This text is written by Bernard Ineichen as my guest blogger. Enjoy!
I’ve just returned from my third visit to Russia; this time cruising to the remote (not so remote if you are in Sweden) north coast ports of Archangel and Murmansk. For a tourist it has been a rather sad experience.
For a start, the Russians seem unaware of the increasing age, frailty and girth of those who visit them. Not nearly enough public toilets, and those that exist not well signposted. Are pensioners a political force? Recent attempts to raise the age for female pensioners was defeated. This is a hopeful sign.
I did tourist excursions in both cities: mostly a litany of museums and monuments, though the guides (all untrained as there is no professional association of guides) did provide some information on social matters, particularly housing. I fancy the situation in Russia is even worse than in the UK. Not too bad if you can get a flat, but grim for those who can’t. Does anyone keep (and quantify) a waiting list? Decades ago, Shostakovich wrote a hilarious musical, Chereomushiki, where the hapless newly married couple were reduced to meeting in the zoo. The area around the port of Archangel was particularly depressing, with more dwellings falling down than standing up.
What I particularly missed was any idea of what we were NOT shown. No military bases, obviously, but it would have been nice to have seen some industrial areas close up to get an impression of Russia’s industrial health. Some attitudes have not changed since Soviet days. At Archangel our departure was delayed by almost half an hour as no one turned up to cast off the ropes.
What would I have given for a local map! Another leftover from the Soviet period is the fear of spying. There were only rudimentary ideas of, in capitalist terms exploiting the tourist market; or in consumerist terms, providing the material for an enjoyable and informative visit to a foreign country. Not a single postcard in sight, or the brilliant (and cheap – generally produced in China) glossy books about places that tourists want to visit. In one museum you had to ask for the shop to be opened.
The only beautiful buildings were churches and the only thing worth buying was a calendar illustrating places associated with the Russian Orthodox Church. Priests were on hand to help and add solemnity to the visit.