MOSCOW, Russia — It’s an all too familiar lament: so many places and so little time. But with the four-day Easter break running into the bumper of the May 1 holiday, I made an executive decision and blew off the entire week to depart on a new and exciting adventure.
So I closed my eyes and spun a globe and when I planted my finger on it my next destination was, not surprisingly, the largest country in the world: Russia. Ok, I must confess that my decision was not entirely random. I had a ton of Marco Polo miles expiring and, being partial to upgrades, a bias towards destinations serviced by Cathay Pacific as well.
Well off I went on this intrepid journey and the first stop of the AsiaXPAT Express was one of the world’s more renowned and mysterious locales, Moscow.
As a child growing up in Canada, this city - with its iconic skyline of Orthodox Churches and the Kremlin’s steely gaze - was symbolic of the Cold War. It was not only the gray, cadaverous heart of communism but, more importantly, to a young boy from snowbound Sudbury with dreams of one day playing in the NHL, it was the setting for the memorable finals of the first meeting between Canadian pro hockey players and their Soviet counterparts in 1972.
Nearly forty years later, I can still recall a black and white TV being shuttled into the classroom so we could watch the last game. In Canada, hockey is not just in your blood – it is your blood! No Canadian of a certain age can ever forget the Goal of the Century that gave our heroes a scintillating, last-second come-from-behind win over the Red Menace.
And this was not just any series nor was it just any victory. This moment transcended sports and became literally war on ice. Although the US and the Russians were officially fighting the Cold War, we were also foot soldiers in the free world waltz and for us Canada’s win was a perfect metaphor. Our system up against theirs with ours triumphant, even if it was by a mere one-goal margin in the pivotal game of an eight game series.
Funny how things can seem so important at the time. Everything in my world revolved around winning that summit series with the Soviets in 1972. But perspective, maturity and a shred of enlightenment have helped me sort out what truly matters in life. Issues like famine, wars and human oppression make a hockey game seem trivial. The cloak has been lifted for some time now and modern Russia is not nearly as mysterious as it once was.
I still can't believe that all happened four decades ago as I gaze out the Airbus window at a landscape not dissimilar to my old stomping grounds in northern Ontario.
Nothing seems cheap around here and the taxi drivers smelling fresh meat like myself have jacked-up fares that would make a Tokyo or London cabbie blush. After bleeding from my eyeballs because of the incessant, Kafkaesque traffic jams; I quickly decide to become an expert on the Russian Metro. But this would prove to be a major undertaking considering the Byzantine labyrinth of tunnels that twist and turn deep in the bowels of the city with nary an English sign in sight.
I have read that Muscovites topped Parisians in a poll identifying the least friendly people in the world. But I beg to differ. They certainly have a gruff countenance but every single one of the hundreds I asked for directions, both above and below ground, were more than willing to help in spite of our language barrier. They seem to be genuinely accommodating.
Another far more persistent rumour about these people is that Russians like to indulge in a little bit of vodka. But after conducting extensive research, including endlessly observing elderly, plump and red-faced gentlemen often accompanied by, what seems on the surface, their Gucci-clad daughters - with that giddy, unmistakable, after-shopping look - I can say with absolute certainty the rumor is not only false but insulting. Russians don’t like a little vodka, they like a lot of vodka! More than you could possibly fathom.
Which makes me wonder… in some countries are we only a roll of Food Stamps away from anarchy?
Settling in by a window table in Pushkin Café, an exquisite and pricey Russian restaurant in downtown Moscow, I was enjoying a bowl of what is easily the best borsch in the universe. Savouring the soup and sipping coffee, I watched in amazement as other patrons consumed up to 10 shots of straight vodka in frosted glasses over lunch. Not even dinner – lunch! Of course as I was soon to discover, lunch is only a primer for many Muscovites.
