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back again

January 17, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m currently sitting on an incredibly slow train to Moscow from Saint Petersburg. I’ve just wrapped up another couple of weeks in Russia.

Initially I had planned to head down south to the border near Chechnya to go skiing with a few Russian friends of mine although the place we were planning on staying apparently had a fairly major problem with its sewage system causing all matters faecal to overrun the house. We thought, given the heating was also broken, perhaps we’d better postpone heading down to a region next door to a warzone to stay in a place with frozen poo all over the place…

And that’s why I returned to Saint Petersburg.

The last week has been interesting. I arrived in Moscow on the 30th but planned to head to Saint Petersburg the following day on the train.

The weather was warmer than normal in Moscow, hovering around -3 degree centigrade with about 10cms of snow on the ground. You wouldn’t have really known that though just by looking around at what people were wearing. Most middle-aged women have dusted off out their Shuba – their long winter coat designed for a subzero temperatures usually made from some kind of exotic endangered animal.

I caught the train into the centre of Moscow from the airport to track down my place to stay. I managed to negotiate my way around the metro to the correct stop before asking a group of babushka’s for directions to my hostel. As I had barely spoken a word of Russian since I lived here, my skills were fairly crappy but I communicated adequately. I wandered around with my bag on my back for a few hours but couldn’t find the place I was after. As cliché-Russian as it might sound absolutely everyone I asked for help was drunk. The only people I asked that weren’t drunk was a group of people in a supermarket who were significantly more interested in first determining I wasn’t an American and then that kangaroos actually lived in Australia.

The place I was looking for turned out to be right next door to the supermarket but I didn’t find this out from the workers, I found that out from some drunk bloke on the street.

At 2am I wandered into the hostel.

I managed to get a few hours sleep before getting up to catch my train to Saint Petersburg.

I’ve got quite used to Russian trains now, all it basically takes is having a fairly high tolerance for the smell of stale tobacco and body odour from people rugged up like it’s -75 outside. I got to Saint Petersburg and met up with my friends.

The following days mainly involved my Russian language skills getting a very good workout, lots of drinking and quality conversation. I saw in the New Year at a friend’s restaurant with about ten others. New Years in Russia is usually a family affair, much like Christmas is for us back at home. We ate a whole range of Russian food, drank vodka and listened to Medvedev’s presidential speech at midnight despite several of my friends’ involvement in the recent political protests.

At around about 3am we staggered out of the restaurant and headed downtown. After a few kebabs and a few hours walking, someone came up with the idea to head out to my friend’s country house via a Chasnik’ – a random person you flag down on the street who agrees to take you wherever you want for a predetermined price.

And with that we arrived at my friend’s house in the middle of nowhere about one hour’s drive outside of Saint Petersburg. There the New Year’s festivities continued for three days.

We eventually made our way back into town a couple of days later. As we had initially planned to travel down south to ski, we were still quite keen on some kind of adventure. I threw around the idea of Murmansk, a city in the far north in the arctic circle about 1,300kms away. We decided, after much discussion that, while Murmansk would be an adventure, the amount of snow on the roads, the limited hours of daylight and the time it would take to get there, weren’t really worth it in the end.

Instead we went to a town about 150kms away called Veliki Novgorod (The Great New City). The city itself, despite its name, wasn’t new at al, it was about 1,000 years old.

We wandered around Novgorod for a while before deciding it was significantly too cold and snowy to bother, so we settled for soup and tea in a tiny café nearby the city’s old Kremlin.

My remaining few days in Saint Petersburg involved traditional alcohol festivities, eating bear and catching up with friends I had made when I lived there last year. For the recording: I did initially object to eating bear but then gave in.

New Years

The last year

Given another year has passed by I thought now would be a good time for a bit of reflection. I haven’t updated my blog in ages, not because I haven’t wanted to or I’ve been too lazy, but because my life has been fairly standard coming and going from work and living in London.

Back in early 2010 I made the decision to leave for Russia.

Initially I had only planned to stay in Russia six months but my decision to stay there much longer was not a particularly difficult one to make. In the middle of last year I packed my stuff up again and headed to London where I hoped to find work despite the grim jobs market. London was like coming back to Australia but without the friends and family and with subtle differences like red phone boxes and double-decker buses.

Australians are also everywhere in England, most coming over between their school and university studies to take advantage of the two-year working visa arrangement. This means being Australian isn’t really a novelty or much of an advantage as many people just assume you’re in England to work in a pub like everyone else.

Without a doubt 2011 was a year chocker-block full of new challenges, many of which at the time seemed completely shit but in hindsight were crazy but very rewarding.

Having an opportunity to live in a different place like Russia which is challenging and where people hold different opinions, values and come from often less privileged walks of life, is something that everyone – particularly young Australians – should do. I wrote about my experience in Russia throughout last year in this post.

I’ve written about Russia’s emerging educated middle-class, young people that are internet-savvy and switched on to the pros and cons of their own life within their country. Over the last few months we’ve seen a ‘political uprising’ or a ‘Russian spring’ as some members of the western press have labelled it. But many of the young, educated Russians I’ve talked to remain significantly more restrained about the current and future political situation in their country.

And from what I’ve experienced the broader Russian population remains remarkably complacent towards politics and life in their country. What will be will be seems to be the attitude providing things don’t go backwards.

For the first time I’ve seen people from the Yabloko party – the main opposition party to United Russia, Putin’s party – out on the streets asking for signatures in support fair elections. Irrespective of the outcome of the recent protests, they have demonstrated a newly found political voice of some well-educated young people that are no longer satisfied with a government of ‘crooks and thieves’ and who want to be afforded the same political and democratic freedoms as their western counterparts.

For some reason this train has stopped in the middle of nowhere for about an hour, probably because the driver is ahead of schedule and needs to wait until it’s the right time according to the timetable to keep moving to the next station. Surely the earlier the train arrives at the next station the better but apparently not.

I’ll be updating this blog throughout 2012 so don’t forget to subscribe on the right hand side of the page.

Matt