Roy Chapin's Report On His Trip To Finland With Nikolai Senin
REPORTED AS SEEN THROUGH THE EYES OF A RUSSIAN STUDENT - NIKOLAI - WHO HAD NEVER TRAVELED OUTSIDE of RUSSIA
PLUS associated comments and questions
WRITTEN FOR ANYONE WHO IS INTERESTED IN READING THIS (But, recorded primarily for Roy and Nikolai's records)
This is Roy's report on his trip to Helsinki, Finland for his Russian multi-entry visa renewal, returning through St. Petersburg for work with our Russian partner there. Nikolai and I were gone 9.5 days from the evening of 27 November until the morning of 7 December 1996.
At 6:30 PM on Wednesday 27 November 1996, Nikolai Senin and I left Moscow via train from the Leningradsky Station for Helsinki, Finland. I had to leave by that date as my multi-entry visa expired on the 28th. This way we would be leaving Russia the morning of the 28th. I was glad to get away after a tough two weeks in Kazan at our seminar there. I had never been to Finland before. This was Thanksgiving time in the USA, so I was able to get my visa renewed during a normal U.S. holiday and not miss scheduled work days.
I had my renewal multi-entry visa with me but it needed a stamp that you can get only upon re-entry in to Russia, so I was "forced" to go to a lot of travel in order to get legal again. I previously did this last February when I had a delightful six day trip to Prague where I enjoyed seeing that city and Pardubice with my Czech friend, Leos Janik. I'm beginning to like these Russian visa renewal requirements.
First a little background on Nikolai Senin and his family.
Nikolai is a 24 year old student with a master's degree in metalurgy who is now working on his Candidate for Doctor's Degree (similiar to USA Ph.D.) in polymers, although he is seriously considering changing to business management training as there are few jobs in Russia for his speciality since the drastic downturn in industrial activity and particularly the decrease in Russia's defense industry.
Russia has become mainly an exporter of its own abundant natural resources and an importer of finished products that are traded to the population. Russia needs to do more "value adding" to its own resources and create the resultant wealth in Russia for Russians. Nikolai can see that Russia needs more business managers trained in Western style free market concepts and practices. Our trip to Finland increased his awareness of this need.
Besides being glad for Nikolai's company, I needed a Russian speaker for crossing the Russian border and re-entering plus I was scheduled to work in St. Petersburg with our Russian partner there and I needed a translator. Most everyone in Finland speaks good English, so it is very user friendly to a mono-linquistic American.
I originally met Nikolai on the first of October 1995 at the Lutheran Church services where I worship. He is of Russian Orthodox background and attends services there when not with the Lutheran congregation, which meets only twice a month. He is proud of his patron saint in the Orthodox Church, St. Nikolai. We have lit candles and meditated in front of the St. Nikolai Icon in a couple of Russian Orthodox Churches that we have visited.
Since we met soon after my arrival in Moscow in August 1995, Nikolai was pleased to help me adjust to Moscow and to practice his English and I was pleased, to have a new friend in Russia. Nikolai has looked after me, including helping me to buy theater tickets when the family and visitors from Texas were in town. We have also traveled to Sergei Posad, a town a couple of hours train ride NE of Moscow where there is a big Russian Orthodox Church "Lavra", which is a church headquarters representing a wide area. There are two in Russia; this one and one in St. Petersburg (Alexander Nevsky Lavra) plus two in the Ukraine.
My Texas associates as, well as Carolyn and Kathy, have all enjoyed meeting with Nikolai and he with them.
I was pleased to have him travel with me on this required visa renewal trip as it allowed him to travel outside Russia for the first time. That made it more fun for me also as we were both experiencing Finland for the first time and I could experience it both through his eyes and through mine. His parents have never been outside the country of their birth as travel from Russia was severely restricted until recently, so Nikolai's trip to Finland was a significant and exciting event for them also.
Nikolai required a Finnish visa ($25.00) to enter the country. A letter from me explaining who I was representing, why I was traveling to Finland, that I needed a translator to make the trip, to cross the border and upon my return to St. Petersburg to work with our Russia partner plus my promise that I'd return him to Russia seemed to do the trick. U.S. and European Community citizens don't need Finnish visas.
Recently I was invited for dinner at his parent's home for the first time where I met them and Nikolai's girl friend, Tatyana. Tatyana is just beginning her medical school training. Mr. Senin is an agricultural engineer with a Candidate for Doctor's degree. He was about to complete his next degree for his doctorate when conditions changed in Russia, making it impractical for him to continue his study. He did have a book published with his work. He gave me two copies of it; one autographed and one for me to read, which is unlikely since it is written in Russian of course. Mrs. Senin teaches chemistry at a University, but hasn't been paid in months. It became obvious why Nikolai puts such a high value on education and helps to explain his inquiring mind and thirst for knowledge and new experiences.
