03. Санкт-Петербург, Moscow Mugging and the Communist Hat-Trick

(22nd July 2010)
Это как если бы кто-то заснул на клавиатуре при “особых” символов нажатием клавиши! Arrgg, the whole world looks like this to me at the moment. It’s as if someone has fallen asleep on a keyboard with the “special” characters key pressed! However it does provide for an interesting opportunity to see sights you would otherwise not by getting lost on the metro! So, what about Russia, I’ve been here a week and well, I don’t know what to say. It’s all been a bit disappointing really. Санкт-Петербург, or St Petersburg to you and I is a really nice place, it is beautiful but it lacks something. It’s like Budapest but without the Castle, or Prague without the vibrancy. As pretty as it is, there is no warm inviting centre, somewhere to sit outside in a nice square and have a beer. It’s very much as place where you come to tick boxes such as the Hermitage museum or the fort but get no sense of the real Russia.

Then there’s Moscow. I’ve always been a bit apprehensive of this place. I’m from the last generation where we were shown the 3 minute warning (in case of nuclear attack) video at school and it scared the life out of me. This created a fear of immanent attack which added to the film Threads (nuclear war drama set in Sheffield) and the images of the Brezhnev and Andropov funerals gave me a real sense of fear of this place. So entering Red Square was a little weird, I could see the red towers of the Kremlin wall, the massive communist shop (the infamous GUM) to the right, the iconic St Basil’s cathedral straight ahead and Lenin’s mausoleum to the left. From all my school boy images I always thought this place was massive, but now to me it looked small and Lenin’s tomb from where many a leader stood and watched the 1st May march past was tiny, especially compared to the ones in Beijing (Mao) and Hanoi (Ho Chi Minh). Although as a tourist spectacle it is nice, seeing the tomb of Stalin behind Lenin’s covered in red roses made me feel somewhat uneasy, but I don’t know why.

Then as I was heading back to the hostel on an amazingly long escalator up to the metro ticket office I noticed a guy walk up and stop behind me and then place his leg in front of me to stop me getting passed, he then started to do things to distract me. Then I heard the distinct rip of Velcro behind and which point I checked my bag and noticed that the plastic buckle had been undone. To confirm this the guy behind held his hands up as if to say, hey it wasn’t me even though I’d said nothing. It was unlucky that I usually padlock the clip closed but had not on this occasion as I had been taking pictures of the impressive metro stations, however I was very lucky that the bag has a double fastening and the Velcro took the guy by surprise. If I hadn’t heard this then I would have lost a £400 video camera!

But then it got a little worse, it turned out that I was surrounded by 4 of them as they worked as a team, and they took offence that I had discovered what they were doing and had the audacity to look at them. The then physically started pushing and pulling me trying to get my bag off me but I managed to hold on knowing that that the top and bottom of all escalators on the metro there’s security. One thing you can’t imagine though is how long the escalators are and it seemed to take a life time. At the top they stopped and waited for me outside, so I waited with the security for a time but they could not understand a word, saw they guys not looking, headed back down the escalator onto the first metro train and got out of there. It’s really hit home how dangerous it can be travlling alone, you really have to be on your guard 24/7, I usually am but lapsed just for a few minutes. I really do not feel safe in this city.

To me this pretty much sums up Russia, this and a taxi driver who refused to give me my bag if I did not pay the 1500 rubbles charge for putting it in the back of the car (this is about £40!). When you are here you get the sense that you are in a western country with all the sights and sounds you expect, hence me letting my guard down, but scratch beneath the surface it has problems and issues worse than any developing country I know. There is an acceptable level of being ripped off in developing countries, it’s part of the bartering game, but here they try to get money out of you by extortion or even theft. Never been anywhere like it before, never want to again. (let’s hope I don’t have to come back and do the trans-Siberian express!)
So Russia, in summary….. I don’t get it….. and it’s a hole!

Worst moment:
Moscow Mugging…

Best Moment:
Completing the communist hat-trick of seeing three dead guys in boxes! Lenin completes the hat trick with Mao and Ho Chi Minh! (Sorry, this is more of a diary but don’t really know what a blog should be!)

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