Pink Russia

We acted like millionaires when we got to Belarus: one dollar is 10,000 Belarussian rubles. I withdrew three million rubles in the first 48 hours. Things are often absurdly inexpensive, though: paid-for WiFi at our first hotel was US$0.54 for three hours; most museum admissions were about US$1.50. The subway in Minsk was 37 cents a ride. Gas is about the same price as in the US, about $4 per gallon; in Western Europe it’s about double that. Our dinner checks ran at about US$45 for meals with wine at nice places. There were some amusing ATM error messages in Belarus and in Warsaw: in Warsaw, it didn’t sense that I had taken the cash, and it told me the cash had been retracted and never gave me a receipt. In Belarus, after I had taken my cash and card, it said “transaction cancelled”. Wouldn’t it be nice if it didn’t charge my account in both cases? Turns out it did; oh well.

Our first stop in Belarus was Brest; the bus arrived around dinnertime. The tourist agency made all the arrangements, as part of the deal to get an invitation to Belarus (you need to be invited to get a visa); therefore twin beds. It seemed very Soviet, certainly from that era. In particular, in between eavery pair of rooms was an unmarked door with no handle, which served as a listening post for a human being, who had to peer through a hole in the wall and listen on microphones in lamp bases and such. How primitive that seems, compared with modern listening capabilities! No wonder America won the cold war.

We found a hotel a block away with a nice restaurant, where we had various salads and an excellent piece of grilled sausage. On Saturday we walked to the Museum of Confiscated Art, which contained mostly items of religious art that people tried, and failed, to smuggle to Poland and the West after the Soviet Union fell apart. There were a few photos showing places the art would be hidden. Most of it, they didn’t catch. Anyone who went to NAMM in the early 1990’s will recall the gift shops at the Anaheim Hilton and other hotels were chock full of Russian icons, being sold at Disneyland-souvenir prices. So ever, the spoils of war.

We walked afterwards to the Soviet War Memorial for the Hero Fortress of Brest, which was many times larger than the one we had just seen in Berlin. First you walk under a 40-foot-high star-shaped opening in a concrete wall. A quarter-mile or so later you arrive at a piece of concrete just as tall sculpted into a soldier fixing his grim gaze with Soviet Socialist resolve, on the ruined walls and polished marble memorial stones below. The Hero Fortress of the Alamo seems penny ante by comparison. The island contains rebuilt military buildings and a large church. There is an archaeological museum displaying the remains of a village from the 1300s made of log houses, quite well preserved by the bog they were buried in. There is also a war museum illustrating the effects of WWII on life in Belarus. There is not a lot of English labeling in this memorial, but how much is needed to see what the Nazis did to Eastern Europe?

We returned to the hotel, walked to the train station, and boarded our train to Minsk, pausing only to be photographed with a bridesmaid and her mother in a wedding we passed. Happens all the time. Joining us in our train compartment was a professional accordion player (his father taught him, and his two brothers play it also). In the first five minutes of conversation we determined that we were both familiar with Alloy Orchestra (he and they had played in a silent film festival in Odessa, we’d seen them at the Castro) and Nik Bärtsch (he was a fan, we’d just seen them in Warsaw). So we found stuff to talk about for the whole four hour ride. He played us his demo video of his trio (a bass player and drummer) but we couldn’t manage to transfer it to our computer. Trying to deal with computers kills conversation. Anyone who listens to his music and doesn’t get excited should go to jail. It was also extremely sweet of Yegor and his wife and three year old son to take us to our hotel in Minsk.

Bonhotel is a modern business hotel a few miles from the center of Minsk, not far from a subway stop but far from things like places to eat or things to see. Fortunately, it had a nice restaurant open late, in which breakfast was also included. On Sunday we took the subway into town, and just explored the extremely wide main road starting at Independence Square, extending up to the Victory Tower. We passed the main government building; we stopped to be contaminated near old brick Roman Catholic church with a pergola out front featuring soil samples from Chernobyl and Alamogordo; we passed the KGB building. We found a place with fresh orange juice, and a post office (every post office we visited in Belarus seemed to have different ideas about the necessary postage for postcards and which stamp (M, N, or P) was required). We probably overpaid but we are hopeful everything will be delivered. Midday we passed a TGI Friday’s; for dinner we ended up at something that seemed TGI Belarus, in that it had a long menu and quirky decor. It was actually quite good.

Monday morning a tour guide and driver picked up us and our luggage, and took us to see Mir and Nesvizh castles, 90 minutes out of Minsk. Both of them belonged to Polish princes in the Radziwill family (perhaps you recognize the name: a descendant prince later married Jackie Kennedy’s sister). They were largely destroyed in WWII, and fairly completely rebuilt recently. They went to lots of auctions to find furnishings similar to those which were originally there.

