Russia is full of foreigners

Posted on September 5, 2012
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(2002 update of 1972 article)

Although the Canadians in Moscow had a lot of fun meeting each other, most were more anxious to meet Russians and people from other countries. We did this in various ways. Everybody covered the few international bars in town. BJ and I would get our guide to write down a couple of addresses (including our own hotel) and then take off walking.

Some of the Fox 4 group came up with the idea of simply getting on a bus and riding to the end of the line and working their way back getting off for awhile here and there. They could go for half a day for a few cents. There was little danger of getting lost if they simply always took the same numbered bus.

We met all kinds of people. There were Danes who had come to Moscow to try to form a Jaycee unit there (I spotted a Jaycee pin and approached them). There was a Swede and his beautiful secretary (that’s what he said anyway) who assured us that Canada had no chance. There was the Austrian who mistook us for Americans (he was very drunk). The Nigerian chemical engineer wanted to bet 400 rubles on Canada to win. BJ and I were joined one night by the co-mayors of Dusseldorf.

There were dozens of Russian students including one, the son of an army general, who said his father would have a fit if he knew he had been at a party with a gang of Canadians.

There was the medical student who said that Russian doctors only make about 200 rubles ($240) a month. He said they pick up more than that in payoffs by people who want to avoid waiting in line.

There was the “Sports Illustrated” photographer we adopted as an honorary Canadian. He helped everybody with their picture problems. I don’t know how many times he signed Bobby Orr’s autograph for him. He nearly got thrown out of the rink for his vociferous cheering in the press section and was heartbroken when his beloved Rangers failed to live up to expectations.

Taxi Drivers

Any Canadian could write a book about the taxi drivers alone. Being government employees, on salary in a country with no tipping, they aren’t desperate to work so we often had to hijack them. They would make excellent capitalists since they had all kinds of angles going. The meter price was just a figure for bargaining. They wanted at least four times that much but could be haggled down to double. They also wanted our ties, pins and shirt buttons. They drive like mad. There is nothing like circling the Kremlin in a taxi going 80 kilometers per hour through medium traffic to make you feel a long way from Woodstock. They were all hockey fans and more than hockey, they like American money. Many of them are black market dealers and would pay three rubles for a dollar (about four times the going rate) and, when we refused to deal would work up to five rubles for the dollar. This was very tempting but we didn’t bite. Russian plain clothes men play these games too and the penalties are harsh — up to two years, we were told.

One unique experience arose from a taxi trip. After a couple of days we learned that the best way to get a taxi was to sneak up on it and leap in and refuse to move. Marc Romoff and I did that one day and wound up riding with the two Russians the taxi had been waiting for. They were shocked to find us in their cab but soon got involved in a boisterous argument about whose players were dirtier and who would win that night’s game.

We found out later that they were members of the Soviet Congress which met while we were there. The upshot of it all was that we wound up in their room after the third game for a party.

Party bosses live pretty high on the hog in Russia. They had expected to win the game but were gracious in defeat. They dug out a couple of chickens, a bucket of crab meat, a tin of delicious ham, assorted cheeses and breads, grapes as big as Vladimir’s thumb and Vladimir made me look like a dwarf.

They explained that it is Russian custom to drink when you win and another custom is to put everything you have on the table when guests come. Thus we should drink. Through our guide Tanya who accompanied us, I explained that a Canadian custom is to drink when you lose. They laughed and agreed to help us.

Their biggest supply was Armenian cognac which should have no smoking signs on it. Being gentlemen, they served the ladies first. They urged Betty Jean and then Tanya to drain their tumblers quickly so the men could have their turns. Needless to say the party got interesting.

Vladimir had been in the Russian navy in the war and his buddy had been in charge of the defence of his city. They pointed out that Russia lost more lives in the war than there are people in Canada and that they hoped there would be peace for our generation.

Vladimir said that his 15. old son had cried to think of his father at the games in Moscow when he couldn’t go. He also said that he was very worried about the coming generation. His son was very interested in many things but wouldn’t really buckle down to anything and didn’t know what he wanted to be.

They asked us if we had been taught that Russians were primitive and walked the streets like bears and we told him that Canadians had a pretty good knowledge of Russia. They tested us and we tested them on Canadian knowledge and we won.

Pretty soon we were all hugging each other and exchanging gifts just like in the movies as we said goodbye.

These guys were tough cats, no doubt about it. They had survived some of the most ruthless times in the history of the world and wound up near the top. They were very jovial and generous but we all left feeling that they could slice out your heart still laughing if you represented any kind of a threat. The instinct for personal survival was written all over them.

The consensus among the young Russians we talked to was that changes will come in the country. They feel that Kruschev started to open up the country but that the new regime is applying the brakes. They resent the fact that their parents keep telling them that they never had it so good. They resent the government telling them that everything is the best in Russia and that food and clothes must take second place to achievements to show and impress the world.

They also resent the fact that the government is made up of men who made their reputations in wartime or the revolution but who aren’t capable of governing for peace.

When I asked one if Marx’s idea “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” still applied. I was told that it does not. The. slogan now is,

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his achievement.” I was told. This isn’t what actually happens though I was told. The actual practice is, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his past achievement.”

We were told that the mass exiles to Siberia under Stalin affected many Russian families. Many people were sent there and brought back years later and put on pensions and never knew what they were supposed to have done.

Young Russians fear the United States. Their impression of it is a country full of gun toting psychotics shooting anyone they disagree with. They don’t fear Canada but they don’t know much about us. Their ambition is to become something like Sweden or Denmark.

Our informants told us that they believe there will be substantial changes beginning in about 15 years when today’s young people take command. Until then, they do not expect to be allowed to leave the country for trips or to read our newspapers freely.

I did not get the idea that many Russians want to defect. Like Canadians, they complain bitterly about their government but are loyal to their country and will stay and work and hope for better times.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I put forward this information as a definitive belief about the Russian situation. I was only in a very small part of the country for a very short time. I naturally listened for what I wanted to hear and met people who had some of the same characteristics I do. I would like to think that the general consensus would be like what I heard but I really don’t know.

(When I originally wrote this in 1972, it seemed wiser not to name the Russian who told me this. It was our guide Tanya with her tongue loosened by Armenian cognac.)

One thing that did impress me was that I was not terribly surprised by anything I saw or heard. In my opinion Canadian media and books give us a quite accurate picture of Russia. There is nothing like seeing it for yourself but it is a relief to learn that we have not been terribly brain-washed and lied to. We’re much better off in that regard, I think, than either the Russians or the citizens of the U.S. Each is basically convinced that the other is out to get him.

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