Thursday, 8 December 2011

Curtains up, lights up, cue the music and let the show begin!

My time in Russia is coming to an end. I have only two weeks left in this magnificent country, and that time is passing me by with an increasingly alarming rapidity. I feel like I have been somewhat complacently caught unawares, like the individual who, deciding to set off a few minutes later than usual, has to suffer the ref-faced ignominy of entering the lecture theatre late under the silent, accusatory scrutiny of his fellow students and of the professor who had, until just moments before, been animatedly explaining a point of great significance. As you can probably tell, this is a feeling I get on a regular basis, and thus I am determined not to let these last few weeks slip disinterestedly through my fingers. 'Carpe Diem' as my Grandad would tell me, although it's only recently that I finally understood the saying and no longer believed there to be a massacre in his fish pond.

So, with fifteen days left to go and only 5 posts on the internet, this next couple of weeks will be spent in feverishly reporting on my experiences in Russia. I promised you thoughts on 'a nation and its people' and by God you'll get them! Of course, it would be overly optimistic to try and tap off a blog a day, and there is much left to do and see before I can really give you something close to a picture of this beautiful country. For this reason, much of my writing will take place over Christmas when, mince pie in one hand and mulled wine by my side, I shall nostalgically reminisce on my time here and comment with the benefit of distance.

But there is time left to fill, evenings left for contemplation, and so, with food, drink and (bizarrely) roads under our belt, what is there left to discuss?

Today I'm going to to talk about a whole host of thoughts that I am neatly and perhaps somewhat vaguely gathering under the umbrella of 'The Stage'. Since this really isn't much of an introduction, and may have a few of you wondering if you missed one of the groups on this year's 'X Factor', I shall elaborate. Tonight I will be writing to you about Russia's long and noble tradition of live performance, of theatre and music that single her out as a nation of beauty and spectacle, that capture the imagination of those who have the great fortune to bear witness and, for those such as myself who are privileged enough to engage with it themselves, captures the heart and soul in a way that is unforgettable.

That, my friends, is an introduction, if I do say so myself. And now to live up to it, or to try at least.

Needless to say, the Russians are a people of great cultural wealth, and nowhere is this more evident than on their stages. I live, as you know already, in a fairly small regional capital, and yet the cultural scene here is truly staggering. The city is home to the Karelian Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Marius Stravinsky, a descendent of the great composer himself who, having been educated in the UK and being a great fan of the students who come to the city, is a brilliant contact who regularly gets us free or dirt cheap tickets to his performances. And what fantastic performances they are! We have been privileged to see a beautiful symphony by Prokofiev, a stunning violin concerto by Tchaikovsky and a range of other pieces, both Russian and international, that can only excite classical music lovers such as myself to the point that we wander home ready to burst into solos on imaginary violins, deterred only by the cold and by the number of people out and about who might think we were having some sort of involuntary spasm.

Wander down the road from the concert hall to the Musical Theatre and more delights lie in wait. The theatre itself is truly a thing of beauty; fronted by Grecian columns and fitted internally in marble, mirrors and chandeliers that give it a very elegant yet surprisingly comfortable feel. You can hardly believe it was built by the same people responsible for the oh-so-Soviet eyesores around the town. And, for such a small city, the amount on offer at this venue is very impressive; within the space of a week there might be three or four different performances, ranging from the classic to the modern, and, with the Finnish theatre only across the road and similarly busy (amusingly, watching a performance there will require you wear a headset to listen to the Russian translation, a feat I'm told that is easier said than done), it would be impossible to see absolutely everything Petrozavodsk had to offer. And yet I could not let the opportunity pass me by and, being a great fan of Tchaikovsky, top of my "must see" list was the opera 'Eugene Onegin' ('Евгений Онегин') and the ballet 'The Nutcracker' ('Щелкунчик').

I have to admit, having never been to see either art form on a previous occasion, I was somewhat dubious as to what I would think of opera and ballet, but I very much enjoyed them both. Ballet was by far my favourite of the two; far from pink tutus and very camp men dashing across the stage, it turned out to be incredibly impressive, both due to the beauty of the dance and in terms of sheer skill and physical prowess, and was certainly not at all what I had in mind. You know something's fantastic when you feel emasculated by a man in tights, although the tightness of said garment did leave me feeling somewhat uncomfortable throughout. The opera was similarly beautiful, with some truly magnificent moments and performances (particularly by the lead males) that were mind-blowing. I have to admit, I am undecided on my opinion of opera as an art form; the songs may be beautiful, but when you sing absolutely everything from "I love you Olga" to "pass the tea will you love?", all the while throwing one's hands about and wearing pained expressions, I can't help but find it all a bit over dramatic.

