Thursday, March 31, 2011

Moscow-Now, I get the whole “Russian Winter” Thing…

St. Basil's in Moscow

As soon as I walked out of the airport into the February cold (it was 3 degrees Fahrenheit), I said, “Ok, now I understand why Napoleon and Hitler didn’t make it.”

Man, it was BRUTAL!!

After 8 minutes of being outside of the Metro (which is GORGEOUS because during the 30s and 40s, all of the wealth was appropriated from the aristocracy to create the “people’s subway), on our way to Red Square, I said, “ok, I’ve had enough, I’m declaring victory.”

I had on thermal underwear and 4 layers of clothing. I couldn’t feel my face. I only had about 2 hours to do my sightseeing, so along with my dad and sister (who joined me on this trip), I went to Red Square, saw the Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb, St. Basil’s Church, the GUND department store (which, I am told, was sort of the bastion of communism, but now is a display of capitalist largesse—the irony wasn’t lost on me), and rode the Metro.

Oh, we also saw the building of the Bolshoi ballet from across the street.

Lenin's Tomb in MoscowAnyway, Moscow is kind of like the Wild West. Rules sort of apply.

It’s clear that there is a “westerner” tax on pretty much everything. A 10 minute cab ride is $30 (and that’s after you negotiate), for example.

There’s also apparently a set of “oligarchs” who are able to buy some sort of blue light to affix to the top of their automobiles. Once they do that, it’s like an EZ-Pass for Traffic. People are supposed to move out of their way and recently, someone didn’t and was killed by a speeding car.

And it extends down the chain. I didn’t see any, but heard about the “pazahloosta” sticks which some low-level policemen employ. Basically, in the middle of traffic, they pull your car over and won’t release you until you’ve paid them off with a bribe.

That being said, a lot of stuff does seem to work pretty well. The metro, of course. Traffic, while heavy, isn’t nearly as chaotic as some places, and, well, let’s just say that they have mastered the art of snow removal.

I suppose necessity is the mother of invention in this respect and, apparently, there are conveyor belts to extricate the snow from the city to the surrounding areas.

Moscow Subway (3)Speaking of snow and temperature, one movement that hasn’t arrived here (and doesn’t seem likely to) is the “no fur" coats one. There are a TON of fur coats. In the US, these people would be ostracized.  In Moscow, it’s commonplace. I guess it’s survival and practicality.

Speaking of survival, the Darwinian question which arose in my head was: “how the hell did the Russians survive their own winter in the days before heating, thinsulate, and gore-tex? I mean, I was cold most of the time and I was barely outside at all.

Maybe this partially explains the expertise with sauna maintenance.

I love saunas. The hotter, the better. I had my bachelor party at the Russian Bath House on 10th St. in Manhattan and I know the difference between a great sauna and a not so great sauna.

During the month of February, I was in saunas in Sao Paolo, Bogota, Munich, and Moscow and let’s just say, in this respect, the Europeans dominate. They really know what they are doing. (I know, I need to go to Finland, but that’s another day.)

Speaking of the sauna, I met a Russian guy who now lives in Seattle and works for Boeing and he helped put into words some of my observations.

Moscow is a city that is struggling for its identity.

On the one hand, you have the oligarchs, the people who make a TON of money in oil, natural gas, and diamonds (in the East), but spend it here. It’s the financial and commercial capital. Some of the clubs have tables that go for $10k a night. It’s crazy. The desire for the accoutrements of wealth, the name brand designers is evident. There are is also some really beautiful architecture and the wide boulevards were appealing to me.

On the flip side, there’s plenty of the Soviet-style utilitarian architecture. There’s a LOT of corruption and there’s concern about a potential political upheaval (and that fears drives the tolerance for the Putin heavy-handed regime which, for example, won’t allow Blackberry Messenger to work in the country because the information can’t be read by surveillance technologies—or so I’m told).

From the marketing perspective, customer service (aside from the high-end places) isn’t really a core competency. There’s a gruffness to the approach and it’s always so comfortable.

I was told MANY times that “Russians don’t smile.” The combination of the hardships of life here, the cold, and uncertainty make people not only drink vodka, but also there’s some sort of “Russian soul” that says “you don’t show emotion.”

Interestingly enough, I remember when I filled out the visa (which was, BY FAR, the most difficult I’ve encountered), that there was a stern warning that your visa picture could NOT be of you smiling. You had to be straight-faced. Mine was borderline, but I made it.

Speaking of the visa,  you had to tell them what day you were arriving and departing from the country. If you got the visa and your travel plans changed, you have to reapply. Crazy.

All that being said, I found that, in many cases, especially among younger Russians (who often speak English well and much better than older Russians), that this “no smiling” wasn’t the case. In my presentation at Microsoft (the reason for my trip), I saw many people laughing and smiling (or maybe I’m just really entertaining.)

I could go on (and might in a future post, who knows?) and there’s obviously a lot here, but I guess the one thing that kept popping into my head, given that I came of age during the Cold War was “holy goodness, I’m in Moscow!”

That and “I wonder if I get "extra hard core” bonus points for coming here in February?”

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