Mr. Sennin started the evening by saying that they didn't drink in their home, which was a relief to me. None of them smoke either; another relief. It's nice to be with Russian friends outside the partnership activities and not be "fumigated" by their smoking or intimidated to drink and make toasts. They live comfortably in an older and more stylish Stalin era apartment than the newer Krushchev apartments that were built smaller and with less care. It was a very pleasant evening.
During the evening I was shown pictures of Nikolai during his days in military training. These were mostly group pictures of Russians in their Army uniforms, sometimes carrying weapons or riding on tanks, etc. I have seen these kinds of pictures all my life and they were always portrayed as the "enemy" or the "bad guys" from the "Evil Empire" trying to spread communism around the world.
So what was different this time? Upon closer inspection, I could recognize my friend, Nikolai, among those pictured and now these people no longer seemed like the enemy, but instead, they were no different than pictures of U.S. troops except for their uniforms. And I was in the home of the parents of one of these "enemies" enjoying their genuine and sincere hospitality.
Russians often show pictures of their children, siblings, parents, grandparents and other relatives, often in their military uniform. Showing family pictures to you is a way of letting you know that you are welcome in their home. I'm glad that the civilized world's emphasis is directed more now towards helping each other rather than destroying each other. I like the kind of "war" that we fight with USAID's funds trying to help the Russian's "jump-start" their economy. It's more satisfying and effective to create rather than to destroy.
Fortunatly, the U.S. and Russia have never gone to war directly against each other. I'm glad that those threating times are apparently over; that we have "pounded the swords into plowshears" and that I can have friends in Russia and be in their homes and live and work here with the objective of sharing our experiences with them for mutual benefit. One of the experiences we shared was this trip to Finland with Nikolai. I know that this trip strengthened international relations between our two countries.
Unfortunately, young and old people, just like Nikolai and me, are still dying because not all people have learned to live in harmony together, and they probably never will learn, but at this Christmas time we can always hope and pray that the "lion and the lamb" can lie down next to each other in peace.
Now for the trip report!
Nikolai and I crossed the Russian border at Vyborg early Thursday morning but not without some surprises, which made me very glad that I had a speaker of Russian with me.
The Russian immigration officer came into our four person sleeping compartment to check our documents, including our declaration of how much money we were carrying. I had declared $1000.00 U.S. dollars. He asked the other two in the compartment to leave and proceeded to interrogate me. He asked me where I had gotten the dollars. I replied, "From a draw on my VISA card at the Penta Hotel in Moscow." Since I didn't have proof of that he said that he would have to take all but $500 from me, so helped himself to $500.00, gave me a receipt and said I could claim it upon my return to Russia. This of course made me nervous as the Russian paper work doesn't always happen fast and the train would stop for only 40 minutes on its way back. He assured me that it would be OK. I didn't have any choices anyway. I couldn't help thinking, "What if I'm not coming back to Russia?" When I do leave I'll plan on carrying less money or having it documented.
I had carried that much money out in August when I flew home without a problem, so this was a surprise. It was OK that Nikolai and I were each taking out 500,000 ($100) in rubles. Nikolai had $350.00 on him, which he could document and it was under the $500.00 minimum anyway. Nikolai called immigration from Finland and they assured him that there would be no problem for me to get my money back, so I relaxed some.
Later when the Finnish immigration officers entered the car they said that they didn't care how much money we were taking into Finland. They said that they had just finished searching the back packs of a couple of Russians and had found $45,000.00 (Forty-five thousand U.S. dollars) in each of their back packs ($90,000.00 total) that they said they were taking to Finland to buy a couple of Jeep Cherokees. I asked if they had declared that to the Russian immigration officers and was told that they didn't know and didn't ask as it was no problem for them. The Finnish officers spoke perfect English but not the Russian officer, who spoke only Russian. I'll wait to be more critical when I can speak Russian.
Later I noticed that they had a police dog sniffing around and that they had brought it back a couple of times to the bathroom. After a while it started to bark. It was a test as the Finnish police had planted a cache of drugs there to see if the dog would detect it. It took several tries for the dog to recognize that drugs were present.
The Finnish and Russian officials got on in Vyborg and did their duties as we traveled towards Finland. They then get off at the first stop in Finland. They then board the next train from Helsinki going back to Russia and do their jobs again so the immigration work is done while you travel.
It was just getting light as our train passed into Finland. I looked across the car and saw that Nikolai was asleep. I began to notice some real interesting differences out the window and wondered if Nikolai would notice them when he woke up, but I was going to wait for him to bring up the subject so as not to program his mind.
Later in the morning we pulled into Finland and their railroad station. Both Nikolai and I were impressed with how clean, how brightly lit, how orderly it was and how friendly the service people were to us. We located the traveler's bureau in the train station and through them booked a downtown hotel, that was also the least expensive one available. We walked to it easily, checked in and prepared to explore the town. It had snowed the day before but it melted after the first day.
Before leaving the hotel I'd called the Finnish Opera and also the Finnish Symphony and was told that they were both sold out for everything for days. Bad news!