One thing was consistent in both, however, and indeed is consistent throughout everything I have seen thus far, and that is quality. From the huge, elaborate sets to the beautiful period costumes, all was a masterpiece to the eye, and the performances, from both the orchestra and the actors, singers and dancers, were truly second to none. The Russians set the bar high when it comes to professionalism in the theatre, yet what is surprising is just how little it costs to watch such magnificent productions; such theatre cost a matter of pounds, whilst the quality would have warranted tickets ten times the price in the UK. In these last few weeks I will be seeing two more ballets (Stravinsky's 'Opuses' and Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet' ('Ромео и Джульетта'), and the sum total of both was about £7.50. That, ladies and gentlemen, is value for money; the kind that would have Yorkshiremen rushing from miles around only to realise that they don't really like dancing.

Yet perhaps one of the most wonderful things I have discovered about Russia is that such high standards are not limited to the realm of the professionals. One of the best, most fulfilling experiences of my time here has been singing in the University choir. When I arrived I had no idea such a thing existed, indeed I had been told that student activities in Russian universities would be somewhat limited (a complete myth that I shall perhaps touch upon in a future entry), and so it was with great pleasure that I discovered said choir and was fortunate enough to be put in contact with a member. Attendance of my first rehearsal was somewhat intimidating; meeting three times a week for two and a half hours a time, this was a dedicated bunch that would make the average British amateur singer cower in fear, quietly humming 'Pomp and Circumstance' to themselves. As I began to attend more regularly, got to know members and generally overcame my shyness to talk in Russian (I still can't understand half of what the conductor's saying most of the time, but he's an expressive bloke, and you can usually tell from his gestures exactly what he's driving at) I came to love and respect this remarkable group of people. There is a huge variety of background, both musical and vocational: some are from the local Conservatoire studying music at a professional level where others had never sung chorally before and are only now learning to read sheet music; some are students, others are ex-students now in full time employment, and still more are still at schools dotted around the city. Yet all are welcomed, encouraged and developed regardless of their proficiency, and there is a wonderful sense of community that is truly extraordinary to witness.

Yet my deep appreciation of the talent and dedication of this wonderful group came when performing at their biennial choral festival. This was an event dedicated to their late and much loved former conductor Georgii Ervandovich Teratzuyanitz ('Георгий Ервандович Терацуянанц'), lasting four days, performed in four different venues around the city and attracting choirs from all over Russia and even from as far afield as Barcelona. It was a truly amazing weekend, a really surreal yet wonderful experience (translating from Russian into Spanish is something of a challenge, especially as it's been quite a while since I studied the latter!), yet the moment that really stood out for me was standing on the stage of the Musical Theatre, performing to a hall so full that the term "standing room only" couldn't even apply. The sound produced by this choir of such mixed ability and experience was simply breathtaking, a sound that British choirmasters could only dream of, of a quality that I have simply never experienced in all my days of singing. It was such an incredible honour and privilege to perform with them, an opportunity I will never forget, and I cannot praise Russia highly enough on its stunning theatre, music and attitude towards the performing arts.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Chorny chai s limonom...

A wise man (or, as some believe him to be, a nutter taken far too seriously) once said that "Man shall not live on bread alone". And this is a great truth. To be, perhaps, a tad too pedantic, there are other forms of nutrition essential to his health, but I don't think Jesus really meant, "Why not try the Atkins diet?"; for one thing I don't think he was a dietician (although managing to get five loaves and two fishes to go round five thousand could imply otherwise).

So, to be serious just for the briefest of moments, and in doing so ignore his further recommendation that we cut down to nothing but "the Word of the Lord" (bibles are high in stodge but there's not a lot of substance there), what do we need other than food to live?

Well done Timmy. Drink. Have a biscuit.

