Category Archives: sunday travel

The Sunday Travel Section: Russia Spits in your Eye

The Moscow Times reports:

Surly babushkas. Sky-high prices. Hotels that claim to have only pricey deluxe suites available when many of the rooms are obviously empty. These are some of the complaints that foreign visitors to Moscow have posted on the web site TripAdvisor, which released a survey this week calling the Russian capital the third-unfriendliest city in Europe.

Moscow ranked third in a list of “European Cities with the Most Unfriendly Hosts” according to the more than 1,400 travelers from around the world queried by TripAdvisor, a portal that calls itself the world’s largest online travel community, with more than 25 million visitors per month. The rudest locals live in Paris, while the second-rudest live in London, according to the survey. The survey results, released this week, ranked the top European cities in a broad range of categories, including the best bargain (Prague), the most expensive (London), the dirtiest (also London) and the most boring (Brussels).

Moscow only came up in one category: the most unfriendly hosts.

Dmitry Shultsev, a spokesman for the city government’s tourism committee, denied that Moscow was an unfriendly place and suggested that the report was deliberately biased in order to scare away potential visitors. “We do not agree with this,” Shultsev said by telephone Thursday. “Every year Moscow is becoming more comfortable, more interesting, cozier and more attractive for our guests from abroad.” Similar reports have appeared in the international media just before the start of every tourist season for the past five years, Shultsev said. “They do everything possible to keep Russia down and to depict it in a negative light in order to reduce the flow of foreigners in Moscow,” he said.

A London-based spokesman for TripAdvisor called the allegation “ridiculous” and insisted that the report was simply based on travelers’ answers. “The survey also has London as the dirtiest and most expensive,” Ian Rumgay said. “So is that a plot to dissuade people from going to London?” Rumgay said he could not think of a previous occasion when local tourism officials had responded critically to a negative result in a TripAdvisor survey.

The rankings were based on answers by users who had agreed to participate in the survey, said Rumgay, who provided data that suggested Russian tourism officials did not have that much to worry about. The rankings were determined by travelers’ responses to the question “What European city’s locals do you think are the most unfriendly hosts?” Given a list of cities, 40 percent chose Paris, 8 percent chose London and only 7 percent chose Moscow, Rumgay said. “So despite coming in third, Moscow in reality did not fare that badly,” he said.

Rumgay could not say how many of the 1,400 survey respondents had actually been to Moscow. He conceded that London and Paris may have been popular responses because they are heavily visited cities. In previous TripAdvisor surveys, Moscow’s name did not come up at all, Rumgay said, suggesting that may reflect the growing number of foreigners visiting Russia. TripAdvisor maintains a database of reviews written by travelers who offer opinions about hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions around the world. The Moscow section of the web site contains testimony about the quality of service on offer at various hotels and words of caution to future travelers. Some reviews are horror stories with scathing titles such as “Beware the Babushkas!” Shultsev, however, insisted that Moscow hotel staff were well-trained and denied that they were rude to foreign guests. “Such things never happen in Moscow’s leading hotels,” he said. “It might be possible that in certain second- and third-tier hotels the level of service is not high enough because of repairs or renovation. But to suggest that someone would insult or offend a foreign guest — this is something I will never agree with.”

Foreign visitors provided more critical accounts when told about the survey results in central Moscow on Thursday. “It took two hours for the hotel to find our reservations, and the whole time we were just sitting on our baggage in the hallway,” Julia Feld, a tourist from Luxembourg, said while standing near the Kremlin. “But they were very friendly about it,” her companion, Norbert Tewner, quickly interjected. Sitting on a sofa in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, German tourist Elizabeth Forsting, 44, expressed frustration about an attempt to get directions. “In London, if you stop someone on the street, they’ll help you,” she said. “Here, when I showed people a map, they wouldn’t help me at all. I asked five different people for help, and they were all very unfriendly.”

Forsting, who has previously visited countries like Thailand and Mexico, said her problems did not just stem from the language barrier. “I’ve been many other places where they don’t speak English,” she said. “But here they won’t even try to help you by hand gestures or whatever.” Forsting’s anecdote echoed the results of a June 2006 survey that called Moscow one of the least polite cities in the world. In the survey, Reader’s Digest magazine ranked Moscow 31st out of 36 cities after sending reporters to assess the politeness of locals by carrying out various tests, such as seeing whether store clerks said “thank you” after a purchase or noting how often people held doors open for them. The magazine found that Moscow and Bucharest were the rudest cities in Europe.

Not all the foreigners interviewed Thursday agreed that Muscovites were bad hosts. “If that’s true, we certainly haven’t felt it,” said Martino, a 35-year-old French backpacker who declined to give her last name. Luciano Rossi, a member of the Italian parliament who was on an official visit to Moscow, defended Russian hospitality when asked for comment on Red Square. “I suggest that people respect the style of Russia,” he said. “I myself am not a big fan of the kind of globalization that says that everything has to be the same.”

The number of foreign tourists in Moscow reached 4.1 million in 2007, up 7.5 percent from the previous year, according to the city government’s tourism committee. In 1999, there were less than 1.5 million tourists. One tourism expert agreed that the infrastructure supporting tourism in Moscow had improved tremendously in the past 10 years. Still, the city has a long way to go before it will be on par with major European capitals, said Helene Lloyd, director of TMI, a marketing and public relations company that studies the tourism sector. “I think the problem is that tourism is still not really considered an important sector for Russia,” Lloyd said. “Until that happens, things are obviously going to go very slowly.”

The Sunday Travel Section: Russia, a Guide for the Cautious Traveler

Russia: A Guide for the Cautious Traveler

by blogger Ivan Jaan

(exclusive to La Russophobe)

“I don’t reproach the Russians for being what they are; what I blame them for is their desire to appear to be what we are. They are much less interested in being civilized than in making us believe them so. They would be quite content to be in effect more awful and barbaric then they actually are, if only others could thereby be made to believe them better and more civilized”

— Marquis de Custine, “Russia in 1839

A mindful international traveler should be aware of the risks and dangers associated with visiting foreign countries. There’s pickpocketing, mugging, infectious deceases and tortuous bureaucracy. Russia is not exception. Planning a trip, and even more so when considering relocation or doing business in Russia, one should consider the relevant risks and prepare to face them, starting with choosing reliable travel agent and ending with getting one’s travel documents in order. The following guide is designed to prepare those with such intentions, and may be seen as a bit critical or conservative, but it is in fact quite realistic. The country at issue is infamous for lawlessness. Lack of attention to local requirements may just lead to increased chances of experiencing the reasons for that infamy, which could be unfortunate, unnecessary or even tragic.

Russia is hardly a featured destination promoted by many travel guides or the subject of much promotional advertising, and in fact regularly vies for many titles in the league of the “world’s worsts” often finding itself near the very top of that dubious heap. Examples of several of these instances are given in this overview.

Violent Crime

Russia has got one of the highest murder rates in the World. According to the latest available statistics (PDF) on Russia from the UN crime watchdog, in 2000 the country held 5th place among the most murder-friendly countries, with 20 persons out of every 100,000 killed intentionally every year. A significant portion of the Russian press is permanently dedicated to news about violent crime. Robberies and homicides play prominent role in the lives and in the deaths of Russians. However, as the capacity of the press is limited, only the most significant cases get coverage, with most of the attention going to mass-murders, acts of terrorism, assassinations as well as attacks and accidents involving prominent people and celebrities.

Every year serial killers with body counts reaching dozens are discovered. One of the most prominent of them is Alexander Pichushkin (see his Wiki entry), charged, convicted sentenced to life in prison for murdering 48 persons in Moscow — with his actual toll said to be significantly higher. Of course, it’s not just serial killers; gangs terrorize the population too. Crime in Russia includes everything you have seen in the action films. While at the lower levels the country is infested with street thugs, drug dealers and armed robbers, higher profile groups, such as gangs of professional assassins long ago became part of the Russian landscape. Russia is infamous internationally for political killings, particularly the assassination of prominent opposition journalists, but on the local level it is mostly businessmen and local government officials who are preyed upon.

One such criminal group originates in the town of Kingisepp just several kilometers away from the Estonian border, the so called Kingisepp gang. Over the past decade the gang has been officially connected to assassinations of dozens and dozens of businessmen and business managers (see in Russian). In 2007 members of the group were convicted of assassinating 6 business executives, with that number allegedly reflecting only a small part of their actual operations. The group was able to function without punishment because of its connections. The prosecution claims one of the key clients of the gang was Russian Federation Council member (similar to the U.S. Senate) Igor Izmestyev (see in Russian), now under investigation for his alleged involvement. Members of Russian anti-narcotics police were also convicted of aiding the gang (see in Russian). Most other assassinations, though, remain mysterious to this day.

