Monday, August 23, 2010

The Double-Headed Eagle Has Landed

Perhaps you’ve noticed your faithful correspondent has been absent from your inbox lately. Well, the secret can now be told—even retirees go on vacation. Gilda and I just returned from two weeks in Russia, sailing on a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

Discovery Channel has its Shark Week. Consider this your Russian Week. I won’t pontificate, not too much, I hope, on deep Russian themes. Rather, for the next several days I’ll provide some pointed observations and tidbits of information you might not have known about Russia:

Russia’s summer has been extraordinary, afflicted by intense heat and peat bog fires around Moscow that shrouded the capital in smog, making breathing for three hours outdoors the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes. Instead of normal temperatures in the 60s and 70s, during the weeks leading up to our trip St. Petersburg and Moscow experienced high 90s and even 100-plus days. We packed accordingly and even managed to bring with us a little Lady Luck, for the weather was just short of perfect for our fortnight in Mother Russia.

The symbol of the Russian empire was the two-headed eagle, facing east and west. Ever the cynics, Russians claimed it symbolized the country did not know which way to turn.

History, according to our guides, is the hardest subject to master in schools because textbooks are rewritten every two years. Russian history has an “unpredictable past,” said our guides. Reminded me of the Texas Board of Education and its respect for accepted knowledge.

Given a choice between order or democracy, between stability or freedom, the Russian people favor order and stability. Democracy is not a good word, a guide said, because “every time we have a weak ruler we have problems.” Putin is well regarded because he is decisive. Gorbachev is reviled because he presided over economic disaster. Yeltsin was considered a buffoon.

Despite the Soviet Union’s anti-religion manifesto, the Russian Orthodox Church has experienced a revival. About 65% of the population, it is estimated, affiliates with the Russian Orthodox Church, though they are not traditionally observant. That would require them to both fast and abstain from sex for more than 200 days a year. Attendance at services is on the rise (pun intended, as there are no seats in the churches. Congregants stand for the two to three hour services in buildings that usually do not have heat, though the Church of the Assumption in the heart of the Kremlin had hot water pipes installed under its cast iron flooring in the 18th century, a form of central heating gaining wider acceptance in the 21st century. By the way, a kremlin refers to any fortress built to protect a population center. Moscow’s Kremlin houses offices of the government and numerous churches where the Tsars were crowned, married, had their children baptized, and were eulogized).

Not so well known is that Stalin reversed his attitude toward the church after WWII, known in Russia as the Second Great Patriotic War (the first was the one against Napolean). Though Hitler promised religious freedom if it would support his attack, the church lined up behind Stalin and the Russian defense of the motherland. After the war Stalin eased up on restrictions and allowed more churches to open and operate.

Russian churches often have superb acoustics and boast exceptional male choirs, usually a quartet whose voices are transformed into resounding multi-layered harmonization. As I write this I’m listening to a CD of the White Lake Vocal Ensemble. Sung in Slavonic, an old, mostly lost language, the hymns are deeply spiritual.

After experimenting with a progressive income tax system, Russia has adopted a flat 13% tax rate on all income. Anyone who owes taxes, or excessive fines, for say, parking violations, cannot leave the country before paying off their debt.

Speaking of parking violations, before perestroika (which means reconstruction), there were about 200,000 cars in Moscow. Today there are close to four million. Understandably, traffic jams abound and there is not enough parking. Moscow installed parking meters, but the public rebelled, vandalizing many of them, forcing their removal. Cars are parked on sidewalks and other illegal places. Police tow trucks are called “black angels.” To relieve some of the parking space deficit, Russia is building vertical garages. Often they are co-op initiatives. People contribute to a building fund for a reserved spot and pay a monthly fee as well. The price of regular gas was around 26 rubles for one litre, equal to around $3.27 for one gallon.

To widen some of the roads in Moscow, buildings were elevated and moved backward several meters. Friday is the busiest traffic day as city dwellers drive to their suburban dachas. Most people have dachas. Under the Soviet Union land was distributed free of charge to all workers thereby inadvertently contributing to the peat bog fires that plagued Russia this summer and in years past. To have enough land to distribute, swampy peat bogs were drained. But without the dampness, peat bogs spontaneously combust in intense heat. It would be political suicide to try to wrest the dachas and land back from the populace to reflood the bogs. So Russia is living proof that no well-intentioned deed goes unpunished.