Sins of the fathers

  • 2000-03-09
  • By Philip Birzulis
Home from a trip through Russia's heartland, Philip Birzulis reflects on how the Baltics differ from the Big Bear.

In the beginning was the word, and the word was Marxism. And the word was so great they stuck statues of its greatest profit on a pedestal in every town across one sixth of the Earth's surface.

There is no USSR to go back to any more, and a first glance at a Baltic city might make you wonder whether there ever was one. No more Lenins hailing a taxi, no more October Revolution Streets to explore. The face lift in this part of the world has been thorough indeed.

In January and February this year, I had the pleasure of visiting Siberia. My reasons for going were a mixture of business and pleasure, but I also went curious to find answers to a question: divorced for just 10 years, how different is Latvia, which I have called home for the past five years, from the Great Motherland to which it was attached for 50 years?

On the surface, the first impression is that the two places are almost incomparable, because that cosmetic surgery that touched up the Baltics has not even grazed the cheek of Russia. There, in every main square Vlad the Hailer still stands in all his copper-toned glory. The choice of street names is still absolutely pre-glasnost, ranging from Lenin Avenue to Marx prospect to my personal favorite, Street of the Proletarian Dictatorship, in Krasnoyarsk, Central Siberia. The wall-murals exhorting workers that "We are on the road to Communism!" still stand, although they need a coat of paint and its doubtful many of the toilers believe the message any more.

But under the surface, both the Baltics and Russia are heading in the same positive direction, although the latter is doing it at a considerably slower pace. In fact, many aspects of life in Russia, such as the service and availability of goods in shops, the way people dress, the cars they drive, is all reminiscent of the Riga I found five years ago. My hope is that in the next five years they catch up to where we are now, and we are even further down the path of civilization.

Russia the beautiful

One Soviet relic that neither the Baltics nor Russia will get rid of for quite a while are the disgustingly ugly and generally disgusting buildings built on a titanic scale. I made the mistake of expressing this opinion loudly to a good friend in Krasnoyarsk, who shot back by asking whether architecture from the 60s and 70s is any less hideously ugly in the West. A question to which the answer is clear, except that for 70 years Russia lived under an ideology which went all the way in abandoning human-scale and deep-rooted traditions.

But Russians are slowly rediscovering their heritage in surprising ways. The center of Krasnoyarsk, a city which has managed to keep a fair share of its pre-revolution buildings, is decorated with exquisite sculptures from Russian mythology, carved out of blocks of ice. The loving attention that has gone into these works of art seems all the more poignant because, come the spring, they'll be gone forever.

Of course, the natural beauty of Russia is something the central planners couldn't create in their own shabby image either. Endless forests, giant rivers and unique wonders such as Lake Baikal, a magically beautiful place, make it a country well worth visiting. And its cities are not cut from the same mold either. Irkustsk is a charming place full of old churches and nineteenth century wooden dwellings. Novosibirsk, Siberia's biggest city, has a cosmopolitan and welcoming atmosphere that compensates for its lack of history, since it was only established at the end of the 19th century. It even has two Irish pubs with lively atmosphere and good beer (at a price, but better than the Russian brews.) If you're ever in town and looking for company, definitely head for St. Patrick's Corner or the Shamrock Pub.

Us and them

Latvians who traveled around the old Soviet Union have fond memories of these places. But today, many feel intimidated by Russia and expect to get a hostile reception if they venture there.

The predominant stereotype is that all Russians are fervently anti-Balt because they have been polluted by propaganda claiming that their fellow countrymen are being abused on a regular basis in Tallinn and Riga.

My experience was that most Russians have more than enough problems of their own than to get worked up about distant claims of discrimination. My Russian-language skills are appalling, but even confronted with someone bearing a Latvian passport, and who in true style seems to have "forgotten" their tongue, the reaction was generally friendly. People fondly remembered holidays at Jurmala or composer Raimonds Pauls rather than berating their linguistically-challenged foreigner for the sins of his government.

