[I just added links to this post, but then had the effing internet run out on me mid-post. so the whole effing things was lost. so now I’m reposting sans links. I’m annoyed.]
I’m sitting in a student cafeteria in Kazan, the capital of the Russian Tartarstan Republic and the so-called Istanbul of Russia. I arrived here yesterday morning by overnight train from Moscow. I spent yesterday wandering about in a daze, not quite recovered from the whirlwind that was Moscow.
In the end, I liked Moscow more than I thought I would, but still not enough to love it. It is much more of a city that St. Pete, which in hindsight (and in comparison) felt more like a very large town than a city. You could feel the NYC-like buzz on the streets of Moscow. Important things were happening right now, whereas St. Pete was more about important things that had happened in the past.
It’s hard to write about it now that I’ve left, but somehow I couldn’t find a spot to write while I was there. The hostel where I stayed, Home From Home, was decent – better than Cuba – but still cramped, noisy and a bit dirty. Anyway, let me try to write about Moscow.
I arrived the day before May 9, the day Russians celebrate their victory in WWII. Any Muscovites with any sense and a dacha left the city, leaving it…well, as quiet as Manhattan on July 4th weekend. Though I missed the parade itself – tanks rolling through Red Square – the city was littered with WWII vets in full regalia, chests dripping with badges and medals, receiving gifts of flowers and posing for photographs with passersby.
That night (Saturday May 9) I went to a dive bar/club with Nikki and Russell, two Brits I met at the hostel. We didn’t know what to expect – the listing fro Djao Da, the bar, only said “live Russian music.” It was…fantastic. Mind-blowing. The most pure fun I’ve had in quite a while. The show consisted of three-piece band – drums, guitar and bass – who quickly faded into the background as a parade of wild, outrageously dressed singers took the stage. They sang 50’s and 60’s style songs in at least four different languages (I recognized Russian, English, French and Spanish). The singers – all women except for one Canavan-like man – rotated on and off the stage, changing outfits between each song – poodle skirts, gold catsuits with silver “rockets” on their back, Mod micro-minis, Liberace lace and rings, and more. Holding it all together was a tiny, frenetic Janis Joplin-like figure, in Lennon shades and a fake sheepskin coat, who sprang around the stage and small dance floor shouting and cheering and getting the crowd to dance.
We had a wonderful time drinking vodka and beer, dancing, and marveling at the spectacle. We took a taxi home around 2:30, sweaty, happy and reeking of cigarette smoke.
The following day was my Kremlin/Red Square day. The weather was perfect – sunny but not hot, the trees vibrant green, the flowers in full bloom. The Kremlin was indeed impressive – the churches, the old Soviet buildings, the impossibly young guards ensuring no one got too close to the Senate buildings (and in one case, kicking a troop of Japanese tourists out of a garden of tulips, where they had been tramping about posing for photos). I’ll upload pics as soon as I get the chance.
Esther arrived that night. We met for about a minute at her hotel – she hadn’t gotten much sleep on the plane – and made plans to meet up again in the morning. Thus began my race-around-Moscow-with-Esther-and-meeting-amazing-people portion of my time in Moscow. Monday morning I watched her get interviewed by Evgeny Savin, who is filming a documentary series on Russian entrepreneurship and venture capital. We had lunch with Bas Godska, a Ukranian-Dutch man who is the deputy-CEO (possibly the silliest title ever) of Ozon.ru, Russia’s Amazon.com. Bas is a great guy – easygoing, full of energy, very clever. After lunch he kindly agreed to meet with me again the following day, to further discuss Ozon, Russia, and other things.
After lunch Esther and I took the subway/bus to Star City, the cosmonaut training facility outside Moscow where Esther had spent about 6 months training to be a space tourist as Charles Simonyi’s backup. Esther thought of it more as being “embedded” – in the practice of science, and in a vestige of the old Soviet system. She approached it, she says, as a learning experience and a challenge. Esther is maniacally protective of her time. Over the years she has learned how to squeeze productivity out of every spare minute of the day. Pretty much anyone who has met her more than once has experienced “Esther is done with you now” – the moment at which her eyes lose focus and wander over your shoulder, or at which she impatienly starts to cut you off to end the conversation. (I say this with love, of course.) To her credit, Esther realizes her impatience and obsession with pure time efficiency. It was this force that would go up against a Soviet-style system, one in which, she says, “They didn’t take anyone’s time seriously. Not even their own.” I’ll write more about her experience separately.
