Moscow is an impressive modern city that appears quite prosperous. The cars on the street are modern and the people are well dressed, well groomed even if they seem to conform to the myth that Russians never smile. (The full story is that Russians don’t smile much at strangers.). Moscow and St Petersburg have grown quickly since the end of Soviet times mainly because wages in these two cities are much higher than the rest of Russia, particularly Siberia.
People quite openly talk about the difficult period that followed the break up of the USSR. As one of our guides explained, during the corrupt period of the 1990s the people in power “sold the country to themselves.” Another guide told us that during one difficult week her family “did not have a grain to eat” in the house despite holding down full time jobs. Vladimir Putin seems to get re-elected because he has brought stability; the Russians we met did not want to return to the chaos of the 1990s.
As in the rest of Russia we saw no evidence of renewable energy or recycling.
Public transport in central Moscow is reliant on the extremely extensive metro that goes under the Moscow river in places. The Metro is famous for “Stalin’s palaces”, the oldest stations that feature beautiful architecture plus two and three dimensional art works. The bronze statues that tell the story of the nobility of labour particularly stand out. Locals pat the parts they like the most. That’s why the police dog’s nose and the soldier’s grenade are so shiny.
But the metro is not just pretty it is efficient: Moscow could not operate without it. There are many lines but by learning the connections one can get to any part of central Moscow very quickly. The frequency of the service is impressive but the downside of so many trains arriving and departing is that the metro is a deafening place. Commuters from the outer suburbs coming in to central Moscow generally use the heavy rail and then change to the metro.
St Petersburg, our next stop, is much more of a tourist city than Moscow. Like Rome or Florence the tourists outnumber the locals in summer when the population swells. One of the things that first strikes the visitor is the lack of high rise; three and four storey buildings predominate. Apparently there is a local rule that prevents any building exceeding the height of a prominent cathedral.
St Petersburg has a mix of public transport options: metro, trams, trolley buses and diesel buses. As car ownership increases the operation of trams in some of the narrow streets has become a problem. Some tramlines have been torn up.
As St Petersburg was our last Russian city we had time to reflect on what we had learned. Russia seems to be able to survive because of abundant sources of energy. In the country, the farmers and villagers can heat their houses with the abundant beech timber that burns slowly. The cities take advantage of Russia’s vast oil and gas resources and cheap hydro-electricity extracted from its many rivers. The houses are generally double glazed often with two sets of windows, one inside the other. Public buildings have air locks to keep the heat in. Even the trains have airlocks between the carriages.
Despite the lack of recycling, Russia cities are clean. Rubbish is collected regularly and the streets are swept manually. Compared to Italy there are fewer dogs to foul the footpath.
The only dark cloud on the horizon is that the rapidly increasing car ownership could pollute the cities and place budgetary pressure on authorities as they divert funds into highway construction.
From St Petersburg we took another train to Helsinki, crossing the border on the way. As we neared Finland, Russian immigration walked up the train stamping passports as they went. When we crossed the border, Finnish officials passed through stamping our passports again.