Monday night was the first of two nights spent on a train. The train left Minsk at 8:30pm, and took a roundabout route to Vitebsk, arriving at 5:50am. The train for Tuesday didn’t leave until 10pm. So there were many hours early and late in the day to kill — we ended up spending time in the lobby and restaurant of a big hotel, and in the left-luggage room, where they had an outlet for charging our phones. We spent the midday hours visiting the Mark Chagall home, some other city museums, and the Mark Chagall museum, which contained many prints of his work. We also had a decent dinner, with awesome rye bread.

Wednesday morning we arrived in St. Petersburg, and took a taxi to our hotel. It had a meter, but the price sure climbed quickly. At one point there was incredible gridlock and we couldn’t move for ten minutes. Things in St. Petersburg are maybe twice as expensive as in Belarus, which is still a bargain for subway rides, or bottles of water in grocery stores. Gas is still the same price as the US. Dinners in tourist restaurants approached US prices.

The entire trip so far has been cloudy and a little rainy. Some days, especially in Belarus, we carried our Antarctica jacket shells, and for one mad dash from the metro to the hotel in Minsk in particular, we are glad we did: it rained really hard for just a little while. But the whole time in St. Petersburg was sunny and warm every day, with no rain at all, and the time in Finland promises to be the same. And since the day goes from 5am to 11pm, that’s a lot of sun.

We left our luggage at Hotel Regina and explored the neighborhood, finding a place to have coffee and orange juice and then walking around the Peter and Paul Fortress. We didn’t actually buy any tickets to see the church or the prison, or any of the other attractions like the rampart walk or the torture museum or the Leonardo Da Vinci museum which each had a separate $7.50 admission not included in the basic admission, but felt like we kind of got the idea. We got back and checked into our room, bought online tickets for the Hermitage, and rested all afternoon. In the evening we went to Chekhov, a delightful little restaurant near the hotel. Homemade sauerkraut, duck pelmeni, and beef stroganoff which was described on the menu in terms of how recently the beef was bought, were all really good. It did seem at some point though that our waitress lost interest, never delivered some pies we’d ordered or asked if we wanted dessert. Fortunately, we were completely full, but we had to ask someone else to get us the check.

Thursday we arrived at the Hermitage just before it opened, and exchanged our voucher for our tickets. We spent the entire opening time from 10:30 to 6pm wandering the galleries, marveling at the building itself, and mostly concentrating on European art. Dinner was at Tsar, whose major claim to fame is that it is massively overpriced. OK, its toilets are like thrones, and one of them has racy wallpaper, and there is lots of sturgeon and caviar on the menu, but though we avoided those items, everything we got tasted decently good, especially the Siberian pelmeny and the venison in cowberry sauce, but cost over twice as much as anywhere else since we left Berlin.

There is a roving European biennial of contemporary art called Manifesta. This year it took place in St. Petersburg, at the Hermitage. A large hunk of it was located in the General Staff building across from the main Hermitage complex, but in order to bring attention to it, all of the Hermitage’s Matisse works were moved from the Winter Palace and some of the Manifesta art took its place there. Most significantly, one of these rooms showed an artist who tacked up 16 drawings of great men, listing their accomplishments. The point was that all of them are gay: this exhibit had a “16+” warning ensuring that no impressionable youngsters might get any ideas. No one seemed to be checking IDs, though. I can imagine the museum having different opinions from Moscow. Stalin regularly executed museum directors from Leningrad, in his day.

So Friday we started off the day in the General Staff building (our two-day ticket included admission to that as well as a few other places) and saw the Manifesta work there. (Actually, we started with the Matisse works including “Danse” and “Musique”.) Some of the more interesting works included:

  • a video of some guys who drove a car from Belgium to St. Petersburg and crashed it into a tree in the courtyard of the Winter Palace (the car was there, next to the tree, and children playing in it, not the usual Hermitage policy toward touching art);
  • a full-size sculpture of six apartments on the fifth and sixth floors whose “walls” had come crashing down onto the ground
  • a tunnel with photos of a project where a guy lived with the Hermitage cats underground for six weeks: they eat mice. This also is rated 16+ for reasons I can’t imagine. There does seem to be a bit of a furry culture in St. Petersburg. The empresses are all pictured wearing ermine with the tails of the animals dangling out, and you see people on the streets even on a hot day in hats with animal ears (and one poor fellow leafletting for a boat tour or some damn thing, in a full on zebra/skunk/???? costume when the temperature was 30 all day long). Maybe they are afraid kids will turn into cats.

After this we returned to the main Hermitage complex and saw exhibits of Russian culture, Dutch and Flemish art, and just a taste of Greek and Roman antiquities before once again it became 6:00. We had targeted a Georgian restaurant on the opposite side of the nearest metro station, but we found another one much closer which turned out to be really good. Our waiter was the son of the owners. Of course, we had cheese bread (essentially pizza, but they will be offended if you say that, and the cheese is much tastier than on pizza). Other items included chicken in egg-lemon soup, beef stew, and homemade Georgian wine. It was all really good, and relatively inexpensive.

