St. Petersburg, June 30 Crime and Punishment
“We have many robberies” Officer Vadim explained as if to help us understand we wouldn’t be the only people filing a robbery report that day. Without doubt, St Petersburg is Russia’s cultural jewel, and jewels attract admirers and predators alike. We had already had one full day hiking the city and being awed by the architectural, artistic, and spiritual splendor of the city I think of as the Queen of Russia. We had deciphered the Cyrillic alphabet and the bus routes to some degree the previous day, and were comfortable enough to use the bus again to get to a special museum showing for our group. As a result, we were a bit more dressed up than usual, which meant we were more identifiable as prime targets. Our clothing was also less secure than what we had been wearing before with regard to protecting valuables. We even ignored our intuitions about what to bring with us on our outing. In a very real way, we had created this event and its subsequent lessons. We could have thought of ourselves as a really tasty looking salmon swimming through a pod of Orcas.
The team of three thieves worked perfectly: jamming and crowding us as we boarded the bus, they attempted to cut me off from my wife and push me off the bus. As she reached to pull me back on, her wallet and passport were stolen. In the ensuing minutes my wallet was also picked and my attempt to get the bus ticket taker’s attention was ignored. In those moments, jammed together with our antagonists, (blessedly we weren’t physically harmed,) but we were in mental shock. At the next stop the robbers fled, and we started a new and unexpected journey of recovery.
The next couple of hours involved finding the police, (they are not very visible in St. Petersburg,) filing a report, and contacting the Canadian embassy to start the process of getting a replacement passport and visa or emergency exit papers for my wife. One does not leave Russia without those. To make things more complex, we had to return to Moscow to go to the Canadian embassy which was closing the next day for Canada Day. That would leave us only one work day to get a new passport and exit visa before our scheduled flight on Sunday. We were warned by embassy staff to expect an extended stay.
There were many twists and turns in the process. We were very fortunate to be traveling with friends from Bellingham. We also received timely and knowledgeable help from our Russian hosts finding the police station, the airline office, and the train connections we needed to navigate in a strange world. And most especially, the remarkable staff at the Canadian embassy produced a new passport in less than 12 hours on a holiday Friday. One of our Russian friends commented, “You never know what is going to happen in Russia.” In almost every step of the process, we didn’t have a clear picture of what would happen next. Even though my wife had a new passport by Friday evening, the Russians still had not approved an exit visa. That unsettling uncertainty lasted until midday Sunday when, through more bizarre events, it was approved in the final hour before our flight.
Besides the obvious lessons about protecting valuables, we learned and relearned that there are far more people who are kind spirits willing to help in a crisis than there are crooks. Sometimes it may not seem that way whether in Russia or here in the U.S., but in my experience it is really true. When you are far away from home, losing your identity papers and access to your financial resources can be scary. You are immediately awakened to new and unexpected challenges and the possibility of difficult times. The sense of violation and vulnerability can upset your balance and judgment if you are not mentally and emotionally prepared. It is a lesson in compassion to realize how many victims of crime do not have the resources we had. We are so thankful for the support we received. That day in St. Petersburg will continue to remind us to thank God every day for the blessings that we have.
Go back? Sure, in time. We missed The Hermitage and other gems….and next time we will be better prepared. Hopefully, when we do return, the amount of crime will be reduced and we'd like to meet up with our friends again.
Moscow, June 25
"Radical Docs Plot Changes in Humans!" If there were a Russian "National Enquirer," that might be the headline for this international conference on Transpersonal Studies. The fact is, several hundred psychologists, psychiatrists, shamans, and other assorted practitioners in the field of human consciousness are sharing what they are learning "outside the box" about us humans. Some of the work is very esoteric and some of it is very pragmatic. Often there has been a remarkable integration of art and science. All of it tends to push for new insights about some of humanity's most intractable social and personal challenges. This is heady stuff for the conference attendees and hopefully some of the learning may make a difference to our global societies.
Also heady is that this conference is happening in a country where, under the Soviets, political dissidents were routinely and intentionally mis-diagnosed and mis-treated as "schizophrenics." Much progress has been made here since those times. I'm happy to see excitement over free and open speech; it is refreshing.
But at times, in the more mundane daily routine, there also seems to be one foot still in the past. I think, as Americans, our cultural history is so short and changeable that we always appear to be in a hurry. We spend relatively less of our energy on stability and safety and more of it on creating something new and different. For example, it is hard to imagine the Russians inventing the iPhone. My sense is the Russian "soul" is more reflective and patient than ours. In the extreme, many of the Russians I have interacted with here seem more tolerant than I could ever be of things that are broken or don't work well. Lessons for me, perhaps, and not necessarily a "bad" thing.
Today's agenda has a side trip to a small town two hours from Moscow. Sergiev Pasod is about the size of Bellingham. It is noted for being the location of one of the most important and holy cathedrals in Russia and the home of the nested "grandmother" dolls. I can't wait to see what we find.
