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What, Me Worry?

Steven Caron has time on his hands, and with unique reason. For with all the talk in the U.S. media about the dangers of Russia and the “Mafia-controlled businesses” there, the congenial 26-year-old Californian entrepreneur has such reliable Russian business partners there’s not enough to keep him busy.

“It runs itself,” Caron says of Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism, a joint venture among Caron and two Russian friends. “I mean, I can go in to work and putter around a bit, but we’ve got such a great staff that I’m not really needed there anymore.”

Caron went to Moscow in 1990 to sit in on classes at the Moscow Art Theater, a move meant to advance his first love, a career in acting. But on a visit to St. Petersburg, he found himself spellbound by the 17th-century city, so he decided to transfer there and study Russian in earnest.

Over the next 1 1/2 years Caron, along with two administrators from the Moscow Art Theater, Nikolai Travinin and Oleg Dzanagati, formulated a plan to create the first youth hostel in the Soviet Union that would operate under Western standards.

In February 1992, an exceptionally good lawyer slashed through miles of what was still the Soviet Union’s red tape and registered the joint venture in a record two weeks.

Booked Solid
Caron’s Russian Youth Hostel officially opened in June 1992, and was semi- filled throughout the year as word of its existence filtered through the backpackers’ grapevine. But most important, it opened in time to be included in budget travel guides aimed at young travelers. Since 1993, the hostel has been booked solid.

While his partners ran the day-to-day business, Caron began the gargantuan task of insinuating his hostel into the worldwide hosteling network.

“On my first visit to the hostel in Helsinki,” says Caron, “I found out that some Estonians had just set up a hostel in Tallinn. I met with them, and we all decided that we should get together and promote that route – Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Estonia – as a Baltic Triangle.”

Establishing the Triangle was fortuitous in more ways than one: While Caron insists that the Mafia in Russia is in no way as bad as it’s made out in the Western media – that it concentrates on local businesses, not tourists – it still poses a real enough threat.

“We have to be extremely careful,” he says. “We don’t advertise in the city, but we advertise in Moscow and Helsinki and Tallinn, as well as in guidebooks; anything that the ‘no-necks’ won’t read. It’s a constant battle of promoting the hostel in the West but not gaining too much publicity here in town.”

But a far greater threat than the Mafia to the hostel’s existence are the Byzantine tax regulations imposed on businesses by the fledgling Russian government.

“If they stick another tax on me, I’m going to jump out the window,” says the otherwise preternaturally calm Californian.

Big Obstacle
The tax situation has long been one of the biggest obstacles to foreigners doing business in Russia. Laws change so suddenly and frequently that accountants use the day’s newspaper to determine what taxes their clients are required to pay.

Enforcement is organized, with tax police empowered to raid businesses’ books, make arrests and freeze bank accounts. And there’s a great incentive for the tax police to find new ways of catching non-payers: They work on commission.

“One friend of mine owned a cafe in town,” says Caron. “One day the tax police pulled up outside his place driving BMWs and wearing expensive suits – they had more money than he’d ever seen!”

So far, though, the tax situation hasn’t been enough to stop Caron.

Last year he established another joint venture, with the state museum that operates what has become St. Petersburg’s trademark: the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Caron now operates concessions within the fortress, providing sorely needed food and beverage stands as well as stands selling T-shirts. And Caron is hopeful that his company will be St. Petersburg’s first distributor for Ben & Jerry’s when the Vermont-based ice cream giant begins sales in the city (the company is currently operating in Petrozavodsk, about 100 miles north of St. Petersburg).

True to Hostelling
But over time, hosteling remains the purpose to which Caron is true. He’s upset by what he considers to be unfair reporting of the dangers in St. Petersburg, pointing out that “in two years of doing this, I’ve had two guests have serious trouble on the streets; both were drunk, and both were out very late at night walking in deserted sections of town.”

Indeed, security in the city has never been tighter. Police were on practically every street corner to keep order during the Goodwill Games in July, and there’s a plan to create a “tourist police” force, similar to those in Egypt, Indonesia and, more recently, Miami, composed of multilingual police officers to assist visitors.

For his part, Caron uses his “down time” to organize hosteling in Russia and improve St. Petersburg’s tourism infrastructure. He was instrumental in creating the Russian Youth Hostel Federation, which is composed of five hostels – his own and ones in Moscow, Novgorod, Irkutsk and Petrodvorets.

Caron’s energy seems endless, and if it ever does falter, he has a precious resource from which to draw in the community of foreigners living in St. Petersburg. In a city of more than 5 million, the expatriates have managed to create a community as tight as any town of several hundred, and they all get involved.

“The ex-pat community is larger than it was, but it’s still very small and very tight,” he says.

“The American Business Association here now has a sports committee and a social committee, and we see each other all the time – it’s amazing how close we all are, and how much we support one another.”

Obvious Western Influence
To guests at the hostel, the Western influence is readily apparent. The clean, well-lighted, five-story brownstone is guarded not by hulking security guards, but by grandmotherly types who admonish those who arrive too late at night.

Inside, while the Russian staff keeps things clean, backpackers from all over the world gather in the lobby area to do what hostelers everywhere do: drink coffee, laugh, share war stories and travel tips and make connections at the hostel’s crowded bulletin board.

To understand how Caron achieved his dream in a system fraught with pitfalls and booby-traps designed to thwart his every step, one need only look at how he relates to people.

When Caron bought an apartment last year, the seller, an emigrating Russian, took very little cash up front and Caron’s word to wire the balance to an account in the West. When the Russian arrived at his new home, the money was waiting for him.

IF YOU GO . .
The Russian Youth Hostel is near St. Petersburg’s Moscow Train Station off Ploschad Vosstaniya. Reservations can be made by calling Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism in Redondo Beach at (310) 379-4316 or in St. Petersburg at 011-7-812-277-0569. There is a $10 one-time reservation fee. Rates at the hostel are $15 a night including breakfast. Russian Youth Hostels also arranges visas for hostel guests.

A Warm Welcome In The Russian Far North

Though it’s been open to foreigners for a while, getting travel information on Russia’s Arctic Kola Peninsula remains a little tricky.

