Learning

7 Things We Learnt About Russia

Before we set foot on the largest land mass in the world some apprehension stirred. Having travelled through Berlin, Slovenia and Slovakia we’d already felt the presence of this huge mysterious superpower across Europe. Upon entering the bear-pit what might we learn about modern Russia? 

St Basils Cathedral 

St Basils Cathedral 

1. Apps, Wolves And Communism

The presence of communist rule can be seen in Moscow but certainly not felt. Capitalism has well and truly taken off in the capital and everyone seems to be taking a slice of the action. All the modern trends of Airbnb, Uber and electronic payments are here so visitors can splash their cash easily in the capitals bars, clubs and venues. Don’t be surprised if you get charged London prices for food and drink as a place for everyday workers this is not! Like London, Moscow feels likes a playground for the rich. Whereas, out in the barren countryside people still work the land and resent the progress cities have made compared to their simple lives that are still locked in the socialist era. The country folk can still be seen riding horses and brandishing sickles watching over their land. The scariest fact were told over a campfire was that the people of Siberia share their homes with 13,000 bears and 30,000 wolves! Not what you want to hear when your wild camping in Siberia!

Art Deco underground in Moscow

Art Deco underground in Moscow

2. Russia Is More Beautiful Than You Might Think

What a surprise Moscow was. We were truly blown away by how foreign and exciting it was compared to other capitals. The main landmarks are some of the most stunning sites we have ever seen, walking past the Red Square and the Kremlin felt like we were extras in a movie. Particular highlights were St Basils Cathedral which was ornate and architecturally unique. The metro underground features some of the most stunning Art Deco architecture and interiors we have ever seen. These were not built in the soviet era but a throwback to bourgeois decadence of the pre revolution era of the monarchy and Muscovite elite. As visual people, we loved breathing in Moscow’s culture, the galleries, the grey geometric soviet architecture and powerful sculptures of communist collaboration that can be found all across the city. 

Hitting the countryside via the Trans Siberian train takes you through huge pine forests, lakes and interesting badlands. In the east, Siberia feels like a combination of Patagonia and Mongolia; completely foreign to Europe.

The varied landscapes of Siberia

The varied landscapes of Siberia

3. Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

For all the capitalist progress of Moscow there is still a socialist doppelgänger hanging over the rest of the country. As you leave the capital inequality is rife. On the Trans Siberian we passed huge stretches of wild nature, littered with wooden shanty towns where farmers tend to their animals throughout harsh winters. It looked like the rural folk were still living in a communist country, when the gentrifying cities are definitely not! Russia is governed in an autocratic way that the everyday people dare not question and rarely have much faith in. A guy told us that cosmopolitan Russians rarely believe much of the news they are fed as the media is so obviously state biased. I asked whether he thought Russia was involved in the hacking scandals in the US election or Brexit, “very likely” was his answer. The guy was a computer programmer who had just finished a big project, we hope it wasn’t him! 

Soviet era sculpture

Soviet era sculpture

4. Lenin And His Red Army

The people and Red Army revolted 100 years ago last year and as outsiders we could easily see the same inequality happening now that prompted the 1917 revolution! Which is probably why the Russian government has barely acknowledged the 100 year milestone for fear that its citizens might take inspiration and rise up again. It’s very difficult to think of a country with worse equality especially after all the changes the Russian people have lived through in the last 100 years. For those who have a soft spot for the Russian Bolsheviks you can still see their cherished leader Lenin in a mausoleum! Yes that’s right, they have embalmed and dressed him in a new suit every day since 1924, the Russian embalming team are the best in world! If you’re visiting for the World Cup this year it’s a must visit.

Sculpture showing the worlds worse vices

Sculpture showing the worlds worse vices

5. Passports And Pretending To Be An Alcoholic 

For those who intend to visit to Russia its important that you keep your passport, photocopies of your Insurance and your countries embassy details on your person at all times, a trip to Majorca this not. The police are scary and plentiful here so don’t give them a reason to fine, imprison or send you to a gulag by doing anything illegal. 