As we walked through Helsinki we both began to notice some differences as we walked around town, such as the fact that people were careful not to bump into you, most could speak English and if you asked them, went out of their way to help you with directions, everything was clean and orderly, there was less junk around, no vodka bottles thrown around, fewer people smoking, buildings were in good condition, there was construction going on and there some obvious wealth, the public transit cars were new and modern, the automobiles were mostly late model with many being expensive models and the drivers were courteous and actually stopped to let you cross the street. There were not many kiosks and the one or two we saw didn't sell vodka as their main item but instead fast food. Nikolai also remarked about the toilets, with public pay toilets even on the street. Nikolai had begun to notice some differences without me pointing them out.
Later during our visit he said, "All you have to do is look out the window to see the difference between Finland and Russia."
He explained that ten years ago he could not have imagined such a place like Finland for at that time the stores in Russia were empty and there were long lines of hopeful shoppers. During the last few years Russia has made amazing progress so that now the differences aren't so great. I've seen the improvement myself since my first trip here in May 1993. The shops are full. Now the challenge is for the Russians to make enough money so as to be able to buy what they see and want. That increased buying power of course is part of the ultimate goal of our Russian - American Agribusiness Training Partnership.
Nikolai also remarked about the greater wealth apparent in Finland. When I asked him why he thought that was, he answered, "Because they work harder". Why I asked? Nikolai replied, "Because they are motivated by owning private property, owning their own private business or working for those that do and working in a free market environment." He also remarked about the strong Christian faith. We learned that over 90% are Lutheran, about 6% Russian Orthodox and the rest belong to other denominations.
Nikolai said that Russia's "Glorious Revolution" of 1917 was a disaster for Russia. He continued that Russians are getting tired of all the changes because there is no stability. They want it to get better but to get better it will take change and change is scary and history has shown that not all changes improve the situation.
I have made our English version of the Barnaul seminar work book available to Nikolai. He says that he has read it as well as a book that my banker gave to me on the banking system that bankers study. He finds both books interesting and helpful. He has read other material on the free market. For having lived in Russia all his life, he's amazing in his Western attitutes and apparently his parents are also. They say they read a lot about the West and our economic system. It was a pleasure for me to be with Nikolai when he experienced a Western economy in action for himself for the first time.
At one point he said that the West must realize that he and other Russians aren't uneducated " savages" just emerging from the jungle (Jose Pena claims that some of them haven't come down out of the trees yet!) but are instead well educated in many things, but after over seventy years of repression are not adequately exposed to the free market concepts of the West. When they are exposed, they want to learn more but that is unsettling to them and they don't really know how to proceed.
With the advent of television, American movies, e-mail, faxes, greater travel opportunities, etc. it is no longer possible to keep 150 million Russians convinced that they are living in the lap of luxury while the West lanquishes in poverty and decadence.
Many times Nikolai is the teacher and I am the student. He has a very inquiring and perceptive mind that makes conversation intellectually stimulating and challenging and being with him fun. He's also very respectful, appreciative and generous. These are all nice attributes for traveling companions to possess. Besides, he shares my enjoyment of walking and exploring, so that we saw a great amount of Helsinki on foot and had a good time doing it.
Earlier, Nikolai talked about "freedoms". He said that Russia now had freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, some travel freedoms, democratic election freedom, etc. but he said that one freedom that most of them lacked that he had noticed the Lutheran Missionaries had as well as the Texas people that he had met was "economic" freedom - the money and ability with which to do things they wanted to do, such as travel, go to the opera, ballet, symphony, go out to dinner, etc.
Nikolai said that he desired to have that economic freedom also and didn't think that his present course of study would allow him to satisfy that need. His professors earn only a few hundred dollars a month and often have to wait months for their pay. Since there are few jobs in his field of study, even his professors are reluctantly suggesting that he change to another field, such as business management.
If you accept Adam Smith's "invisible hand" theory for the allocation of resources, then Nikolai is making a market decision to go where the money is, which is the way that the market indicates what the customers want. Some time this pendalum will swing back towards industry and education in Russia, but there will have to be some major macro-economic changes made before that happens. What you read in the Moscow papers is mostly discouraging if not down right alarming.
Another observation that you can make is that as Nikolai and other Russians accept that it is OK to try to excell economically, then more wealth will be created in Russia than if everyone remains afraid and unmotivated to become "all that they can be".
If Russia doesn't get its macro-economic policies straightened out soon so that foreign capital flows into Russia and the Russians themselves get enough confidence in their own country to take the over twenty BILLION U.S. dollars that they are hoarding out from under their mattresses and invest it in their own country, then the highly skilled labor force of Russia will become only a distant memory and those teaching in technical fields will be disappear as they retire and aren't replaced by scholars like Nikolai.
A start in the right direction would be if Russians had banks that they trusted enough so that they would deposit their savings in them. This would allow the accumulation of the smaller amounts of capital saved by individuals into sizes large enough to be effective when invested in Russia's industries.
It's a challenging situation for a student here to know what to do or even to be motivated to do anything. Nikolai's friends have said that he is wasting his time on education. They suggest that he should become a trader and make the "big bucks" like they are. Nikolai is more intellectually challenged than that.
