Archive for July, 2008

Moscow: the living brain in the comatose body

The distance between Moscow and St. Petersburg is about the same as between New York and Chicago, but at least for me, as probably for most travelers, the journey between them didn’t really give any sense of distance or land in between, as it consisted basically of boarding an overnight train, drawing the curtains and waking up eight hours later in a new city. It’s like two planets separated by a void. Maybe there’s something to that. Russia must be the country where the capital cities have most thoroughly sucked all the energy and life out of the surrounding provinces, as indicated by the fact that most estimates seem to range around 70% of the country’s financial capital being in Moscow.

On the other hand, Moscow does possess a real greatness, and with its hills and forests and monasteries, in some ways has more character than St. Petersburg’s dictatorially imposed obeisance to the flat, straight-lined, symmetrical ideals of conflict-free harmoniousness, like the Ritalin-enforced peace of an elementary school. It is also more alive: more money, more people and, despite the stereotype of “Russian” Moscow in contrast to “Western” St. Petersburg, Moscow is now a much more international center than St. Petersburg, which is basically just a fancy-looking provincial city.

But this liveliness seems more than a little unhealthy. The money and prices in Moscow are more than inflated. We stayed at the Marriott, which granted is probably not exactly typical, where rooms are $1000 a night, a omelette and coffee for breakfast goes for $65, and wireless access is $15 an hour. That would be one thing in New York or London, but in Russia that $1000 is equal to a sixth of average yearly income. I can’t help thinking that the bubble that is modern Moscow is a bit like taking a Viagra and getting an erection lasting for more than six hours: you might be amazed that such intensity of pleasure could last for so long, but in the end you’re still going to have seek medical attention or risk permanent damage.

p.s. The Moscow Marriott, like any good American hotel, claims saving water as the reason for which they only change your sheets if you request it, which is kind of funny, not just for trying to play the environmental awareness card in Russia, but because the water pressure in the shower, glorious as it was, makes me doubt somewhat the depth of their devotion to the cause of water conservation. Bathing with that thing is like aiming a hurricane at yourself. I’ll be dreaming about that while cautiously dribbling cold water over myself when showering for the next two weeks due to the fact that they turn off the hot water in apartments in St. Petersburg in the summer, allegedly to make repairs.

links for 2008-07-07

The White Nights

Though even more minds may be leaking out of Russia than capital or nuclear secrets, St. Petersburg possesses, though only for a few months of the year, what is by definition the ideal of enlightened existence, namely unending daylight. Though with electric lighting the rest of the world has learned to mimic this condition, which incidentally means that the great Enlightenment began not in the 18th but at the beginning of the 20th century, two centuries earlier Saint Peter the Intrusively Tall, in choosing to build a capital city in an artic swamp, had stumbled upon at least this one advantage. Even in the heavy hours the light grows dim but never enough to quite preclude the most basic elements of cultivated life: reading a book–or writing. There’s something slightly inhuman about this though, since there exists as well a nighttime inside living things, whether or no it corresponds to anything in the surroundings, which demands a time to rest.

Of course for me the light is blocked out, living as I do in the permanent nighttime of a lightless gypsy cavern, hedged in by sparkly purple curtains, giant teddy bears with full red promiscuous lips and willow-like nets of beads hanging from candles and chandeliers all somehow carrying on the spirit, even if in cheap and degraded form, of the rococo motifs all over the walls and ceiling of the 18th century building. Since the ever-bumbling institute where I’m studying, which is fittingly named after Aleksandr Nevsky, who, defeating the Teutonic Knights in the 1300’s, struck an early blow for Russian culture against the Teutonic characteristics of efficiency and competence, I suppose I will have a few more days of my own underground life, though as a matter of fact I am the opposite of the Underground Man. He claimed to only be speaking to himself but was actually read around the world, whereas I think I’m addressing the whole world but am really only speaking to myself.