Bureaucrats walk an unfamiliar line. Trained by Soviets, they’re unwilling to divulge information, but a desperation for foreign visitors and their cash requires openness. The results are often amusing.

“Camping,” booms Vladimir Loginov, chairman of the Murmansk Regional Sports Committee, “is legal anywhere on the Kola Peninsula. Except in the places in which it is not.”

The Kola Peninsula is an enormous knob of tundra, forest and low mountains between the White and Barents seas. It is one of the most ruggedly beautiful, unspoiled and desolate areas on the planet – an adventurer’s destination that’s accessible to everyone.

Travel to St. Petersburg and Moscow has become commonplace, but the Russian wilderness, the stuff out of Dr. Zhivago, remains mysterious and alluring. Such is the attraction of the Kola Peninsula with its herds of wild reindeer, dramatic mountain formations and fishing villages.

Its first tourists were Lapp herders, but the discovery of a northern sea route in the 16th century turned the tiny settlement of Kola into an arctic trading post.

Thanks to an eddy from the Gulf Stream, the Kola Inlet from the Barents is ice-free year-round, making it the ideal site for the port of Murmansk, and now, at nearby Severomorsk, for the Russian Northern Fleet’s home base.

I arrived in Murmansk with feelings of both elation and dread: elation that I would be among the first post-Soviet Western travel writers to explore the peninsula and some of its tiny towns, and dread because, though the temperature had dipped below freezing (this was in August), the famous arctic mosquitoes were huge and dive-bombing.

Location, Location
Perhaps the most novel thing about Murmansk is its location – halfway between Moscow and the North Pole, and 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Because of the Gulf Stream, temperatures are more moderate than you’d think, ranging from 8 to 17 degrees in January; 46 to 57 degrees in July.

Despite the isolation, Murmansk and many other cities in the region are remarkably bustling and modern. Because of its military importance, Murmansk was always a privileged city in terms of supplies and consumer goods. But today the entire area is swimming in Western-made foods and goods.

Murmansk’s suburbs tower above the city. No suburban sprawl here. Instead, large, colorful and clean apartment buildings are built on the mountainsides. The city center, where Prospekt (Avenue) Lenina meets with Five Corners (Pyat Ugla), teems with bundled shoppers. Stores have names like Northern Lights, 69th Parallel, Penguin and Polar Star.

The winter cold isn’t as bad as the darkness – “polar night” means non-stop dusk through December and most of January, though locals say they feel the impending gloom by the end of October. Outside the city there is just tundra; little wonder that the population turnover is 20 percent a year. People leave because of the darkness and cold, and new ones arrive seeking the higher wages that those conditions bring.

Sightseeing
What’s a tourist to do in Murmansk” See the harbor, St. Nicholas Church (Svyato-Nikolskaya Tserkov, named for the patron saint of sailors) and the new Fine Arts Museum and go for a swim in the municipal pool.

The best harbor tour, weather and sea permitting, is on the Kola Inlet. You’ll go south toward Kola (you won’t see the Northern Fleet but you will see the city). Mostly you see shipyards and tundra. Go to the Passenger Ferry Terminal and hop a ferry to Mishukovo. Ferries leave six times daily, and the 30-minute journey is about 75 cents each way.

St. Nicholas Church would be impressive enough, even if it didn’t have such a colorful history. In 1984, the congregation from the little wooden church that was on the site decided to build a cathedral, and began doing so in secret. It’s hard to hide a cathedral, and when the government found out about it in 1985, miners were sent in with orders to blow it up. This raised a holy stink, and demonstrators sat around the site, blocking the miners; simultaneous protests were held in front of the Moscow city executive committee.

The government capitulated to some extent, letting the part of the church that had been built stand but forbidding any further work on it. After perestroika greased the country’s religious wheels, construction resumed in 1987 and continued over the next five summers.

Today St. Nicholas Church is the Kola Peninsula’s religious administrative center. To get there from the railway station, take trolleybus No. 4 for four stops, walk past the pond and up the stairs, then along a dirt trail to the main road. The cathedral is on the right. Services are held Monday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The new Fine Arts Museum at ulitsa Kominterna 13 finally got a permanent collection two years ago. The small but interesting collection includes graphic arts, paintings, decorative applied arts and bone carvings, all on an “image-of-the-north” theme. Admission is about 50 cents for foreigners, 25 cents for Russians and students. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Monday.

It’s hit or miss, but in the summer there’s a chance to see one of the Murmansk Shipping Co.’s four atomic-powered ice-breakers at the dock (they’re enormous and very orange).

Photography, except in the port itself, is legal now, and you can photograph anything you see from the railway and passenger sea terminals or on board the ferries.

Murmansk’s municipal swimming pool, at Ulitsa Chelyuskintsev behind the central stadium, is just amazing: 50 meters (55 yards) long, with three-, five-, seven- and 10-meter diving boards. There are two kiddie pools downstairs plus a banya or two (steam baths, see accompanying story). It’s open June to October from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is about $1.

Lappland Nature Preserve
Buses and trains from Murmansk to towns along the peninsula’s western corridor are cheap and frequent. Heading south, our first stop was the Lapland Nature Preserve near the ecologically devastated city of Monchegorsk.

This UNESCO-protected preserve consists of 1,860 square miles of almost pristine wilderness. About half of it is virgin tundra; the rest, alpine grasslands, marshes, rivers and lakes. It was founded in 1932 to protect the area’s reindeer herds, still among Europe’s largest.

The park can be visited by individuals or small groups (fewer than 12 people) under limited conditions by advance arrangement. You can trek through the wilderness or traverse it on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Costs vary but are generally very low. The preserve is run by a non-profit organization.

Apitity
We continued south to Apatity because some Swedes living there had offered to show us the area. When we arrived, we found them running the godsend-to-tourism Scandinavian Study Center, which acts as liaison to Western groups and individuals who want to explore the area.

“This is one of the most beautiful areas in the north,” says Peder Axenstein, who has lived in the area on and off for four years. “We just hope that people will come and see what’s here, and not be afraid to explore the wilderness outside the cities.”

Indeed, Apatity, the Kola Peninsula’s second-largest city, founded as a geological studies center in 1966 on the site of a former gulag, isn’t very attractive to those outside scientific circles.

