Or is it prologue, hard to say. But watching Frontline's "Crash" last night puts our experience in St. Petersburg in a new light. Just in case the contrast isn't turned up high enough for you, we have Leon Panetta (former chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget and for Clinton, and former chairman of the House Budget Committee) writing in the June 30, 1999 New York Times, that "(t)here is no question that the nation is enjoying the strongest economy in its history." That would be the USA, not Russia.

Two Russian Economies

My first visit to Russia came about from an interest in art, and a practical consideration of time and distance. My wife and I had resolved to attend a family gathering in northern Germany, and to extend the trip by visiting "Scandinavia" for the first time. As her mother is Finnish, Helsinki was on the itinerary, and you know, St. Petersburg is just one more hop... The train to St. Petersburg

The Hermitage museum there is unquestionably one of the great museums of the world, and we'd read enough about it, and seen enough pictures, that the city and the museum were essentially synonymous to us. Yes, we had to go there as part of our trip.

The arrangements are still a bit complicated by remnants of Soviet bureaucracy. A visa is needed, with someone over there to vouch for you. There are, however, plenty of people who will be willing to apply your money to solving this small problem. The necessary amount is probably ten or twenty dollars, but practically, it's likely to end up being more, as each middleman (or woman) takes a skim. We paid some hundreds of dollars, including a last-minute bonus to correct a mistake in our understanding of how to fill out the form.

Our 1-year and 2-year-old guide books were a bit confusing about the Russian currency, the Rouble. Thanks to a curious twist from a medieval monk, I'll abbreviate that as "P." (Introduction to Cyrillic: P is R, B is V, C is S, and so on.) It seems that they've knocked a few (three) zeroes off it after the post-Soviet inflation, and the subsequent market trend has been down against the dollar. By a factor of 4.

So today, we have the convenient approximation of 25 roubles to the dollar. A rouble is worth about 4 cents. Making a Kopek worth .04 cents, or .0004 dollars. If they had "a quarter," that would be a penny, but they don't. (I did get some nice 1 kopek coins when our exit roubles were converted back to a round number of dollars on the way out.)

Ok, so for three nights and four days, our hotel and any larger purchases on a credit card, we should need... oh, let's say $100 cash to start with. 2500 P. On the 5th country of our tour, the method for handling foreign currencies was well-learned: charge what you can, get cash from ATMs (using a debit card, since we don't care to pay interest and cash advance fees to Bankcard Services).

On arrival, in our case to the Finland train station on the north side of St. Petersburg, the first task is "find an ATM." Passport control and customs business had been taken care of (ticket and passport check, then passport check by three Finnish gentlemen; passport, visa and customs entry form business by about a dozen handsomely uniformed Russian personnel) on the train, so our task was simple.

It's good to have simple tasks ahead of you on first arrival to a foreign country.

But we left the last reliable snippets of English behind us when we stepped down to the station platform, and like most big city European train stations, the scene is a busy melange of savvy and clueless travellers, merchants, businessmen and women, touts, scam artists, and a few thieves.

Our style rule while executing our simple tasks is: Look savvy, and purposeful.

This is an acting job when they change languages on you, of course. And a difficult acting job when they change alphabets, too. And by comparison to the other half a dozen train stations we'd been in, this one was stunningly shabby, and dirty. This was the first substantial clue that our glossy picture-book notion of the city was not exactly a complete map into its reality.

Our first purposeful pass through the station did not turn up any of the familiar variants of a European ATM, and blinking in the June sun on the front steps of the train station showed us a still-crowded scene with even fewer clues about what to do next.

So, go back in, park Jeanette with her back to a column and our two bags ("Don't leave me here for long!" she exclaimed; we've been in this sort of situation before, and the extra note of anxiety did not need elaboration), and more carefully scan each nook and cranny for those happy symbols of modern commerce: Visa, MC, etc.

There it is: bAHKOMAT. (A, O, M, T are themselves, H is N, little b is B... Actually that little b has a forward-pointing seriph on it, as "plain" little b is silent; iso-8859-1 doesn't do Cyrillic.) Nice that there was only one trick letter in it.

It likes my card, it offers a selection of languages, including mine, and the choices for fast cash go up to... 1000 ROUBLES. Hmm, no "next page," and no bigger numbers. That's only about $40, right? Probably not enough for the whole stay, but should be enough to get started, and besides, what other choices did I have? I accepted the ten 100 P. notes, my receipt, and retrieved my card urgently, like it said to. Our first route in St. Petersburg

Back to blinking on the front steps. Where's the Metro station that's supposed to be right here? "Taxi?" We should have said yes, and loosened our grip on the 1000 P., but since we come from a city, state and country with such generally lame public transportation, we resolve to use it when we can. "No thanks, can you tell us where the Metro station is?" and directions were disgustedly waved.

The next scene, at the Metro ticket window, is another one of those classic tourist things we all have to do at some point:

Big smile. "Do you speak any English?"

Wry smile, followed by a clear and emphatic "No."

Sad smile, followed by an English inquiry adorned with uncharacteristically florid gesticulation about a 10-ride card.

Blank. Annoyance.

Pass in a hundred rouble note, hand sign "two." (I don't even know numbers in Russian, having given all my foreign language preparation to German. What was I thinking?!)

This is intelligible, at least, and I get two single-ride tokens, and an impossibly large number of bills and some coins to boot. For simplicity, I assume she counted right, stuff the change into my pockets, and continue the adventure.

Russian friends
Russian Friends
Link to 37kB full image

When we later arrive in the security of our hotel room, and I count the change, I calculate the cost of a subway ride: 3 P. Twelve cents.

This is confusing. Do I have the exchange rate correct? The ATM only gives out $40 and the subway costs 12 cents?! But I looked up half a dozen exchange rates, and they'd all been right so far, there was no reason to suppose I'd made some gross mistake.

The hotel was nice enough, the sort of thing I've become accustomed to from travelling on business for a big corporation, and with a normal sort of big-city price, $140 a night. It was one of those "apply money to solve a problem" decisions, rather than a careful optimization.

But that disparity - $140 a night hotel, and 3 P. subway ride - was our introduction to the two economies that coexist in 1999 Russia.


Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

Saturday, 26-Jun-1999 11:00:00 MDT