Drink is, of course, a highly treasured part of every cuisine world-wide. Go anywhere you like and you will find traditional beverages of which nations are fiercely proud, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic: in Japan, the sweet, rice-based drink 'Saké' has been used to mark special occasions ranging from business meetings to weddings since the year 712; Mexico gave the world 'Tequila', a drink uncultured students took, added some salt and lime and turned into a drinking game, but is in fact drunk by connoisseurs with orange and cinnamon and comes from the juices of the agave cactus; and 'Maté', a non-alcoholic but nevertheless potent drink brewed from the yerba maté herb, is drunk by groups of friends from a common gourd through a metal straw in various nations of South America. In fact, you only have to travel around the UK to see how important drink is in forming an identity; anywhere you go you'll find pubs selling local ales by the barrel, with such exotic names as 'Fiddler's Elbow', 'Moose Drool' and (my personal favourite tipple) 'Snecklifter'.

Russia is, of course, famous for one beverage and one beverage only. And that is Vodka ('Водка').

Ahhh vodka! It is a word that brings a knowing, gleeful and yet slightly ashamed smile to the face of every student in the land. It greases the cogs of conversation, washes away our inhibitions and, more often than not, leaves us with a hangover the following morning that feels as if our head is being repeatedly beaten by a two year old with a Thomas the Tank Engine toy. It has the remarkable property of being near tasteless when mixed with some other beverage, yet ten times as potent as your average beer, causing you to wonder why on earth you're bothering to drink this expensive water whilst sitting in a skip, wearing nothing but a traffic cone for a crown and a broken shower head for a sceptre, singing 'Sing a song of sixpence' at the top of your lungs. It's also one of the most famous things about Russia. Take a random member of the British public, ask him to say the first thing to come to mind when talking about Russia and, if it's not "bears on unicycles" (thanks for that 'Family Guy'), it'll most likely be vodka. The question is, do the Russians deserve this stereotype?

Yes and no is probably the best answer.

Certainly vodka plays a major part in Russian culture. Walk into any reasonable sized shop or supermarket and there'll be a wall of vodkas that is easily bigger than the wine selection, ranging in price from a matter of pence (although drinking that might cost you your pancreas and your nearest and dearest) to upwards of £20. On the whole, it's not expensive to buy a decent bottle. Where, in my first year of university, £5 bought you a bottle of 'Drops', a vodka that had been nowhere near any Slavonic nation, let alone the Motherland, and had to be taken off the shelves due to reports that it was turning some people blind, here the same amount will buy you a very reasonable brand. And the Russians aren't afraid to drink it in large quantities; the standard shot glass in Russia dwarfs those we're used to in the UK, and, since it would be an abysmal crime to us a mixer, the only option is to pour it straight down and prepare yourself for a re-fill.

Yet I do not think that vodka can truly be considered the national drink of Russia, beyond the fact that it is one of its most famous exports after oil and nuclear missiles. For one thing, one half of the population doesn't drink it; where, amongst British students, vodka is often more often associated with girls, here it is a drink almost exclusively drunk by men. In a nation where there is a stronger traditional view of femininity, it is seen as unladylike, meaning that, often, women will not even be offered a glass. And there is also the fact that, in all honesty, Russians do not drink vodka as much as their reputation would suggest. The availability of poor-quality vodka at obscenely low prices certainly makes it affordable to those for whom alcohol is a refuge and escape, arguably fuelling Russia's serious problem with alcoholism, but go out to the bars and cafés and you will seldom see trails of shot glasses left from a heavy night's consumption unless a group of bawdy British students has been in. Russians simply (and understandably I feel) prefer drinks that are more pleasant to enjoy and less likely to make you feel very ill the next morning.

So, if not vodka, then what? There are a whole host of beverages, both alcoholic and soft, that all arguably vie for the privileged position as Russia's national drink. Beer ('Пиво') is probably the most popular drink amongst men when out at a bar and, as with many things that are gloriously bad for you in Russia, is similarly cheap. Those available tend to be produced in Russia (imported brands are expensive) and are generally lagers that are far more palatable than the mass produced, overly carbonated varieties so popular in the UK. Most venues will have their own variety of beer which is often the tastiest and the cheapest, making for a surprise at every venue. Beer also does not suffer the same gender stereotypes as vodka, and women can be seen drinking from half glasses (a full 0,5 l is still considered too much for their delicate constitutions) and often, bizarrely, through a straw. Wine ('Вино') is also becoming increasingly popular, and, whilst the preference tends to be for imported foreign varieties, there are various very pleasant wines produced within Russia itself or by its neighbours to the South. How the Ukranians get away with calling their fizzy white wines Champagne ('Шампанское') but, at a fraction of the cost, it certainly isn't bad.