But it’s an excellent jump-off point for hiking, climbing and skiing expeditions in the nearby Khibiny mountains, and for hunting trips. Who knows, you may even get a chance to see Yeti, the Bigfoot-like creature who locals say pops into the region now and again (16 1/2-inch footprints have been found).

Apatity is also a cultural center for arts and crafts. The wonderful Salma Art Salon, at Ulitsa Dzerzhinskogo 1, is a true cooperative venture: It’s privately owned by, and shows and sells the work of, more than 200 Kola Peninsula artists. Prices are low, and the management can arrange for customs papers to get the merchandise out. And musicians and music lovers from all over the region gather for the free bi-weekly concerts and recitals held here.

Kirovsk
There’s not much to do in Kirovsk, 17 miles east, except ski, but the skiing is the finest in northwest Russia. The city hosts the annual All-Europe Downhill Freestyle Competition.

Kirovsk and its suburb, known not by its Russian name but simply by the moniker “Kirovsk-25” (signifying its distance in kilometers from Apatity) are nestled in the Khibiny mountains, separated by a winding mountain road. The center is tiny and easy to navigate, and all the skiing takes place near Kirovsk-25.

The slopes may look easy but those mountains sure are steep. The 17 lifts are mainly tow ropes, and lift tickets are 50 cents per ride, or $4.50 for a day pass. There are eight trails, as well as a children’s trail and lift.

The Kazanskaya Church, just outside Kirovsk-25, was built on the site of another church that had been moved from Kirovsk. The inside is lovely, with an impressive iconostasis and the reputedly miraculous Icon of St. Nicholas. On the night of May 21, 1994, the icon incredibly restored itself, and now works its miracles Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a break between 2 and 3 p.m.

Take bus No. 1, 12 or 105 from Kirovsk center toward Kirovsk-25, and ask for the church. From the bus stop, walk west (back toward Kirovsk), turn south (left), then turn east (left again) and the church is 600 feet on the right side of the road.

The best sight here, at the northern end of Kirovsk-25, is the surrounding mountains, or rather the lack of half of them. (They look like those models you used to see in school of a cutaway section of a volcano).

Local scientists insist this was accomplished by the use of earth movers and heavy equipment (though some say it would have taken a nuclear blast).

Portions of this piece were extracted from Lonely Planet’s Russia, Belarus & Ukraine guide, with permission from the publisher.

Checking Out The Russians In The Hoosgow

The unique thing about St. Petersburg’s new Holiday Hostel kept distracting me as I walked through, checking for bugs under the beds or other tell-tale signs of sloppiness (I didn’t find any). What I was hearing was shouting, and it was coming from…right…next…door. Look at it as a selling point or a travel agent’s nightmare, but it’s certainly unique that the Holiday Hostel’s building is adjacent to St. Petersburg’s Kresty Prison.

Kresty is St. Petersburg’s main holding prison; if you’re busted here, Kresty’s where they take you to await whatever it is that awaits you. And while news reports of a Mafia takeover of the 18th-century City on the Neva are preposterously overblown, crime has increased to the point that Kresty is doing brisk business indeed.

But what distinguishes Kresty from, say, New York’s Riker’s Island, is that Kresty is located on a main boulevard, and prisoners can get to the windows. Russian families are quite close, and in true Russian style, the families of the accused line the street outside, bonding with their inmates.

On any given day, you can see dozens of these well-wishers lining Arsenalnaya naberezhnaya. Mothers, fathers and sometimes even drunken friends stand crying. Wives and girlfriends stand close to the concrete fence, moving their arms in what may look like complicated dance moves, but what is in fact a crude code, known to inmates and prison guards alike.

The prisoner, let’s call him the receiver, makes himself known by holding an article of clothing out the window (they stick their arms through the bars or through holes in the steel mesh). When the sender, down on the street, identifies their man, they start waving their arms about, tracing Cyrillic characters in the air. The receiver waves up and down to signal “I understand”, and side to side to signal “repeat”. Under this method, after three or four minutes of waving, one can clearly discern the message, ‘I-c-a-l-l-e-d-y-o-u-r-f-r-i-e-n-d-M-i-s-h-a’!

The process, understandably, is time consuming (a message like ‘I called your lawyer but he was out to lunch’ could take half an hour or so), but the family and friends on the street below (again in true Russian style) bring along sausage, bread, cheese and thermoses filled with hot tea. Of course, some bring along a bottle of vodka – just to pass the time.

As I left the Hostel, I walked past some of the families waiting to send messages. A black Mercedes-Benz was parked outside; next to it stood an attractive Russian woman in a revealing dress. She was looking towards the prison window and waving. But this woman didn’t need no stinking codes: she was speaking into a cell phone, and as she looked across the prison yard, a tear formed in the corner of her eye.

This was written for Lonely Planet Online in 1995 and subsequently an edited version ran in Lonely Planet’s St Petersburg city guide. That version subsequently made it into the second edition of Lonely Planet’s Russia, Ukraine & Belarus guide. In the latest version, the author who updated the text said that the prison was currently running tours for a fee.

 

Soviet Spoke In The Wheels Of Progress

Life has changed very little over the past few years for Stanislaw Kudrzycki, a shift supervisor for the Polish national railway (PKP) and his 19-person crew at Kuznica on what is now the Poland-Belarus border.

At the railway station of this desolate town, a 24-hour a day operation functions a in exactly the same way it did when it was established in 1972 to change the wheel trucks on trains crossing into and out of the Soviet Union. The Russian rail gauge is 24cm wider than European gauge (a legacy of Tsarist xenophobia), the reasoning being that foreigners intending to invade by train would first need to capture rolling stock.

If the system ever did thwart foreign invaders (it managed to severely impede progress of Nazi troops, who scrambled to regauge the lines to Moscow during World War II) it caused far greater frustration to rail travelers from Europe, who were compelled to change trains at the Polish Soviet border.

As one traveler put it, “the border crossing was the worst part of the trip. It was freezing, we had to go to the nightmare of the Soviet customs clearance before walking half a kilometre hauling our luggage. The experience didn’t exactly translate as ‘welcome to the Soviet Union.’” But in the 1960s, as the Soviet authorities began to rely upon tourism as an important source of hard currency income, they were forced to change the abominable border conditions.