There is a long history of bootlegged vodka in Russia and if you look closely there are drunk people everywhere. If you board trains with Russians then drinking fake spirits is widespread. Fake vodka is so cheap it’s their go to drink. But before you take a shot beware, it has been known to cause liver failure and blindness. Turning down a drink is seen as rude so we were told the best way to avoid drinking bad vodka is to pretend to be a recovering alcoholic. It seems Russians respect a strong willed ex-drinkers decision to quit and you wouldn’t have offended anyone! If you want to try a good organic vodka then check out the Lake Baikal brand as it’s one of the best in the country. Also try to avoid beers made in Russia as they use synthetic yeast that makes your throat as dry as the Gobi. The Russian Barcode starts with 460, so avoid it.

Organic lake Baikal vodka 

Organic lake Baikal vodka 

6. Respect The Po Po 

It’s safe to say Russia is a strict country. From x-ray scanning machines on shops, tubes and train entrances to a huge military and police presence across the cities. Rules are firmly in place and a huge workforce is employed to implement them. It’s crazy, they pay computer game style guards to just stand still outside important buildings all day! But the more we read about its past, the more we understood why. For Moscow, the 1990s were known as the ‘Wild West’. The Berlin Wall had fallen and an influx of big brands, organised crime and political hotshots all tying for control. It took years for Putin and his government to take it back and those systems are still in play today. From it’s wild times a culture of corruption stemmed, laws were moulded by the rich and any predicament was fixed with a bribe. Or so it used to be! There are now incentives for the police to charge those who aim to bribe them to try and wane officers off this practice. We never felt the police were an issue for us but they are a scary presence and ID their residents regularly. I’m sure the locals resent such intense surveillance!

 
Don't get caught in the bearpit

Don't get caught in the bearpit

 

7. A Glimpse Of A Smile

The Russian people are hard faced, especially in Moscow. Most people here barely acknowledged us when we were paying in shops. Some gave the odd smile but little more. Although this long characterised trait is changing as the younger folk were much more willing to chat, especially in bars. But as we travelled east to the Russian towns of Irkurkst and Arshan we found the people to be really friendly. Eastern folk in those towns are known as Bugat people and are of Asian/ Mongolian decent. Mongolians here were very quick to tell us that the Soviet Empire took a large part of Northern Mongolia in the 1930s. Not only did they take the worlds deepest in-land lake in Lake Baikal but they also purged many of Mongolia’s beautiful monasteries. The Soviets hoped to destroy Buddhism in Mongolia, forcing monks to leave their posts, run and hide or die! This is still a sore point in Mongolia because so many peoples family’s were affected by the purges as it was the norm to have at least one Monk in each family. In recent years the Mongolian government has paid reparations to families for pain caused by their willingness to cooperate with Soviet empires purges.

A Mongolian monastery that survived the purges

A Mongolian monastery that survived the purges

In a country with such rich history, it's impossible not to leave Russia without learning about it's people, it's politics and it's growing place in the world.  Yes it has a scary government but it also has a wealth of surprises for the backpacker that wants to get off the beaten path, and enough for us to return one day.

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7 Things We Learnt About Russia, By Studio Mali
 

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Lifestyle: Do We Have Time For Boredom?

Mark thumbnail sml.jpg
 

As a society, are we active, mobile and healthy enough? As a teacher at an inner London school I am worried that our children are becoming detached from the natural world and are unhealthier for it, both mentally and physically. Growing up in the hubbub of the city is busy, distracting and allows little free time to relax and let the mind wander. What's more, in this era of constant distractions, do young, and old people alike, have time to be bored? My feeling is that boredom shouldn't be defined by the time when your not sure what do with it, but more-so a time where the mind is free to think, create and learn about oneself. In retrospect, the lives of urban children contrasts so much with my upbringing in rural Hampshire. Does the modern world offer our young people the time and space to find themselves?

 

Open Fields

As I age it's clear that I was privledged to have grown up with huge woods, open fields and the seaside under twenty minutes walk from my home. As the modern world progresses it seems our young people are trapped either by growing urban sprawl that diminishes their green spaces or from the trapping of time that technology takes from their lives. This relentless journey to take everything online is preventing some of our children from valuing the simple things in life and fostering the key, and fun, skills of being a child; developing a curious mind, building an appetite for adventure and having the time to learn about themselves.