Russia can also boast a variety of interesting and unique soft drinks for those not seeking intoxication. Kvass ('Квас') is a popular drink, which you are told is made from bread (conjuring up images of old crusts floating in a demijohn), but is in fact produced by fermenting a simple dough, diluting the substance produced with water and adding different fruits and berries and spices such as ginger or mint to give each brew a unique and interesting flavour. Mors ('Морс') is drink somewhat similar to cordial where berry juices are diluted with sweetened water, and is again very tasty and very popular.

Yet none of these quite rival one drink in terms of popularity. And Russia's most widely consumed and popular drink might come as a bit of a surprise. Tea.

If you think the Brits are good when it comes to tea ('Чай'), the Russians certainly give us stiff competition. If you go round to visit someone's house, a cup of tea usually ends up in your hand whether you like it or not. Out in the cafés, it makes the often more expensive coffee green with envy as it flies of the shelves and into the cups of happy customers. And, whilst the Russians use teabags just as readily as we do, there is certainly more time here for the finer arts of tea connoisseurship, and a dainty tea set, fashioned out of delicate china or beautiful glass, is a must-have for any self-respecting Russian home.

Traditionally, tea is prepared in Russia in a two step process. First of all, tea leaves are added to a tea pot, topped up with just enough boiling water to produce a tea concentrate and then is left to brew. Once the tea is ready, a small amount of tea is poured into the cup, it is then topped up with fresh boiling water from a Samovar ('Самовар') (a sort of urn that keeps the water at a constantly boiling temperature, and not a musical instrument as I once foolishly stipulated in an attempt to hide my ignorance) to the required strength. Russians do drink their tea differently to ourselves; the key difference is that tea is usually taken black, usually with sugar and often with lemon, and that milk is usually considered a treat rather than the norm.

But, for a tea lover such as my self, it is comforting to know that I won't be gagging for a decent brew at any point during my time here.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Priatnovo Appetita!

A phoenix rises...

No it's not Mr Berlusconi , returning to once again stand over the economic mess as if it were a dropped plate of bolagnaise, holding up his hands and declaring, "I know nothing". Loaded with stereotypes, but you'll forgive me on the grounds of amusement.

It is in fact a long forgotten blog, plucked from the top of a metaphorical bookshelf, dusted off and opened wide to receive the musings of a humbled and penitent blogger who has long neglected his duties, swanning around with short stories and songs that stole away his attention and caused him to be unfaithful. Let's try again shall we, dearest blog?

It is perhaps criminal, underhand or at the very least a tad slack of me, ten weeks into my time in Russia, to try and catch up on two month's worth of stories and adventures. Needless to say it has been a very busy two months, during which Old Father Time, in that way he so often does, whisked me along at such a pace that, by the end of the journey, I can hardly remember what I saw along the way. Needless to say, however, this blog was never intended to be a diary in the traditional sense; I wanted to write about a nation, its people and its way of life, and perhaps I could claim that having taken the time to immerse myself, to dive right to the bottom and pluck out only the choicest of pebbles was the best way to do so.

Or perhaps I should just get on and write the damn thing, chastened and bowed.

One of the first things we think about when we think of a nation, or, more specifically, of what defines that nation is its cuisine. The Italians, for instance, mentioned only a few moments ago, are currently most often in the news on account of their serious economic problems, but are cemented in the world's imagination for the deliciousness of their national dishes. Pasta and pizza grace every corner of the planet, their restaurants can be found within walking distance in any British city and they are famed for such dishes as 'Lasagne', 'Carbonara', 'Margherita' and even the humble garlic bread (described by Peter Kaye's father as 'a taste sensation').