They redesigned their train cars to the little more than flat bottomed cargo containers with seats, which could be placed upon changeable wheel truck assemblies. The trucks consist of two axles, four wheels, shock absorbers and a seat upon which the train can be fastened using a “male/female” connector in the manner similar to a key fitting into a lock. For inbound trains the European-gauge wheel trucks are removed and rolled out from underneath the cars, and Soviet-gauge wheel trucks are rolled in and attached. The outbound procedure is the reverse.

A Bit of History
In 1972 the Soviet Union constructed the changing station at Kuznica and contracted PKP to operate and maintain it (it has always has been a Polish operation despite the facility’s decidedly Soviet appearance). Now, as a train reaches the border, its cars are separated and placed next to hydraulic lift platforms which work in essentially the same manner as giant car jacks. After the wagons are separated, they are hosted 2m off the ground, the wheel trucks are rolled out from beneath the train, and new wheel trucks rolled in. Once the new wheel trucks have been manually lined up with the lynch point, the wagons are lowered onto the trucks fastened and re-connected.

It is a complicated, labor intensive operation. After each car has been lifted, workers walk underneath and attach the wheel trucks to a steel cable which pulls them down the track; they are then stored until the train’s return. When the new wheel trucks arer rolled in, they must be manually positioned using such crude tools as bent pieces of track as hammers and extra long crow bars to rock the wheel trucks backwards and forwards until the connecting points are aligned.

To one not aware of what is happening (and most Westerners aren’t), the procedure can be a harrowing experience with threatening Cold War over tones. Passengers are forbidden to leave the cars during the operation, which often takes place very early in the morning, and spend the turnaround time watching workers scurrying beneath their windows. Armed Polish soldiers patrol the kilmometre-long stretch of the work area, and the eerie silence is broken only by the constant slamming of wheel trucks being pulled into line and rolled down the tracks.

Dangers at Every Turn
Every aspect of the procedure, which takes between 60 and 90 minutes per train, is dangerous. During the winter, when the average temperature falls to minus 15 degrees Celsius, workers stand exposed for periods of up to two hours and than retreat to an overheated lounge area; illnesses are common. The hydraulic lifts, which are both electrically and manually operated during the procedure, have failed on at least one occasion, sending one of the 50 ton cars and its passengers crashing to the ground.

Workers say that one woman passenger has been killed, and seven people have lost limbs, when they were caught between 9 ton wheel trucks that were being rolled down to track. Drunken passengers routinely fall out of the cars. And there’s always the danger that a conductor will forget to lock the door to prevent entry to a car’s toilet, which empty directly onto the tracks. Should someone flush during the wheel changing procedure, the consequences are unfortunate for any worker who happens to be standing on the tracks beneath the drain output.

Kuznica, five hours east of Warsaw, is a tiny farming town also happens to have major railroad border crossings. These are seeing more business than ever. Russians and citizens of other former Soviet republics bring all their worldly possessions to sell in Warsaw’s markets, and wait in line at the border for an average of three days to cross into Poland. On their return, having sold their possessions and car in which they came, they buy a train ticket to Kuznica where they walk across the border. They then walk a few kilometres to the Grodno station, where they can pay for connecting tickets in roubles.

Where Mr. Kudrzycki and his crew used to be controlled absolutely by the military – even to the extent that they had to request permission to go to the toilet – they are now very much under their own control. These days, the crew makes it very clear to the guards that they are merely putting up with them.

Even the once powerful and feared Russian train conductors, who would use any opportunity to exercise their authority, now stand by sheepishly as the workers go about their business. “They still try to throw their weight around from time to time,” says Mr. Kudrzycki, “but now they’re just a joke.’

“We used to do our job while the army stood guard, keeping passengers into cars, making sure people were taking photographs of the facility or sniffing around near the border,” one of the workers said. “Now the Army is ‘protecting’ us from the Russians, trying to keep them out!’

The whole crew, having a tea break between train arrivals in their smoke filled lounge, began to laugh. “An hour ago, to Russian passengers got sent back over the border,” said another. “They tried to get in invitations written in outrageous Polish – bad grammar, made up streets and towns, ridiculous names. It must have been written by a Pole with a great sense of humor.” (While Russians do not need a Visa to enter Poland, they must have an invitation from a Polish citizen)

The crew’s tea break ends. The St. Petersburg-Warsaw train is pulling in, and we follow Mr. Kudrzycki to the 15m control tower. Standing at his control console, he presses one of several dozen lighted buttons as he speaks. The action has no discernible effect, and a worker’s voice blares over a two-way radio speaker: the remote control is not functioning, so he’ll do whatever needs to be done manually. “That’s normal,” Mr. Kudrzycki says, pointing scornfully to the console, which looks like a 1950s comic strip version of a control panel of the future.

“You hear that radio? It was installed last month,” he continues, “I’ve been here for four years, everyone else since 1972, and they only installed a radio last month. Before that we would use hand signals, or send messages in a chain: he tells him, that guy tells the other guy, the other guy comes upstairs and tells me…’

There may be a lot of problems, but Mr. Kudrzycki is still sure of at least one thing: he’s not in danger of being laid off. “In Portugal,” he says almost wistfully, “they have the wide gauge rails as well. But they’re using a new technology. They have contractible axles on the trains; as they cross the border the axles expand by springs and become wide enough to run on the rails.’

“But,” he continues, “my job’s safe. Do you have any idea how expensive that system is?’

A Day With Russia’s Most Hated Public Servant

GAIguyIn the United States, it’s the IRS. In the Soviet Union, it was the KGB. In England it’s Manchester United fans, but in the new Russia, motorists and passengers alike loathe, fear and despise the ubiquitous members of the Gosavtoinspektsia: GAI.
GAI (“gah-yee’) are traffic officers who stand at intersections throughout the country looking for signs of vehicular misbehaviour. Actually, they can pull you over for anything they want.

And they do.

But what makes them really annoying is that theyE’re entitled to impose on-the-spot fines. Oh, yeah, one more thing: if you don’t stop when they wave you over, they can shoot at your vehicle.

On my last trip I got pulled over twice in one day, while riding in two separate vehicles. I thought, “What makes these guys tick? How do they decide whom to pull over? And is it exciting to be an armed traffic cop?’. I mean, their New York City counterparts would give a limb for the opportunity.