Other sensational incidents of crime are prevalent as well, for example kidnapping, on which the Moscow Times reported last week:

University students traditionally celebrate Jan. 25, or St. Tatyana’s Day, by getting drunk while police turn a blind eye to their excesses on the last day of the winter session. But one student from a prestigious Moscow institute spent the holiday chained up in a hole in the ground before police freed her from kidnappers. Police freed the 20-year-old woman, a student at the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs, or MGIMO, from captivity Saturday after she was kidnapped two days earlier outside the institute in southwest Moscow, city police spokesman Igor Tsirulnikov said Tuesday. The suspects placed the girl in a hole 2 meters deep, 3 meters wide and 4 meters long that they dug in a service bay sunk into the floor of the garage, where they kept her chained up while they called her father — a “state official” — and demanded $60,000 in ransom money. The suspects — Rodion Sinelshchikov, Alexander Chernykh and Dmitry Komrakov — staked out students at MGIMO because it is one of the choice universities for children of the country’s political and business elite, so their parents are able to pay ransoms, Tsirulnikov said.

Although scores of foreign visitors fall prey of theft and violence, crime against tourists does not receive special attention unless it is outstanding, as was the case of recent beatings of British football fans in Moscow (see in English: Kommersant and BBC News). Specific dangers tourists can face in Russia include police harassment and, provided the visitors are unfortunate enough to have the necessary facial features, violent attacks by neo-Nazi and skinhead groups.

Law Enforcement

you decide that the prime source of danger in Russia is crime, let me tell you about those charged with protecting law and order. It is widely known that Russia is not just one of the most criminal, but one of the most corrupt countries in the World. The scale of the problem is so enormous that this issue, unlike some others, is recognized as serious one even at the top level of the country’s secretive and defiant leadership. It is not without reason “Transparency International,” the global corruption watchdog, ranks Russia among world’s worst countries in societal corruption. Some African and many Latin American countries routinely considered as “corrupt” are in fact more honest than Russia. Experts estimate that the Russian black market and bribes related to it attain a share of GDP of almost astronomic proportions, with many layers of society and government drawing their main income from such shadowy activities.

The problem is not limited merely to bribes, extortion and other garden variety corrpution; the situation is much more sinister. To get an idea of the true extent of what is going on, let’s turn to public opinion surveys. Opinion polls indicate that it is not the criminals the people of Russia fear the most, but Russian police themselves (curiously in Russia police is officially called “militia,” милиция, a word typically associated in the West with an army). Russia’s inhabitants (see these news sources in Russian: 1, 2) consider their police the most dangerous organization among the forces of organized crime in Russia. Russians characterize their police in following terms (Public Opinion Foundation, in Russian):

“Тот же преступник, но в форме и под защитой закона”

“They are the same criminals, but under protection of the law”

“среди них – сплошь преступники, которые насилуют, крадут, убивают безнаказанно”

“Criminals throughout the force, they rape, steal and kill at will”

“часть криминала”

“Part of criminal elements”

“бандит по сравнению с милиционером – святой человек, даже у бандита есть какие-то обязанности перед своим патроном, а у милиционера – вообще нет”.

“Compared to a member of militia a bandit is a saint, at least he’s got some responsibilities before his superiors, militia member has none”

73 per cent of Russians believed in 2005 that they could become victims of police force despotism, while only 4 per cent completely ruled out this possibility, according to a poll by “Public Verdict Foundation.” As much as my personal opinion can be of interest, the 4 per cent confidence figure seems awfully close to the number of law enforcers and their associates in the country. One can watch videos on police force brutality if so inclined.

Law Enforcement Case Study: Rape

If you think “robberies, rape and murder” being committed by police forces is an exaggeration, think again. It is not without good reason that Amnesty International calls the situation in Russian police stations a “litany of horror,” citing “regular beatings rape and torture” according to BBC News. The Russian press is full of reports on the criminal activities of the police force. I wouldn’t attempt covering the full range of it in this overview, turning instead to one of them, rape. In certain regions rape seems to have become almost like police official business. Unfortunately for tourists Moscow are not excluded. One can read pieces like one found on regarding policeman charged with raping and robbing dozens of women in Moscow. This is just one example, the sordid and shocking details of which I will decline to repeat. Those with an interest may explore them.

Two years ago the media exploded in stories about gangs of Moscow metro (subway) police engaging in regular rapes. According to the reports of the press “normally” Moscow police limit their sexual prety to prostitutes and immigrants, but by 2004 more and more cases of mainstream women being raped emerged. The activities of a “police rape ring” or “rape club” were chronicled, as they engaged in picking random females for rape in Moscow metro, by human right activist German Galdetsky and his associates. Soon after this he was taken out of equation by a gunshot to the head (sources in English 1, 2; in Russian 3). The scandal faded as Moscow police responded to the accusation decisively, namely by cracking down on human rights groups who were reporting the news.

Despite everything said above the most visible and widespread criminal activity of the police remains bribes and extortion. The participants see immigrants from Central Asian and Caucasian countries as their primary source of income, with tourists left intact if they have their papers in full order. This conclusion is supported by message boards and Internet forums by travelers with experiences in Russia. Unfortunately, foreign tourists are also usually “left alone” when it comes to their reports of crimes being committed against them.

Various online guides are available to laymen who may need to deal with interactions involving the Russian police (see in Russian), but it is generally assumed a simply negotiated “donation” will help to soften the strict eye of the law in most cases.

Health and Disease

It’s not a secret that the Russian habit of heavy drinking adds to the general unhealthiness of the population. For a tourist, of course, this should not be a problem in itself, though there are always some “buts” to consider. Just one drink of unchecked quality can create problems for an incautious tourist. Some scientists estimate that fake spirits, a cheaper and more unhealthy replacement for legal spirits, cause up to one third of the deaths in the country (see, in Russian). Acute cases of alcohol poisoning can dwarf the impact of many known infectious diseases, with alcohol emergency situations sometimes declared in the federal regions. Imagine a horror movie about an unknown virus sweeping the country, with an army of doctors cordoning off the area, replace “virus” with cheap vodka and you won’t find yourself too far in the realm of Sci-Fi where Russia is concerned. For example, one piece (in English) reports that “dozens of Russians have died and more than 1,000 received hospital treatment in a wave of alcohol poisoning sweeping the country” and tells about emergency situations declared throughout several regions, while another piece (in Russian) gives some more details from ground zero in three Russian regions becoming catastrophe zones because of massive poisoning in bad spirits.

As the German publication Die Weft puts it:

“Doch Schwarzbrenner sind immer noch ein großes Problem. Experten schätzen, dass der Inhalt jeder dritten Flasche illegal ist. Die Ärmsten greifen sogar zu hochprozentigem Badewannenreiniger.”

“Fake vodka is still a major problem. Experts estimate that every third bottle in circulation is illegal. The poorest people even drink high alcohol content bathtub cleaners”

According to the German paper, Russians hold first place in the world when judged by the amount of alcohol consumed, with each inhabitant imbibing 17 liters of pure spirits annually, both clean and illegal. A foreigner attempting to introduce himself to this lifestyle would surely find himself shortly in need of urgent medical aid.

Medical aid

As cold, northern country, Russia doesn’t have many threatening or easily communicable infectious diseases. But if you get sick and must see a doctor don’t hold high expectations for your recovery. As a Western travel guide puts it:

“Medical care is usually far below western standards, with severe shortages of basic medical supplies. Access to the few quality facilities that exist in major cities usually requires cash payment at western rates upon admission.”

In other words, if you are unlucky, you may die of lack of aspirin in a Russian hospital.