As for us, we couldn’t go into the training area, because Esther no longer has a pass. So we toured the living area, including Esther’s old room. We climbed the bell tower of the new Orthodox church, being built by Muslim craftsmen from Uzbekistan, and rang the St. Peterburg-made bells. Happily, we ran into Al Drew, NASA’s director of operations in Star City, who invited is to dinner in the NASA cottages. So we had a lovely spaghetti dinner with some gregarious NASA guys, one of whom is going up to the Space Station at the end of May. I must admit, I was pretty psyched to meet real live astronauts. I told them all I expected to retire on the moon, so to get crackin’ making that happen.
The next day Esther gave a speech to a committee meeting at the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow. The co-director, Ron Lewin, is a guy I had met 15 years ago, when I was still Esther’s assistant, during her East-West High-Tech Forum in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was funny seeing him again – now all grown up (so to speak), married with children, etc.
After that meeting we met Andrey Kortunov, the head of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow and without a doubt the most impressive person I met during my days with Esther. He spoke eloquently and insightfully about the state of Russian/American relations and Russian politics, education and health care. I just listened and absorbed. I still need to do some research about New Eurasia, but it sounds like they are trying to find some private means to work with and/or get around goverment ministries in order to improve life in Russia.
Incidentally, we had had some trouble finding the office, on the 5th floor of an unmarked modern walk-up building. The rent on the 5th floor was cheap, Andrey explained. What he didn’t explain, but what I was to come to understand, is that the lack of signage was one of many ways that organizations and business try to…well, sort of “hide” from the Russian government – tax police, zoning officials, registration officials of various agencies, all of whom may make the life of an organization miserable, if the appropriate palms aren’t greased or asses kissed. Again, Andrey didn’t say any of this directly. This is just what I picked up as I have listened to businesspeople, educators, travelers, and others.
For lunch we met Sergey Kravchenko, the President of Boeing Russia-CIS. A large man who has known Esther for years, he greeted her warmly and talked about old friends, politics and the price of oil. He also told a great story about meeting Sakashvili, the president of Georgia. Sakashvili had insisted that they have a private meeting. At the end of the meeting, he said, “I want to give you a gift.” Sergey says, “It was the strangest gift I have ever received.” Sakashvili handed Sergey a framed, signed, photograph of himself. Like a soap star meeting a fan.
Though he was clearly an important man who understood his importance, Sergey made sure I was part of the conversation, teasing me about the “danger” of traveling alone to the Russian East. I shrugged, not knowing, but suspecting, that he was teasing. As he left, he shook my hand grinned, saying, “I was just kidding. The Russian people are very friendly and wonderful.”
The next day (Wed) Esther had a board meeting. I checked out of my hostel and met Stephen O’Connor for lunch. Stephen’s an old friend – I met him in Bratislava as well, and then knew him in Budapest, where he was an owner of the Budapest Business Journal (where Andrea DiCastro worked!). Now he’s married with children as well. His family lives in the US and he is back in Moscow, working in commercial real estate development.
After lunch I went to SW Moscow to meet Nina Kuznetsova, the head of Junior Achievement Russia. I had contacted her through a guy from HP who I had met at the AmCham meeting. Jr. Achievement, an international organization, is teaching entrepreneurship to children and young adults – from 6-20 years old. It was interesting to hear about how the program had to be adapted to Russia, where the idea of a free market was only a theory in the early ’90’s. She promised to put me in touch with regional directors as well, so I can see the program in action. As a matter of fact, I’m going to meet the head of the Kazan office in about an hour.
So that’s it – a quick review of what I’ve been doing.
I’m finding it harder here than in SE Asia to find places to write and post on a regular basis. I’ll try to be better about it! The plan at the moment is to stay in Kazan through the weekend and then go to Tomsk, on Monday or so. I have a feeling I’m going to love Tomsk, so I’ll probably stay about 5 days. Then I’m going either straight to Irkutsk, on Lake Baikal, or first down to Kyzyl, in the Tuva Republic, before going to Irkutsk. I’ll spend about 2 weeks in the Bailkal area. I’d like to try to get to Yakutsk, northeast of Baikal, for a summer solstice festival there on June 20th or so. Then the plan is to go to Khabarovsk, (possibly Sakhlin Island) and Vladivostok before heading into China.