Russia: Reflections From My Trip

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I spent the last week and a half in Russia visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg. What a trip it was! I have clearly underestimated what Russia has to offer and here I will give my fresh, straight-forward thoughts on the country. Many of these thoughts are from a relatively uneducated tourist, being there only 10 days, and may seem naive or silly or who knows. But, I wanted to write out all my initial observations as I saw them for the first time in my life. I return from the trip feeling enlightened to another way of life.
Metro - The subway in Moscow was incredible. The New York City Subway seems like a complete joke compared to this place. After taking about 25 trips around the city, the longest we ever waited for a train may have been 2.5 minutes. This comes at a cost per trip of 26 rubles, or about $0.80, compared with $2.25 in NYC. Most times, we waited less than a minute for the train to arrive. The trains were also far more efficient than NYC trains. They actually start traveling, ramp up to full speed and stop at the next stop. This is a far cry from the painfully often occurrence of NYC trains ramping up speed and stopping 500 yards down the track and then starting again and stopping again. Also, the Moscow stations are beautifully decorated, extremely well-cleaned and without a rat in sight.

But, the amazing thing about the Metro in Moscow is that the vast majority of trains are several decades old. It seems as though the Russians have found an simple, efficient system and they just don't bother with updated systems, digital displays, air conditioning and the like. It's an interesting trade-off between modernization and a system that is old but just works.

There seems to be significant positive feedback loops within this system as it relates to quality of service and ridership. The government created a massive, well-run, efficient, low-cost metro system for the public and now the system boasts 8-9 million riders a day in a city of 10 million. It makes me wonder about the negative feedback loops in more capitalist-based systems like NYC.

Visa - The visa requirements were surprisingly difficult, yet surprisingly easy at the same time. We wanted to stay with someone living in Russia but were told that would take months to get approval. So, we were advised by our travel agent that it is customary to fake the documents and pretend to stay at a hotel in Russia. When we arrived in Russia we had to check in with the government within 3 days and then check have our host check us out after we left. It seemed like a lot of excess red tape for a tourist spending 10 days in the country. But, what do I know?

Lenin - Located in the Red Square outside the Kremlin in Moscow is the Lenin Mausoleum. Lenin is embalmed within and available for public viewing. I had no idea this existed prior to arriving Russia and I was blown away by it. Lenin died in 1923 and has been embalmed for over 85 years! There were many soldiers outside and within the Mausoleum guiding tourists. I was allowed to stop and look at Lenin's body for a total of 5 seconds before I was tapped on the shoulder and told to move along. While we were the only ones within the viewing area, visitors are not allowed to linger. We probably spent a total of 20 seconds passing Lenin's body before being herded out. I was shocked and amazed, truly. The reverence that still exists for a dead leader of nearly 100 years ago is fascinating to me. I do not think this amount of honor could ever be bestowed on any American leader. It's as if the ability to chose a leader causes half of us to hate him.

I had some very interesting talks with a man living in Russia for the past 20 years. He said, generally speaking, that people love Lenin and Stalin and deeply regret Gorbachev's decisions. Stalin is still revered as a great leader of the Soviet Union, even with the unfortunate fact that he killed thousands of citizens around him. Gorbachev is seen as the destroyer of the strong Soviet state even while we praise his openness here in the States. I was also told that Putin is still in power and he will be back in the next term. He was just unable to serve consecutive terms because of the rules. The man I talked with sees Russians as having a cultural desire for a strong leader and says there is no democracy in Russia, and the people do not want it.

Basics - We bought medicine for digestive problems at a Russian pharmacy for 15 rubles, or about 50 cents. The pills were a pack of 30. I don't know of any medication in the US that you could buy so cheaply. This may have been somewhat of an anomaly and many other medicines were more expensive but the point remains. Loaves of bread cost about $1 at the bakery. It just seemed, overall, that the mere basics were very cheaply provided.

Politics & Media - In speaking with a Russian girl in the US, she sees Obama as a continuation of Bush policy. This is probably a result of Obama accomplishing nothing yet beyond committing more troops to Afghanistan. But, for all the talk of change, an outsider sees him as nothing different. The media is still quite controlled by the government. This girl said she read from the US media that Russia was the aggressor in the conflict with Georgia. She was very surprised by this fact because Russian media sources paint a picture of Russia being the victim in the conflict.

Coffee - There's no damn brewed coffee in all of Russia I have found! How frustrating it was for me, a guy who loves his morning cup of brew, to spend 10 days without it. All they've got is instant and Italian-style coffees. Even Starbucks and McDonald's do not have brewed coffee. Perhaps naive, but I was really surprised by that. In America, a cup of brew is the most basic thing you can get on the menu of any coffee joint.

Business - The man we stayed with for most of the trip is a Korean businessman who imports Korean goods into Russia. His business has evolved from selling fur coats to now running a major boiler distribution operation. He has the sole rights to distribution to a high technology boiler system manufactured in Korea. What a great idea after experiencing the brutal cold in Russia. His business made me think a lot about the opportunities that exists between markets. Selling goods from technology-rich markets into developing markets offers huge possibilities. Yet, one of his largest difficulties lies in individual company's inability to finance the system because of the relatively small credit market in the country. So, his next business idea is to start a leasing company to open up boiler installation for liquid, cash-flow rich companies. Makes sense to me!

Hermitage - Wow! What an absolutely incredible museum! Words cannot describe how impressed I was with the Winter Palace built by Catherine the Great hundreds of years ago. It is truly a sight!
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