This city of approximately 11 million people is hot, thermally hot that is. For the third straight day, the temperature has hit the mid 90s and the heat wave is predicted to continue through at least next Monday. For many American and European cities where high temperatures are expected in the summer, this would be no big deal. However, for Moscow, situated at 55 N latitude, the normal seasonal highs are in the 70s. As a consequence, our hotel, and many businesses and offices are not equipped with air conditioning. It has put a decided damper on the energy level of the attendees to the conference on Transpersonal Psychology, which is unfortunate as there are a number of interesting, if not controversial, topics being discussed. Esoteric areas of study such as the quantum mechanics of consciousness and Siberian shamanism just don't hold a candle to finding a cool outdoor restaurant that provides shade, a cool breeze, and a cold beverage. Indeed "the mind cannot absorb what the seat cannot endure."
That being said, it is too hot for a long post tonight, but I will share a photo of the incredible St. Basil's Cathedral which borders one side of Red Square.
Tuesday, June 22
There is a lot of active building restoration in the area surrounding Red Square and within the Kremlin’s walls itself. Central Moscow appears to have that vitality associated with western cities such as Paris, London and New York. The streets are jammed with late model Audis, BMWs, Mercedes and Fords. Black BMWs seem to be the favorite transport of Russian bureaucrats. Women’s clothing is very high fashion and many men sport expensive suits and Italian shoes. Prosperity and energy are palpably oozing out of the walls, evidence that Russia is on the move and in a hurry.
Our guide today was wonderfully informed about Russian history, up to and including today’s news stories. She did not hesitate to reflect on the Russian cultural psyche and how some Russians do regret the loss of social safety that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union. I found that a useful insight when I was told I couldn’t take photos inside the GUM department store or on some of the streets surrounding Red Square. GUM was noted during the Soviet period as the place where communist party officials could buy western goods and where Russians without party status were denied access. I received no good reason for the photo prohibition. My skeptical nature was really activated by that one and I wondered that maybe someone feels threatened by having the world know what a bottle of really good French wine or slab of cheese costs.
Everywhere we’ve been in Moscow the last two days seems to have ample security forces. There are police and military in the places one might expect to see them, especially in a capital that has seen terrorist attacks. The surprise, however, is the number of uniformed and non-uniformed security personnel stationed at gated streets, hotel lobbies, restaurants, and even at our hotel’s elevator lobby. It seems a little excessive to me, but then most everyone we have met and “talked” to in our really poor Russian, has been friendly and helpful. So maybe it is just the heightened experience of having terrorist attacks in your city, or maybe there is a bit of that Russian “safety” paranoia involved.
Walking across Red Square, touring the Kremlin and visiting Lenin’s tomb (no, I didn’t go in) gave me a bit of a historical start. I was a child of the Cold War, exposed to all the fear and paranoia of those times. Truly, those were dangerous times. Who knew which leader might be a little insane or too ambitious and willing to start a nuclear war? During that time, I was quite aware of the visual and symbolic significance of Red Square and the Kremlin, especially during the annual May Day display of the latest Soviet weaponry held in that square. To be standing there taking pictures did make me consider that possibly, just possibly, our species can find the way to avoid self-annihilation.
Monday, June 21
Door to door, the trip from Bellingham to our hotel in Moscow took 36 hours. The journey included a canceled flight out of Seattle, having to take the red-eye due to the cancellation, dealing with long lines and mob scenes at airport security and check-ins in Seattle, Minneapolis, New York and Moscow, not to mention lengthy passport control in Moscow. The flying time is the least of the burden, taking only 14 of the 36 hours. However, the most fun was the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel in Moscow. We needed two taxis for the five us and both drivers were NASCAR wannabes. The half hour ride was done at speeds of 80 to 90 miles per hour, weaving through heavy freeway and arterial traffic. It's evidently common behavior amongst Russian taxi drivers. Be forewarned if you are coming this way.
So tonight is recovery night. We sampled a couple of fish dishes at a local restaurant. They were quite tasty, but we know now to avoid the Russian wine (really terrible,) and take the beer instead (not Northwest level, but quite good.) Our Russian hotel beds are slightly softer than a Mt Baker basalt flow, but sleep will come quickly after the day we've had. Tomorrow we will learn a bit about Moscow's subway and visit Red Square and St. Basil's cathedral before the conference starts on Wednesday.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
The last time I was in Eastern Europe was the winter of 1995-6. I spent four months in Craiova, a Romanian industrial center noted for building electric locomotives and transformers. The city showed numerous internal and external scars from World War II and a long Soviet occupation afterward. When I was there, Romania had a 40% unemployment rate and chaos reigned in the transportation, communications, and housing infrastructure. "Total train wreck" would have been a good descriptor of the conditions. The worst streets in Bellingham today would have been considered "avenues of the gods" were we to have been lucky enough to find them there then. It was a place and time of little hope.
Now 15 years later, I'm headed back to Eastern Europe, only this time to Russia. Then, it was hard to imagine almost any country in the Eastern bloc as being suitable for tourism, conferences or vacations. Today, the changes are already pretty evident. The primary purpose of my travel is professional, attending an international conference on psychology. The secondary purpose is to visit some of the art, architecture and historical sites of a country that claims over 100 nationalities resident in Moscow alone. Russian history and culture are deep and passionate, so I expect some interesting moments. Russia has made significant progress in developing a tourism infrastructure, and as I wander about Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a few points in between, I'll send along some photos and a few thoughts and observations. I don't expect to see the desperate grayness I experienced in Romania so seemingly long ago.