In the interests of fair play, I spent a rainy Monday morning with some of the guys at St Petersburg GAI Central.

7 AM: Roll Call

No big surprise, kinda like Hill Street Blues with shabbier uniforms. Hot sheet covered, accidents discussed, criminal element lamented. I learn that GAI guys work two days on, two days off, and they have regular beats.

9 AM: Meeting with Captain Sergei (not his real name)

“Yes, we can shoot at your car. No, I can’t tell you how many officers we have, but there are enough to keep control of the situation.” I asked him what a foreigner can do if he should disagree with an officer’s charges against him.

“Well, his documents will be confiscated and then he can go to the address on the ticket the officer gives him and get them back…”

Oh.

10 AM: Parking Lot

Sergei leads the way to his spanking new Ford Escort GAImobile. We’re off to check out the boys on patrol. Obeying the seat-belt law, I fasten mine. Sergei ignores his, peels out of the parking space, turns on the revolving blue light and, in blatant violation of every St Petersburg traffic law, does 120 km/h (80 mph) through narrow city streets; he runs all red traffic lights, honks and shoots truly terrifying looks at motorists he passes – which is all of them.

10.30 AM: Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Murmansk Highway

There are GAI checkpoints at all major roads leading out of the city. We arrive in time to see one incoming and one outgoing car being tossed by Kalashnikov-wielding officers. They salute Sergei, who leads me into the checkpoint station house where he proudly shows off the station sauna (it’s a four-seater). Has another officer demonstrate the state-of-the-art computer system (it’s a 386 running MTEZ). They dial in to the GAI Server and the officer stumbles through the log-in (so clumsily that I was able to write down the telephone number, login name and password) and after five minutes he gives up and instead proffers the hand-written hot-sheet.

11.15 AM: Racing Through The City

Screeching through residential neighbourhoods, Sergei is explaining how the officers we’re whizzing by are trained professionals – they spend six months in the GAI academy after their army service.

We pass about half a dozen stopped cars, and Sergei is saying, “He’s checking documents… This one’s checking insurance…that one’s investigating a stolen car…” He can tell all that by passing them at speed.

Amazing.

Sergei says he’s been in ‘many” high-speed car chases and I believe him totally. Not out of idle curiosity, I ask him how long it takes to fill in an accident report. He says a minimum of one hour.

Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Vyborg Highway

This is exactly the same as the first checkpoint, except this one is on the road leading to Finland and there’s no sauna. There’s an enormous pile of cash on the desk.

The checkpoint officer tells me that their radar gun is ‘out for repair’, but helpfully points out one of the other pieces of crime-fighting equipment present: the telephone.

Sergei says that radar detectors are E’unfortunately not prohibited here’.

That’s Russian cop lingo for: ‘They’re legal’

12.15 PM: Racing Home

As we careen home, Sergei spots a stalled pick-up truck at an intersection. His face a mask of pure anger, he screeches to a halt, tickets the hapless driver, radios his number plates (to ensure follow-up action) and we drive away. As we tear back to the station house, Sergei suddenly stops to let a dump truck, for whom the signal is green, pass through an intersection, and (I swear) says solemnly,

‘You know, even though I have this siren on, I still have a responsibility to maintain safety on the roads’.

And people say these guys aren’t dedicated public servants.

In The Steam: A Russian Banya

There’s a level of clean that can be attained, Russians say, only through the rigorous action of a ritual Russian banya. A combination of dry sauna, steam bath, massage and plunges into ice-cold water, the banya is a weekly event that is as much a part of Russian life as, say, bowling in Bedrock.

And in Russian, the word banya has come to mean far more than its dictionary definition, which is bathhouse.

Preparation begins at home, where thermos flasks are filled to their cork-plugged brims with a specially brewed tea. These teas are peculiar to the banya: a cunning mixture of jams, fruits, spices, tea and heaps of sugar. Armed with this brew, the bather heads for the baths (picking up a couple of beers or some vodka along the way is not unheard-of either).

People usually go to the banya on the same day each week, forming a close circle with others there on the same day. The closest equivalent in the West would probably be your workout buddies.

These circles are as communistic as Lenin could have ever hoped. Bricklayers and airplane pilots, laborers and professors and traffic cops and teachers find common ground amid the steam.

After a “warm-up” in the dry sauna (the word’s the same in Russian, pronounced SA-oo-na), you’re ready for the parilka – the dreaded steam room.

The parilka will have a furnace in which rocks are heating. Onto these, bathers throw water, usually with a dash or two of eucalyptus or other scented oil. When the room’s got a good head of steam going, the bathers grab bundles of dried birch leaves (vennik), dip them in hot water and, well, beat each other with them. This beating (which isn’t violent, and feels a lot better than it sounds) is said to rid your body of toxins.

As one might suspect, all that steam makes the air even hotter, but bathers continue to throw water on until visibility is nil and the room is unbearably hot, at which point everyone runs out coughing.

As if the relatively cold air outside the parilka weren’t enough of a shock to one’s system, the next step is a plunge into the icy cold waters of the bassein, whose health benefits I’ve yet to work out (they’re probably incredibly important).

After the plunge, it’s out to the locker rooms wrapped up in sheets, where events of the world are discussed over the tea (or whatever). Then the process begins again. Sessions can go on for two or three hours.

Every Russian town has a public banya; larger towns and cities have several. Baths are segregated by sex.

Foreigners are very welcome. If you go, you’re likely to be viewed as an honored guest, asked hundreds of questions about where you’re from, chided for being wary of the procedures (such as spending a half-day stark naked with a bunch of sweaty strangers) and, finally, treated to rigorous massage and beating.

Oh, and one more thing. Alcohol affects you faster in a banya, so if you do partake (you’ll no doubt be invited as a gesture of friendship and goodwill), be careful and do it slowly.

Even in Russia, it’s considered bad form to lose your lunch in a steam room.

Russian Cooking Comes Of Age

Russian-Borsch-Recipe-Me-cookingAs fodder for guide book humor, Soviet cuisine led with its chin. It’s not that there wasn’t any good food available in the country, it’s just that you had to search long and hard for it. In between looking and finding, visitors were faced down by enormous portions of overcooked vegetables, potatoes slathered in vegetable oil, mystery meat and the occasional pancake with sour cream.