Nikolai once asked me why so many Westerners were in Russia on programs such as ours? My reply was "so that students and people like Nikolai would have the same opportunities for personal self-realization, including the accumulation of wealth and a good standard of living, that we had when we were growing up."
Back to our trip!
After leaving the hotel we ended up walking by Finlandia Hall, which was celebrating it's 25th year in their beautiful facilities that night and tickets were by invitation only. We did buy tickets (about $20.00 each) for a Christmas program of song for Sunday evening. We proceeded on to the opera house, and even though they again said that they were sold out, they soon noticed that there were a couple of cancellations in the 12th row orchestra that they would sell us at student prices. Nikolai looks the part and I'm, after all, a "classical adult learner" - which Dr. Nichols told me in Irkutsk, "isn't all bad!". Cost each was $25.00 - half price - to Rossini's "The Barber of Seville".
Nikolai, Carolyn, Kathy and I had seen this opera last June in Moscow, so it was a good chance to make comparisons. For Nikolai it was not as enjoyable as the Moscow performance as this one was not sung in Russian as it was at the Stanislovsky Opera House. The super-text was in Finnish of course, so I had to follow it from my understanding of the story. Comedy is tough to understand without translation. It's hard to know when to laugh. It was staged in a modern setting instead of in a previous century, which allowed some modern humor. I thought that they did a really good job of staging, acting and singing this comedy but the audience was quite unresponsive. The music was good. The orchestra was outstanding.
While buying tickets for this opera, I had asked about Puccini's "Tosca" scheduled for the next night, only to be told that it was also sold out. But, since we were having good luck, after a while the box office lady said that they had just had another cancellation and for the same student price we could have sixth row orchestra seats, so we were set for our second opera.
Tosca is a lyrical opera. It was the first opera that Nikolai and I had seen together at the Bolshoi over a year ago. It was a fantastic production with outstanding lead singers, accomplished orchestra, etc. and the audience was responsive. It was most enjoyable and a nice way to compare a comedy and a lyrical grand opera on consecutive nights.
The Helsinki Opera house is beautiful and only three years old. It is relatively small, holding about 1300 people. It is a multi-purpose facility. They have a spacious foyer where they have many tables set up, so prior to the performance you can order what you want to eat at intermission so that when you exit the auditorium, your reserved table is already set up and you merely sit down and begin to eat and drink what you previously had ordered. This is a big improvement over standing in an endless line waiting to be served and then rushing to consume what you have purchased before the curtain goes up again. Great customer service and I'm sure profitable for the theater.
The first day in town we walked around enough to get a feeling for part of the city including the shore along an inlet to the Bay of Finland. The second day we spent the entire day in the Finnish National Museum of History. It starts from the earliest prehistoric settlers down to the present. It was a great way to learn about the country's history. It showed the part that metalurgy played in Finlands development as well as lots of other historical developments. I was particularly interested in the more recent political events that had shaped Finland as it now is. Finland had to pay a lot of war reparations to Russia and prides itself on being the only country that paid them all. It is considered a pretty politically neutral country now and with its border next to Russia that makes sense.
Finland declared its political independence from Russia the day after the Russian revolution in 1917. We were told that at that time it had, on average, a comparable standard of living to Russia with the those living in the Russian cities being a little better off than those living in Finland, while the Finnish rural dwellers were a little more affluent than the Russian rural people, perhaps because the Finns owned their own land and the Russians did not.
The economic similarity between the two countries has really changed now, making you ask why has Finland prospered so in comparison to Russia? What difference does a border make? (You can't help asking this same question when you stand on the banks of the Rio Grande River and look first at Texas and then at Mexico and wonder what the magic of that river is and what is it's influence on the production of the gross national product.) One obvious difference between Finland and Russia is that Finland had a history of private ownership of land and businesses that still prevails. They also had a lot of freedoms not available to Russians.
We were told that the average yearly income in Finland is 140,000 Finmarks, which is the equivalent of a little over $31,000 or about $2600 per month. This compares with $160 per month average income in Russia (up from $35 four years ago). No wonder Nikolai (and I) noticed some differences.
On our third day in town we walked through the port area, boarding a cruise ship bound for Stockholm, Sweden, which gave us the wanderlust to try that sometime. In the terminal you could even find clean bathrooms in the finest Western tradition.
We explored the largest Russian Orthodox Church in Finland - Uspenski Sabor - and witnessed a baby being baptised. We also lit a candle to St. Nikolai. We walked through a large portion of Helsinki, including by a large Lutheran Church where a funeral was just concluding, so in the same day we saw the beginning and the ending services of life. In between we sat down in the chapel of a large Lutheran Church where the organist was practicing for the next day's service.
