Moscow is not Russia, Part II

The 400-mile train journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg was beautiful, but astonishingly empty. We passed through villages and a few towns, but nothing that would qualify as a city (at least not to the west of the train, where I was sitting!). We saw unpaved streets, tiny houses, abandoned factories. We also saw very little cultivated land along the railroad. On the outskirts of Moscow people were gardening at their dachas (cottages), but in 400 miles of countryside I saw one herd of dairy cattle and a handful of plowed fields. 

St. Petersburg is the city one would expect to be in the midst of that countryside. It is lovely, to be sure, but few buildings look freshly painted and restored. Crumbling lintels, rusty doors, rotting windowsills — these are much more prevalent than in Moscow. Even the Hermitage, the jewel of the nation, looks threadbare in places. The subway and buses are crowded; the narrow streets clogged with an older generation of cars.

The economy here depends on tourism. There are cruise ships stacked up just outside the last Neva River bridge — they slide in off the Bay of Finland and disgorge their passengers directly into line for the Hermitage. The huge crowds are surely taking a toll on the palace’s parquet floors, but our guide said the old requirement to wear slippers had been abandoned because “there are more visitors than there can be slippers.” 

I overheard an English-speaking guide in the Church on the Spilled Blood tell a group of British hipsters that “this is a huge money-maker for the city.” Multiply the $7 admission price by the gazillion tourists in the church, and you see what she’s talking about. There are so many tour buses parked around the city that when a group of us were … temporarily misplaced … we joked that we could just get on one and we’d end up somewhere we recognized. (We also realized we could end up on a fast boat to Sweden, so we took a city bus instead.)

It’s a good thing St. Petersburg has tourists, because otherwise it would be in even more trouble. We’re told that ambitious and talented young people are moving to Moscow, including artists who would love to stay in this center of culture, but find they can”t make a living here. The director of a modern dance school and festival told Alison that the best of their graduates must go abroad to find regular work, leaving him without a reliable supply of performers for his projects.   

Perhaps the most revealing statistic we’ve heard about St. Petersburg is that 20% of the city’s residents still live in communal apartments. Among them is one of Amanda’s good friends. The apartment where she lives was subdivided during Soviet times; a different family lived in each of the rooms, sharing the kitchen and bathroom. Post-communism allows for a new configuration: She still shares the kitchen and bath, but now she owns her room.

To put things in perspective, Russia’s GDP per capita is about $15,000 per year (US is about $52,000). The average monthly wage after taxes come to about $780, but most people earn less than that. According to our guide, an early-career university professor in St. Petersburg earns about $300 a month. 

At $780, Russian wages fall between Hungary ($680) and Greece ($964). Western European countries are substantially higher (UK $3460; Germany $2824. Switzerland $5600). Meanwhile, workers in Ukraine average $237 per month.

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