23.10.2012 11 °C
Snow capped peaks overlooking Lake Baikal float on a cushion of mist as the morning sun turns our watery vista blue and wakens the forest, and we are at home. When we are at our cliff-top house on the west coast of Canada we too witness the daily miracle of the sun climbing over the mountains, shimmering across a blue ocean, and lighting our tree-scaped island. It is a different ocean, different trees and a distant land, but the unvarying sun is a reminder, not of the chasm that separates us from the rest of the world, but of the golden threads that bind us together as mankind. Unfortunately, and for far too long, Russia has been cloaked in a McCarthyist mantle – a negative stereotype promulgated to this day by right wing Republicans. But if there is an evil empire you will not find it on the main streets of the Russian cities we have visited, or on the faces, or in the hearts, of the people we have been privileged to meet.
Forget all you have ever read or heard about Russia and its people. If we have worried at all about our lives on this journey it is only that we have been concerned that we might be killed by kindness. With the sole exception of the brusque customs officer on our arrival, we have received nothing but help and good guidance – often from strangers without a word of English. Of course, as we’ve previously mentioned, people in the hospitality business have a vested interest in keeping us happy, but in Russia we have been overwhelmed by people’s kindheartedness: people who have carried our bags; given up their seats on the metro; stopped to offer directions when we’ve looked lost; shown us the right bus, the right train or pointed us in the right direction.
Not everything is rosy here: we have seen ramshackle houses, broken down cars, dilapidated buildings, and even the odd beggar, (though certainly no worse than in North America). But most young Russians seem to be living the American dream: they wear Levis and Nike; hang out at MacDonald’s and coffee shops, drive Fords and Beamers, and Google and tweet on IPhones and IPads. They are slimmer, more sophisticated, better dressed and better looking than many of their Yankee cousins, and if we were young Americans today we might consider defecting to Russia in search of a better life.
If we have any criticism at all it would be the lack of English information in some museums and places of interest. This may seem unfair - after all how much Russian information might we find in a North American or European museum – however, English is very pervasive in all walks of Russian life. Adverts on television promote all kinds of branded products without consideration of the fact that ‘Domestos, Ariel, or Fairy Liquid’ may not translate. And the well-appointed stores are bursting at the seams with immediately recognisable European and American products.
Loudspeakers in the traditional pedestrianised shopping streets, (known as arbats) which, according to Hollywood movies, once blared stentorian commands to work harder for the motherland, now soften the air with the music of Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan. Musack is everywhere, but it is anything but Russian. Halloween is coming – and it’s in the stores here too - and, judging by the fairy lights being strung across the arbats, Russian kids will soon be waking up to see what Santa has brought them.
This is us at the Russian border station at Naushki and our train to Mongolia is waiting. We have many more places to visit and lots to see, but we will not forget Russia and its people. We will return one day and we would encourage you to come and see this fascinating country for yourself – you will be welcomed.
до свидания (Das Vadanya) Goodbye Russia and thank you very much.