Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia Trip
by John Fuhring
Leaving Poland and Entering the Russias
The next country we entered after Poland was White Russia (Belarus) and oh lord, what a difference a border makes. One could immediately see and feel a dramatic change on the other side of the border. Poland seemed happy and progressive, White Russia seemed very gloomy, oppressive and backward. I did not like this place as it seemed to epitomize my impression of what it must have been like to live under Stalin.
We crossed the border just before noon and stopped at a ‘Peoples restaurant’ for lunch. It was a nice day and people were outside milling about in the fresh air, but there seemed (to me) to be an air of gloom. Inside the ‘restaurant’ we tourists mingled with a crowd of locals. Two local thugs seemed to be unhappy about something and started a violent fist fight right there in front of everybody. The local customers seemed nonchalant about all the hard, bare fisted punching going on and so I concluded that this sort of thing must be a common occurrence. For a while I thought that perhaps this violence would spread and us ‘bourgeois’ tourists might be the center of some local hostility too, but the two guys finally got tired of punching each other in the face and so, without any further incident, we resumed our lunch. I thought to myself, "what a genteel welcome by some really high class people and how nice it was for them to show us some of their charming local customs." Yes, communism there in Belarus had indeed created a "class-less" society, or should I say, a society with no class at all.
At the border we picked up an all too earnest young woman as an official guide (all tours MUST have a guide, or official spy or whatever she was). As we rode through her country, she went on and on and on and on about things. The poor girl had a lousy command of the English language and she said "well-ah, well-ah, well-ah" until everybody thought they would go crazy!!. She really was a nice person and I felt sorry for her and I (for one) tried to follow what she was trying to tell us long after everyone had tuned her out. In fact, watching and listening to her try so hard was really painful. Really painful.
We finally got through White Russia and crossed into Russia-Russia. To me, Russia didn't seem nearly as oppressive as Belarus, but there was something awful there in Russia we hadn't met up with yet. At every stop we were met by hordes of kids selling all kinds of stuff from watches to old Icons. They were nice kids, but they would not leave you alone - unless you said the magic word for 'NO' in Russian, but you had to say it like you meant it. You had to say it loud and often. To me the word 'NYET !' is very harsh sounding and it felt kind of cruel and almost obscene shouting that word at the kids, but perhaps it wasn't as bad as I thought.
My Impressions of Russia in General
There was no such thing as landscaping or gardening anywhere in Russia (except at the restored palaces) and everything looked very unkempt and ratty (to say the least). Many of the public buildings were quite well constructed and very impressive looking, but the apartment buildings were nothing short of appalling because the workmanship was so shoddy and ugly. On the other hand, every city has its war memorial park, its statues and the obligatory eternal flame always burning to commemorate the millions of people killed in WW II and I must admit that those places are beautifully laid out and kept up. There were always lots of people out on the streets walking, but there was none of the bustle and vehicle traffic you see in Europe or the USA. In the later evening hours, the streets all over Russia became deserted. By the way, have you ever wondered what a Russian stop sign looked like? They are large and red, have eight sides and have the following large letters in the center: S T O P. Yeah, stop signs are identical to the ones in America. Pretty weird, huh?
I thought that the Russians were friendly, they didn't seem to resent us or get too mad when Mary Ann filmed them waiting in huge long lines at the food stores. There seemed to be a sense of apathy and resignation everywhere I went and so many things looked really run-down - kind of like a well educated Mexico. I will say this though, the young people are crazy about looking and acting like Westerners with their jeans and rock and roll music. There was live music at little clubs attached to the motels where we would spend the night and it was always American style rock and roll with English language lyrics.
Believe it or not, there are no road-side rest stops in Russia as we know them. When the bus stopped to let us out to take a pee or a crap, we would be directed to path out to the woods and crap there out in the open. A very few times there would be an outhouse with a simple hole in the ground - no bench or stool - just a hole.
As old and rundown as our motel rooms were, we did have separate bathrooms and did not have to walk out into the forest to relieve ourselves. Many times the bathrooms would have fixtures that didn't work or with missing handles. Of course there were no fans or air conditioning (and it did get hot), no screens for the windows and the mosquitoes were always hungry. At night, while trying to fall asleep in a closed up and stuffy room, Peter would drive me crazy by giving me a bite by bite account of real or imagined bug bites. My god, for a guy from Florida, Pete sure had a thing about insects.
