There are only two alcoholic drinks worth drinking in Russia, champagne and vodka. By the way did you know that vodka translates as “little water”? Champagne was available with 5 different sugar contents. I liked the one in the middle and missed having it available when I came back to the states where Brut is the most popular. Russians delight in popping champagne corks and if you look at any low hanging ceilings in restaurants to can see the damage corks have affected over the years. Champagne is usually the drink of choice for the women leaving vodka to men to test their manhood.
A liter of vodka cost between 7 and 10 Rubles making it affordable but not cheap. A liter bottle had no screw top or cork, just an aluminum tab, so when a bottle was opened, it pretty much had to be completely consumed. There was no way to cap it again without danger of spillage. A number of drunks could always be found on the ground, passed out even in the dead of winter or see men weaving and reeling down the street needing to prop themselves up every few yards. I was not used to seeing drunks so completely out of it.
I had read that Russians men don’t really trust another man, unless they can drink vodka with them shot for shot. Indeed, I had more than one chance to prove they could trust me and I discovered a previous unknown talent I had; being able to outdrink most Russians. It was considered good manners to always propose a toast and while my toasts were never inspiring or particularly eloquent, I learned how to flatter my drinking company or relate my yearning that we all be comrades in search of truth and understanding.
At work I was always presented with papers to sign which were mostly designed to protect the Russians rear ends. I suppose in a system where good work goes unrewarded and mistakes are punished, this was to be expected. The people I dealt with on a daily basis were good communists in the sense that they were able to talk the ideology and were promoted because of it, but they were not the brightest bulb. Once in a while, a technical person would be brought into a meeting and I found them to be very competent.
The average Russians knowledge about what was going on in the outside world was very limited which I expected but they were also ignorant about their own government actions and their not too distant history including anything about Stalin. Government officials lived in style while the average citizen had to scurry and scrounge or just learn to live without.
I found I sympathized with them and identified with their desire for a better life. Basically, I saw Soviet citizens as good people except for their willingness to spy on their fellow citizen. When I went to a club where there was a large dance floor, as soon as the music started to play they were up and dancing, none of the hanging back at first. And invariably towards midnight the music became more gypsy in feel, the Russian men would get out on the floor and dance by themselves, I would join in also letting my body respond to the music.
One of the things I wish had known about before my first arrival was the quality of toilet paper available or lack thereof. The surface of some was similar to wax paper, others were very rough and sometimes full of wood chips. I actually started a collection. I am not exactly why it did so; perhaps it was to astound folks back home. I am sure I showed it once or twice, but it’s not really a topic that comes up frequently in polite company.
One can never be assured that a toilet has any toilet paper at all, so everyone travels around with their pockets or purses stuffed with some sort of tissue just in case. A supply of which surely qualifies as emergency rations.
As I have travelled to more places in the world by now, I have come to an epiphany that I want to share with the world. Here it is, “the degree of civilization of a country is directly proportional to the quality of its toilet paper. You can call Herd’s law if you wish.
The Good Things
Ice cream tasted just like back home. I liked their black bread especially when butter and caviar were added. In Moscow, the subway system is a thing of marvel, clean, cheap and efficient. One day I spent the entire day riding the Metro, getting off each station and enjoying each station’s unique style and beauty.
And speaking of art, the museums, ballet theaters, and novels are things deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche. Artists can be seen on the street selling their wares and much of it quite good. The sweep and scope of Moscow, especially all of Red Square took my breathe away. Lenin’s tomb, St Basil’s church, the Kremlin walls, and the spot-lighted hammer and cycle Red Flag waving within a Kremlin spire were all there. The Gum department store rests to the side with the Rossiya Hotel looming in the near background. The flag is constantly waving with support of a small fan. This is something America should consider for the Capitol Building and White House. Who wants to see a limp flag?
The streets are very wide so traffic moves well and underground tunnels are provided for pedestrians to cross the street. The streets and tunnels were always kept clean by a bevy of old women with their stiff bristled brooms and the tunnels were free of graffiti.
I owe this to a sort of a collective thought process by the citizens. They feel it is their duty to come up to you and tell you that it is cold enough to be wearing a hat should you be hatless. Throwing something on the sidewalk or street might result in you being chastised and applying graffiti would surely get you arrested, something to really, really avoid as you might disappear forever.
I always felt safe on the streets late at night. Once I rode in an unofficial taxi driven by a man who had 3 sons. He was an Engineer, but was out offering rides to supplement his income. We compared our lives and our daily living, possible because he spoke good English if somewhat limited. When I reminiscence, about Russia I always remember this moment and it is strangely one of my warmest moments.
On the outside of the wide street a lane is reserved for government cars the Chaika and the Zil. We were always driven around in a Chaika and the Zil was for persons high up in the government. Should an ordinary citizen wander is this lane of privilege and slow down one of these cars, they would be blasted with a loud horn and cursed at. Okay, I know this is not really a good thing, except if you are riding in a Chaika on the way to Sheremetyevo.
All in all, I could not help but to like almost all the Russians I met, some of whom I shared some personal moments. My experiences there colored by the times which have changed. I fear not all the changes have been for the better. The culture of corruption has grown and the street may not be as safe but I am sure the spirit of the Russian people remains strong.