A summary of some of the worst examples of medical treatment can be found in the reportings of the Russian major portal, with reference to the German journal Focus. In short, many doctors in Russia have little respect for professional ethics and are either unprofessional or won’t stop at killing or mutilating their patients if it brings in more money than keeping them alive and healthy. For example there are media reports (see in Russian) about doctors in Khabarovsk who are under investigation for killing 56 of their patients for the purpose of organ removal and sale as well as for cutting out organs from the bodies of hundreds of more patients who were lucky enough to be released alive. One should not think that this phenomenon is limited to remote provincial locations; one can read (see in Russian) about organ removals from live patients in Moscow as well. Here, again, medics are under official investigation for their activities, having been caught red-handed. In particular case a patient A. T. Orekhov was discovered by the police during an anti-organ trade “dawn raid,” in act of organ removal, with the patient’s guts lying open. Mr Orekhov, a victim of an accident, was already prepared to be registered as “dead” by the medics. But as police and police medical experts were looking at Mr Orekhov’s body, the body looked back at the police, figuratively speaking. He died shortly after (see an overview of the Orekhov’s case in English). As a traveler you should take care of assuring the medics you can pay them. If you don’t want to end up as Mr Orekhov did, that is.

Skinheads and Nazi groups

In this domain too Russia has a prominent position. Russia’s racist and neo-Nazi groups are recognized as world’s strongest, with 50 thousand fanatical members. A report by the San Francisco Chronicle states that nearly half the world’s skinheads live in Russia.” Last week, the Moscow Times reported that race crimes increased 13% in Russia last year.

Not only are the Russian Nazis numerous, but their cruelty is legendary. Their second favorite activity after greeting each other with Nazi salutes is beating up people who appear to hail from Central Asia, Caucasian republics of the former USSR, former African satellite countries, former East Asian allied countries and Jews. They don’t have the habit of checking passports first, but rely on looks. Therefore a traveler with facial features like the people of the above mentioned countries should take good, very good care. Better still, consider not going. The Russian public remains somewhat unaware of these events, learning only about sensational incidents that involve celebrities, such as Zair Tutov, the singer and holder of the “People’s Artist” designation, a high Russuan honor, and of the position of minister of culture in the North Caucus Region, who was beaten famously up by skinheads (see this overview in Russian).

Foreign embassies may file official protests to the Russian government demanding protection of their citizens all they want, as does Amnesty International and the United Nations’ refugees body, but little is achieved on positive side.

Some of the more cruel cases of Neo-Nazi assaults have included:

1. Murdering anti-Nazi activists such as anti-Nazi expert Nikolai Girenko. See the overview of Mr Girenko’s case in Time Magazine as well as this overview (PDF) of attacks on human rights activist in St Petersburg by the World Organization Against Torture.

2. Beheading immigrant workers and posting the video of their execution on the internet (BBC News). Warning: Very bloody.

3. Capturing a woman looking like an immigrant in the street, dragging her away to a cemetery, cutting chunks of her flesh while she is alive, cooking the meat over the fire and eating the meat. No kidding. See the full story in, in Russian.

4. Instantaneous gang-style attacks on pedestrians in the streets of major cities in broad day light, including the killings of 5 and 9 year-old children (San Francisco Chronicles, BBC News, video).

5. Pogroms. BBC News reports that “an estimated 300 skinheads attacked market places in Moscow two years ago, killing three people.” See also a video on skinhead attacks in Russia (video). Or the video on the pogrom in the city of Kondopoga (video).

6. Advancement in the neo-Nazi hierarchy ranks according to the number of foreigners “executed.” The most prominent known case is 18 year old Artur Ryno, who is under investigation for murdering 37 persons, both foreigners and people from ethnic minorities in Moscow (see Russia Today in English).

But how about police, don’t they do something? Of course they do, as demonstrated by the case of Magomet Tolboev (Wiki). He was beaten up in the street of the capital by the police, for being ethnic Chechen (see in Russian). He was stopped for a routine document check (“face control”). With the worst ethnic case confirmed, the cops went nuts on him. Unlike thousands of others Tolboev’s story became a scandal, because Mr. Tolboev is a highly decorated Soviet test pilot and astronaut, holder of the title of “Hero of Russia” and adviser to a member of the parliament.

Finally, one should not relay too heavily on the idea that getting into trouble with skinheads would create sympathy within the rest of the population. The share of public support for the skinheads’ chauvinist ideas goes to 61 per cent (Time Magazine). Therefore what can actually happen is that instead of helping a victim the people around would rather help the attackers with an extra kick or two.


In the last decade terrorist attacks have claimed hundreds of lives in mainland Russia (the number would go into thousands if the Caucasian region of the country was added). Under the leadership of president Vladimir Putin the country saw hostage taking incidents with probably the world record for fatalities during so-called rescue operations. Because these events are as gruesome as they are well publicized, I’d leave this subject out of this overview.

It should be mentioned though, that foreign tourists too get killed and injured during terrorist attacks in Russia. For example, in one of such crisis, Moscow’s Dubrovka theater siege, 9 out of total of 129 hostages killed by the poison gas released by the police were foreign nationals. A Wikipedia article lists a specific detail of the incident. According to Wiki the terrorists, who probably wanted to minimize their negative media coverage in the West, offered to unilaterally release the foreign hostages, but the negotiators refused to allow the foreigners to leave. To explain this decision, one might reference the foregoing section.

Lack of safety and catastrophes

Deadly accidents and catastrophes are everyday affairs in Russia as most of the country’s infrastructure is inherited from the times of the USSR and hasn’t seen any significant repairs since. There are accidents in the mines, gas explosions, building collapses and much more. Some of the most troubling to the authorities are breakdowns of central heating systems in apartment blocks, as they happen every year in Sibirian cities in winter, with outside temperature in dozens of degrees below the freezing point. These accident have sometimes lead to riots and clashes with the police.

Bloodier however are the cases of airplane crashes. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports:

“If you’re planning a plane trip in Russia this summer, you might want to think again. A study released this week by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) shows that Russia and other former Soviet countries are the world’s most dangerous places for air travel”

Reuters seconds:

“Russia remains the most dangerous place to fly despite global improvements that made 2006 the safest year on record, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported on Tuesday. Russia and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) had an accident rate 13 times the global average, IATA said.”

“In the CIS the rate was 8.6 accidents per million flights, or twice the rate of Africa, where the level fell to 4.31 from 9.2.”

As opposed to air travel, trains are safer on the operational side, though they are bombed more often by the terrorists. Road traffic can be characterized as chaotic and very dangerous with Russia competing with other C.I.S. countries for the title of the country with the highest rate of deadly car accidents per capita in Europe.

Despite the obvious lack of modernization of the old Soviet infrastructure, the situation can actually be seen as even worse in the case of many newly erected facilities and buildings, constructed without competent, honest supervision. reports in a story titled “Experts: living in Moscow skyscrapers is extremely dangerous” on the unsound engineering design of most new housing structures in Moscow. According to the report, Moscow’s skyscrapers, hundreds of which were and are erected at an amazing speed, are unsafe. Safety experts warn that living in one of Moscow numerous newer apartyment towers is dangerous. Caverns are constantly forming in the wet soil beneath the structures, with cracks appearing here and there as the first sign of the danger. To make the case worse, the skyscrapers aren’t equipped for evacuation in case of possible emergencies, with Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu calling existing staircases inadequate. To have a sense of the situation take a look at some fresh photographs taken under the foundation of one of Moscow’s new “elite” apartment housings by a Moscow blogger.

Examples of deadly construction accidents include the collapse of an arch in Transvaal Park (an aqua park) in Moscow in 2004 (Wiki), which killed 28 guests of the facility and the collapse of the roof of Moscow’s Basmanny market (Wiki) in 2006. Erected in 19074 and thereafter neglected, 66 people were killed in the accident inside the Moscow-owned market when it collapsed.

The Army

Foreign visitors are largely safe from the danger of being drafted into the Russian army, which otherwise has dreadful reputation (see report by Human Rights Watch) with scores of draftees killed and mutilated every year. See photographs of private Andrei Sychev, before and after or videos on hazing. The fear of being drafted into the army is so strong that only 9.5 per cent of males of draft age are actually conscripted into the army, as revealed in 2004 by then minister of defense Sergey Ivanov (see in Russian). According to the minister, this figure, 9.5 per cent is a “world lowest rate” and it is several times lower than the number Russia was pulling into the army in the beginning of the 90s. Young people and their parents stop at nothing to escape the draft with many Internet forums dedicated to exchange of best practices. Thus the army relies on the peasantry, representatives of ethnic minorities as well as of non-mainstream groups now forming the bulk of soldiery.

While soldiers of many armed forces are accused of using prostitutes for their needs, Russian soldiers are in addition accused of being prostitutes. Indeed, the Russian media widely reports on male prostitution in the army with underpaid officers forcing the soldiers subject to their authority engage in acts of homosexual sex, with their officers as pimps. According to the media (see in Russian) soldiers are widely forced and coerced to prostitute themselves en masse. Advertisements for army sex services are found on the Internet’s gay forums.