By our standards, the Russians children I saw were respectful, dressed quite nicely and were healthy looking. It was my impression that Russian people, of both sexes, tend to be quite handsome in their youth, but get quite coarse looking by middle age - might have something to do with all the vodka. The Russian girls appeared to me to be very pretty and sweet and they dressed colorfully. According to my old roommate Peter, Russian girls are the kindest and sweetest in the world, and I guess he should know. The old women in the churches we visited appeared fervently religious and wore those horrible black clothes.
Our guides were Russian women and, for the most part, they were helpful and even eager to see that we got as much out of the trip as possible. I'm sure they were all agents of the State though and had to be very careful. By the way, at the time I was there, it was very difficult to travel by yourself in Russia, you pretty much had to be a member of an official tour. It was possible to go by yourself, but the State had to make all the hotel/motel reservations for you and you had to promptly show up at the very place and time you were expected or they'd go looking for you.
I want to mention a little side trip I took to a typical small Russian village one evening.
I probably don't have to tell you that Russia is so far north that from mid June through mid July it doesn't get dark out before 11 PM. One evening after we stopped at a motel about 300 miles north of Moscow, one of Mary Ann's very nice friends pointed out that there were young people walking on a path through a potato field to a bus stop near our motel. Following the path with our eye, we could see a small village in the distance. We knew that we'd have plenty of twilight to explore, so we decided to take the path to the village and look around a bit.
We couldn't have picked a better time or place to see what rural Russia is like. The village consisted of a couple dozen very pretty cottages (that badly needed painting). They all seemed to be connected to a very old electrical system (that didn't work). The streets were unpaved, and there was nothing in the little town, but there was a little motorcycle dirt race track nearby. At that time of the day, many villagers were lined up at open wells, yes, open wells. There was no running water in the village, all water was drawn into milk cans and buckets from open water wells just like Jack and Jill's well.
The people we passed were polite although they knew we were strangers. We were waved at by a few and beamed upon by this sweet little old lady. The children seemed very shy and we could see them banded together talking something over. After a while this meeting of ‘The Committee of People's Children" broke up and they all came at us looking very much like they wanted candy. Mary Ann's friend had enough candy for each one except one very pretty teenage girl - I know it's silly, but I can't tell you how terrible I felt that she got left out.
Earlier that afternoon, before visiting the little village, I happened to look into a side room of the motel lobby and saw the manager in there. He was a middle aged guy who wore a very official looking uniform (and wore it well too). I could see him in his "office" through a crack in the doorway and there he was in there all by himself with a bottle of vodka and a bottle of milk. First he would take a slug of one then a slug of the other and then a slug of the other and so on. At no time, in or out of his little "office" did our motel official, in his very official uniform, appear drunk. The capacity of the Russians to hold their liquor is a thing of legends.
Speaking of Russians and drinking, I heard a story once - I have no idea if it is true or not - that an early Viking ruler of what is now the heartland of Mother Russia was looking for a "modern" religion to unite all his peoples under one church and one king. He was most impressed with Islam so he invited a famous scholar to tell him all about what he'd need to do to create a Muslim State. Things went extremely well, but when the scholar got to the part where alcoholic drink is forbidden, that was it, Islam was out. Period. The king considered it totally unreasonable to deny his people (and himself) the pleasure of getting roaring drunk during the long, boring Russian winter nights.
About this same time, some of the king's men got back from a trip they had made down the Volga River all the way to Constantinople. While there, these simple Viking boys got invited to go to church and oh what a church it was. These very rustic Russian boys were absolutely blown away by the elaborate ceremonies, the bejeweled statues, the unmatched architectural & ornamental grandeur of the Saint Sophia Cathedral and the rich crowns & vestments of the priests of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Most of impressive of all - to the king anyway - was the fact that a Christian could drink like a fish and it would be OK with the Church. In fact, the head guy up in the sky, Jesus himself, was famous for turning vodka (Russian for water) into alcohol hence the love the Russians have had for 'Russian Water' ever since. The king was absolutely delighted, Jesus and his miraculous water (English for vodka) was perfectly OK, even holy, to drink and so the king decreed that Eastern Orthodoxy is the ideal religion for Russia and everybody had to join or else.
According to what was told me, this is why Russia isn't Muslim, but is today the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church (ever since the old center, Constantinople, was lost to the Turks). Isn't it amazing how trivial matters affect millions and millions of people for hundreds and hundreds of years? On the other hand, now that I think about it, drinking in Russia isn't such a trivial matter, is it?