Although my dinner of Georgian cuisine was pedestrian by any standard, it was not without its memorable moments. A few tables over were a crew of businessmen, most resembling former leader Boris Yeltsin, making easy work of their libations. Each of them had their own personal bottle of vodka that was eventually cranked back, shot by glorious shot and each shot consumed with a toast. Nostrovia indeed comrades, good work.
And while this may sound like a spirited evening of bonding for these men, it is not for the faint of heart. Don’t try this at home because here’s the result.
From Moscow, it was on to the splendidly preserved city of St Petersburg, a UNESCO Heritage Site that was once the centre of Russian aristocracy and home to the royal family. Visions of Tolstoy and Anna Karenina are inevitable upon arriving.
After wandering through The Hermitage and other grand museums and palaces as well as the massive forts, I take in a performance at the two-century old Mariinsky Theatre. These grandiose edifices only help reinforce the notion in me that there are historical parallels between the Russian Revolution, which put an end to all this grandeur, and the events happening today.
Tsarist Russia was brought to its knees by a number of factors that reverberate today. There was a huge polarization of wealth, a population that was alienated from the power structure, peasants without land rights and cronyism on an immense scale. But the entire edifice did not officially come crashing down until World War I, when the Tsar authorized the printing of enormous sums of rubles to cope with the costs of war. Because of that fiscal policy, hyperinflation spread rapidly and the skyrocketing in food prices was eventually the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Throughout the annals of history, mankind has endured brutal violence and political oppression. But in many instances, most revolutions begin on an empty stomach and when people can no longer afford to put food on the table, their breaking point is not far off. Agrarian societies, those that can feed their own people, will often survive civil strife. But it has been said that a society is only 3 meals away from anarchy and in Tsarist Russia it proved to be true.
History seems doomed to repeat itself today. We have our own, modern day versions of money-printing Tsars in the form of Ben Bernanki and Jean Claude Trichet. I am sure that a little over ninety years ago Tsar Nicholas also assured Russians that he had everything in control as well. Back then he had his cadre of cronies and aristocrats and today we have our corporate titans who also lead lives completely divorced from the masses. They are worshipped on the covers of Fortune and Forbes magazines while using their connections and influence to obtain bailouts and other political favours, not the least of which is paying little or no corporate taxes.
But increasingly wealth is being concentrated in the hands of the very few and, ironically, Moscow is currently the ‘Billionaire Capital of the World’. In this global phenomenon where the mega-rich get mega-richer and 1 percent takes nearly 25 percent of the nation’s income in the world’s wealthiest country.
Look no further than places like Ireland, where citizens endure depression era economics and are forced to pay off obscene debts that they had nothing to do with. But the real culprits, the banks that loaned the money and those who took insane risks with it, get off without so much as a slap on the wrist. Even more absurdly, they continue to pay mega-bonuses using the money given to them by Central bankers at zero interest.
Our news is full of stories of anarchy sparked by inflation-inducing money printing. Much of North Africa and the Middle East are experiencing violent rebellions caused by conditions not dissimilar to what provoked the Russian Revolution. When food prices eat up over 80% of your two-dollar-a-day income, one becomes more than willing to brave bullets in order to enact meaningful change.
I was in Yemen just prior to their upheavals and heard the gripes against the government’s authoritarian rule. But what really incensed the Yemenis I spoke with were the extreme economic hardships and the high costs of starting and supporting a family.
All of it makes me wonder if we are merely a roll of Food Stamps away from anarchy in a number of countries, especially with our current military and intelligence bills. Today the war on terror knows no boundaries or budget constraints. The trillions spent on this never-ending battle may ultimately break the backs of enormously indebted countries just as WW1 broke Russia.
But all of this apocalyptic meandering is for another day as I try to indulge and enjoy the grandeur in my midst here in St. Petersburg. After all, who needs sobering reality when one has a bottle of Beluga Gold thickening to the consistency of molasses in the freezer and iced shooter cups? From Russia with Love baby! And I don’t dare end this without a plug for The Lover of the Russian Queen – the Mad Monk himself. Shall we dance?