The French have a similar reputation for their haute cuisine. The 'Continental Breakfast', often profferred by hotels who wish to disguise stinginess as culture, could, in its true and generous form, more accurately be called a 'French Breakfast', with its favouring of delicate pastries and well brewed coffees to a cuppa and a bowl of cornflakes. Their national menu is a reflection of their attitude to life, a monument to finesse, quality and excess, and the ingredients used are luxurious, pain-stakingly prepared and, sometimes, downright mad; lobster, snails, frogs' legs and foie gras to name just a few of the most famous. So luxurious is their cuisine that their language relating to food has become synonymous with quality, and around the world you can visit 'cafés', 'patisseries' and 'restaurants' to partake in 'hors d'oeuvres', followed by the 'soup du jour', all served by a genial waitor wishing you 'bon appétit'.

Needless to say, Russia does not enjoy such an international reputation. Never has an individual said to his girlfriend, "Why don't we try the new Russian that's just opened up on the corner?" Such a sentence would have connotations of a very different nature. Nor has a family ever arrived at a Friday, the working week done, the weekend ahead of them and the traditional takeaway tea to look forward to, and had a long argument over whether to order from the Chinese or the Russian. Simply put, Russian cuisine is almost unknown in the UK; certainly I have never seen a Russian restaurant and I doubt that this entirely due to a shortage of Russians living on British soil. According to official figures, there are around 400,000 Russians living in England, yet that number is comparable to that of the Chinese (430,000) and a Chinese restaurant can be found in almost every village that has more than a pub, a church and a post box.

Russia's culinary reputation in the UK is, if anything, a bad one. Before moving to Russia, food was one of the things I was most worried about, simply because the little I had heard about Russian cuisine had not been particularly promising. Most infamous perhaps were the soups, the famous shchi ('щи') and borscht ('борщ'), made of cabbage and beetroot respectively, and both had me shuddering at the thought of thick, unpalatable pulps being drawn from a cauldron-like vat by a woman called Olga. The thought of caviar ('икра') also had my stomach churning. That I eat on a very regular basis something that comes out of a chicken's vagina, yet was entirely opposed to the equivalent from a fish, did not occur to me as a little hypocritical, I simply feared for my nutrition during the months that lay ahead.

As with many fears I had before arriving in Russia, this proved unfounded. Russian food, it turned out, was just fine. In fact better than just fine, it was tasty, and perhaps what struck me most in my first few weeks was how similar our cuisines actually are. On reflection, this shouldn't have surprised me; whilst I cannot claim that the British climate is as harsh the Russian climate (we make up for it in a variability that most nations lack, which distinguishes us as a people who can have a twenty-minute conversation solely concerning the type of rain we are currently experiencing), both Britain and Russia, or at least Northern Russia where I live, are Northern European nations with mild summers and cold winters, whose climatic conditions are conducive to a very particular diet.

I specify Northern Russia because it is, of course, important to note that, as the biggest country in the world, covering one eighth of the world's land area and spanning nine time zones, it is impossible to narrow down Russian food to a small selection of dishes; indeed, even the region where I live has it's own, indigenous cuisine, influenced greatly by its proximity to Finland, and at a local Karelian restaurant I had the fantastic opportunity to try Elk, which proved to be delicious. Yet, since 78% of the Russian live in European Russia, I feel I can talk about its cuisine, not as an expert, nor with a great deal of experience, but without representing a minority as a majority.

Thus it was that both shchi and borscht turned out to be absolutely delicious; shchi is wonderfully salty, borsht has a certain spicy bitterness to it, and both are well flavoured, nourishing and lack the thick stodginess that so often plagues the soups we find in Britain. In fact, I was to discover a very rich tradition of soups, all tasty, unique and providing that much needed winter warmth so crucial to such a famously cold nation. Main courses have much in common with British meals, consisting of meat and carbohydrates, and can take the form of typical meats we know and love in the UK or the famously Russian 'kotlety' ('котлеты') which is a sort of burger or rissole made with pork or beaf that is then pan-fried and is delicious, with a side of pasta, rice, potato or something similar. 'Shashlyk' ('шашлык') is a type of shish kebab that is far tastier and far better for you than our own, stomach-churning favourite, the doner. And for puddings, Russians have a variety of cakes and pastries as wide as any other country, and a particular favourite is 'blini' ('блыны'); small round pancakes eaten with jam all year round but particularly at the time of Maslenitsa ('Масленица'), a week-long festival at the beginning of lent that makes our pancake day feasts look like a ryvita with a thin spread of philadelphia by comparison. All in all, Russia has a lot to offer.

