September 15, 2009


Q: What is Black and White and read all over.
A: A newspaper. But Russia is RED all over, even if no longer in the Soviet or Communist way.

Today I wanted to share with you a few thoughts on two days in Russia.

When I visited Saint Petersburg (Санкт-Петербу́рг) 3years ago I was aware that this was not really 'Russian' in the same way that Paris is not really French, Berlin is not really German ... All are cosmopolitan operating to a culture that is partly based on multinational forms and partly on a dynamic that grows from the compression of so much into that metropolis.

Our present location very much is REAL Russia in the same way that Barnsley is real Britain (well maybe NOT in this case!!!).

To me Russia seems stern and cheerless, at least as manifested by the people we have met so far. There is a common thread of petit bureaucracy, or is it just some personal games that Russian people like play.

The Russian border guards that held us for 3hours in the middle of the night and yet achieved less in the way of security than a security man who watches you go into your local supermarket. Piss off Putin (or at least the Prime Minister whose limbs are at the end of the strings that you pull. Every country NEEDS tourism, and Russia probably needs it more than most. WELCOME tourists with pleasant and gentle border procedures and let your guests feel that they should be in your country.

In Sergiyev Posad (Се́ргиев Поса́д) we entered an almost empty car park and were told that our mini coach could not be parked there, and yet there was no obvious alternative place from which to access the attraction. The way to deal with such barriers is on a sliding scale from "Please nice Mister Security, will you let me in", to the much more tempting "F..k Off you commie b....r, Lenin is dead and whatever nasty Mafia man you are working for, mine is even bigger and nastier!" You just need to judge which one will work for you at the time.

I got told off in Sergiyev Posad for photographing the Iconostasis (altar screen comprising dozens of gilded icon portraits). This was in spite of having paid 100rubbles for the privilege of taking photographs at this attraction. When a man in a black dress whispered in my ear I didn't know whether to get excited or afraid. When I spotted the long beard I judged that fear was more appropriate, and even the worst cross-dressers in Leeds don't do excessive facial hair AND wear a frock!

He achieved very little, because I had already got the shots I wanted and I share these with you here. The iconostasis is my shot, and the lovely candle lit icon is by Juris.

On our first night in Alexandrov (Алекса́ндров) Juris and I went into a mini supermarket. There was no bread left (come back Lenin, all is forgiven), but Juris assured me that there was a very good selection of Beers and Cigarettes and all at dirt cheap prices. The people in the shop all looked cheerless, but maybe this was only a pre-Vodka state!

They were all simply dressed in ill-fitting clothes, and their complexions were dull and colourless, their eyes dark and without any twinkle. I concluded there were as grey and as thin as the very concrete apartment blocks that the Soviets provided for the Comrades from Poland and Czechoslovakia right through to Vladivostok.

Q: What is Black and White and read all over.
A: Russia is grey (and therefore black and white all over).

I told Juris that when I talked to Russian people they always seemed hostile to me, and that what I had asked for was too much trouble. "You want Lemon with you're tea! Why should I give you Lemon? Lenin never gave me Lemon, Stalin never gave me Lemon, Kruschev never gave me, even Gorbachev never gave me Lemon, and it is certain that Putrid Putin will never give me Lemon. Here Englishman, take your tea and I hope the effing Lemon will poison you". Juris assured me that this was not the case.

However, I am left with an overriding impression that foreign visitors are 'difficult' for Russians to deal with. Perhaps it is the many years of the Cold War which meant hardly anyone visited. Maybe it is the years of Secret Police which made it good practice to suspect every unknown face in case anything said or done might get reported back and result in a spell in a Gulag. Russians I think have too many reasons not to be over friendly to any outsiders. But perhaps Russians (and maybe ALL Russia) and outsiders are the poorer if this mutual suspicion is true.

I've got a couple more photos here to put two fingers up to this Russian petit bureaucracy. The first is taken in Rostov inside one of the many delightful churches. It shows one of the 'impromptu' choirs which miraculously appear when tourists gather in groups and when there are CDs to sell. Don't tell me NOT to take your photographs, if you are into marketing yourselves in this way, then a consequence is that you get photographed, so there!

The second is a picture of a Police car. You DO NOT photograph Policemen or their cars; so I did. After this I stopped buying the 100Rubbles Photo ticket at each site; they were never checked and if you get income from admitting tourists you MUST expect them to use cameras.

I even cheated the Nuns at Tolga Monastery, Yaroslavl out of their 200Rubbles photo ticket. But if you've seen the indecent amount of brand new gold on their cupolas and all over their iconostasis then it would have been quite improper of me to have contributed for more. Very beautiful, however, and we heard the Nun's choir singing for themselves (not for CDs).

They also rang a full chime of their bells lasting several minutes to announce the start of a service. Quite fabulous, one of travellers was moved to rejoin the Catholic faith solely from his time spent here. I lit a candle here to my father; he died on August 31st 5years ago.

After Rostov, Yaroslavl. Our day, which started with departure from the hotel at 07:30 and it is now 19:55 hours and we are only just starting back with possibly 180Km till Alexandrov .

PS: We arrive at about 22:20hrs.
PPS: The weather so far has been very warm, often bright and sometimes sunny. My new H&M shower proof can be returned unworn.

Candle lit Icon in Church of the Holy Spirit, at Sergiyev Posad

Iconostasis in Church of the Holy Spirit, Sergiyev Posad

Rostov, a delightful Russian Choir gives a recital just before announcing their CD is available

Illegal Photo: Russian Police Car (Lada Samara) at Vladimir

Tolga Monastery on the Volga River at Yaroslavl was founded in the early 14th century
From Russia [a PICASA album by RedSimon]

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