Between Moscow and St. Petersburg, a Disappearing Russia

At the edges of Russia’s two great cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, another Russia is present. This is the land of the broken road and poor residents. The New York Times, in a piece titled “The Russia Left Behind,” delves deeper, offering a look into this depressing state:

This will not be apparent at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, nor is it visible from the German-engineered high-speed train. It is along the highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg — a narrow 430-mile stretch of road that is a 12-hour trip by car — that one sees the great stretches of Russia so neglected by the state that they seem drawn backward in time.

As the state’s hand recedes from the hinterlands, people are struggling with choices that belong to past centuries: to heat their homes with a wood stove, which must be fed by hand every three hours, or burn diesel fuel, which costs half a month’s salary? When the road has so deteriorated that ambulances cannot reach their home, is it safe to stay? When their home can’t be sold, can they leave?

A sad reality:

There are spots on this highway where it seems time has stopped. A former prison guard is spending his savings building wooden roadside chapels, explaining that “many souls” weigh on his conscience. A rescue worker from the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl is waiting, 27 years later, for the apartment the Soviets promised him as a reward. Women sit on the shoulder, selling tea to travelers from a row of samovars. Above them, pillars of steam vanish into the sky, just as they did in 1746, the year construction on the road began.

On the state of the M10 Highway, connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg:

The M10 highway looks normal enough at the southern limits of St. Petersburg, but then, with a jolt, it begins to atrophy. For the next 430 miles the surface of the highway, while paved, varies from corduroy to jaw-rattling patchwork. Sometimes it has four lanes, sometimes two, with few medians and frequently no lane markings at all.

Traffic creeps forward behind a procession of 18-wheelers hauling goods from the port of St. Petersburg, passing villages with names like Cockroachville, Teacupville and Chessville. It is the most heavily traveled cargo route in Russia, and yet for truck drivers complying with safety regulations, it takes 24 hours to travel between the two cities, said Viktor Dosenko, vice president of the International Transport Academy. On a good road, he said, the trip should take 10 hours.

From time to time, the dismal condition of the highway has made national news. After a snowstorm in November, about 10,000 vehicles got stuck in a traffic jam that extended more than 70 miles, trapping some drivers for three days in subzero temperatures. Valery Voitko, who heads a trade union of long-haul truck drivers, described his drivers that week as “not even angry any more, but in a state of dumb despair, that year in and year out the same thing happens.”

On Russia’s disappearing villages:

Between the great cities are hundreds of disappearing settlements: towns becoming villages, villages becoming forest. The Soviets cut off support for them during efficiency drives in the 1960s and ’70s, which categorized villages as “promising” or “unpromising.”

But the death of a village is a slow process. A geographer, Tatiana Nefyodova, calls them “black holes,” and estimates that they make up 70 to 80 percent of Russia’s northwest, where Moscow and St. Petersburg act as giant vacuum cleaners, sucking people and capital from the rest of the country.

A really well-done piece that illustrates the plight of the Russian poor.

The Cats of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum

Sally McGrane writes a wonderfully quirky piece on the cats of the Hermitage Museum, certainly the most famous museum in St. Petersburg and perhaps all of Russia (I visited it in 2007).

First, the obligatory history:

There have been cats in the palace since Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, issued a decree, in 1745, that the biggest cats, capable of catching mice, be sent immediately from Kazan to the court of her imperial majesty. Catherine the Great is thought to have favored Russian Blues as indoor palace cats; under the last Czar, the royal family’s pet cats, who were left behind in the palace, fared better than the dogs, who were taken along to Yekaterinburg with the family to their deaths. During the three-year siege of Leningrad, all of the animals in the city died—except for the rats, said to have been so numerous as to form a gray, moving mass in the streets. When the blockade was lifted, Haltunen said, as we continued our walk beneath the museum, Russians sent their cats to the city to help fight the vermin.

On the variation of the cat names:

Stepping into the little cat hospital, a cozy, cluttered space that the oldest and sickest cats call home, Haltunen greeted Irina Popovetz, one of the volunteers who looks after the cats. Then she greeted Kusya (“Oh, this one has no tail!”), Jacqueline (“Look how fat we are!”), Sofiko (“You are very old!), and Assol, a tabby named for an impoverished literary heroine who waited at the seaside for a man sailing a ship with scarlet sails to come for her.

The cats aren’t allowed in the galleries, but that hasn’t stopped them from proliferating around the Museum:

The cats themselves, who are no longer afraid of people, have a positive effect on staff morale, she said. “People here become kinder, because they have the possibility to show this kindness,” said Haltunen, as we made our way back outside, where an orange cat was asleep in the sun beneath a classical statue. “It is very good when you have the possibility to show your best qualities.”

Earlier this year, Hermitage Museum even dedicated an entire day to the cats dubbed “Day of the Hermitage Cat.” Since April 21 fell on a Saturday, this must have been the ultimate Caturday of the year.

Do you know of any other examples where a public place is inhabited by animals, but the people not only accept it, but love it?