Sunday, December 9, 2007

Russian defrost

If you’ve ever wondered why Russian Christians are called orthodox, just take an Aeroflot flight to Moscow. You see, in the early days of aviation, it was customary during take-off for passengers to send a discreet word to the heavens, insisting that we only want to go so high and no higher, followed by a bit of ‘Amening’ after a safe landing. But as planes became more reliable, and ‘God’ rather unreliable, scanning the movie menu replaced the quiet prayer as every airline passenger’s pre-flight ritual. But on Aero-judder-do-der-flot, thoughts of Heaven come rushing back. In fact, I reckon it’ll beat most churches at sending people ‘back to the fold’. Now, could a people stuck with an airline that doubles up as an evangelist help but be orthodox?

My flight landed in Moscow, and having come to a stop, kept shuddering intermittently (like those irritating snorers, who instead of an even rhythm, go into sudden alarming paroxysms that suggest that they’re about cough up a kidney or two before sinking back into peaceful slumber). I stared out through the tiny port window and saw the trees in the horizon, gray and bare. I hired an airport taxi, a boxy Lada that must not have been too new in the days when Lenin was a young man, and as we rolled along the vast expanse of suburban Moscow, my thoughts returned to the Russia I’d encountered in Tolstoy’s books, in the strains of Tchaikovsky, in those old, grainy movies on Doordarshan which had convinced me that Russians must be a rather affable lot. . .

Boy, was I wrong! In R-r-a-a-s-h-y-a, no one seems to know a word of English. From air hostesses to hotel receptionists, ask them a question and all they do is throw a bunch of vees and zees at you or point at a map or a road sign with some words on it that look like as if someone was trying to write in English with the wrong hand, after having downed a few barrels of cheap vodka. The buildings and the cars were a strange mix-ultra modern glass and steel structures rubbing shoulders and knees with Communist era brick buildings with garish neon signs reasserting the stamp of capitalism, and rust-bucket Ladas standing next to shiny black BMWs. And where are the Sharapovas, because the only women here were all about 50 years old, 50 stone, and looked like versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the woman’s mask in Total Recall. You think I’m being mean?

Wait till you have to use the world’s only post vintage underground railway system. I had to take tuitions from a Scottish expat on hand signals before I could buy a ticket; I was lost in the labyrinthine dungeons that pass off for train stations in Moscow and everytime I would approach an Arnie look alike in a skirt for help, they would look at me as if I’d just thrown up on their favourite carpet, splotched some on my shirt and was still retching as I approached, and walk past with a sneer. So there I was standing on the top of a muddy escalator, a lonely Indian, nervously chewing on Moscow horror stories the Scotsman had recounted, about tourists being singled out, mugged and stabbed by gangs. I had never felt so angry about a city until that moment, when from within the crowd, an angelic young woman and her boyfriend walked upto me, smiled and guided me to my platform, all the while chatting away in English. They stayed till my train arrived, gave me a hug and left. They were the first young people I’d seen, and they’d melted my hardening heart in this cold Russian winter. I met more young people after that – one insisted on buying me lunch simply because we spoke for a while on a train to the Red Square and the only house-maid in my hotel who was under 40, spoke English and was really kind with toiletteries, just because I’m a Bengali like, brace yourself, not Tagore or Subhash, but Mithun Chakroborthy(!!) .

The place isn’t all that bad after all. It’s just that like most countries that are big and great, there are many Russias inside Russia; there is one that is middle aged, mildly xenophobic, and spends time gazing at the Red Square; and then there is the other younger Russia, that walks past the Red Square with less than a passing glance, right into GUM-one of Europe’s most fashionable shopping arcades, a Russia that is taking on and taking in a new world with open arms. Now doesn’t that sound like another country we know rather well…?

The slip stream

Comradian Camaraderie

There are places you would go for adventure and there are sites you’d retreat to for peace. But if it’s intrigue that pulls you, try Russia. Emerging from an inveterate history of dictatorship and communism, it wouldn’t exactly figure on top of the best travel destinations, but worth exploring it certainly remains. Between waterway tours in St Petersburg and shopping at the GUM in Moscow and guzzling a whole lot of vodka, you can try Russia for a variety of reasons, but the reason you must do it most is its people!

Family-oriented, much like ours-the agriculturist economy that it is at heart, the Russians lend good weightage to communal fraternity and dependence. Alas, for a foreign traveller in the land, it would be difficult to experience anything remotely cordial, given their particularly insular attitude towards strangers. This perhaps is compounded by the lack of linguistic flexibility especially amongst older Russians. But this conservatism has its virtues because once a Russian has befriended you, he’s befriended you for life.

More oriental than occidental, the family values reflect the close knit bonds so rare in the West.


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