Saturday, after two seven-hour days of museum wandering, we slept in. When we finally got going, we visited some other sites, starting with Church of the Spilled Blood. No, not Christ’s blood: the tsar Alexander II’s blood, which is more mission-critical. He was mortally wounded in an explosion, and his son built a church where it happened, including constructing a intrusion into the canal so that a shrine could be built at the exact spot. The church itself is fabulous inside and out: like St. Basil’s in Moscow, it has brightly colored enamel towers and whimsical construction. Inside, every wall and ceiling is covered with bright mosaics, recently restored since the Communists were not really into maintaining a shrine to an assassinated Czar. They used it as a storehouse, I think. The floor is many colors of marble. Afterwards, we stopped for lunch at an Armenian place, trying not to order too much: a “curled dock” salad, a soup which was basically raita, eggplant dip, and bread (again, basically pizza dough, this time without cheese). We then found an obscurely located post office to buy more stamps (Russia is definitely cheaper than Germany was or Finland will be): it was through a closed door, up a dark staircase, then through another closed door. The next stop was St. Isaac’s Cathedral, an immense Romanesque church where you can walk around the dome and get good views of the city. We did that, then went inside the church, which again had sumptuous paintings, carvings, and mosaics. We walked along the river for awhile, but it was too sunny and noisy. There isn’t really a malecon and definitely not picturesque male hustlers as in Havana. Only just a big trafficky street and the sun blazing down on the Admiralty buildings and you at the same time, in stereo. I realize it’s precious to complain about the heat at 60° N but it was hot. We eventually gave up walking and returned to the Armenian restaurant for dinner, where we had pickled okra (and some other mystery vegetable), tomato salad, delicious homemade noodles, and “whipped beef”, which was an enormous slab about the consistency of fish cake. We somehow had room for dessert, advertised as a “cottage cheese pie”: essentially it was cannoli filling served on a saltine cracker. You can’t really go wrong with cannoli filling.

Sunday started out with a pleasant breakfast at Zhan-Zhak Russo, a seemingly French cafe (which turns out to be a chain; we saw another one later). They accommodated my request for strong cappuccino, they served double the quantity of fresh OJ for the single price at breakfast time (400 ml vs 200), and we split a nice omelet with sausage and potatoes on it. An aspiring director was filming just inside the front door. We walked across to Vasilevsky Island, and continued the Manifesta tour at another site. After a few hours of that, we walked to the subway passing a pro-pro-Russian-Ukranian demonstration, the guy said he was “against America”. I didn’t think of pointing out that they wouldn’t change hearts and minds by shooting down airliners until we passed, but then I didn’t want to get in a fight. Also he didn’t speak English so much, and he’d probably just want to bring up Iran Air 655 and then we’d say KAL 007 and then he’d say Cubana 455 and I wonder if these flight numbers get played in the lottery, or avoided? You’d have to be Rain Man to keep up with major power perfidy in airspace alone.

We went south to see a monument of the Defenders of Leningrad, and the cute little pink and white Chesma Church we’d seen on a postcard. You could base a vacation on postcards first, and then ideas of what to see. Dinner afterwards was at Severyanin, a Russian place where the winning dishes were homemade noodles made out of flour ground from crab-cherry seeds served with pumpkin, more delicious rye bread, and delicious ice cream which tasted just like rye bread.

We found the lowest proportion of people who could understand English in Belarus, though people in tourist places in Minsk communicated well and Prime Tours connected us with a guide who spoke well. At one museum in Vitebsk they rustled up two young women who between them were able to recall enough vocabulary to show us stuff. The tourist industry in St. Petersburg runs deep, and the impression there, other than the occasional Soviet architecture, is that you are in some dreamscape Vienna/Paris mashup. The Soviet-era fashion echo is strong in Belarus: the young women largely dress like Mrs. Peel and the older women like Divine. St. Petersburg could be anywhere, fashionwise. A bit more numerous mullets, some which would frighten Ah Q. Really why travel at all, except to see countries where somebody picks up their damn litter. All these places are quite tidy compared to San Francisco, and they have lots of vodka bottles to contend with.

Here’s tidy: A demolition machine which is entirely covered with a green canopy, to keep dust from escaping. Film at never.

Many people in Minsk and St. Petersburg were very friendly and wanted to take pictures with us. We have been getting more aggressive about taking pictures back, and some day we will post them. Meanwhile…where do those photos go? We must be all over imgur and flickr, but I can’t think of a single instance where anyone has linked to us and said, hey, that’s you guys and 15 middle-school Russian girls in the Peter and Paul Fortress! The world is still big.

We took a fast train to Helsinki, where we are now. Our adventures here in the continued heat wave will be covered later.