And at Moscow’s middle-eastern restaurants, one would wondered whether ” belly dancing” meant theirs or the dancer’s.

Now days, with availability of high-quality fresh ingredients from around the country and the world at an all time high, Russians are cooking up a storm. And despite their reliance on just a tad more fat then most Western chefs, they’re pretty darn good at it.

The newly-slicked-up Russian Television stations – and their sponsors – have not been slow to capitalize on this trend. One of the most popular cooking shows on Russian television is Smak (which sort of translates to ‘Pleasant Taste’), sponsored by Uncle BenE’s rice and hosted by Andrey Makarevich, former lead singer of the famous 70’s and 80’s-era rock group Time Machine. Now a bit older, a bit paunchier but still as charming as ever, Makarevich’s show features recipes from and appearances by famous (and not so famous) guests.

On May 8, the day before Victory Day, Smak featured cartoonist-cum-television commercial actor Ufimtsev, proffering his recipe for what he calls Baked Chicken and I call ‘Victory Chicken Statue on a Bed Of Wild Rice’ (you’ll get it when you see the recipe).

In a halting, slightly nervous but mostly confident manner, Ufimtsev set about chopping garlic, mushing butter and generally being the elder statesman about the kitchen.

And lo and behold, as the thing started to take shape, I realized that this was the Russian version of the chicken my fat- and-cholesterol-fearing father prepares in New York using a metal contraption that looks something like a Tonka super sex toy, designed to hold the chicken upright during cooking so that the evil fat drips away from the meat. ‘Boy, this is terrific’, says dad, and judging by the looks of things on Smak, Russians think so, too.

UfimtsevE’s Victory Chicken Statue

(From Smak)

Chicken:

one medium-sized chicken, washed

small bunch of dill

several (6 to 8) cloves of garlic

1 cup water

one stick softened butter

1 thick 500 ml or 750 ml glass Bottle (such as a European beer bottle)

Rice:

One cup wild rice

two cups cold water

one tablespoon softened butterv
dash salt

Chicken

Fill the bottle about a quarter-full with water, and add about two cloves of crushed garlic. Impale the washed chicken on of the bottle so that it looks sort of like a chicken statue. The chicken should reach almost, but not quite, to the bottle bottom.

Spread the softened butter all over the chicken, using your hands, followed by crushed garlic. Place the chicken statue on a cookie sheet (to catch fat) in a pre-heated 200°C/400°F oven for about an hour or until done.

The fat drips from the outside of the bird onto the cookie sheet; from inside into the bottle, steaming water infuses the chicken meat with garlic aroma. The contents of the bottle are later discarded.

It didn’t explode on TV, so I don’t see why it would at your house, but for the attorneys’ sake, I should say that the whole thing is AWFULLY DANGEROUS and should all have a warning label and don’t try this at home unless you’re a professional. Use as thick a bottle as you can. If you’re still worried, you’re probably the kind of person who thinks that baseball bats should have warning labels.

Rice

In a small pot, place the rice into the cold water, add butter and salt, bring to a boil; stir briefly and reduce to a simmer and cover the pot for twenty minutes or until the water is gone and small steam holes appear in the surface of the rice on the pot. Don’t stir during cooking and for God’s sake don’t overcook it or keep opening the pot to see if it’s done all the time.

Spread the rice out on a serving dish large enough to accommodate the chicken. When the chicken’s done, place it on the bed of rice (Smak, of course, prefer that it be Uncle Ben’s!). Um, before you do that, it’s probably good to remove the now- filled bottle – grasp it, with the aid of a pot holder, and pull the chicken off the top carefully with two forks.

Chop finely the bunch of dill and three cloves of garlic, and mix the two together in a small bowl. Pour some of the pan drippings on top of the chicken, then sprinkle the garlic-dill mixture on top as a garnish.

You can modify this recipe to be Fatly Correct by ditching the butter and not garnishing with pan drippings; the inside of the bird will still be sumptuous and moist. If you’re really into it, remove the skin, but AFTER cooking. Come on, live a little.

What, Me Worry?

Steven Caron has time on his hands, and with unique reason. For with all the talk in the U.S. media about the dangers of Russia and the “Mafia-controlled businesses” there, the congenial 26-year-old Californian entrepreneur has such reliable Russian business partners there’s not enough to keep him busy.

“It runs itself,” Caron says of Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism, a joint venture among Caron and two Russian friends. “I mean, I can go in to work and putter around a bit, but we’ve got such a great staff that I’m not really needed there anymore.”

Caron went to Moscow in 1990 to sit in on classes at the Moscow Art Theater, a move meant to advance his first love, a career in acting. But on a visit to St. Petersburg, he found himself spellbound by the 17th-century city, so he decided to transfer there and study Russian in earnest.

Over the next 1 1/2 years Caron, along with two administrators from the Moscow Art Theater, Nikolai Travinin and Oleg Dzanagati, formulated a plan to create the first youth hostel in the Soviet Union that would operate under Western standards.

In February 1992, an exceptionally good lawyer slashed through miles of what was still the Soviet Union’s red tape and registered the joint venture in a record two weeks.

Booked Solid
Caron’s Russian Youth Hostel officially opened in June 1992, and was semi- filled throughout the year as word of its existence filtered through the backpackers’ grapevine. But most important, it opened in time to be included in budget travel guides aimed at young travelers. Since 1993, the hostel has been booked solid.

While his partners ran the day-to-day business, Caron began the gargantuan task of insinuating his hostel into the worldwide hosteling network.

“On my first visit to the hostel in Helsinki,” says Caron, “I found out that some Estonians had just set up a hostel in Tallinn. I met with them, and we all decided that we should get together and promote that route – Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Estonia – as a Baltic Triangle.”

Establishing the Triangle was fortuitous in more ways than one: While Caron insists that the Mafia in Russia is in no way as bad as it’s made out in the Western media – that it concentrates on local businesses, not tourists – it still poses a real enough threat.

“We have to be extremely careful,” he says. “We don’t advertise in the city, but we advertise in Moscow and Helsinki and Tallinn, as well as in guidebooks; anything that the ‘no-necks’ won’t read. It’s a constant battle of promoting the hostel in the West but not gaining too much publicity here in town.”

