So now that I’ve left Russia, I decided I’d add a couple of thoughts that hadn’t been included already.
The first thing that struck me is the sheer size. Russia is big. Really big. (You may think it’s a long way to the chemists, but that’s peanuts to Russia). And this reflects itself in many ways. Because there’s so much space, land is cheap, and the cities sprawl outwards. The roads and pavements are huge, making the cities seem to go on forever, and making you feel rather small within them. In Moscow particularly, there are huge Soviet skyscrapers, adding to the effect. It’s amazing what can be accomplished with limitless space, huge resources, and a ruthless dictator!
It’s also horribly bureaucratic, with seemingly very little care given to the individual. This would be something I would notice in China too, and seems to run counter to their communist histories. I feel that I should learn more about why they are the way they are.
It does mean that Russia seems, for want of a better word, broken. Nothing seems to work as it should. Prostitution, corruption and social problems are rife. Drugs are particularly bad, especially out in Siberia. The drug laws are such that it’s very easy to get hold of veterinary amphetamines and cook them up into something stronger. That something stronger is Krokodile, and its side effects include necrosis at the injection points. Anything that has gangrene as a side effect is seriously bad news, and it makes heroin seem like the safe option.
All of that makes it seem like I’m saying Russia is a terrible place, but it’s not. Everywhere has problems, and I really enjoyed my time there. And didn’t see any of the worst side; this is just what I’ve heard from talking with locals.
Russia is also very much its own place. It’s not European, it’s not Asian, it’s just Russia. This shows itself in the history, culture and politics of the country, with pretty much everyone seeing the country as standing aside from the rest of the world. It’s the same impression I get from other huge and powerful countries – China and the USA in particular.
The food in Russia is pretty ‘meh’, or at least the stuff I had wasn’t anything special. This may have been because I was largely eating street food, and cheap food, but I’ve never heard anyone say that it’s particularly good. It seemed to consist mostly of fried stuff, with heavy leanings towards cabbage and bland meats.
Alas, I had the chance to try borscht, the stereotypically Russian cabbage soup, but I did try another very Russian ‘delicacy’, which was Kvass. I put delicacy in inverted commas there on purpose, because it’s disgusting. Or at least, an acquired taste that I have no wish to acquire. Made from fermented rye bread, it seems to be everywhere in Russia, but to me it tasted unpleasantly like slightly gone off malt, a flavor I can’t say I’d ever really choose at the best of times. I stuck to beer.
Speaking of which, the beer in Russia is better than what we have back home. Let me qualify that. The ales we have are far better, and I still haven’t found a Guinness out here, but comparing lagers, those in England are distinctly mediocre. Maybe it’s just that Russia is hot, and a cold beer is wonderfully refreshing, but they seem to be lighter and with more flavor, and generally superior. (Also, as evidenced in the Lake Baikal post, they come in liter cans!)
One thing that is weird though, and I’ve noticed it elsewhere, is that beer in Russia comes in 0.5l units, but gets served in a pint glass. This leaves room at the top, so the beer doesn’t spill so easily. I wonder if they’re doing it wrong, or we are.
But, of course, the drink of Russia is vodka. Served ice-cold, occasionally with a slice of orange but usually neat, it’s really good. Very smooth, with none of the burning that I’ve come to expect.
The Russian people are a complex mixture. Many I met belonged to the old grumpy disliking foreigners stereotype, but I also met some really cool people, who were open and friendly. Well, that was both a trueism, and a hideous generalisation. Ah well, I suppose people are just people wherever you go. But we shall see. Alot depends on context, I suppose, as most of the cool people I met were in bars, or easy social settings.
Whatever. Russia was really cool, but bring on Mongolia!