This is not to say that I enjoy every aspect of Russian cuisine. It is undeniable, I think, that the quantity of fruit and veg consumed in Russia is lower than what most Westerners would be used to. This is entirely understandable; restaurants will offer you all the variety that you would find in the UK but, given the proportionally high prices on imported goods in supermarkets, most of what you eat around the home has been sourced from a family's dacha and is home grown. Given that the climate of Northern Russia isn't conducive to the growing of many types of fruit, this does make the selection somewhat limited. Thus it is that easy-to-grow, hardy vegetables such as potatoes, marrow and cabbage are used extensively, and any supplements that can be collected from the nearby forests that cover this area of Russia are harvested to their full extent, so that mushroom picking is something of a national past time.

It is also a nation that obsesses over one herb and one herb only: dill (the dreaded 'укроп'). Lord how I have come to despise it. Don't get me wrong, there are of course herbs that are hugely favoured in other cuisines. To return once again to the Italians, their particular favourite is oregano, which can be found in almost every dish to a greater or lesser extent and is a flavour that is integral to their culinary heritage. In fact, I do not mind dill; in Russian dishes, used with a sense of finesse and subtlety, it can be absolutely delicious. What I resent is the Russians' over exuberant use of the herb, not just in select dishes, but in absolutely every savoury meal you can imagine. Fancy a salad? Expect it to come liberally sprinkled with dill. Fajitas? A not so delicious layer of dill awaits you. Pizza? Dill, dill and more dill whilst oregano sits on the shelf, angrily feeling that its rightful place has been violated. So enthusiastic are the Russians about dill, that there is a Facebook group entitled 'Dillwatch' which seeks "the reclassification of dill from herb to weed" in an attempt to curb its "inappropriate" use in all parts of the Russian diet.

Other aspects of dislike are more personal. Smetana ('Сметана') is a type of soured cream that is used extensively, both in sweet and savoury dishes; it can be found added to soups, smothered on pasta or complimenting jam on blini. Grechka ('Гречка') or buckwheat is also popular, boiled and eaten in a similar way to rice, often mixed in with some butter. Personally I am not a huge fan of either, but it would be unfair of me to suggest that my opinion was universal amongst Westerners, and I am in no doubt that there are many features of British food that have foreigners gagging.

I think, therefore, it is fair to say that Russian food is tasty, appetising and certainly does not deserve the reputation it is sometimes given. Certainly any visitor to Russia should look forward to trying lots of new and exciting flavours and dishes. And yet I miss British cuisine, and it is not simply specific dishes that I pine for (although if anyone fancies cooking me toad in the hole I'd be grateful). What I miss most is the variety, and in particular the variety of different types of cuisine that are available and eaten on a regular basis. Within the space of a week at home I might eat foods from five or six different cultures (indian curry, thai curry, chilli con carne, spaghetti bolagnaise, risotto... just naming them has me drooling!) and Russia lacks this cultural diversity, both in its population and in its cuisine. Restaurants will offer you dishes from around the world, and sushi, served in almost every cafe or restaurant, is hugely popular, but around the home other national dishes have not become such a part of daily life. Russian cuisine, whilst surprisingly exciting, delicious and enjoyable, can quickly become repetitive, and it is perhaps the diversity of food at home that I miss most about life in the UK.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Lessons learnt from a hedgehog.

Many years ago a small hedgehog taught myself and my generation a very valuable lesson in life. This little member of the Erinaceinae family, along with his foolish friend who was eternally at risk (at one point, if I remember rightly, nearly being bulldozed by a rampaging elephant), taught us all the Green Cross Code, imploring us to "Look, Listen and Live" to such catchy jingles as 'Staying Alive' and 'King of the Road'. These days the advice is far more hard hitting, perhaps catering to the needs of the generation brought up on 'Grand Theft Auto' as opposed to 'Crash Bandicoot', and warns you to "Stop, look and listen, and the scars you'll be missin'" and "Cross the road where it's safe 'cause legs in plaster really chafe" (Shoot whoever was on the slogan desk that morning). But I must admit, whilst I remember the adverts well, I can't say I have ever regarded the advice given to be of paramount importance, and would previously have questioned to what extent my still being alive today is due to my having two eyes and a brain as opposed to listening to the sage advice of a small mammal. That was, however, until I got to Russia.