We also visited the Finnish National Gallery of Art, which was most enjoyable. There were lot's of scenes of Finnish History and life and outdoors. These kind of museums, like the Russian Museum of art in St. Petersburg, are different from the Hermitage in that they feature native art and thus it is a good chance to view scenes and life of the country and to enjoy this native art. In Russia I really like Shishkin's paintings of outdoor scenes, particularly Siberian Pine forests, now that I have seen a few. Some of his paintings were displayed in the Finnish National Gallery.
There was a special exhibit of photographs by Irving Penn, in the contemporary art wing. He was an American photographer that took pictures of people and objects separated from their usual surroundings so that the focus was on only the person or object rather than seeing them in the context of their surroundings. To photograph people he would back them into an acute angled corner of two white walls and then just photograph the person. To me, it seemed to work well for people who were famous and you could recognize but for people that weren't so famous, it seems more appropriate to me to picture them doing what they do, such as photographing a pianist at his piano. Guess I need some more exposure to this kind of art but I was not terrible impressed, although a few photos did "reach" me.
There was a news crew from a Finnish TV station there, complete with television camera and a man asking interview questions of the spectators of this exhibit. For some reason he asked me for an interview. Talk about interviewing the common man; when it comes to photography, I'm it, so I probably sounded like the uniformed American art critic, but what can you expect from a Texas Aggie?. (I realize that I'm not one and never can be without graduating from A&M.)
Fortunately no one that knows me will ever see it and neither will I. I don't think I'd even heard of Irving Penn before. I have heard of Karst, who took pictures of famous people that seem to show their strengths and personalities, and I like his photography. I didn't want to say negative things during the interview but I did say that I generally preferred scenery landscapes, which probably really showed my lack of culture, about like saying that you prefer Lawrence Welk music to all other kinds. (I hate to admit it, but I did like his music.) They probably thought that all my taste was in my mouth.
The questions did cause me to do a lot of thinking about what I consider is a good photograph. I decided that in general, I like to see people pictured doing something related to their work or play and in natural surroundings - like sailing a boat, although some people have a face or hands etc. that also tell a story without being surrounded by other scenery, or as Irving Penn would say, "distractions".
It is hard to truly capture a person's personality in a photograph but sometimes you can and I do like those kind of photographs. This usually happens when the picture isn't posed and you catch a person in a natural position and situation that has intrigue and pulls you into the picture as if it were 3-D rather than just being another flat posed picture. It has caused me to try and figure out which of my own photographs I like the best and why. (That darned adult learning intrigue is surfacing again.)
After supper we decided that walking all day wasn't enough, so we decided to walk a few more hours at night. This time we walked south through some luxurious homes and embassies to another embankment along the Bay of Finland. At about 10 PM we met a lady and her teenage daughter who were also out for a walk with their dog. We had noticed boats tied up to the docks free for anyone to board and had walked by a bunch of dry-docked pleasure boats and yachts open to anyone to investigate - and pilfer if they wanted to. We asked the lady if it were safe to be out this late along the wharf and she answered, "Of course! Why wouldn't it be?"
There is apparently very little crime and stealing in Helsinki. Unbelievable! It isn't that way in large (or some small) U.S. cities to say nothing of Moscow. Nikolai and I were both learning about how a civilized society functions. She continued that the American Ambassador and his wife regularly walk along the embankment without any accompanying security forces. The big embassies were on a hill overlooking the bay.
The lady we met, as well as her daughter, were well versed in economics. She said that Finland had a large social program so that the unemployed received 80% of what they'd make if they worked. I think that lasts for 500 days and then they have to enter some retraining program. If a couple gets married and doesn't have an apartment the state will supply them with one. This sounds great until she continued. She admitted that there was a problem now being debated in that there was 16% unemployment as some lazy types had discovered that life was almost as good when you didn't work as when you did.
To support their social program there is about a 30% tax on regular incomes but this was highly progressive so that if you make a lot of money, the government takes a large chunk of it. There is also a high inheritance tax rate. As a result of the high taxation of the higher economically performing people she said that many of the successful businessmen were leaving Finland so that they could keep more of what they earned.
This makes for an interesting situation where you have an increasing leisurely unemployed class living off the state and a decreasing cadre of hard charging, job creating, tax paying, successful business people left to fund the social programs. The wealth creators of course don't like excessive transfers of their wealth that they have created to non-producers. She said people were beginning to realize that there was a problem and that there was much discussion on what to do about it. Sweden, long held up as the ideal socialistic country, finally found that they couldn't fund all their social programs either.
She added that Finland had to make some changes but they didn't want to end up like the USA. Because the hour was late I foolishly didn't ask her what she meant; not to argue but just to hear her view and to learn (so I could justify my student rate at the opera house).
Her daughter had been to Los Angeles. She said she liked L.A. better than Helsinki. I also goofed and didn't ask her why? Maybe she likes warmer weather, beach parties, Tinsle Town and weirdos.
All this stimulates your mind to thinking about what kind of a balance you need between social programs, tax rates, incentives for business, etc. I think it's hard to figure out the ideal balance for a society. I'm sure the answer differs as to whether you're educated or uneducated, intelligent or not so intelligent, employed or not employed, rich or poor, hard working or lazy, etc.