According to the media, in Russia even a slave trade in draftees is possible. Drafted soldiers sometimes disappear from their barracks. These cases are normally blamed on escapism. However, cases exist when the soldiers later appear in the mountainous areas of the Russian North Caucasus, mainly in Chechnya, as farm slaves (slavery is common in that area), instead of their homes, accusing superiors for selling them. Press reports on these cases include this opposition site.

When I said that foreigners are “largely protected” from the threat the army poses to the local male population I meant that a foreign citizen is unlikely to end up as a soldier in the Russian army. But theoretically it is possible. The press, including daily Komsomolskaya Pravda reported in December about a new wave of young male citizens snatched on the streets of Moscow. Kidnappings were done by the police to fulfill the annual draft plan with the year’s end approaching. This is a periodic occasion in Russia when the police is out looking for men of draft age to force into conscription. Foreign citizens can be drafted into the army as well if they lack proper IDs. A foreigner lacking proper ID in Russia is in trouble despite his nationality.

On political side-effects of this military environment see this article by Washington Post.

Other Army-related threats include getting too close to its bases of operation, given the ‘sparanoia towards foreigners. Or accidentally running into army representatives, anywhere. Especially bad timing would be on and around the annual celebrations of the “Airborne Troopers Day” (2nd of August) when there are violent attacks by veterans of the special airborne forces on the general population. Attacks by celebrating veterans mainly concentrate on males “too civilian” in appearance, wearing glasses for instance, and people looking like they are of ethnically non-Russian (Caucasus mountains or Central Asian) origin. An overview of the situation is provided by Russian Muslims portal (“Airborne Troopers Day: Survival Guide for Persons of ‘Muslim Nationality’”, in Russian). On positive side it should be mentioned that the airborne veterans don’t seem to actually kill their victims, just severely beat them up with the police pursuing its usual non-intervention policy. There’s no actual advice in the article on how to survive an encounter, however.

Chechnya and North Caucasus

I intended this overview to be based on and accurately reflect the facts in mainland Russia, thus not addressing the area of North Caucasus. But a word to the wise may not come amiss. From Wikitravel:

“WARNING: Chechnya is most emphatically NOT a tourist destination and not safe for independent travel or sightseeing. Most foreign governments advise against non-essential travel. Those visiting for business, research, or international aid purposes should consult with their organization and seek expert guidance before planning a trip. If you must go, see War zone safety.“

Conventional Wisdom Travel Advice
(and why it won’t work in Russia)

1. Don’t trust people who look like they may be criminals
(Hard to follow as it could cover large part of the population)

2. Stay away from anyone in uniform
(Again difficult as they are too many. Your success may depend
on whether
you look like a source of income.)

3. Always have your documents in order
(Think of a country famous for its bureaucracy, to get a sense
of Russia multiply by two – chances are you’ll miss a
document or two)

4. Move in groups, try not to get separated from the others
(There are always places to get you when you are alone, like public
toilets or if you are smoker.)

5. Avoid medical facilities not in the Embassy-recommended list,
private ones are marginally better than government ones

(As opposed to public hospitals private clinics will put you to
rest with equipment and pain killers.)

6. Exercise caution eating and (especially) drinking
(It’s a lottery unless you brought your own food field tests)

7. If inside, check escape roots in case of emergency
(Absence of escape roots in the building is what

the Emergency Ministry officials, remember?)

8. Be careful upon seeing a celebration with
music and happy people

(If it is a gathering of army veterans chances are they can easily outrun you)

9. Follow traffic signs and regulations
(There are scores of pedestrian victims who did nothing wrong.)

10. Go somewhere else
(Likely the only advice that counts if your
prime concern is personal survival)

The Sunday Travel Section: If you Like Russia, You’ll Love Latvia!

The New York Times last week carried a travel piece on Riga, Latvia. Reading it, one familiar with Russia can’t help but think: Gosh. This place seems to offer all the attractions of Russia with none of the drawbacks — and with some of its own unique charms, unavailable in Russia, thrown into the mix. No wonder the Russians hate them so much!

RIGA’S property boom drives Latvia’s economy, one of Europe’s fastest growing, giving it the edgy, electric appeal of a boomtown. With stunning Art Deco architecture, a vibrant night life and varied and inventive restaurants, the city’s Soviet gloom has been replaced with a sense of Baltic optimism. In addition to the Soviets, Riga has been ruled by the Poles, Germans and Swedes, and all have left their mark. Few other cities afford the opportunity to investigate the ravages and vagaries of European history at such an intimate level.


3 p.m.

Understanding a bit of recent Latvian history will greatly enhance your time in Riga, and there is a perfect place to start. In the mid-1960s, the Soviets built a Museum of the Revolution in the southwestern corner of the Old Town; in one of the more delicious strokes of post-independence revenge, Latvia turned it into the Museum of the Occupation (Strelnieku Laukums 1; 371-721-2715;; free entry). With clear English explanations, this is among the most thoughtfully designed and well-curated historical museums in Europe. Its comprehensiveness is extraordinary, taking in everything from Latvian partisan Nazi and Soviet uniforms to propaganda posters, from chess sets carved from scrap and wood in the gulags to heartbreaking, hastily scribbled notes thrown from trains by deportees to Siberia.

6 p.m.

Riga’s Old Town (Vecriga) is a cabinet of wonders best explored aimlessly, guided just by eye and fancy, but if you had to pick a place to start, it would be Doma Laukums (Cathedral Square), just across from the Occupation Museum. At its center is the enormous medieval cathedral, begun in 1211 by Albert von Buxhoeveden, the German missionary-warrior who sailed north to convert the Livonian heathens. The more interesting building, though, is the House of the Blackheads (Ratslaukums 7; 371-704-4300; entry 2 lats, or $4 at $2 to the lat), on the southern side of the square. Built to house bachelor Hanseatic traders and sailors, it derives its name from their patron saint, Mauritius, or Maurice, traditionally depicted as an armed Moor. The Soviets completed the destruction of this magnificent Gothic-Dutch Renaissance building that World War II had begun — its Teutonic architecture was too decadent — but after independence, it was one of the first structures to be rebuilt. Being very close to Rigans’ hearts, the work was financed by individual donations.

8 p.m.

No, not mayonnaise and baloney sandwiches on white bread with extra-dry martinis, but one of the glories of the Soviet culinary legacy: the well-spiced, hearty cuisine of Azerbaijan, Georgia, or, in the case of Akhtamar (Merkela Iela 9; 371-721-5032;, Armenia. Don’t let the ethnic kitsch décor — brick walls, kilims, wooden tables — dissuade you from diving head first into the menu. The shashliks (kebabs, so named for the shashki, or sabers, on which they were once cooked) are full-flavored and perfectly cooked, but Caucasian cuisine shines in its deeply flavored stews, particularly the tomato-and herb-based chakhokhbili. A full meal, including appetizers, drinks and tip, can easily be had for about 15 lats a person.

11 p.m.

Riga’s thriving bachelor party trade means it abounds in bars featuring scantily clad women, filling-rattling music and vodka served by the gallon. Give these the widest possible berth. Vecriga has a fair selection of Irish bars (De Lacy’s at Skunu Iela 4 is the best), but better to cap off your night at Galerija Istaba (Krisjana Barona 31; 371-728-1141), just north of the elegant Vermanes Park district. Its first floor is an art gallery, filled with knickknacks designed by local artists; the second floor is a cozy, friendly bar that nightly attracts a wide swath of bohemian Riga. The décor is just on the chic side of rough, but the bar is well stocked, the service friendly and the conversation invariably interesting.


10 a.m.

Like its neighbors, Latvia takes its saunas seriously: most people prefer to get their hearts racing by dashing between a steam room and a cold pool rather than on a Stairmaster, and a few hours enrobed in eucalyptus steam is an ideal way to sweat out the excesses of a late night. Riga’s saunas run the gamut, from unrepentantly grimy Soviet sweat shacks to the beautiful new Taka Spa (Kronvalda bulvaris 3a; 371-732-3150; At Taka’s heart is a large room with a warm dry sauna, a hotter steam room and three pools: cold, medium and a Jacuzzi. The idea is to move from the sauna to the steam, get as hot as you possibly can, then dive into the cold water. The sensation is truly exhilarating, though it does not come cheap: an hour will cost you 24 lats (or 6 lats if you book other services as well, like Pilates, a facial or a massage), but will leave you feeling rejuvenated.

