Back home in Spain after two weeks in Russia and reflecting on what it all has meant. Our last visit in Saint Petersburg (Monday, 2 days ago), after the ornate Italianate-Slavonic Smolny cathedral
and monastery, was to the decidedly un-ornate and still busy Finland Station, Finlyandskaya Vokzal, a plain white railroad and Metro terminal behind a magnificent statue of Lenin pointing to the future. And yesterday on the plane, I finished Edmund Wilson's look back to the history culminating in that gesture. I'll have more to say about that ambitious, stimulating and antiquated book, To the Finland Station,
in a future essay. For now, just some general impressions of Russia.
First and most importantly, the people. Everyone we met, anyone we approached to ask directions or anything else, was friendly and helpful — surprisingly so, at first, until we realized that that was the norm. Our initial surprise was because of the difference in facial expression and body language. Russians look severe until you give them a reason to look at you with interest and to smile, which requires no more than that you take an interest in them by saying "Hello" or "Excuse me, do you know…?" And the typical Russian stride takes command of the ground more definitively than the lighter, quicker steps we're used to. Russians appear brusque and direct to Westerners (just read the guide books), which I quite liked. When they try to help you, they get right to the point, and may go so far as to walk out of their way to point and show you what it is they think you asked. At least, that was our experience. It's a huge country with millions of individuals and regional contrasts, but such were the people we encountered in Moscow and St. Petersburg. A second general impression was the over-all cleanliness of streets and sidewalks, and —mostly — the good repair of public spaces, as compared to, say, Madrid or New York. No obvious garbage strewn on the streets or rivers. Nor did we see much obvious poverty, even outside the central tourist areas, except for a few, mostly elderly women, mendicants. Nor any jostling or shoving — beyond unavoidable pressing together —even on the crowded subway cars.
Finally, as I've already noted in this blog, there appears to be an attitude of critical respect toward the whole, still recent Soviet experience. Most of the statues and images of Stalin have disappeared (except as jokey designs on matryoshki and other souvenirs), but many of Lenin remain, and at least some of the impressive architecture is being restored.
Unfortunately I don't have the language skills for more than minimal observation, so I can't tell you much about public opinion. From comments by our Moscow guide, and the flags and collection booths for money for the people of Donbass, it was evident that a sizable part of the population think that Russia must support the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and from all that and what we read or saw in Russian media, that US accusations against the Russian government are baseless and motivated by competitive interest. And people seem very satisfied to have recovered Crimea.