Russia...and after

Has anything changed from your first trip? asks Olga, my St. Petersburg guide for a Dostoevsky walking tour (http:www.peterswalk.com). The bread's the same is the only thing I could think of, but I subsequently learn that in Soviet times the variety of baked goods was limited because all the shops had to carry the bread produced by the central factory. When factory output changed (and Russia has too many breads, many black, to enumerate) so did a shop's inventory. Now, small kiosks stock various loaves every day, and if your favorite kiosk doesn't have the version you desire, head over to the next one.

In these post-Soviet times (marketization is the century's buzz word) the market place is full of competing stalls. Even what looks like a single shop -- that is, merchandise under a single roof -- could have 5 or more cash registers, each covering a few meters of shelf space. There's no single check-out, so you queue, receive (goods are behind counters out of arms' reach) and pay for your butter, then queue again, receive and pay for your bread, and then do the same thing for fruit, toiletries, canned goods, etc. Probably not the most efficient system, but it works for now in this country still undergoing changes in mindset (If you don't queue for it, how do you know it's any good?)

Food in markets and kiosks is generally cheaper than in other industrialized countries I've visited, but given Russia's low salary structure (teachers earn $100 a month along with non-cash benefits), this country must have one of the world's highest cost of living, relative to wages. People have very little money for non-essentials. Petersburg's streets may seem jammed with BMWs and VWs, but the average Russian takes the subway for US $0.25, or much less with a concession or monthly pass. Museums and monuments and cultural activites are priced low for Russians although foreigners pay 10-20 times more (about $8-10 a museum entry), and there's no combination ticket so it's necessary to queue and pay full price at each venue. This dual pricing structure is common in the tourist sector. Indeed, the whole sector still has Soviet vestiges.

Entry into Russia remains a costly and real headache. To obtain a visa, one needs a letter of invitation. Once inside the country, the visa must be registered. All this comes to US $100, making Russia one of the most expensive countries for individual tourists. Those in tour groups avoid these hassles, however.

That Russia is an expensive country for the tourist is a common refrain in the industry, with Russians themselves leading the critical chorus. But since individual Russians benefit from this complex system -- charging for letters of invitation or for visa registration -- change is doubtful. In all, I found the country to be maybe 20% cheaper than Western Europe, for food, accommodation and transportation, even given the dual pricing structure.

A small group -- 3 to 5-- could certainly be a great way to visit Russia. The several walking tours I took were great. But I would not advise joining a large tour (20-30) because that's no way to meet Russians or to see much of the country save what is on postcards. And you must contend with the horror of group dynamics. I'll explain: After cycling to one of the country's famous sites, the palace and gardens of Petrodvorets, I found that individuals could not enter the Grand Palace without being in a group. I saw a collection of Americans and asked their guide if I could enter with them (as recommended by the guidebook). This was not a problem; this is what the museum expects you to do and it sells tickets inside for those who have not prepaid in a group. So I bought my ticket, checked my camera (until I upgrade to digital which necessitates buying a new computer I use the throw-away model) and struck up a conversation with the Americans. They were wearing FinnAir T-shirts, honoring the airline that had mislaid their luggage for the past 3 days. We waited to enter. Groups are staggered so that the guides can pause and comment on individual rooms (1-3 minutes each). Everything was fine until one in "my group (let's call him Mr. Anus) told me that I couldn't listen to "his" guide because it was "his" guide and "his" group. (I needed his permission?) I left this rectum arguing my fate with his fellow groupies and advanced into the Italians whose museum guide spoke in English and had to be translated into Italian, a two-step procedure that infuriated some of the watch-watching Americans who feared that a 5 minute delay endangered their day's tight schedule. (In fact, crowd flow was controlled by the babushka (granny) in each chamber, so there was little that the bit-chomping Americans could do to speed up cultural intake. I figure that any group of over 10 persons is virtually assured of possessing at least one Anus or Ana. In life situations where I have had little control -the workplace or the university?I had to tolerate ani. I've had my quota of them. The fewer large tour groups I must endure the better.

Russia has been a fine experience this time round. My SERVAS host in Petersburg was extremely hospitable, informative and kind. Petersburg itself easily has enough cultural sites to keep one busy for weeks. In fact, there is too much to see.

The Hermitage (http:www.hermitage.ru) is a museumic black hole, like the Louvre or Metropolitan or British Museum. With a floor plan, yet, it is manageable, or one follows the crowds. I trailed behind the Japanese to find the Van Goghs, behind the French for the cubists and impressionists, behind the Spanish for the El Grecos and Goyas, and behind everyone for the 20+ fine Rembrandts.

The Russian Museum (http:www.rusmuseum.ru), which groups on 3-day whirlwinds ignore, is stunning, devoted to beaux arts Russian. A current exhibit deals with the Russian expatriate artists in Paris during the early Twentieth Century: Kandinsky, Chagall, Lipchitz (whom I had interviewed in 1967 for my college newspaper), etc. But my favorite work in the whole museum is A. Plastov's 1937 gigantic canvas "Holiday in a Collective Farm." Looming over the merriment of peasants and workers, on the side of a barn, hangs the portrait of Joseph Stalin. Twenty-plus Rembrandts is one thing; Stalin on display in a de-Sovietizing new Russia, now that's unique.

Petersburg is celebrating its 300th anniversary. Midsummer is white nights, with 20+ hours of daylight which gives the city a special ambiance. Nevsky prospeckt, one of the grand boulevards of the planet, and various monuments (churches are war memorials are museums;cultural categories merge here) have fresh coats of paint, and many long-term renovations have just been completed. Little pollution in this Venice of the north. Of course, there's talk of corruption (http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0522/p07s01-woeu.htm) and concern over where all the fix-up money went, but whatever funds got used, got used well. I certainly picked the right moment to walk around this town (50 kms over 3 full days).

All in all, I'm bullish on Russia. It has a plethora of problems to work through, but with the greatest abundance of natural resources on earth, it's just a matter of time before this nation gets its act together.

A thumbs up from this tourist.

Tallinn, Estonia

10 July 2003