It makes it harder to change a society to a market economy when they have one culture and you need to change that to implement the economic changes. That is a challenge for Russia where they have for generations valued the collective spirit where all share the wealth (poverty) as opposed to the individualism that is a part of a market economy.
When it is not socially acceptable to accumulate more than your neighbor, that is a strong motivation NOT to excel as you don't want to stand out. People who stand out in Russia for their earning power get their new houses burned, the windows of their new cars broken and themselves shot. It's hard for a country to have a high gross domestic product when people have a cultural bias against the kind of productivity that results from working hard to better yourself - and to do better than the "Jones". Legally and morally controlled "greed" works wonders for a country's productivity and standard of living.
Finland certainly has a culture, as opposed to Russia, that encourages order and tidiness, courteousness, honesty, religion (Lutheran), etc. Nikolai and I pondered how long it would take for Russia's culture to change to where they didn't drink and smoke themselves to death, didn't throw their bottles and other trash out the nearest window or into the nearest bush or fence row or on to the street, didn't steal anything not nailed down (Vladimir Don in Krasnodar said that if you aren't stealing, you aren't Russian!), kept their surroundings orderly, got some law and order, reduced government corruption, promoted and rewarded on merit rather than political or social influence, etc.
Look at the cultural difference that is expressed between the tidiness of the Northwestern United States and what you see in Mexico. How would you ever change Mexico? Or how about Singapore where you can be arrested (and I assume fined and caned) for spitting on the street and doing other nasties like chewing gum in public.
The culture of the people needs to change in order to move from one kind of society to another. Can market reforms help change that culture or does the culture have to change before market reforms will be accepted? Perhaps its a coordinated and simultaneous change where both culture and market reforms take place together with the end result being different in each country because of their historical and cultural differences. How nice it would be for us to be so clairvoyant as to see what Russia really needed and would culturally accept in order to get it's act together to have a higher standard of living.
After leaving the lady and her daughter we continued to walk and talk and finally got back to the hotel about midnight. All of this was done without the fear of being assaulted. Feeling this safe almost makes you feel unnatural and uncomfortable when you're from Russia or the United States. By the way, I feel more comfortable in Moscow than I do in Los Angeles or New York City.
Even though we were in Finland, we weren't away from Russians. A group of them and their Finnish friends had a major party for about twenty people at tables set up just outside our hotel room door. There was much drinking, eating, toasting and merriment. They were having so much fun that when they asked and the hotel desk clerk called to see if they were bothering us, I said "no" and just vicariously enjoyed their party.
On Sunday we walked through a different part of down town including Senate Square and the open air markets. We ended up at a huge Lutheran church as it was just finishing services. The Sunday evening Christmas program for which we had tickets started at 4 PM, so we attended that at Finlandia Hall. The performers were a women of Finnish origin married to a Romanian and their daughter who sang along with a small orchestra and a large choir. It was a great way to start the Christmas season.
Since this concert ended fairly early, I suggested that we walk up to the opera house "that didn't ever have any seats to sell" to see if there was a chance that we could get tickets to Verdi's "Don Carlo" on Monday night. We had been told that they had been sold out for days. True to form, there were no seats, but at the Helsinki Opera House, as in sales and a lot of life's other pursuits, the first "No" doesn't count. Pretty soon our favorite ticket seller was staring into her computer and pushing buttons and finally saying that there were some "director's" seats that had just become available. They were first balcony, first row, dead center at about $80 each - but she'd let us have them for half price - since we were students. I think by now she liked us and I had said that I couldn't afford the full price.
They were the best seats in the house - comparable to the Czar's box at the Bolshoi. Since the "best is none too good" for us international travelers and experienced opera goers, we scarfed them up and decided to spend another day. Nikolai had already said that he wasn't ready to go home yet now that he'd experienced the exhileration of being in Finland. I reminded him that on his visa application that I'd promised to take him back to Russia and this couldn't go on forever, but I "reluctantly" agreed to spend one more day.
This opera experience was reminiscent of Prague where Leos and I got the director's tickets just before a performance of "Aida" and sat front row center first balcony with the Czech Republic's best "fat cats". Why not do the same in Finland? The main difference was that in Prague the tickets cost $6.00 each. I didn't ask for half price student tickets there.
This gave us Monday to do some more exploring of Helsinki, which we did to advantage. Nikolai had both some comparative and actual shopping to do. Prices in Helsinki are high. Bananas cost twice what they do in Moscow. At McDonalds two double burgers, a milk shake, a soft drink and one fries cost $16.00. I've heard that one of the good ways to compare economies is to compare the price of standard items at McDonalds. This was at least twice what it would cost in Moscow. Comparing the prices for Opera tickets might be another way to make a comparative study of a country's GDP.
Helsinki is not a good place to be if you're Russian and on a Russian salary, as Nikolai noticed. I've gotten used to being on a generous Western salary but buying at Moscow prices, so the higher prices charged in Helsinki were noticeable to me also. With a high minimum wage, even the service giver's products are expensive and of course the customer has to pay for that, driving up costs, including the cost of food.