Many Norwegian parents send their children to pick fruit at the Eplet farm in Solvorn (the children seem to really enjoy this time with nature)

Many Norwegian parents send their children to pick fruit at the Eplet farm in Solvorn (the children seem to really enjoy this time with nature)

Outside Magic Lies

I started to think about boredom after reading an article citing a book written in the 90s called 'Outside Magic Lies' by John Stilgoe. The article engages us to consider the activities we undertake should be taken purely for the pleasure of doing the activity. Something struck me when reading the article, when this book was written children would have spent much more time outside, playing games or sport and creating their own fun. At no time in a child's life is this truer than in the summer holidays. I remember myself the boredom of "having nothing to do", which in hindsight wasn't true, because going through that process of being bored pushed me to spend time drawing, painting and reading encyclopaedias.  It wasn't that I was bored, I just hadn't developed coping mechanisms to discover and sustain the activities I loved doing. Arguably, in these summers of 'boredom' I developed passions that I still have now, which have shaped my studies, job and outlook on life.  

 

Chinese child practicing calligraphy every Saturday (for 4 hours a day!)

Chinese child practicing calligraphy every Saturday (for 4 hours a day!)

Woods Or The Mall?

Back to the 90s, John Stilgoe was already researching the healing qualities of time spent in nature and was arguing that both the older and younger generations should be seeking 'magic' from outside. The aim, to cultivate a mindset that seeks pleasures from the small moments in life because if the small moments give you satisfaction then you'll always be happy, boredom included. Would this generations average British 15 year old head for a walk in the park with friends? Or are they more likely to head to a shopping centre? Obviously, the answer will be dictated by where they live but also on their relationship with technology. Because shopping and consumption fuels so much of social media, young people will inherently see shopping as a 'normal' go to activity. Social media will promote their peers spending their weekends and money in shops, especially in the cities, herd mentality takes over. 

 

Going Off-Topic

Ubiquitous tech may be stopping our children from ever being bored and this is making it harder for them to define their true interests. In all the distractions and expectations that have been reared from social media, our young people are starting to live their lives through continual interaction with their phones. The downside, going forward, is that children with have an ever-worsening relationship with boredom, quiet time or alone time (which ever you wish to call it) and all the positive mental qualities that come from the minds ability to wonder off-topic, create and divert. 

 

Urban Distractions

Young people have grown up with technology, sharing, likes and social media. The later is the currency that they trade with their peers but there is a downside, students often struggle to see anything beyond what is in front of them. Do they have time to sit, think and let their minds wander? Children of the urban centre live in a thriving place but also a distracting one, advertising-filled and traffic laden. It takes a strong will to block those things out. More than anything, the urban environment can't offer young people the chance to go out to the woods without parents and connect with nature, take risks and learn from exploration. In Finland children have lessons of play time and nature time to developed tactile learning. Our city children live in a risk adverse place where parents are worried about letting their children out. This culture of safety and rules can prevent young people thinking outside the box, this video by the RSA, educational paradigms, does a good job of looking into the reasons why.

By Sir Ken Robinson

By Sir Ken Robinson

Paradigm Shift

We are living in a paradigm shift in the choices that are offered to us. Food, drinks, clothes and stuff, we can have it quickly, cheaply, ordered 24 hours a day. But all these choices are condemning us to a mindset of total engagement through the interconnectivity of technology. I'm sure we have all felt it in those moments alone where grabbing your phone fills any void. Therein lies the problem. We aren't able to be bored, there's just too much happening all the time to keep us entertained, or distracted. Intravenous technology also has the power to make us feel like we are always missing out on something, neatly defined in messaging tag FOMO (fear of missing out). We need to get our children outside, to play, and to allow them a detox from the intoxicating virtual world of their smartphone.

 

How many teenagers have sat around a fire with their friends? Or would think to?

How many teenagers have sat around a fire with their friends? Or would think to?

Being Playful

We need our young people, and surely many elders, to live in the present, connected with what is in front of them. Excerise the hands, legs and arms, create, fail and create again. Get out for a stroll and notice things, connect the dots and the consider little details. Be silly, play hide and seek, pull funny faces, speak in funny voices; it's never too late to make little changes. Surely of all the changes, unplugging from the phone would reward the most. Let the mind wander and see where it takes you....

 

What do you think?

Is technology leading us to continual occupation of our time?

Is there a need for boredom?  

What can we learn from boredom and a relaxed headspace?

 

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