But a far greater threat than the Mafia to the hostel’s existence are the Byzantine tax regulations imposed on businesses by the fledgling Russian government.

“If they stick another tax on me, I’m going to jump out the window,” says the otherwise preternaturally calm Californian.

Big Obstacle
The tax situation has long been one of the biggest obstacles to foreigners doing business in Russia. Laws change so suddenly and frequently that accountants use the day’s newspaper to determine what taxes their clients are required to pay.

Enforcement is organized, with tax police empowered to raid businesses’ books, make arrests and freeze bank accounts. And there’s a great incentive for the tax police to find new ways of catching non-payers: They work on commission.

“One friend of mine owned a cafe in town,” says Caron. “One day the tax police pulled up outside his place driving BMWs and wearing expensive suits – they had more money than he’d ever seen!”

So far, though, the tax situation hasn’t been enough to stop Caron.

Last year he established another joint venture, with the state museum that operates what has become St. Petersburg’s trademark: the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Caron now operates concessions within the fortress, providing sorely needed food and beverage stands as well as stands selling T-shirts. And Caron is hopeful that his company will be St. Petersburg’s first distributor for Ben & Jerry’s when the Vermont-based ice cream giant begins sales in the city (the company is currently operating in Petrozavodsk, about 100 miles north of St. Petersburg).

True to Hostelling
But over time, hosteling remains the purpose to which Caron is true. He’s upset by what he considers to be unfair reporting of the dangers in St. Petersburg, pointing out that “in two years of doing this, I’ve had two guests have serious trouble on the streets; both were drunk, and both were out very late at night walking in deserted sections of town.”

Indeed, security in the city has never been tighter. Police were on practically every street corner to keep order during the Goodwill Games in July, and there’s a plan to create a “tourist police” force, similar to those in Egypt, Indonesia and, more recently, Miami, composed of multilingual police officers to assist visitors.

For his part, Caron uses his “down time” to organize hosteling in Russia and improve St. Petersburg’s tourism infrastructure. He was instrumental in creating the Russian Youth Hostel Federation, which is composed of five hostels – his own and ones in Moscow, Novgorod, Irkutsk and Petrodvorets.

Caron’s energy seems endless, and if it ever does falter, he has a precious resource from which to draw in the community of foreigners living in St. Petersburg. In a city of more than 5 million, the expatriates have managed to create a community as tight as any town of several hundred, and they all get involved.

“The ex-pat community is larger than it was, but it’s still very small and very tight,” he says.

“The American Business Association here now has a sports committee and a social committee, and we see each other all the time – it’s amazing how close we all are, and how much we support one another.”

Obvious Western Influence
To guests at the hostel, the Western influence is readily apparent. The clean, well-lighted, five-story brownstone is guarded not by hulking security guards, but by grandmotherly types who admonish those who arrive too late at night.

Inside, while the Russian staff keeps things clean, backpackers from all over the world gather in the lobby area to do what hostelers everywhere do: drink coffee, laugh, share war stories and travel tips and make connections at the hostel’s crowded bulletin board.

To understand how Caron achieved his dream in a system fraught with pitfalls and booby-traps designed to thwart his every step, one need only look at how he relates to people.

When Caron bought an apartment last year, the seller, an emigrating Russian, took very little cash up front and Caron’s word to wire the balance to an account in the West. When the Russian arrived at his new home, the money was waiting for him.

IF YOU GO . .
The Russian Youth Hostel is near St. Petersburg’s Moscow Train Station off Ploschad Vosstaniya. Reservations can be made by calling Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism in Redondo Beach at (310) 379-4316 or in St. Petersburg at 011-7-812-277-0569. There is a $10 one-time reservation fee. Rates at the hostel are $15 a night including breakfast. Russian Youth Hostels also arranges visas for hostel guests.

Playing The Ponies In Northern Moscow

ippodrome_2It was a clear and sunny Sunday, and I was at the Ipodrome Raceway, in the outer-north section of the city, watching Russian harness racing at its finest. I’m one of many people who sometimes forget that Moscow has a raceway – and die-hard punters and an entrenched gambling sub-culture – so I had been looking forward to coming to this one, as did my friend Lena, who came with me.

The faded glory of the 160-year-old racetrack hit me immediately; the crumbling grandstands still sport an intricately patterned mosaic tile ceiling, and the stands themselves are carved in a sort of pseudo-baroque “Sport Of Kings” theme. It would be fair to say that the crowd – mainly men – had been doing a healthy bit of drinking by the time Lena and I arrived at 2.20 pm, about an hour and a half after the first race began.

Entry tickets are 5¢, and a programme was 60¢. On first glance it seemed that this racetrack was like any other. Throughout the grandstands were huddles of three and four men, busily marking – in thick magic marker – their programmes, and working on their systems. They argued and cajoled each other, and many passed round litre-bottles of vodka ($2.40 from the concession stand).

We finally figured out where to bet and headed for the windows. There are windows for bets of 10 roubles, 100 roubles and, for the big spenders, 1000 roubles. In US dollars, this translates to windows for bets of 0.002¢, 2¢ and 20¢.

We watched as an unbelievably complicated bet was being placed by the man in front of us in the betting queue that sounded something like this:

“Number five in the sixth and then the system says 7, 3, 8, 10, 2…”

He was, I was told, playing an “Express 7” where he picks seven horses per race in the exact order in which they will finish, for several races. The odds of his hitting this are 5,000,000 to one.

After he was half way through calling out the circled numbers on his programme, the woman behind the thick bulletproof glass with the microscopic opening lost patience and reduced each of his bets from 10 roubles to one rouble, thus removing any potential advantage he may have been after. He stormed off in a huff.

The people in line (who seemed desperate to get their bets in on time) were kind enough to tell us how, and which horses, to bet. We played an “Odinar 3”, which turned out to be a simple matter of picking the winning horse for three races to collect.

How much you collect is based on the fantastically complex method of odds posting, which to me is uniquely Soviet in that no one knows what they are until the race has been over for about ten minutes.

