Saturday, 8 June 2013

Guest Travel Blog Post - Russia, The Land of Contradicitions - by Mandy Jenkinson

Todays guest blogger is Mandy Jenkinson, one of my book friends, who like me shares a love of travel and books.

Welcome Mandy, and thank you for sharing your experiences and your love of Russia with us. You've shared some great information and some amazing photos. Thank you.

Mandy & St Basils, Moscow
Russia. Land of contradictions. Land of enormous riches and enormous poverty. Impossible to sum it up, impossible to fully comprehend.  With over 150 different nationalities, how can an outsider hope to understand this wonderful, puzzling and often chaotic country? I certainly can’t. And yet Russia pulls to me more than any other country I have ever been to. Its paradoxes, its beauty, its ugliness, its history and suffering and its generosity and spirituality. It’s all there.
I’ve only been to a very small part, a brief visit to Krasnodar in the Soviet era, just one visit to Moscow and 4 to St Petersburg. Moscow overwhelmed me, the latter enthralled me. Such magnificence, such wonderful enormous palaces and mansions. Everything is oversize. The squares, the statues, the roads. But as ever the contradictions are never far away, the squalor is on the same street as the majesty, the derelict building is right next to the newly restored palace. The elegant and fashionable young women with their impossible high heels (even in the snow) walk the crowded pavements next to the old women huddled in their ragged shawls holding out their begging bowls. Expensive fast cars share the road with battered Ladas.

It’s becoming increasingly easy to get there, in fact Easyjet now fly direct from Manchester. Fares aren’t expensive. The visa currently costs about £100 and filling in the application can test one’s patience, but the cost of living once there isn’t high, and both the major cities are very easy to navigate. The Russian metro is a thing of wonder. About 50p a journey, however far you travel. There are travel cards, but in St Petersburg it’s easier to buy “jetons”, tokens you put in at the turnstile. Signs are in English and Russian. Buses and “marshrutkas” (mini-buses) are cheap, often crowded, but a good way of getting around.

The Hermitage, St Petersburg
Best time to go is probably May or September, the summer can be very hot and crowded, and the winter very, very cold. Some of the palaces on the outskirts of St Petersburg, like Peterhof, are closed in the winter, so spring is certainly a good time. Although even in April some of the parks are still closed to dry out!

Restaurants and cafés from high-end to basic abound, and offer anything you might care to eat. Japanese cuisine is very popular. Teremok is the local fast-food chain and does wonderful blinis (pancakes). McDonalds, Subway, Burger King are all there too – but why would you want one of those when there are so many fabulous Russian alternatives? Russians don’t have milk with their tea though, so if you think you might miss this, take some of those little milks with you. And beware of ordering a hot chocolate. In Russia this means a cup of hot melted chocolate – delicious but very rich!
Don’t drink the water, especially in Moscow. Bottled water is cheap, and there are small supermarkets on most streets. Some hotels offer filtered water – look out for it.

The Church on the Spilled Blood
Museums cost very little and have the infamous “babushkas” who follow your every move. You have to get used to them hovering if you get too near to one of the exhibits. Don’t be offended. It’s how they do things in Russia. Forbidding they might look, but are usually melted instantly if you ask a question or try out your Russian on them. They have great pride in the monuments they guard and like nothing more than sharing their enormous fund of knowledge. Make a babushka your friend and you will likely be shown some special treasure that is not normally on view to the public. Most are women well past retiring age who need to continue working to add to their meager pensions. Some Russians might have become rich, but many are poorer than ever.

The Church on the Spilled Blood
Many museums make you wear “tapochki”, cloth or plastic overshoes. You may look a bit foolish, but the floors stay clean and polished, and I think it’s a great idea. Russian always take their shoes off at home, too, so if you go visiting take some slippers. You also have to take your coats off in museums and other public buildings. It’s not optional, but the cloakrooms are free and well-guarded, and it’s safe to leave bags there as well.

