On the rails again. Current location, maybe 300 kilometres east of Moscow. The Russian countryside whizzing by my window is growing ever thinner in houses, and ever thicker in impenetrable pine woods and vast industrial lots. A river, an abandoned farmhouse and the roar of a passing tanker train. Counting the carriages of passing oil trains has become one of the things which one does to keep a mind occupied in the slow trudging hours of laying on a train bunk bed. My record thus far has been 75 oil carriages on one train.
This is my fifth day in Russia, the first two of which were spent in St. Petersburg and the rest in transit to or in Moscow. Now I’m heading over the Ural Mountains towards Yekaterinburg, which straddles the line between Europe and Asia geographically speaking. As such, it might be an appropriate time to look back at my time in the European side of Russia. More specifically, the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow.
St. Petersburg revealed itself to be quite a romantic jewel of north Europe, combining in parts Amsterdam, Paris, Helsinki and Berlin in its architecture and atmosphere. The city is one I wish to return to as soon as possible. Restaurants, bars and cafes of high quality and low price are absolutely everywhere, as are beautiful boulevards and impressive examples of architecture from all schools of European design. The metro system is easily navigable and expansive, and even if you were to rely on just your two feet the city core is compact enough to stroll through in an afternoon. Even the drivers of taxis and other cars are reasonably respectful towards pedestrians, which I frankly did not expect from a city with such a vast road network.
The city also feels quite young, and “hip” if I dare to use such a word. My St. Petersburg connection, Jasu, suggested we go see an exhibit on steam punk art on the eastern side of the city. After looking through a few streets and alleys, we finally stumbled across a whole apartment block and courtyard filled with tiny art galleries, cafes, clothing stores and a few vape shops thrown in for good measure. There must have been 20-30 of these stores in and around a building, which on the outside looked indistinguishable from any other in the city. Nevertheless, even on a Tuesday night, there were men and women of all ilk frequenting these establishments. I took this to be a sign of a very vibrant street culture, along with the multitude of street artists performing and drawing crowds in the sub-zero temperatures.
Moscow on the other hand. Well I like to think that every part of the world is worth visiting, and I do still feel that way about Moscow. However it’s hard for me to gather anything from my thoughts, which I would use as an argument to persuade people to visit the Russian capital. The 12-lane roads slicing through the city sometimes make crossing the street a 15 minute ordeal. Restaurants and cafes are hidden behind shaded windows. And truth be told, outside of a few museums and the sights around the Red Square, there isn’t much to do or see for a visitor in winter time.
Don’t get me wrong, the museums are great. World class in fact, as they were in St. Petersburg. Seeing the relics of Soviet and Russian triumphs in space at the Cosmonautics Museum made me quite emotional. Like climbing inside an exact replica of the Mir space station, or taking in the details of burned up Vostoc and Soyuz capsules. And seeing the Russian take on the histories of their wars, at the Central Armed Forces Museum was beyond fascinating.
There is also something to be said for the Soviet romanticism of trudging through 20 cm slush in cold trickling rain, trying to find the door of your hostel inside of a courtyard of a Soviet apartment block. Or just sitting in one of the gorgeous metro stations, looking at the streams of people walking by and pondering their varied lives. Especially those of the older generations, the eyes of whom reveal decades of red truths and blue dreams. But then again, these efforts towards nostalgia are broken quite effectively by the proliferation of American fast food chains and luxury stores in the streets of the city. A poignant example of which was a young blonde girl, must have been Californian judging from her accent, carrying a vast box of Crispy Creme donuts inside Saint Basil’s Cathedral, not 50 meters from the mummified corpse of Lenin lying in a glass box for the amusement of tourist.
My friend in St. Petersburg was quite adamant, that the Moscow comes to life during the summer, when the vast parks of the city are filled with families and youths celebrating the short months of sunlight and green grass. But even he had to attest, that Moscow is very much a victim of its own success and expansion. This is very much true. It’s hard to blame a city for temporarily losing its character, during a time of rapid population growth and ethnographic change driven by immigration from Siberia, Mongolia and the ex-Soviet states.
The people driving this immigration boom, seem to mostly be shuffled into various service jobs. Most of the waiters, cleaners and men and women doing hard and menial jobs seem to be immigrants from Central Asia and Eastern Russia. I won’t get into the politics of all of this, since a similar trend can clearly be seen in Finland and other parts of Europe, where service jobs are getting filled with African, Balkan and Middle-Eastern immigrants. I will say however, that during these first days in Russia I’ve not seen a single man or woman of black or complexion. Make of that whatever you will.
Getting hungry now, and the light outside is growing dim, painting the snow all grey and dull. Time to head towards the samovar on the other end of the carriage, to fill up a cup of instant mashed potatoes. Yekaterinburg is still 23 hours away.