It was soon time to go to "Don Carlo". This was a spectacular grand opera at it's grandest. The voices were world class. Since this is a new opera house with all kinds of modern equipment, they change scenes right in front of you and a four or five act opera ends up with just one intermission.
The bass singing King Charles was a native Finn celebrating his 50th birthday. Besides that, he could really sing. This opera, unlike some of Verdi's other operas, doesn't have a lot of lyrical melodies but the overall effect is almost overwhelming. Nikolai and I enjoyed being in the house's prime seats enjoying this tremendous performance with Finland's best (or at least richest). I was fairly familiar with the music as I had seen Don Carlo a couple of times in Portland and had listened to the music a number of times to get ready for it. This getting visas renewed is tough business but you have to do it.
The audience, almost to a person, stood, stayed and applauded for a number of curtain calls including the presentation of flowers and the singing of more songs to the bass celebrating his birthday. I've never experienced such spontaneous and prolonged applause before and I've seen one or two operas here and there. It was a grand night of grand opera!
Even though the ticket prices are high and at Western prices, we were told that the ticket revenue covered only 20% of the total cost with the government, donations and commercial sponsors making up the other 80%. The auditorium is small by U.S. theater standards so the potential ticket revenue is limited, even with high prices.
So, in five days time we saw a comic opera, a lyric grand opera and a heavy duty grand opera, all performed at their best. Life isn't too bad!
One thing that Nikolai never did get used to during our five days in Helsinki was drinking water from the tap. I was surprised at his reluctance to do so, even when I reported that the desk clerk had said that it was OK. Then I realized that he never before had been where he could do that. At his home in Moscow they filter the water and then boil it before drinking. He said that drinking it out of the tap in Helsinki made him nervous and didn't seem appropriate. I assured him that we do that all the time in the USA. Maybe some day he will become even more of an international traveler and have a chance to experience that himself.
The next morning we were up before 5 AM to catch the train to St. Petersburg. Re-entering Russia was an interesting experience also. As we approached the Finnish - Russian border you could see the well kept houses of Finland, the lack of clutter and then the border fence, which was substantial, nicely painted, kept up, etc. I thought the Finn's must have helped on that.
A short distance later, apparently across "no man's" land, we came to a wooden, unpainted and out of line fence that had several strings of barbed wire across the top followed by a road with Russian soldiers patroling at regular intervals along it and then the litter and disorderliness began. We were definitely back in Russia. Nikolai looked out the window and remarked that he could see that he was back in his Motherland.
What causes that obvious difference as you cross that imaginary line from Finland into Russia? How do you change it?
At the border the Finnish immigration people came on and checked things out. Next it was the Russian's turn. They took our passports and my new unstamped visa and disappeared, promising to return them at Vyborg. This was of interest to me as I was hopeful of retrieving my $500 and had to have my passport to get it.
When we arrived in Vyborg, my passport and visas was returned five or ten minutes after we arrived. I now had 30 minutes to recover my money. Upon inspection I was pleased to find that my visa now had the necessary stamp to make me legal until 30 September 1997, which was the reason (excuse) for the trip. When we got them Nikolai and I ran into the station to find the keeper of my money. After some questions and wrong starts we ended up upstairs and were told to go through an unmarked door. Sure enough, they had my money and returned it upon presentation of my receipt. We breathed a sigh of relief, boarded the train and headed on to St. Petersburg. By the way, even the toilets on the Finnish trains were clean and usable.
We arrived at the Finlandia Railroad Station in St. Petersburg, which is across the Neva River from the railroad station that services Moscow. We had to ask directions and were pleased to find a Russian lady that couldn't have been nicer in helping us. You just needed to speak Russian, so Nikolai and I were pleased to find nice people in St. Petersburg also. We were favorably impressed with our treatment there and even when we returned to Moscow. Part of the difference is that there are just more people in St. Petersburg and Moscow than in Helsinki, but most are very nice. We found the Russian drivers to be a little more agressive. One or two people can spoil the otherwise favorable impression of a whole country or town or area.
It was interesting how noticeable the changes were to both of us when we entered Finland but not so noticeable in reverse when we returned to Russia. It was not unpleasant to return to our homes.
In St. Petersburg we checked into the Hotel Russ, where I had stayed a year ago. Since I've been in St. Petersburg three times before and Nikolai hadn't been there since he was a child, I became the tour guide for my Russian friend. That made me feel kind of worldly - until I needed to speak to someone - and then Nikolai became the man of two cultures.
The Hotel Russ receptionist stamped my new visa and dated it from my arrival until 30 September 1997, so that little detail is taken care of until I leave Russia. I think it is legal since St. Petersburg is one of the destinations shown on the visa even if I live in Moscow.