Russian culture is rich and varied, and although it is hard and expensive to get tickets for the Bolshoi in Moscow and the Marrinsky in St Petersburg, there are many smaller venues to go to. Religious life has recovered since the fall of the Soviet Union, and attending an Orthodox service is a moving experience even for confirmed atheists like me. Churches are no longer the preserve of old ladies. Everyone now seems to go. Richly decorated and with superb icons, the very buildings are works of art.
Russians tend to look grim, they don’t smile very much in public, and they can be rude, obstructive and unhelpful. 80 years of Soviet rule has left its legacy. But behind the façade they are generous and hospitable – you just have to get beyond the exterior.
Beggars can be off-putting, especially those in military uniform who are missing limbs. I’ve been told that many of these are part of gangs and that they didn’t necessarily lose their limbs in conflict. They often get on the metro and trains and work their way through the carriages. Disturbing, certainly, but they are not importunate. The old ladies I do tend to give to, or buy whatever they are selling, sometimes just a few apples or a spray of flowers. Russia can be a hard place if you're poor.
The Aurora
Things don’t always go as planned and you have to be prepared to be creative.  On my last visit, we wanted to go on the Aurora, the battleship which fired the first shot in the Russian Revolution. The lady on the gate said we couldn’t go on, today was just for groups, no individuals allowed. But Anne and I have been in Russia before. In the UK we would have accepted sadly and walked away. But we were in Russian mode. We knew there had to be a way round this. So we lingered out of sight for a while, until a group turned up. And merged with it. Along with a considerable number of other individuals. The guard saw us but was totally indifferent. We were now in a “group” and could go on board. No problem.

Danger? No more than in any other major city. And you’re never very far from a man in uniform. There is, of course, an underworld, there are of course drunks and drug addicts. But so there are in London and other major cities, and I’ve never felt threatened in Russia. I wouldn’t go into an isolated area by myself. But nor would I anywhere else.

But SPB and Moscow are only one face of Russia. A short bus ride outside the city will soon show you the remnants of Soviet life. Decaying apartment blocks. Unmade roads. Isolated villages soon appear. There seems to me to be always a sadness about Russia, there has been so much suffering throughout its history. The only museums I ever cry in are Russian ones. The Leningrad blockade. The murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family at Ekaterinburg, those beautiful girls and their hemophiliac brother whose toys can still be seen at the Alexander Palace. So much tragedy.

The Best Bookshop in St Petersburg
Dostoyevsky, is THE writer of St Petersburg. He captured like no one else the atmosphere and the underbelly of the city. There’s a Dostoevsky trail, and you can visit his apartment-museum. Crime and Punishment is set in a very specific part of the city and you can still see the buildings he talks about. Gogol too set his novels in St Petersburg. But there are many contemporary writers to explore, and although many tend to stress the absurd and fantastical, they offer an insight into the Russian psyche, and more and more are being translated into English.

I’ve been drawn to the country since I studied Russian at school. The language, the literature, the history, the people. I’m lucky enough to know people who live there. My friend’s son is married to a Russian woman, and so we get to experience Russian family life when we go. But at whatever level you experience it, Russia it’s definitely worth the visit. Go there, soak it up, you’ll never forget it.


Title - Midnight in St Petersburg

Author - Vanora Bennett

Published - April 11th 2013

Buy from Amazon UK - Click here
Buy from Amazon US - Click here
or all major bookstores.

Blurb from Amazon -

St Petersburg,1911: Inna Feldman has fled the pogroms of the south to take refuge with distant relatives in Russia's capital city.
Welcomed into the flamboyant Leman family, she is apprenticed into their violin-making workshop.

With her looks and talents, she feels instantly at home in their bohemian circle of friends. But revolution is in the air and, as society begins to fracture, she is forced to choose between her heart and her head.

She loves her brooding cousin, Yasha, but he is wild, destructive and bent on revolution; Horace Wallich, the Englishman who works for Fabergé, is older and promises security and respectability.

As the revolution descends into anarchy and blood-letting, a commission to repair a priceless Stradivarius violin offers Inna a means of escape. But will man will she choose to take with her? And is it already too late?

Title - The Master and Margarita

Author - Mikhail Bulgakov

Published - March 19th 1996

Buy from various bookstores - click here

Blurb from Goodreads -

One of the greatest novels ever to come out of the Soviet Union. A parable on power and its corruption, on good and evil and on human frailty and the strength of love. Equal parts fable, fantasy, political satire and slapstick.

Once again Mandy, thank you for sharing your love of Russia with us.