1 p.m.

Osiris (Krisjana Barona 31, 371-724-3002) opened in 1994, which makes it a Riga institution. It was the first Rigan restaurant to address Soviet crimes against salad: Osiris’s are large, leafy and based around fresh vegetables, rather than the standard quivering bowls of mayonnaise and carrot cubes. It draws a mixture of urban professionals, artists, writers and politicians; it was among the first gay-friendly spots in Riga, and remains welcoming to all. Its menu is eclectic and changes daily; one can follow a traditional herring and potato salad with kung pao chicken or excellent pelmeni (small Russian dumplings served with sour cream and vinegar). The specialty dessert — pancakes folded over enormous wedges of homemade sweet cheese — will fill you up for days.

3 p.m.

Riga boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both in population and wealth. The most visible remnant of that boom can be seen in its architecture: it has one of the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. Alberta Iela, just north of the Esplanade and Kronvalda Park, is the best single street for viewing these treasures. Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the film director Sergei, designed several of the most striking buildings.

5 p.m.

For a city so steeped in history, it seems only fitting that the jewel of choice is amber, which has been washing up on Baltic seacoasts for millenniums. For convenience sake, you can get your amber at any souvenir or jewelry shop; for local color, though, visit the stalls behind St. Peter’s Church or along Valnu Iela behind the Hotel Riga. Riga’s antiques shops also hold treasures of the more earthly kind: everything from old artwork to church artifacts to Soviet knickknacks. Small stores dot the city; for variety, depth and the cheerful disorganization, try Antikvariats del Arte (Krisjana Barona 16/18; 371-2948-1568). For books, mostly in Latvian or Russian, try the Jumavas Antikvariats (R. Vagnera Iela 12; 371-722-7629).

8 p.m.
Rigans will tell you that Vincents (Elizabetes Iela 19; 371-733-2634; is one of the best restaurants in the city. Martins Ritins, the chef and owner, pioneered the local-organic approach in Latvia; his restaurants almost single-handedly enabled the survival of dozens of small farmers. More importantly, though, he makes extraordinary food. His style could be described as Franco-Baltic-Scandinavian — his signature dish is a potato cake with foie gras and marinated eel. He also has a showman’s touch: a recent dinner featured as a palate cleanser an instant sorbet, composed tableside from Riga Black Balsam (a local bitter spirit, like Fernet-Branca with heavier caramel notes), blackcurrant juice, brown sugar, club soda and liquid nitrogen.

11 a.m.

No trip to Riga would be complete without visiting the sprawling Central Market in the fascinating, grimy area of town known as Maskvas Forstate (the Moscow Suburb). The market comprises almost 1,200 vendors spread across five enormous zeppelin hangars, as well as a secondary, more informal network of stalls outside the market proper. Vendors are arranged more or less by wares, and even if you buy nothing (though it would be a shame to go home without a loaf of Latvia’s glorious rupjmaize (black bread), simply strolling through the market provides a carnival of delights. You can find everything from fresh farmer’s cheese to lemongrass to pig snouts; outside the market, the stallholders sell leather goods, DVDs of dubious provenance and freshly foraged mushrooms.


Carriers including Czech Airlines, Finnair and Air France fly from Kennedy Airport in New York to Riga, usually with one stop. A recent Web search showed round-trip fares starting at about $750. A cab from the airport into the city costs about 10 lats, or $20 at $2 to the lat. Use the reservation stand if it’s busy, otherwise just flag a taxi outside and save a couple of lats.

The Europa Royale (Kr. Barona 12; 371-707-9444; is hard to beat. Just across from Vermanes Park, in a renovated industrialist’s mansion, its rooms are comfortable and its service is friendly. It’s about a 10-minute walk from Old Town. Doubles start at about 100 lats in the low season and 120 lats in the high season.

The Reval Hotel Latvija (Elizabetes iela 55, 371-777-2222) began life as a Soviet Intourist hotel, as its 27-story blockish structure testifies. A recent refurbishment, however, has given the interior a decidedly more luxurious feeling. Doubles start at about 70 lats.

The Sunday Travel/Literary Section: Pasko on Radishchev

Robert Amsterdam offers another brilliant report from Grigori Pasko, on the road in Russia (RA also offers an interview with Pasko by the German press, translated here; it’s an outrage that Pasko hasn’t received more recognition from the English-language press).

[In his next several offerings, Grigory Pasko continues his literary search for the real Russia by following in the footsteps of famous Russian authors. This time, his journey traces that of Alexander Nikolayevich Radishchev (1749-1802), a radical social critic inspired by the French Revolution who wrote the scathing 1790 critique of Russian society, A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. A furious Catherine the Great wanted him executed for treason, but instead sentenced him to Siberian exile, from which he returned only after her death. Unrepentant, Radishchev continued to agitate for reform of the autocracy, earning the wrath of Catherine’s successor. He committed suicide rather than endure another Siberian exile. Grigory’s first stop is Tver, an ancient city northwest of Moscow that gained notoriety in 2005 as the legal address of «Baikalfinansgrupp», a mysterious and unheard-of company that acquired «Yuganskneftegas» in the first of the sham auctions to dismember YUKOS, immediately resold it to the state oil company Rosneft, and promptly disappeared from the face of the earth. – Robert Amsterdam]

The Eyes of My People

By Grigory Pasko, journalist

They were sitting on a bench, not far from the building of the administration of the city of Tver. There were three of them: two men and one woman. It was morning. They were searching for a way to get drunk. I started a conversation with them because a woman sitting nearby had refused to be interviewed, citing a bad mood. They were talking about how life, in general, isn’t bad; that you can’t trust the government in anything; that a Russian has to rely only on himself for everything… Then they asked me for ten rubles for beer.


The look on Pyotr Paramonov’s face (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

One of them, Pyotr Paramonov, a laborer from a construction site (see photo), recalled that the Russian writer Saltykov-Shchedrin had been a vice-governor. Then he sadly added: “There aren’t any Saltykov-Shchedrins any more…”.

I don’t know what the inhabitants of Tver were like in Radishchev’s day, but in my conversations with the people of the city I saw only characters from Erofeev’s opus «Moscow-Petushki». They were just as unhurried, well-read and just as sad. “Everything on earth has to take place slowly and incorrectly, so that humans would not be able to become proud, so that people would be sad and confused”.

Another thing that struck me was the look on Pyotr Paramonov’s face. I had already read about this look someplace… Of course, in Erofeev! “I like it that the people of my country have such vacant and bulging eyes. This instils in me a feeling of legitimate pride… What eyes! They’re constantly popping out, and yet there’s no tension in them whatsoever. A total absence of any sense at all – but then, what power! (What spiritual power!) These eyes won’t sell. They won’t sell a thing and they won’t buy a thing. Whatever might happen with my country, in days of doubt, in days of burdensome contemplation, in an hour of trials and tribulations of any kind at all – these eyes will not blink. They couldn’t care less… I like my people.”

In all likelihood, I would be able to share the optimism of the writer Erofeev only if I had drunk as much liquor as he did when he journeyed from Moscow to Petushki. Or maybe even more.

…I gave them thirty rubles. What else can I do for my people?

The Sunday Travel Section: Oh, Those Russians

A group of drivers traveling in rally convoy across the globe chanced into Russia this past June, and came face-to-face with Russia in all its horror. The Star Online reports (hat tip — reader “Ron Raygun”):

My new co-driver Haizam and I spend the whole day at the Moscow workshop – thank goodness we have a contact here through the Moscow ambassador to Malaysia who introduced us to his friend, Sergei, who has an auto parts distribution business.

We have discovered it is particularly important in Russia to “have contacts” to get things sorted.

I get up at 5am to see my wife Pin off to the airport in one of Moscow’s legendary illegal taxis – she is flying to St Petersburg to meet us there the next day. As it is Haizam’s first day driving, we leave early. Also, we don’t want to run the risk of our car breaking down, always a possibility after a day in the workshop!

Although we were all in a convoy and navigation is fairly easy, many cars go astray outside the major ring road outside Moscow. However, the main road leading to St Petersburg is typically Russian – some parts of it good, some patchy, many badly potholed. Haizam gets the feel of driving Custard Tart fairly quickly – the characteristics of an older car that isn’t 100% with its steering wheel play and poor brakes is difficult to get used to.

