Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Kvas and other Russian peculiarities

In Russia a controversy is raging which rather encapsulates some of the contradictions and opposing trends which are currently at work in that enormous, diverse country. The American company Coca Cola has produced its own variety of the fermented rye bread drink, kvas. This brew, mildly alcoholic but consumed as a soft drink, is an archetypal and much loved Russian beverage, which has acquired a role in the resurgence of pride in Russian identity that has accompanied the country’s economic and international resurgence under Vladimir Putin. Kvas has become regarded as the patriotic alternative to imported Cola brands; tastier, authentically Russian and indeed healthier. There is therefore a certain frisson in inevitable attempts by Coca Cola and Pepsi to muscle in on the market place by introducing their own versions of the drink, albeit purportedly with traditional Russian ingredients.

The comparison may be trite, but I did discern in the kvas debate, something redolent of wider issues regarding identity and Russia’s relationship with the rest of the world, which pertain in today’s Russian society. Russia being Russia, there are layers of nuance, contradiction and complexity which render these matters almost impenetrable to the outsider. After only two weeks spent travelling in the country, even after many years immersing myself in books about Russia’s history, as well as its literature, I am not naïve enough to think that I can offer any great insight into the world’s most enigmatic country. However, I can share the impressions that visiting Russia left with me, and overwhelmingly I discerned a country that was surprisingly normal, sharing so much that is identifiable as modern, western and popular, whilst remaining somehow unmistakeably different. I will note at the outset that I would encourage anyone to visit Russia. We encountered few of the difficulties or annoyances which are often cited as reasons that the country makes an intimidating or exasperating destination. There were no attempts by militia to extract bribes or harass us, we were not at any point swamped by crowds of aggressive beggars, the overwhelming majority of people were hospitable and helpful rather than taciturn or resentful, even the inevitable bureaucracy was not as onerous as we had been led to expect.

Over the next few days I will attempt to get some photos of the trip on the site (they need a little editing from the initial haul of 331!) and share some experiences. But I will begin here by giving a broad flavour of the itinerary we followed. The first five days were spent in Moscow, an extraordinary place to begin a holiday. The city offers more variety than many decent sized countries. At once busy, brash and beautiful, glitzy arcades and new Russian wealth subsist alongside poverty and unexpected informality. People approach you in Moscow city centre, something which is not typical of other impersonal metropolises I have visited. They ask you to take photographs of them, they query the time or seek directions to a particular street, they hear you speaking English and want to practice their language skills and they advise you in great detail, in English, Russian or a mixture of the two, which attractions they believe you should visit in their city.

Our room in Moscow was housed in a vast tower block which advertises itself on the internet as the Hostel Asia, but appeared in reality to be a hotel aimed mainly at Uzbek travellers from Central Asia. Its location, some distance from the centre beside the Ryazansky Prospekt metro station, provided an informative counterpoint to the more central areas where we did most of our sightseeing. In an area dominated by crumbling Brezhnev era apartment blocks, the hostel was surrounded by a complex of prefabricated shops and kiosks which are typical of less central urban areas in Russia. In contrast, seven metro stops down the line, Kitay Gorod disgorges passengers into a very different environment where sparkling new shopping arcades attract crowds of young shoppers. Adjacent to these capitalist palaces lie the cultural, political and historical focal points of the Russian state where the symbols of 80 years of Soviet communism still adorn public spaces. Red Square, with its busy orthodox churches, the endless façade of the exclusive GUM shopping complex and the tomb of Lenin, epitomises the paradox of modern Russia and its variegated influences. The place takes the breath away in a way in which only a few iconic locations can. It is enormous and awe-inspiring, defying clichés which the onion domes of St Basil’s, the red star topped gates of the Kremlin and the intricate lattice-work of the State History Museum might suggest.

Our second destination was Novgorod, a beautiful and idyllic slice of medieval Russia set alongside the Volkhov River. Its Kremlin is the oldest in Russia and the town has a strong case to be considered the cradle of the Russian state. A trip along the river is a languid experience, with the rural feel of the city immediately giving way to tranquil meadows housing onion domed churches and monasteries. Novgorod is a place to relax, with its quiet streets, extensive parks and sandy beach beside the river.

Novogorod is three and a half hours from St Petersburg by train. The Tsarist capital is recognisably more western in architecture and in outlook. Ringed by stunning palaces and stuffed with museums, it attracts tourists in numbers which dwarf those in Moscow. St Petersburg is beautiful, but it also expensive and in order to see its splendid attractions, it is necessary to jostle with coach-loads of Germans and Americans. St Petersburg is less foreign, English is spoken more widely in its shops and cafes, but its character is still uniquely Russian when you scratch beneath the surface. Leave the Nevskiy Prospekt and take the metro to Sennaya Ploshad, the former hay-market around which Dostoevsky unfolds the events in Crime and Punishment, the tourists immediately become scarcer and the atmosphere is recognisable from the squares of Moscow.

I have come back from Russia fired by enthusiasm to visit it again, and explore more thoroughly the character of this fascinating country. I hope you will indulge me as I intend to post some more detail of the trip which we took, as well as sharing a few photos, over the next few days. Incidentally I formed no great liking for Kvas, preferring to sip Baltika, but my girlfriend was a fan of its singular taste.


Aidan said...

Welcome back. I know very little about Russia but I am very interested in learning more so I am looking forward to your next posts on your trip.

O'Neill said...

Yes, also looking forward to your tales.

I think as I have mentioned before, my better-half works for an NGO which does a lot of work in the old Soviet Union central/eastern Europe and the Balkans and consequently my opinion on Russia, or at least the present ruling elite, has been shaped by the torrid time her colleagues had there before the authorities finally shut their office two years ago for unspecified reasons (and no, she doesn't work for the British Council!).

So, whilst I've had no fears and subsequent problems visiting places like Sarajavo, Mostar and Belgrade- Moscow at the minute holds no attraction whatsoever for me...but I'll do my best to keep reading your posts with an open mind!!

Hernandez said...

Sounds like you did a good job at navigating such a huge country. Wonder why St Petersburg gets so many more tourists? I would be interested in going to Moscow, as well as Vladivostock.