned that he works as a contract soldier currently in the surroundings of Moscow, specializing in chemistry.  If that means chemical warfare, I hope it means the defensive kind.


On several occasions I had noticed advertisements recruiting people for contract service with the armed forces. He said he earns 1400 roubles a month (between $600 and $700) which is almost double the salary of a train conductor. He said he had been in his home city Krasnoyarsk for a visit and had broken up with his girlfriend. He likes the music of Nelly Furtado. He also mentioned a couple of Russian rock bands and a few movies when I interviewed him with the intention of getting some tips of what Russian language materials to buy for young people in Toronto's Public Library. He, on the other hand, wanted to know if Canada was an independent country and how long it had been independent and how I liked Krasnoyarsk. When I mentioned that my impression was that close to 70% of the people one meets during the day in Karasnoyarsk were female and that I wondered where the men were, he said that they were probably working.  Maybe most of them are in the army or other security forces, I thought. And might a certain number be drunk, dead, or in prison? Of course, I didn't want to embarrass him with this devious thought. 


He had learned that my hotel in Moscow was on the same subway line that took him to his barracks. So when we arrived on the Yaroslavl train station at 6:30 a.m. he quite naturally guided me to the proper subway stop Komsomolskaya.  I just followed him through the incredible crowds that use the subway at this early hour. From the ring line we later transferred to the blue line. When my stop Partisanskaya came up, he shook my hand and we wished each other goodbye. "Maybe we'll see each other again," he smiled. 


After checking in at the hotel and having breakfast with a Dutch seniors tourist group, I decided to visit the Kremlin and the famous Pushkin Museum of Art. At the Kremlin ticket office a guide offered her services, presenting her business card. I accepted gratefully under the condition that she speak not English, but loud, clear and measured Russian which she gracefully and professionally did.  She showed and explained to me the various buildings and their functions, in particular the Armoury and Diamond Fund Exhibition which included the state insignia such as the tsars' crown, imperial sceptre and the tsaritsas' diadem and other splendid jewellery as well as their history and manufacturing details.


At the famous Pushkin Museum of the Fine Arts, I enjoyed the grand collection of modern mainly European but also some American and other art that is housed in a separate building.  They have some of the finest examples of French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists: Renoirs, Manets, Monets, Cezannes, Gaugin's as well as Van Goghs, Munchs, etc..  There was also a special show of Modigliani.


The next morning a cab took me at 4:30 a.m. through the almost empty but clean streets of the grand capital to the Sheremetevo airport. I looked at the many new or renovated buildings with the many Russian and international company logos and compared these images in my mind to the lower but generally darker sprawling buildings with virtually no product advertising of the 1970s. How much this city had changed. Yet its center, the Kremlin, and perhaps the way power is being exercised from here, isn't that much different.


Alois Stadler

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