One of the high points of our long 700km drive from Moscow to St Petersburg is our stop at the BP station – one of two foreign oil companies allowed to operate in Russia. We are thrilled to find a mini-mart selling snacks, smiling staff and clean toilets! This is rare in Russia, and we feel momentarily as if we are in (western) Europe!

We finally get into St Petersburg where we see magnificent large buildings and traffic choking the roads. After hours of being stuck in the rush hour, we inch our way to our hotel – an inevitable Soviet-era monstrosity on the outskirts of town, but at least this one has its casino and “ladies” entertainment out of sight! We quickly shower and escape to meet Pin downtown at a charming Georgian restaurant for dinner.


St Petersburg must rate as one of the most charming cities in the world – a tiny place linked by canals and rivers, and entirely “walkable”. It is even prettier in summer, when it enjoys “white nights” all season. No darkness at all, the city comes alive with the opera, live concerts and ballets in courtyards. Haizam, Pin and I do a walking tour of some of the older quarters where we meander through alleyways past iron statues of old Russian leaders and sample local delicacies at food markets with a young Russian tour guide who is saving up money to go to America. We even see a stunning mosque in the middle of town, amidst period cathedrals – amazing that these have managed to survive the wars. As our car gave no trouble the day before, we are confident we are able to take a break and spend the whole day out. I have borscht, a traditional Russian soup, for lunch. It seems as if daylight will never end.

We nonetheless go back to the car to check that it is OK in preparation for tomorrow’s drive to Talinn, Estonia, and fortunately nothing has come loose or needs repair. When we meet Pin for dinner later at her hotel in front of the majestic St Isacc’s Cathedral, we discover Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his wife, Jeanne, are staying there – on honeymoon we are told. The whole street outside had been cordoned off, with security detail milling about the lobby. There must have been around 20 cars with black windows outside. Clearly the Russian government is being careful with security.


Our routine starts at 5am as we do final checks and head towards the Estonian border. Unsurprisingly, we drive for miles on horrible potholed roads and in light rain. The Russian traffic police are everywhere and having an absolute field days stopping rally drivers for all sorts of reasons – from not having the right papers or stamps in passports to unexplained “offences” which need on-the-spot settling of fines of US$100-US$400 (RM350 -RM 1,400) per car.

Although we are lucky, we feel it is totally unscrupulous and the whole business leaves us a very sour taste of Russian life. Some of our fellow drivers are charged ridiculous amounts of money for minor offences. It is a real shame that unscrupulous locals are allowed to interfere with us, seemingly in connivance with the Rally’s local logistics company.

Upon our arrival at the Russian-Estonian border, the situation gets worse. All the promised expedited exits from Russia do not materialise. Two immigration officers laboriously check each car’s documents and driver’s passports in between their lunch and tea breaks. We are lucky – we only wait five hours. Some of our fellow drivers waited almost 10 hours for their papers to be processed.

By the time we entered Estonia – connected to Russia by a bridge – we are ready to celebrate freedom. Being in Russia has been an experience we want to quickly forget, especially the corruption, inefficiencies and badly maintained roads.

Estonia is very pretty. Green hills, proper roads and smart petrol stations line the streets. There is also a general air of liveliness and freedom, and none of the oppressiveness that we felt in Russia. Then we realise that Estonia is a member of the European Union. What a difference to general standards this made.

Although we have missed the day’s time trials, we head towards Talinn, surrounded by a historic square, a wonderful church and hundreds of curious onlookers! We park in a multi-storey car park that reminds us of Malaysia – and spend the evening at a local karaoke with young Estonians with smiling, happy faces.

What a change from Russia this is.

The Sunday Travel Section: Pasko in Vologda

Hero journalist Grigory Pasko delivers another Russian travel guide on Bob Amsterdam’s blog, this time a snapshot of wealthy Putin’s Russia from the city of Vologoda, a typical “sidewalk” of which is shown above. Volgoda is a city of 300,000 and the center of an oblast, equivalent to the capital of an American state.

Having visited various cities of Russia, I can’t avoid noticing the roads. My most recent trip, to northern Russia to report on the construction of the land portion of the North European Gas Pipeline, was no exception. Not only the roads of Vologda and Babayevo left their impression on me, so too did the comments of those people who in one way or another are responsible for the condition of these roads.

On 10 June, Vologda turned 860 years old. I got to observe the preparations for the celebrations when I passed through the city on my pipeline journey.

Two circumstances immediately caught my eye. First, there are almost no sidewalks in the city. Instead, there are pits and sloughs. Even at the bus stops, there are yawning water-filled potholes, and the people stand and wait off to the side of the stop itself so as not to get soaked when the bus drives through the giant puddle when arriving at the stop. And second, the preparation for the celebration was clearly felt in one place – on Kremlin Square (near the St. Sophia and Resurrection cathedrals, the Vologda Kremlin). Why just there? Because the Patriarch of All the Russias had promised to come and attend the city’s celebration.

It is an unspoken but firm rule in all the Russias that holes in the roads are patched up only for the arrival of the big bosses. Of course, the holes should be patched not in the roads, but for starters, in the heads.

On the day of my arrival, the local newspapers were writing about how it was planned to spend a record sum – 250 million rubles – in the year 2007 for improvement of the roads and streets of Vologda (I immediately remembered Samara, where 3 bln. 840 million rubles was allocated for these same purposes, but the roads still weren’t done). And in Vologda too, the local power had already hastened to note: it is difficult to spend such a quantity of funds, because “mechanisms, specialists and materials” are needed (they forgot to mention that you also need integrity, brains, and a conscience). It was particularly noted that problems of provision with asphalt are found under procuratorial oversight («Vologodskiye novosti», 23 May 2007) (Goodness gracious! What DOESN’T the Russian procuracy get involved in?)

It is noteworthy that this same issue of the newspaper reports about an increase in the discharge of pollutants into the atmosphere by 60 tons just this year alone. Indicated among the number of principal polluters are, you guessed it – asphalt-concrete plants.

Nearly all the local newspapers quoted generously from an appearance at a press conference by the deputy head of the city, Valentin Gorobtsov. He, in part, told that it was planned to spend 470 million rubles in 2007 alone for provision of urban amenities in all of Vologda (once again I recalled Samara).

Gorobtsov also uttered a wonderful phrase that shed light on the essence of such a purely Russian phenomenon as “permanent road repairs”. He said: “On the road leading to the park, we are going to do a good hole repair. And just past the cemetery, we will restore an asphalt path for pedestrians.”

Do you understand? In Russia, they don’t repair roads, they repair HOLES. And pedestrian paths – where else, if not only by the cemetery?

On a related note, in the town of Babayevo of Vologda Oblast the roads are just as bad as in Samara Oblast, where I was recently in the days of the work there of the Russia – EU summit. The head of the town of Babayevo told a correspondent of the local newspaper «Nasha zhizn» [“Our life”] the following. It turns out that 200 thousand rubles have been allocated from the budget for “hole repair”, 700 thousand – for full asphalt paving of streets. But the head of the Rayon had complained to me that the gasmen aren’t participating in any way with their money in the construction and repair of roads.

What other good things has the power done for Vologda? The representative of the power went down the list: they will put up 300 additional garbage urns [Translator’s note: Instead of trash cans or baskets, Russian cities boast tiny pseudo-classical urn-shaped trash containers cast from concrete or metal. Because they are so small, they get filled instantly, and there is always a pile of trash on the ground around them. However, they are too heavy to lift, and some are permanently mounted on swivels, so when the time comes to pick up the trash, the driver of the garbage truck sits in the cab smoking while an elderly lady steps out, tips the urn over and empties its compacted contents onto the sidewalk, then uses a short broom made of bundled twigs to sweep the mess into a small dustpan and throw it piece by piece into the back of the truck. See image below.], they will continue beautification with the planting of flowers, all of the city cemeteries have already been brought “into compliance”, they have “accomplished the bronze-plating of monuments”, they have organized the delivery of war veterans to holiday events, they have erected a stage for the orchestra…

All of this from the point of view of expenditures costs mere kopeks. I made it a point to find out the expenditure side of the Vologda budget in 2006. It turned out that 193 million rubles were spent on so-called “whole-country questions” (that is, “bronze-plating of monuments” and erecting stages for orchestras). For comparison: 148 million rubles were spent on the whole housing and public utilities infrastructure of the city, and 47 million on culture.