For each race, the horses are posted on the illuminated, computerised scoreboard. Underneath the horse’s number is a three digit number, based on a weighted index whereby each horse starts with 10,000 points which are continually divided by a weighted divisor based on the amount of money bet on that horse. The lower this three-digit number on a particular horse, the higher the amount of money bet on it. At the end of the race, the jackpot is divided by a “coefficient”, which determines the payoff.

Aside from actually telling you what the odds are, this is about as accurate a way to tell where the smart money is as you can get. In race 6 we had bet on Stanbul (as had, apparently, everyone else in the place: its starting index read 000).

Stanbul won by more than ten lengths.

We ran into the gent who had stormed off from the betting window. His name was Kazbek, and he said he’d been coming here for 21 years, and that he’d been interviewed by French television, and would we like to give him some money to bet for us? Er, thanks, no, we just came to watch.

Kazbek? Hey

But he was off like a shot.

The second and third races of our Odinar 3 came off as planned – with our horses winning handily in both. Filled with the optimism of a serf who’s hit the Lotto jackpot we headed for the ticket window to cash in our winnings. Our bet had been 4000 roubles. Our payoff was 1300 roubles.

That’s total, not in addition to the 4000.

Hold on a second here. How could we pick three winners in three races and lose 2,700 roubles? “The coefficient,” said the wizened lady behind the glass, and before we could say another word we were bashed out of the way by an elderly babushka holding a thoroughly magic-markered programme and several thousand roubles.

Of course, it is possible that I just didn’t have any idea what was going on.

Please…Don’t make Me Go To Vorkuta

In 1994, when I ran into John Noble, coordinating author of Lonely Planet’s Russia Ukraine & Belarus, at the Travellers Guest House in Moscow about a month into the research of that book’s first edition, I brought up something that had been worrying me for weeks.

“Please,” I begged, “don’t make me go to Vorkuta!”

Anyone looking at the map of coverage in that book will notice a gaping area between Arkhangelsk and Vologda regions and the Ural Mountains. That’s not because there’s nothing there, but rather because there’s not much there that’s interesting – unless you’re a timber exporter, oil-spill cleanup worker or soft drink salesperson.

John let me off the hook on Vorkuta, but asked me if I could at least do Syktyvkar, the republic’s capital, located in its south-west. Sure. The train ride out from Arkhangelsk was a bit shorter (about 30 hours/US$15 with a train change) and I spent the first half of the ride fending the advances of a somewhat-past-middle-aged and inebriated woman, and the second fending the worst hangover of my life, brought on by what was described to me by the restaurant-car attendant as “very good Ukranian wine” and what turned out to be a mixture of spiritus (almost 100% pure alcohol) and red juice.

Syktyvkar is a perfectly pleasant city. Established in the 16th century, the town began life under the name Ust-Sysolsk, and its layout was designed by St Petersburgian planners to take full advantage of its position on the Sysola River. The town is almost a grid, with the railway station at the western end of the main street, ulitsa Kommunisticheskaya and the airport (which does not appear on any of the otherwise fine maps of the city) just outside the city centre at the south-east end of Sovietskaya ulitsa!

But aside from a nice stadium, a couple of nice parks, some well-stocked shops (like Greenwood’s, near the railway station, selling Western goods) and a darn good Communist Party Hotel (it still uses the name – KPSS), there’s, well, nothing to do. Indeed, when I asked Tanya, a gloriously cheerful employee of the private tours and excursions company in the KPSS hotel, what there was to do around here, she said, “Nothing.” She smiled when she said it. Tanya told me she was from Vorkuta, and I asked her what was there to see or do.

“Less,” she said, “than there is here.”
Surely there had to be something.

I went to the Vychegda Bar/Cafe. The downstairs cafe has the best potato pizza in town – drove the other potato pizza guy right out of business. There’s a museum on ulitsa Ordzhonikidze (Gesundheit!), dedicated to the life of Komi poet Ivan Kuratova. On prospekt Oktyabrsky there’s the lovely Ivangelsky Khristian church, which broke ground in 1991 and put all that gold on the roof in 1994.

Tanya was right. Even the town recognises it: its coat of arms is a sleeping bear. I went back and asked her again. Surely there had to be something, I mean, her boss had gone to the trouble of opening an excursion bureau, hadn’t he? “Well,” she ventured, “there is a turbaza outside town. It’s nice’. So within ten minutes she had caled a friend of hers, a large, thick-necked, leather jacket wearing gentleman driving a Mercedes-Benz sedan, and off we sped.

We went to the Turbaza Lemu, 17 km outside of town, where there were some small cottages, a river, some trees and a sauna. There are cross-country ski trips in winter, and mosquitoes in summer. Suffice it to say that Tanya had been right the first time. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the place – in fact I had a lovely time and met some charming and wonderful people – it’s just that there’s no tourism infrastructure and lots of industry.

If you do go to Syktyvkar, for whatever reason, the best bet for lodging is the Hotel KPSS at the corner of ulitsas Lenina and Ordzhonikidze, where pleasant staff charge only about US$5/10 for clean singles/doubles and you don’t even need a boxy suit to get in. The cheapest place in town is the dormitory just across the steet from the airport, the Airport Hotel, where foreigners aren’t totally welcome, but can weezle their way in for an astounding US$3 per night. It’s at Sovietskaya ulitsa 69, about a ten-minute walk from the railway station.

The town has two other offerings, the Hotel Tsentralnaya at Pervomayskaya ulitsa 83 (US$11.50/12.50) which is clean but faceless; and the Hotel Syktyvkar – a monolith near the railway station which (snort) charges what they consider to be a quite reasonable (get ready) US$135 per person!

Change money at the Sberbank – the address is Sovietskaya ulitsa 16 but the entrance is on ulitsa Babushkina, or the Komibank at Sovietskaya 18. If you’re going to be playing any basketball, there’s a wierdly well-stocked sporting goods store at Kommunisticheskaya ulitsa 10, off the roundabout. A huge Dom Knigi bookshop is nearby, a bit further east on the same street. The Aeroflot office at Pervomayskaya ulitsa 53 sells tickets to Moscow (three flights a day, US$120), Arkhangelsk (four flights a week, US$86), St Petersburg (one a day, US$116) and Yekaterinburg (one flight a day, US$100).

I never made it to Vorkuta.