“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Russia seems to possess its own special logic and often differs markedly from western countries. While many everyday situations may appear familiar to the uninitiated visitor, once the surface is scratched, something different and often contradictory can be glimpsed beneath. This country is elusive, hard to pin down and define – it tries at every turn to avoid being understood.
Traditional concepts, such as the deep Russian soul and Russia as a bridge between East and West, illustrate a certain Russian pride in being uniquely different from everyone else, and thus incomprehensible and altogether unfathomable. This may seem a little arrogant, even somewhat superior, but in reality it’s hard not to notice that Russia is unlike other places and demands an altogether different microscope. There is an element of truth behind these Russian notions of uniqueness, but Russia, like any other country, can be best understood in terms of itself and its own rules.
Below are some simple examples of Russian logic in practice...
Older Russian flats often have two or more doors to stop draughts, hide draft-dodging sons from the military police, and keep out just about anyone who doesn’t own a tank. The first door is usually made of cast iron, the others of wood. Door handles turn the wrong way or upside down, keys of all shapes and sizes turn in unexpected directions, toilet flushes can be carefully hidden away in wallpapered cupboards, and light switches are put in ridiculously hard to reach places leading to stubbed toes and swearing at bedtime.
Some “granny flats” still have Soviet-style radio boxes on the walls which only tune into one station – formerly the official government station but now dry political debates and opera singing (which is occassionally audible through the phone line or intercom!). On rare occasions a kitchen doubles as a bathroom and contains a full-sized bath-tub. When there was a shortage of housing, a separate bathroom was the height of luxury compared to the shared amenities of the communalka (or communal flat) where several families lived (and fought!) together. Not only did the Soviet kitchen-bathroom economise on space but it also saved time as one comrade could take a bath, wash the dishes, and cook supper – all at the same time!
On the road
In a country where it’s possible to “acquire” your driver’s license without ever actually taking a test and where traffic lights can be green for pedestrians and motorists at the same time, it’s unsurprising that Russian roads aren’t the safest in the world. Zebra crossings are just nicely-decorated, stripey bits of road which the majority of motorists pay absolutely no attention to whatsoever in most cities! If you step out without looking, you may literally be risking your life. Minibus taxi-drivers make up new traffic rules as they go along. It’s not uncommon to see them “off-roading it”; driving along the pavement, tramlines or even through the park to avoid a traffic jam while merrily bumping along to the sound of Russian chanson music on the radio!
Mixing past and present
Kazanskii Sobor on Nevskii Prospekt in Saint-Petersburg was formerly a museum of atheism under the Communists but is now once more a practising cathedral. Until several years ago there were two entrances to the cathedral – one to the religious part and the other to the museum of atheism!
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