The Russians say that their country has two problems; morons and roads (Дураки и дороги). I have yet to experience many of the former, most of the people I have met have been wonderful beyond imagination, but my experiences with the latter have left me very grateful to that little hedgehog. They truly are a nightmare. The question is less what is the problem and more where on earth to begin.

We could perhaps start with the roads themselves. Last year the UK froze and life shut down for a few days under a blanket of snow, making us the laughing stock of the Baltics, Scandinavia and any other nation to whom a foot of snow is a blessing rather than a disaster. The aftermath was the littering of our roads with potholes, which left many British citizens indignant with their local councils for not sorting out the problem swiftly, efficiently and preferably in such a way that would involve a tax rebate. Such individuals should travel to Russia, where their complaints would be silenced into embarrassed humility. Potholes aren't so much a problem as craters reminiscent of the surface of Mars. These craters also tend to regularly fill with water so that, should you walk slightly too close to the road, you get hosed by a passing Marshrutka as it hurtles towards a bus stop. Umbrellas aren't carried so much as to protect from the rain as from the tsunami waves caused by said drivers, who I have a sneaking suspicion enjoy this activity as something of a past time. All the cars here have at least one set of shattered suspension, which I can only assume is the result of driving at speed along roads that would test the capabilities of a tank. And these are the main roads I am talking about. Leave a major street and you could quickly find yourself on a dirt track, where stepping in a puddle could cost you your life.

Or perhaps we should look at the cars? It is a stereotype that everyone in Russia drives a Lada, but it is a stereotype that, by and large, appears to be true. Certainly 1 in 3 of the cars you will see on the road was made by the brand famed for the ruggedness and affordability, whose name was stolen from a Czech sewing machine manufacturer, and they are truly endearing little cars, plucky and unshowy. The other two thirds of the vehicles you will see are more varied than in any nation I've been in; ranging from ancient Volgas and European classics (the Russians using 'Opals' as opposed to the 'Vauxhalls' that we know in the UK) to Japanese city cars and swish looking four by fours. But most of them (excepting, of course, those owned by the small, wealthy elite) have one thing in common: something on them is broken. And this can be something as simple as a brake light, or something as seemingly crucial as the engine itself, and it is not unusual to hear what sounds like an ancient tugboat and in fact see a clapped out Lada travelling along at barely more than fifteen miles an hour. The other day I saw a car whose only means of keeping its boot open was a broom handle, and it's an almost daily sight to see a car broken down in the middle of the road. I can only assume there is no equivalent of an MOT test here (unless it's a bloke called Mikhail who looks at your car, leans on it whilst smoking a fag and sends you on your way with a second hand wiper blade), and the result is hundreds of large metal boxes of indeterminate robustness and reliability hurtling towards you at high speed.

And then, of course, there are the drivers inside said vehicles. I'm not sure what the Russian driving test is like, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was a man holding up a pair of flash cards, one with a car and one with a pot plant, and asking you which one you could drive. Certainly the laws seem fairly relaxed and the emphasis is on resourcefulness rather than following the rules. Crashes are commonplace, and the Russian attitude is that they are a nuisance rather than an incident. We saw one during our first week and, rather than try to filter round the two cars, causing a bit of a jam but nothing too serious, the Russian solution was to use the grass as an alternative road. You haven't lived until you've seen a large truck stacked with logs drive over both the path and the grass verge just to avoid waiting five minutes. And what are your rights as a pedestrian? Well, you're usually permitted to cross at a designated crossing (which, in a flash of genius so at odds with the reality that it could only happen in Russia, usually has a countdown to helpfully let you know how long you have to get across the road before all hell breaks loose) as long as it is convenient to the driver.

That said, as long as you have your wits about you, it isn't so difficult to navigate the Russian road system. There is a certain charm to the resourcefulness of road users that stands as a testament to the Russians' innate common sense and pragmatic approach to life and, whilst sometimes you feel like you're taking your life in your hands stepping out into the road to cross to the other side, there is a certain confidence that these are a people who have coped with far worse than an irritating pedestrian. And for me, the Lada, that symbol of the Soviet Era, truly incarnates the roads on which they drive and the people who drive in them. They're not always pretty, never flashy and often bloody terrifying, but they have a proud defiance and ability to cope with anything that you cannot help but fall in love with.

