The arrival in Moscow did not go well. The young lady who was to issue our boarding passes to St. Petersburg apparently did not have a lot of experience in handling a family of five, especially when three had American passports and two had Russian passports. So she responded with typical apparatchik rudeness. Our boarding passes were stamped for gate 17, but we learned at the last moment that they had changed to gate 14. No one bothered to tell us. I never did like Moscow.
The arrival in St. Petersburg went well. I first flew into that airport in 2002. I reflected on that first time as we turned for our approach. It seemed small then, and quite, well, run down. The men’s room was a dirty little room with two leaky toilets. Back then we got off the plane, waited in line to get our passports stamped, then walked down one flight of stairs and picked up our luggage. It was larger the last time I flew out of there in 2008. It had also gone through some nice renovations. When we got off the plane this week, however, I was amazed. It was so much larger and so much nicer. I felt confident I could find my way around without reading signs, but I was wrong. And there were not only escalators but elevators for those of us with children in strollers. There were several pick up locations for baggage and some nice carts for people like us with many suitcases. The entrance hall did not even look the same. Pulkovo is a modern airport.
My in-laws drove their small Chevrolet and their friend, Mikhail [not his real name] brought his van to carry our luggage. I was totally convinced there was no way we could get all our luggage in that van and carry Oksana, Marina Grace, and I. Roman and Gabriel were riding with the grandparents. Russians are quite innovative, however, and really do not care how silly it looks to stack luggage EVERYWHERE. They got it all in. We were off to Luga.
The week before we left America I remember telling Oksana that roads in our country had gotten so awful they reminded me of Russian roads. They are pathetic compared to how things used to be. Again, memories came back as we pulled onto the highway to head for Luga. I remember thinking that the first time I was on that road I had never seen so many potholes and rough spots. Not this time. The road was wide and smooth. Construction and resurfacing were still going on, but the straight road had few bumps and no potholes to speak of. The contrast was stark. American roads leading out my small town have been neglected and stand in great need of repair. How odd that the road to Luga was so nice.
The downside is that with such a wide and smooth two lane road, Russian drivers cannot resist “creating” a third middle lane for passing. The roads in Russia were so different; the drivers were the same! For some reason even with a clear passing lane, Mikhail still liked the challenge of tailgating the trucks in front of him (two feet away!) before passing. Then lurching back in front of the vehicles he passed.
Mikhail likes to talk. And I wanted to hear what he thought. He’s a retired Army guy like my father-in-law. He asked immediately why in the world a family living in America would come to Russia. We explained that life in America is not as easy as it may appear. Even with a good salary it takes a lot for a single income family of five to make it. And our culture is changing and is more divided. That was enough to get him started. He launched into his own evaluation of things—and I wanted to know what an average Russian guy like Mikhail is thinking of international issues. Of course, he barely paused for Oksana to interpret. I could follow the gist of the conversation, but she had to fill in details later. So my quotes below may not be exact. He had no time for bothersome things like interpretation or questions.
He is happy with Putin’s leadership. The country is improving, he said, and the sanctions have actually helped. Russia is becoming more self-reliant. As we rode along I could see his point. I saw houses being built. I never saw that in Russia before—not on the way to Luga. People still lived in the old Soviet apartments. All the houses I had seen were old wooden structures built before electricity. Most had out-houses not bathrooms. But now I saw new homes AND new apartments going up. I saw a billboard that said (in Russian, of course), “We Build Homes!” It was a construction company with phone numbers and names. I commented to Mikhail that I found the roads very nice and the number of homes going up shocking. He said that yes things were much better now. He went into detail about how they are building nice homes that stay warm now. That wasn’t just his opinion. I could see the difference clearly before my eyes.
When we drove through Luga I saw the same stores I had seen before, but on the outskirts there were some new larger stores. There were still some shabby kiosks, but most stores and buildings downtown had been painted. And, yes, the graffiti artists were obviously trying hard to keep up! It simply looked cleaner to me than I remembered. Again, however, the Russian drivers kept me from focusing. They drive crazy in town as well. On the way into town our little one, Marina Grace, screamed to be out of the car seat. We finally relented when we thought we were safe. We asked what the fine/bribe would be if we were stopped. Bribes were just part of life when I lived in Russia. I would tell those who talked about learning a few Russian words if they visited there, “Don’t bother with пожалуйста (“please”) or спасибо (“thank you”). Learn, “Мы можем договориться?” (“Can we come to an agreement?”), but the non-literal, real meaning is, “How much is the bribe?” Mikhail said there are far fewer bribes now. There have been salary increases for law enforcement, which means they do not have to collect bribes to survive. Before the system was essentially the local government paid law enforcement officers very small salaries. They knew that they could make up for it in bribes. Putin is committed to changing the culture of bribery.
When we drove toward my in-laws apartment the road was not as good—but it was paved. In fact, I noticed that there were far fewer dirt roads just outside of town. When we pulled in the parking lot I was, again, greatly surprised. The parking lot was almost full! When I was here before most Russians used public transportation. To have your own car was not odd, but it was not standard for sure. And not just more cars. We’re talking Toyota SUVs, new Fords and Chevrolets, and at least one Escalade as well. My arrival went far differently than I expected. I knew there would be changes, but nice roads? Freshly painted buildings? New and nice cars in the parking lots? Wasn’t on my radar.
As is commonly known, when you start reading on a particular news topic, your news feed will send you a lot of articles on that same topic. So I get a lot of articles that pop up on my Yahoo page about Russia. The overwhelming majority of them are negative. But at least one I read recently pondered if Putin is such a bad leader why does he get around a 75% approval rating consistently? The author offered that most American politicians would sell their mothers into slavery for those kinds of numbers! As Mikhail chatted he had commented on how he and other Russians were aware of the many negative things the American press says about Russia and Russians. He cautiously said, “But your press makes things up. I mean, they just make things up about us. Our president is a good leader. Our lives are better under him. Under Yeltsin, the one America liked, our lives were awful. Just terrible.” When I indicated I was sympathetic to his views on our press he went a little further. “But what has Obama done for your country? We don’t see how he has made your lives better!” Then with a smile, “Well, maybe if you are a man who likes to go to the women’s toilet.”
I don’t think I want to try to answer Mikhail’s question right now. I am not a political commentator. I’m not an economist. I can’t quote the GDP or the current inflation rate or any similar data. This blog is about one small town in Russia. Roads are better there now; business is better; salaries for law enforcement and construction workers are up. My hunch is this phenomenon is not limited to Luga. The Russian president would not be getting the approval ratings he is currently getting in almost all the polls if this were just anecdotal. Clearly, the dream of so many American politicians that economic sanctions are bringing Russia to its knees is going unfulfilled—despite what their sympathetic American press keeps reporting. In summary, my arrival in Russia indicates things are going pretty well.