Sunday, March 23, 2014

From Russia with Love and Hate

Going into Russia from Finland was a bit of a shock.  Finland was nearly a utopia, but Russia was anything but one.  The country really surprised me, sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a not so good way.  Signs of capitalism were all around – luxury cars all over St Petersburg and Moscow, more upscale shopping than you can imagine, and western establishments flourishing all over the country.  All of this, however, was intertwined with signs of the past.  Drab, gray buildings abounded in many areas, and for every Volvo, Audi, and Bentley, there were at least ten other junk models.  The cities were generally dirty and not well-maintained, though some of the more upscale areas were immaculate.  Inequality seemed to be the norm. 

The Russians themselves were an interesting breed.  Going into the trip, I was told that Russians were cold and that you had to be pushy to get anything.  Indeed, this wasn’t far off.  Trying to get a Russian to smile was a difficult task, but my travel mates and I accomplished it a few times (albeit only a few).  Please and thank you won’t get you very far at all, but a firm tone and stern expression will usually do the trick.

Then there were the weird Russians.  Like those dressed in Kung Fu Panda and Shrek costumes for no apparent reason at Red Square.

And the one dude with his two monkeys at a popular restaurant in St Petersburg.  We followed him out onto the street to get a picture.  This would never fly in the US or Australia.

Speaking of eating in restaurants, have you ever tried going to a restaurant only to find it was closed due to technical difficulties?  No?  Well, it’s apparently a common occurrence in Russia as we found out when we tried to go to the Chili’s in Moscow (yes, I tried to go to Chili’s… leave me alone…)

For a country that has fully embraced McDonald’s and Starbucks, anti-American sentiment still seemed to run a bit high.  Our very first tour guide on day one advised the Americans in our group to pretend to be Canadian or Australian if anyone asked, especially if that anyone was a drunk Russian (and we had more than our fair share of encounters with drunk Russians).  We never really experienced any real anti-American sentiment, but we didn’t take our chances either.  I was Aussie.

To fully complement the anti-Americanism, there was a ton of Russian pride.  Russians seemed to be very proud of their heritage, culture, history, and everything else, and the fact that they were hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi was a big topic there.  Everywhere we went (and on every can of Coke we drank) there was something about Sochi.

Last but not least, I couldn’t get away with writing a blog about Russia without mentioning the gay issue.  We booked this trip several months before Russia’s notorious gay laws were passed in the Duma.  Morally, I normally don’t want to spend my tourism dollars in a place that is hostile to gays and lesbians (or anyone for that matter), but I had already paid for everything.  I was apprehensive about travelling there, especially after reading about the topic in the media, but I was assured that it was completely safe as long as I didn’t parade around or tell anyone about my sexuality.  Indeed, I never really had a moment where I felt unsafe because of my sexuality (though I did opt to wear my dark gray beanie in lieu of my colourful blue and green one for most of my time in Russia, just to avoid drawing unwanted attention to myself).

Our very first tour guide in St Petersburg could probably sense that me and one of the other guys on the trip were gay, and without asking us about our sexuality at all, asked the whole group one day over coffee whether we had heard of this anti-gay law.  We were shocked to hear his take on the issue – that the law was ridiculous, that nobody really cared or wanted it in effect, and that the politicians were only using it to shore up support.  Mind you, our tour guide was young and had a lot of exposure to westerners so his view probably wasn’t reflective of the population as a whole, but I was still taken aback (in a good way) by his comments.  Maybe it is like the US a bit – it’s a political tool, the young people just don’t see it as an issue, and eventually it will change.  Admittedly, Russia has a much longer journey ahead of itself on the issue that the US probably ever did, but the issue they are facing now isn’t all that dissimilar to what happened in the western world in the not-too-distant past.

In Moscow, a mate of mine who lives there advised that gay and lesbian couples walking around holding hands in public is a common sight in the city.  In the smaller city of Irkutsk, our tour guide seemed to be quite liberal as well and I think he caught on very quickly to the gays in the group.  That brings the question:  is the western media sensationalizing the issue?

I had no problems when I was there, but I’m going to give that question a big “no” response.  Moscow is a big cosmopolitan city, and the people we encountered everywhere we went on our trip are used to dealing with tourists from the liberal countries in Europe, North America, and Oceania, so their views on the issue and interactions with us can’t be construed to be similar to Russians as a whole.  Going out in public as a civil rights activist would spell trouble – gay pride parades are banned in Russia – and I imagine that being gay outside of the few biggest cities would be terrifying for a child or teen struggling with their sexuality.

I definitely have a much less negative view (but still very negative) about the situation in Russia after visiting, and not because I think the western media exaggerates the story.  I think the negative coverage is well-deserved and should go further.  My view is less negative now because just like in the United States, Australia, and most other western countries, I can see that the anti-gay views that exist at present will likely die out with the older generations.  Yes, it will take much longer for Russia to get there than it did for those countries in the west.  Yes, their views are exceedingly harsh for a country in Europe, but with all of Russia’s other civil rights issues, it is hardly unexpected.  Is it fair?  No.  Is it just?  No.  Is it unacceptable?  Yes.  But in reality, just like the Netherlands, Canada, and Scandinavia have beaten the United States and Australia to equal rights and equal treatment for sexual minorities, so too will we beat Russia there.  And Russia will beat Uganda, Nigeria, Pakistan, and just about every other Islamic country and most African countries.  Can we move them along in the right direction?  Maybe.  If I could wave a magic wand and make it happen overnight I would, but I unfortunately don’t have that power (but imagine what an amazing world we’d live in if I did!)

I’ll leave that conversation to the activists, politicians, and thinkers.  In the meantime, I can only suggest one option:  airlift all of the gays out of Russia.  Let’s distribute them throughout the gay-friendly countries of the world.  And let’s date them.  Because there are some hot Russian men.  Real hot.