All that said, I am very grateful to that little hedgehog. Maybe I ought to look up some of the old adverts and brush up.

Sunday, 11 September 2011


To start, I'll tell you a little about the city in which I find myself.

Petrozavodsk (or Петрозаводск for those Russian speakers amongst you) is the capital of the Republic of Karelia in the north-west of Russia. This region borders Finland and has a rich history in the mingling of both Russian and Finnish culture, having been fought over by the two states over the centuries. To this day there is a region of Finland named East Karelia, there is a Karelian language that is sometimes considered a dialect of Finnish, and, not far from the magnificent Karelian National Musical Theatre, is the more contemporary Finnish theatre.

The city was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 as a cannon foundry to provide for his Baltic fleet; the name itself comes from Petrovsky Zavod (Петровский завод), meaning Peter's factory. It sits on the bank of the enormous Lake Onega (Онежское Озеро), upon which are 1,650 islands, including the UNESCO world heritage site Kizhi (Кижи) where, during the 1950s, the Russian government moved over 80 wooden buildings and structures from all over Karelia to form an open-air museum. Hopefully at some point I will visit it and be able to tell you more.

As the twin sister of St Petersburg (Санкт-Петербург), which Peter the Great founded as an attempt to modernise the old-fashioned nobility of Russia and made his capital in 1712, Petrozavodsk is unique amongst the other towns of the region and of northern Russia in its European, neo-classical style of architecture, and as you wander along the expansive main street Prospect Lenina (Проспект Ленина) you are struck by the elegant and majestic buildings on either side of you, brightly painted and beautifully designed. If you follow this street right to the end, you come to the lake, along the bank of which are a collection of post-modernist sculptures given to the city by its sister-cities around the world. Whilst not being to everyone's tastes, these offer an interesting walk along the beautiful lakeside. The soviet era has also left its mark on the city, both in buildings such as the main train station and the State University (Петрозаводский Государственный Университет), that blend the neo-classical herritage of the city with symbols of the regime, and in the concrete, grey and somewhat shabby-looking appartment blocks that house the majority of the city's 263,000 residents.

So, history and background aside, what can I say of the city in which I have lived for the past week? The best conclusion I can come to is that Petrozavodsk is a city of stark contrast. There is a contrast between the old and the new, the beautiful and the ugly, and a remarkable contrast in what is cared for and what is not. As I have previously stated, the main street Prospect Lenina is home to some truly magnificent buildings, worthy of the architectural centres of the world, yet these are mingled amongst Soviet tenements, badly laid pavements and signs of disrepair. Popping our head into the Musical theatre revealed a magnificent hallway of marble, immaculately polished mirrors and glistening chandeliers, yet stepping back outside the door it was impossible to ignore the abandoned and rotting remains of a a factory. Even sat at this desk, in a room that is immaculately kept, well furnished and tastefully decorated in a way that echoes the rest of the flat, I only have to look to my left to see the grubby concrete, corrugated-iron clad balconies and dreary external of the block of flats in which I live.

Does this make Petrozavodsk an unpleasant place to live? Not at all. In fact, the city is far more welcoming, comfortable and homely than I had expected. Certainly, Petrozavodsk is not a tourist hotspot; there is a cinema, various theatres and music halls, but none of the magnificent sights that attract the crowds to St Petersburg or Moscow. Nevertheless, the city is, like many regional capitals, charming and comfortable in a way that makes you feel like you're living in a large town rather than a major city.

A buzzing metropolis it may not be, but I am delighted that it is this city in which I get to spend the next four months of my life.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

From Russia with love!

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for visiting my blog. As you can probably tell from the cheesy and slightly obvious title (heck, I can't be original all the time!) I am currently in the nation of Russia, where the winters are cold, the summers are short and where, according to my mother, everyone's name ends in 'ovich'.

This blog will be following me on my travels, both around Russia and around France, and in it I hope to both entertain and inform, telling you about the places I go, the characters I meet and the culture I discover as I attempt to get to the heart of a nation and its people.

It has now been just over a week since I arrived in this country, and there is both much and little to tell you. I'd love to give you a detailed description of the way of life here, but having only lived it for a week now, I have but dipped my toe in the great ocean that is the former USSR. So, over the coming weeks, I shall be mingling my analyses of various aspects of life in Russia with reports on the different cities and places I visit.