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?
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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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