Latvian business is not doing too well in Russia, it seems, but that has more to do with currencies than ethnic crises. In two months I saw one box of Laima chocolates and several cans of sprats "Made in Latvia," but little else. Then, strolling through Irkustsk in Eastern Siberia I came across an apparition - a shop-shingle advertising Latvia's Dzintars perfume. The store was unfortunately closed because it was a Saturday, but the sight of the sign was a pleasant surprise.

But maybe Latvians are just projecting their own none-too-friendly views onto the Russians. Take out life insurance before you go there, I was warned by one school of opinion, you're dealing with a nation of 150 million alcoholic swindlers with homicidal tendencies. Another view has it that "real" Russians are warm, open and hospitable to a fault – unlike the rootless proles who landed in the Baltics to grab all they could.

Of course neither stereotype – about those who live "there" and "here" – is accurate. A banal, well-worn cliché that I prefer is that, with a few snarling exceptions, people are pretty much the same everywhere and will react like a mirror to the way you rub them.

Like everywhere, Russia has a lot of problems, although to match the size of their country the scale of them might be a bit bigger. The major pre-occupation of Russians today is with their economy which threatens to make difficult lives even tougher. Although there are few beggars on the streets of Siberian towns (maybe because of the cold), people can't afford imported food since the rouble crash doubled or even tripled prices. They complain about pension and wage arrears, with the fact that payments were suddenly resumed just before last year's Parliamentary elections adding insult to injury. Others predict that after the Presidential vote set for March 24 prices will rise further and the rouble will take another nose-dive.

"Here in Russia we live on the volcano – today 'maybe yes,' tomorrow 'maybe no'," said Dina, a young woman I met in Krasnoyarsk.

And then there's Chechnya. TV coverage seems to be tightly controlled, with no pictures of bloody fighting, let alone of the atrocities widely publicized in the West. Presenting the other side of the story is definitely taboo, with the news commentary routinely referring to the enemy as "bandits."

And the war-psychosis is making inroads into civilian life as well. In Krasnoyarsk, I heard reports about people from the Caucuses being stopped in the streets and questioned by police. On a long train-ride I was sitting opposite a young man named Sasha who hails from Dagestan, a republic that borders on Chechnya. Through an English-speaking Russian, I asked him whether he has had any of these problems, to which he just smiled, shrugged his soldiers and said he can deal with the situation. But when the train pulled into Moscow in the early hours of the morning, he was immediately stopped by two of the Russian capital's finest while all us white faces went on our merry way.

But whatever they think of the conflict, ordinary folk seem to passively accept whatever the higher-ups want. Russians are tough enough to bear anything, so they won't complain about things which would make soft and flabby Westerners howl.

"Before they turn 18, the state doesn't care whether our children are fed and clothed. But once they turn 18, its suddenly our duty to send our boys off to the army," said Olga, a woman in a small village in Omsk Region which had recently farewelled two young men headed for the military.

Western winds

Of course, political arrogance, corruption and moral degradation are unpleasant features of life in Latvia as well. The current paedophile-cum-KGB scandal would make a fantastic plot for a spy novel if it wasn't so depressingly close to home, and it makes one wonder whether this country's elite can sink any lower.

But one hopes that the changes in Latvia are more than just skin-deep. Teachers, pensioners and also disgruntled Russian-speakers can take their complaints to the streets, and the political system does slowly take note of public pressure. Some sections of Latvia's media may be corrupt, but the press is essentially free and offer's a choice of perspectives on the smearing and skullduggery.

And even cosmetic changes can mean a lot. The Moscow-Riga train is run by Latvian Railways rather than its Russian counterpart, and the difference is like night and day. The compartments are probably from the same Soviet factory from the same Soviet time as those in Russia, but they are infinitely better maintained. Ditto for the toilets, which are clean enough to sit on. The restaurant wagon is bright, tidy and appetizing, with efficient and friendly staff.

In stark contrast, the food served on Russian trains ranges from OK to awful, and so do the staff. Typically, their definition of service means enjoying a drink and a smoke with one of their friends in full view of the customers for ten minutes before they wearily shuffle over to your table. What typically follows goes something like this: "May I have an ashtray?" "This wagon is strictly non-smoking," comes the very categorical reply. "But if you pay a 20-rouble 'fine' we will allow you to puff away."

At least its one more reason to quit.

And it makes it all the nicer to be home.