A call to Dr. Malakhov, Rector of the Academy of Management and Agribusiness, our partner, confirmed that he'd like to see us on Thursday, so that gave us Wednesday to tour the Hermitage, which was the Winter Palace of the Czars and presently the place of some of the world's greatest art, including some German art that the Russians captured during World War II and the Germans want back. After all the purposefull and senseless damage that the Germans did to other Czarist palaces as they retreated from Leningrad near the end of the Second World War, I'd be in no hurry to return any art work to the Germans.
Tuesday, upon our arrival to St. Petersburg, we walked along the Neva River past the Hermitage and other places of interest, crossed the river and back and eventually made it back to the hotel so that we could get up the next morning and spend the whole day going through the Hermitage. This was my third time there and it was again impressive. We left when it closed. We were both tired.
Thursday we visited with Dr. Malakhov and some of our professor friends at the academy. Nikolai did an excellent job of translating, which was a first time for him. We also met Brad Beeler from Iowa State who is in St. Petersburg on a project somewhat similar to ours that runs until the end of 1997. He has his office at Malakhov's academy. We had supper with him at our hotel. This day's events were reported earlier.
On Friday we took our bags to the train station for storage for our evening trip back to Moscow. We then walked back through town and across the Neva River to the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress, where most of the Czars from Peter the Great on are buried. It was a good experience to see these burial places in above ground vaults in the church. We also toured an exhibit on minting coins as the St. Petersburg mint is located here. We toured the jail, which housed a lot of political prisoners. Time ran out before we saw everything there. We left the compound and walked around the outside walls of the fortress along the Neva River, which gave us a spectacular view of the Hermitage and other sites along the St. Petersburg skyline.
After crossing the Neva River we walked to St. Isaac's Cathedral by going through the square with the statue of Peter the Great astride his horse and where the Decembrists had their uprising (14 December 1825), which resulted in the deaths of a number of them and excile to Siberia for most of the rest. We returned by the Admiralty and the Russian Museum, which we look forward to touring if we have another visit to St. Petersburg. I enjoyed the Russian Museum with Carolyn and Kathy last June with Dr. Georgy Chernick as our guide. He said that even when he was so poor that he couldn't buy bread he would go the Russian Museum to have his Russian Roots nurtured.
Since this trip was during the shortest days of the year, it became light about nine in the morning and got dark again about four in the evening and never was very bright for good picture taking. You'd go into a museum and come out into the dark. It was a good time to see these cities at night with the lights on. Weather was cold (near freezing) most of the time but usually dry, so it made for good walking tours.
It was then back to the train and the eight hour overnight trip back to Moscow. There was a problem with one of the cars so we arrived an hour late, an unusual occurrence as Russia runs it's trains on a strict timetable. Don't be a minute late for departure or you'll be left on the platform.
I returned to my apartment (Saturday morning) and received a call from Carolyn about 30 minutes later checking up on me since I was originally scheduled back a couple of days earlier. She hadn't heard from me via e-mail as she had expected. She said that Mother was not doing well.
On Monday morning Carolyn called to say that Mother had died a few hours earlier. I am fortunate that it wasn't while I was in Helsinki and St. Petersburg as I would have been harder to contact and would not have had time to write a eulogy and take care of some details and certainly would not have felt like being a tourist getting his visa renewed.
This nine and a half day trip to Helsinki and St. Petersburg was very educational, mind expanding and enjoyable for both Nikolai and me. Much more was accomplished than just getting my visa stamped. I saw and experienced a lot and was forced to think a lot about what I was seeing and to ask "Why?" without being able to come up with many of the answers.
Nikolai is now an international traveler and more of an international thinker and definitely more impressed with the importance of good management and aware of the type of economic system needed to produce wealth. While he isn't on our list of things to accomplish according to our partnership protocol, he is one of the "sustainable products" for Russia that has resulted from our Russian - American Agribusiness Training Partnership. He also grew as an interpreter while working with us in St. Petersburg, where he did a very good professional job of allowing me to communicate with our partners.
While Finland was striking in its differences, Russia didn't seem so strange upon our return. Perhaps this is now home for me, as well as for Nikolai of course, and it's always fun to return home to that with which you are familiar. Russia is more challenging than Finland. There is a "rough and tough" feeling here as opposed to the orderliness of Finland, which might be compared to being all dressed up and sitting in a fancy drawing room surrounded by expensive vases having tea and being afraid to be your own relaxed obnoxious self.
Perhaps the challenge of Russia is that there is so much to do here to make it more habitable and to bring it up to the standards of Western countries. Working and then seeing improvement may be more satisfying than the actual living experienced after eventually reaching the goal; Something about comparing life's journey to enjoying the ride to the "station" and not just looking forward to the end of the trip and then enjoying only the "station".
Anyway, the trip was great, but I'm glad to be back in Russia working on our RAATP project. We have a lot of work to do and we have only six months to get it done. As a result of the trip I'm more focused on the objective.
Nikolai isn't the only one that saw differences when he looked out the window in Finland.
Roy Chapin, Ph.D. Animal Nutritionist
11145 Chapin Lane, Amity, Oregon 97101
E-mail: <[email protected]>