The Russian revolution 20 Sep 2005
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ANNE MCDONNELL experiences Russia: from living like a princess in Pushkin, to the cobbles of Moscow.
My partner and I had decided to see what small-town Russia was all about and after flicking through our trusty Lonely Planet, we decided on our destination – Pushkin.
It was perfect in theory. The town contained one of Catherine the Great’s majestic palaces surrounded by acres of beautiful parks, which was just the ticket after the chaos of Moscow and St Petersburg. However, upon boarding what we thought was the right train we realised we had no idea where to get off. What followed was a rather drawn-out game of charades involving most of the occupants of our carriage.
Our attempts at communication using our meagre Russian were failing miserably when salvation arrived in the form of a middle-aged woman in a floral dress. "Yula" commandeered our Lonely Planet, herded us off the train, on to a bus and to our final destination, gesticulating madly at our heavily loaded packs.
Pushkin did not disappoint. Being a bit of a princess I decided there was only one place I was going to stay and that was in the palace. One wing of the Catherine the Great Palace has been converted into a hotel. The décor is general modern hotel style, but it just feels that little bit more special plus it is located right in the midst of the palace’s beautiful gardens. For around £80 you can experience a night in a Russian palace.
After settling down we decided to check out the Pushkin nightlife. In the main street we managed to find a pub that reportedly also served food. One of the locals who spoke passable English was drafted in to help with the ordering, but the gourmet offering that arrived was an interesting combination of deep-fried chicken balls and limp salad.
The occupants of the pub (all of five of them) watched us with interest as they shoved roubles into the poker machines and drank tiny shots of vodka at a frightening speed.
We moved on and found a rather more vibrant bar a bit further down the road. The reason for the crowd (in comparison to the last pub) was karaoke. Karaoke is pretty painful at the best of times, but Russian karaoke is incom-prehensible. However, not to miss an opportunity to get involved we belted out an interesting version of Lost in Love to a less-than-impressed audience.
Pushkin, as with most small towns, has a different feel to the cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. In Moscow, beautiful and affluent young people stroll through the well-manicured Alexander Gardens, (which on Saturdays teem with bridal parties as happy couples pose for photos) and across the well-worn cobbles of Red Square where St Basil’s presides like a fairytale castle, all turrets and spirals of Disney-like proportions.
Summer evenings see the Muscovites drinking in groups in the city’s parks or merely on street corners. Street vendors sell cheap beers and alco-pops from tiny caravans for about 25p a bottle.
The pub scene is a little underdeveloped, but we did stumble across a gem in Kitay-Gorod, a tiny jazz and blues bar called Bourbon Street. With large couches and a live jazz band, it is well worth a look though more a hang-out for tourists than locals. For clubbers check out Propaganda, which is just a little further down the road.
Bored-looking police officers stood around in groups on the streets of Moscow just waiting for something to happen. The highlight of their day seemed to be blowing their whistles at some ignorant tourist who indulged in a bit of traffic-dodging rather than using the subways beneath the roads.
Babushkas sit in cubicles at the bottom of the escalators in the metro stations. I still have yet to discover what their function is.
In comparison, St Petersburg has a slightly edgier feel than Moscow, not helped by its reputation as a haven for pickpockets. Very few people have come out of St Petersburg with all their cash intact. The best idea is to be extra vigilant around the tourist spots and don’t walk around by yourself at night, especially if you’ve got a couple of vodkas under your belt.
If Moscow has a slightly American tone, then a stroll down Nevsky Prospeckt in St Petersburg will take you back to the Champs Elysées. Well-dressed Russians share the pavement with tourists against a backdrop of the well-restored majestic buildings. This is quite in contrast to the rest of the city which seems to be crumbling.
For a spot of up-market dining and Russian culture, check out the St Petersburg restaurant which overlooks the canal by the Church of the Spilt Blood. It is a little pricey but the food is fabulous and you can sample Russian staples like pelmeni (Russian ravioli) and reindeer, while being entertained by the requisite Cossack dancing and general frivolity.
Dacha, originally someone’s apartment is now the place to be seen in St Petersburg if you are young, hip and trendy. It can be found just off Nevsky Prospekt. The clientele is usually local students and a few tourists. We dropped in, supervised a game of kicker (fuse ball) and ordered some orange with our vodka, which was met with a slightly bemused expression.
Russian history reads like an episode of Eastenders with the requisite affairs, feuds, murder and scandal. The esteemed Catherine the Great, a rather odd choice of hero, was a German who married the Tsar Alexander, only to have him murdered when he went mad. She went on to have 24 lovers in her lifetime and bestowed them with millions of roubles’ worth of gifts. Her story was told to us by Helena, our guide in the Hermitage "Vinter Palace" in St Petersburg. She also rather wryly and not so jokingly pointed out that things hadn’t changed so much since Catherine’s reign, alluding to the gap between the rich and the poor, which is still evident in St Petersburg.
A guide is a worthwhile expense at around £15 per person. Not only does it allow you to jump the rather long queue but it also means you can see all the most interesting artefacts in a short space of time plus get a little extra commentary as you go.
Everything in Russia is done at a frightfully slow pace and often not done at all. Get used to the phrase "it’s impossible". Service in Russia works on the division of labour principle – there is one person to do one particular job even if that one person is busy and there are six others standing around doing nothing. The service industry is a bit of a myth in Russia with one exception…
All hail the Russian railways. The overnight sleeper train from Moscow to St Petersburg is a pure joy. We were unable to get one of the first class cabins but for about £84 return we secured a second class cabin, which had four bunks.
The beds were soft, there was air-con and a little breakfast box of goodies provided for the morning, as well as slippers and pack of essentials such as toothpaste.
So, some last-minute tips for your Russian adventure: practice your charades, pack zip-pocket trousers only, a stylish 80s outfit, a whole lot of patience and, of course, a smile! And in case of emergencies look out for middle-aged women in floral dresses!
Getting there: Daily flights run to Moscow from all major European capitals, and most days to St Petersburg.
Getting in: All nationalities require a visa. Go to www.geographia.com/russia for more information.
Money: The rouble: £1 = 51.139 roubles
Language: Russian. Cyrillic alphabet.
Tips: It’s a lot of hassle to get a visa so often tours or people who do it for you are a good idea.
Both the Great Britain and New Zealand governments strongly recommend registering with their offices in Moscow when you arrive. Visit www.mfat.govt.nz or www.britishembassy.gov.uk for more information.
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