Once upon a time, a native son of these places, the Russian poet and writer Varlam Shalamov, who spent just a hair less than two decades in the Stalinist camps of the GULAG, wrote about Vologda: “Sometimes it’s too dusty, vulgar, and carnal; other times it’s too exile-like. And too lacy.” Lacy – he’s referring to the famous Vologdan lace craft. I saw examples of it in the stores of Vologda – beautiful and very expensive. Nowadays another kind of “lace” is in fashion: the promises of the power of a good life for people. Good roads barely make it to the very bottom of the list of what constitutes a “good life”. Only life keeps moving ahead, while roads are something Russia has never had, and still doesn’t have.

(Also see Part I and Part II of this series)

The Sunday Travel Section: If Russia Thinks its New Ally is China, it had Better Think Again

In a pathological manner, Russia has spent the last few months infuriating and alienating the Western world. Some think Russia is turning East. Maybe it thinks so itself. But blogger Paul Gobel shows that the East has quite different ideas.

Tourism officials in Moscow have expressed outrage that Chinese tour guides working in the Russian capital have described Russians as “wild men, drunkards and idlers” and Russia’s history as that of “a barbarian kingdom which illegally took away the Far East and Siberia from China.”

But as of today, more senior Russian officials appear to have decided not to make a diplomatic issue out of this case but rather to impose stricter licensing requirements on those who guide Chinese visitors around Moscow and other portions of the Russian Federation.

At least so far, this issue, raised by interviews given by Russian tourism officials in the current issue of the Russian nationalist newspaper “Tvoi den’,” and so far discussion of it has been confined almost entirely to the nationalist portion of the Russian Internet. But the officials’ anger suggests that it is likely to spread to mainstream media.

“Up to now,” Nadezhda Nazina, deputy head of Rosturizm, said, “only tour guides of Baltic delegations permitted themselves to make such comments. But in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, this is the policy of the government, but in this case, [she hoped], it is simply personal antipathy and ignorance of individual representatives of the Chinese Peoples Republic.” In a similar vein, Dmitriy Shul’tsev, the head of the Tourism Committee in the Moscow city government, expressed the hope that what had taken place reflected the failure of Chinese tour operators to recruit and train those who lead Chinese visitors to Russia in the proper way.

But Shul’tsev warned that the city of Moscow will demand significant improvements in this area, including requiring that all tour guides now be tested for their knowledge of Russian history before they are given their licenses to practice their trade in the Russian capital.
And both he and other Russian officials, “Tvoi Den’” reported, made clear that if it should turn out that the comments of the Chinese tour guides were not the work of individuals but reflected “the official policy” of China, then officers of Russian security agencies would be asked to get involved.

Sunday Travel Section: Torture by Visa

The Darkness at Noon blog offers the following horror story with which all those foolish enough to venture into Russia are well familiar:

My absolute worst experiences in Russia have always revolved around visa issues. The first nightmare occurred about 4 years ago when my passport and visa were stolen on the St. Petersburg metro. Replacing the passport was a snap: a couple of hours at the consulate and I walked out of there with a replacement. Replacing the Russian visa so that I could leave the country was a different matter. I ended up having to remain in Russia an extra week, pay $150 in special “fees” (read: bribes), not to mention the cost of a week’s worth of hotel lodging and the inconvenience of rearranging flights during a high-traffic season. Perhaps the worst part was putting my mother, in tears, into a cab to the airport by herself because I couldn’t leave the country. What a way to punctuate her first (and possibly only) trip to Russia… In retrospect, I should have gone to the airport with her and slipped a couple hundred bucks into my passport. How’s that for an exit visa? I guess I was afraid of getting arrested, as at least the bureaucratic nightmare of visa replacement has a door marked “exit.”

The second nightmare was related to the visa for my current trip. When I was informed that my invitation wouldn’t be ready in Moscow until early January, I was quite worried, as I was due to leave only two weeks later. That didn’t leave much time to receive the invitation and get the visa, so I contacted my handler at the Russian university where I was to be affiliated, asking if perhaps there were some “fee” (read: bribe) I could pay to expedite things.

Continue reading

Talk about the Rough Guide! Annals of Travel-related horror in Russia

LA Weekly reports on the typical story of a typical traveler who makes the foolish mistake of traveling to the Neo-Soviet Union:

The attitude of the check-in clerk at Gate 24 of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport is far too stern for her soft complexion and silky auburn hair, which today is tied back into a small ponytail. My one bag is already on the ramp; my carry-on is by my side as she flips through my passport.

“Your visa expired two days ago,” the clerk says in Russian.

I’ve been in Russia a month; my wife is back at the apartment on the other side of the city, planning to join me soon in the U.S. But for now, I am on my own, heading home to Los Angeles.

“Oh, right, I was supposed to leave two days ago,” I tell her, “but the blizzard. The airports were closed.”

“You have to speak to the consul, back in the lobby. Take your bags with you.”

The consul is a button attached to a speaker on a wall. I press. Nothing happens. I wait. I press again. I hear casual joking by a group of men through the speaker, and then it goes silent. I wait. I press again.

“Wait! Wait! Just a minute!” a voice blares.

I wait.


“I’m an American. My visa is expired by two days, and I want to go home.”

“Why did you let your visa expire?”

“I was delayed here by the storm, and I forgot to check.”

“That’s a very poor excuse.”

“Yes, you’re right. If you can come up with a better excuse, I’ll gladly use it.”

I didn’t actually say that last line, but it crossed my mind. What I did say was, “All right, what should I do now?”

“Write out your excuse and give it to the check-in desk.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

After having my bags searched for the second time, I present my handwritten apology to the auburn-haired marm, like a child to a teacher.

“That will be $50,” she says. “Twenty-five dollars for each day you overstayed your visa.”

I scramble through my wallet to find a crumpled $20 bill and a 10-ruble note, which is worth about 40 cents.

“Do you take credit cards?”

“Cash only.”

“I don’t have $50 in cash.”

“Do you have 1,300 rubles?”

“I have 10.” (Her eyes roll.) Why would an American carry 1,300 rubles when he’s leaving the country?

“Go back to the lobby and try your credit card in the bankomat. I’ll hold your bags for you.”

My flight is scheduled to leave in an hour and a half. Plenty of time. But none of the bankomat machines accepts my code. I return and tell her this.

“There’s nothing more I can do,” she says.

“You’re going to hold me here for the sake of 30 bucks?”

“It’s not up to me. It’s up to the consul.”

“Can I talk to the consul again?”

“You can try.”

The clerk holds my bags once more.

Back at the consul, I push the button. I wait. I push the button. I wait. I push the button. I wait. I push the button. I wait.


“Listen, my flight leaves in just over an hour, and none of the bankomats work.”

“This is your personal problem.”

“Tell me how else I can pay, please. I’m happy to pay the fine…”

“It’s not a fine. It’s a consul fee.”

“I’ve got to get home. I’m supposed to speak at a conference, surely there’s something…

“If you don’t come up with the cash, you’re not going home.”

These are words I will carry to my grave.

My cell phone doesn’t work in Russia, so I buy a phone card, which I plug into a wall phone on the other side of the lobby. I call my wife.


“I can’t hear you!”

I scream, “Can you hear me?!!!”

“I can’t hear you!!!”













In one more attempt to get out of Russia, I ask at a currency-exchange bureau if they can sell me dollars from my credit card.

“You need to use the bankomat.”

Then I see a green sign, “Sverbank,” hanging over four or five windows. I wait in line. Fifteen more minutes go by.

“Can I buy dollars with my credit card?”

“Yes. Show me your credit card.”

I do.

“I can’t accept this. You haven’t signed the back.”

“Let me sign it now.”

“Too late. I already saw it.”

She turns away to speak with her friend behind the glass in the next booth.

“Look, I have a signed driver’s license ..”

“I’m sorry, regulations.” Then she laughs and says, “Okay. How much do you want?”

“A hundred dollars.” (I figure I should have extra cash, just in case.)

After 45 minutes of paperwork and holding my passport, the currency clerk tells me to go to the cashier, her friend, at Window No. 2. The cashier hands me a $100 bill.

I sprint back to the gate, sensing victory. It’s half an hour before takeoff. But there’s nobody at the check-in booths. My bags sit next to a chair, deserted.

An old man pushes a mop across the floor.

“I’m trying to get on the flight to Los Angeles.”

“It’s closed,” he says. “All closed.”

I head back to the speaker on the wall and press the button. “You win. I missed my flight. I need to extend my visa two more days until the next flight out.”

“Just come back when you’re flying and bring cash.”

Outside the terminal, I barter a cabby down from 6,000 rubles to 2,500. He lets me use his cell phone to call my wife. “You need to give him 2,500 rubles,” I say.

Upon our arrival at Fortunatovskaya Street in the Ismailovo district, my wife comes out in the snow and gives the driver 2,300 rubles.

“We did agree on 2,500,” I tell my wife, as the cabby counts the money.

She shouts at him, “That’s all I have,” then, with a slicing gesture across the throat, “and you know damn well it’s more than enough.”

He stares at her with hatred, knowing he’s screwed. I empathize.

By now, a small crowd of neighbors has gathered to welcome me home, even though I left just hours ago. Sergei, from across the hall, helps me up the stairs with my bags.

“So, Russia wants you to stay,” he says. “It’s better here than in America, anyway.”

* * *

Two days later, I’m back at the airport for the next flight out. A passport-control officer in a green shirt, miniskirt and high heels escorts me, click-clicking, to Sverbank’s Window No. 2, saying my $100 “fine” for a four-day visa delinquency has to be paid there in rubles, not dollars. The bank charges me for the currency exchange before slapping on a $25 service charge, which I obediently convert to rubles… before they tell me the service charge has to be paid in dollars. This time, though, I have extra dollars, and I make it onto the plane at last.

But about the time I’m settling into my seat, a dishonest Sverbank employee attempts to withdraw close to $1,000 cash from my credit card. My own bank declines the transaction. The Fraud Protection Department leaves a voice mail at my home. It’s one of the first messages that greet me when I walk in through the door.

The next morning, as I walk my dog in the Hollywood foothills, an LAPD motorcycle officer stands next to an SUV that’s parked in a red zone.

“What the hell do you mean you’re waiting for Brad Pitt?” asks the cop. “You have an appointment with him, or something?”

I can’t tell you how good it feels to be home.

The Sunday Travel Section: Grigori Pasko Takes a Train Ride

Robert Amsterdam offers readers a translation of hero journalist Grigori Pasko’s recent train trip across the Russian heartland (that’s Grigori at left):

An acquaintance from Vladivostok asked me where I’d been traveling for so long. I quickly replied that I had been traveling on the «Moskva-Rossiya» train. “Sure”, he said. “That sounds about right: Moscow hasn’t been a part of Russia for a long time already”. [The name of the train, which translates as “Moscow-Russia”, suggests that it goes along a route “from Moscow to Russia”—Trans.] I wanted to answer back that it had simply been a slip of my tongue. After all, I had actually been traveling on the «Moskva-Vladivostok» train, of course. But then I understood that my slip of the tongue had actually turned out to have been true in essence – Moscow really isn’t Russia. Russia is what I saw out the window of the train «Rossiya» between Chita and Vladivostok.

The train they call «Rossiya» left the Chita station at around 2 in the morning. I stood on the platform waiting for about ten minutes, but at a temperature of 28 degrees below zero Celsius, that was more than enough to chill me to the bone. I discovered that I was the only one in my compartment on the train. Conductress Marina Vladimirovna said that she doubted anyone would be coming on board before Khabarovsk.

On the morning of the next day, I could already observe the wide open spaces of the Trans-Baikal region. The landscape beyond the window didn’t change for a very long time: dreary gray wooden peasant houses, from which a thin trail of smoke from what was left of the previous night’s wood-stove fires was slowly rising in the early morning light. The houses cool down overnight in the freezing cold, so you need to start up a new fire first thing in the morning. Which is why you could see a strategic reserve of firewood piled up beside every home. Timber, a valuable natural resource, was literally going up in smoke. I can see why the monopoly concern «Gazprom» prefers to sell its gas beyond Russia’s borders, and not inside its own country. But I can’t see why the country’s leadership prefers to allow such a thing to happen. This can be possible only in one situation – if «Gazprom» and the country’s leadership are one and the same people.

In a word, Russia is sitting on the firewood [A Russian phrase meaning “sitting around doing nothing” —Trans.]. And as long as it has forests, that’s exactly what it will continue to do. Meanwhile, at those infrequent stations where the «Rossiya» made a stop, the local populace came out to the train and offered passengers its simple goods: magnolia-vine branches twisted into rings; pirozhki [small baked or fried filled pastries, convenient for travel—Trans.] of unknown provenance that had frozen rock-hard in the cold; vareniki [boiled filled dumplings—Trans.], and boiled potatoes [see photo at left]. There were no takers. Maybe they were afraid of the cold, or perhaps they had serious doubts about the quality of the goods on offer.

For the most part, the passengers ate what food they had brought with them right in their seats. At any rate, in my three days on the train, the only people I saw in the restaurant car were a group of young people from England traveling to Australia via Vladivostok and Singapore.

I was quite surprised by the meager selection in the restaurant. For example, there were absolutely no dairy products or hot porridge available.

The Trans-Baikal Railroad is 350 kilometers in length. All this time there is nothing but flat land outside the window. They say that soybeans, corn, and barley are grown here… As I understood, life in these parts exists only along the railroad. It is noteworthy an automobile highway runs parallel to the railbed in many places. You can’t look at some sections of it without tears in your eyes. There were four men riding in the compartment next to mine. They were heading to Vladivostok for Japanese cars [As Grigory Pasko has mentioned in a previous article, the majority of cars in the Russian Far East these days are used imports from Japan, brought in through ports such as Vladivostok and then often driven by private car traders to their destination.—Ed.] These men – car-runners – were discussing the road. In places, they said, it is practically nonexistent. I was surprised. How could this be? After all, last year president Putin had announced the opening of a bridge across the Amur River, describing it as the final link in the creation of a Vladivostok-to-Moscow federal highway. “Putin doesn’t drive on these roads”, the men replied to me.

At night we passed through Skovorodino (they say that this is the coldest spot on the whole Trans-Siberian – the temperature can fall to 50 below zero here), Magdagachi, Svobodny… Then we went through Seryshevo, Belogorsk, Zavitinsk, Pozdeyevka, Vozzhayevka, Arkhara, Obluchiye… Many of the names reminded me of my classmates at military school: they had served in these places, the majority of which are nothing but military garrisons. The history of the creation of the railroads of Russia is really the history of the appearance of camps for prisoners and garrisons for soldiers. For example, Belogorsk. This is not simply a station, but a huge garrison, the former headquarters of a deployed army and with a population of around 90 thousand, the second largest city in Amur Oblast after Blagoveshchensk. It is in Belogorsk that the ribbon of steel turns south, towards the Amur and Blagoveshchens.

At the present time, many of the garrisons have already become ghost towns, the military units disbanded. A huge territory of the country was previously at least settled by soldiers. Today, it is deserted and uninhabited here. Guidebooks about Russia don’t write about these places and don’t call tourists to come here and visit. At the same time, this too is Russia. A thousand kilometres. 24 hours on a train. And not a soul in sight.

And now a few words about the landscape outside the train’s window. People who know explained to me that “mari” are endless bogs lying on permafrost. Mounds frozen in the bogs in the winter. Berries, mosquitoes, dampness, squishing and sloshing with every step you take in the summer. As one traveler wrote, “the infantry won’t be able to pass and an armored train won’t be able to speed through”. In the writings of this same traveler I found a description of a typical settlement along the rail line. The settlement of Zilovo was taken as an example. Here’s how he described it: “Zilovo is a small settlement on the Trans-Siberian mainline. The houses are wooden, single-story; the streets are dusty; the post office is a wooden hut, ordinarily closed; two or three commercial shops with prices higher than in Moscow; a small river; a large rail yard and a huge station building. Next to the station building is a new but already neglected monument to the combatants of the war, created in honor of the 50th anniversary of Victory. The appearance of the settlement did not instil any desire to remain there to live. Around could be seen sloping mountains covered in forest.”

I have to say that nothing saw through the windows of the «Rossiya» train instilled in me any desire to remain there to live. The night before Khabarovsk was marked by two people with whom I was sharing my compartment – a vice-admiral and a major-general – getting drunk. Marina Vladimirovna told me many stories about her work as a conductress on a long-distance train. The majority of them had to do with generals getting drunk. One particular story had me laughing to tears. I then asked Marina Vladimirovna if anything had changed outside the windows in those 30 years that she had been a conductress on the «Moskva-Vladivostok» train. She pondered for a moment, and then replied: “Nothing, really…”.