Thursday, October 23, 2014

In Search of the Mythical Soviet Unicorn- fun in St. Petersburg

Flags fly high above goverment building
Highlights from my last visit to Russia included getting ripped off purchasing a train ticket and my brother's fiancee being nearly kidnapped. I imagine such a tourist experience, not untypical.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I think Ruskies are inherently bad people, it's that their political systems and leaders have stifled basic freedoms, motivation, opportunity, and joy to the point that not only Russia, but all former Soviet Bloc countries suffer from what I call "The Hangover of Communism."
So when my dear friend St. Peter, whom St. Petersburg was named after (I looked up his claim, it's true) invited me to visit, he had his hands full in the persuasion department.
Shocked that I wouldn't succumb to a bribe (unheard of in his country,) Peter changed tactics as fluidly as Kasparov on a chess board. Playing upon my sensibilities as a dreamer, he promised me the chance of being the first Westerner to capture video evidence of the mythical Soviet Unicorn; otherwise known as a Smiling Russian.

St. Petersburg Airport
Frantically searching for my bag I finally locate it on the wrong carousel. I exit the terminal to find my gracious host wringing his hands, not because this prominent businessman wasted an hour of his valuable time, but rather because he feared my latest visit to his country would be greatly colored by this first event.

On the road we see a statue of Vladamir Lenin; I helpfully suggest we return after sundown to chop off the head. Peter pulls the car over.
Carefully and measuredly he explains, "Now Richie, you've teased me mercilessly the last few years for my choice of birth country, and a lot of what you say might be true, but it's polarizing and unhelpful. Russia has far far more than what you're focusing on. Please, please Richie, try to have an open mind."
He then shoves me out of the car at gunpoint and forces me to eat the proverbial Russian "apple of knowledge." Event shown in below video.
Eating the Russian Apple of Knowledge- penance for my anti-Ruskie views

The Truth
family portrait: St. Peter, Mischievous Aliska, Super Saint Olya, yours truly

I'm reunited with Peter's family, his wife Olya, and his confident and fun loving four year old daughter Aliska. They are warm, caring, kind, and fortunately for me, as promised, St. Peter is determined to show me the best of what Russia has to offer.
While there is traffic here as in any metropolis, we enjoy the ride teasing each other and playing games as a family on the way (yes, I felt like a member)
We enjoy our time at the local amusement park, go-cart racing, indoor sky-diving, and visiting Petrhof Palace. In the evening it's dinners, chats, and runs around the neighborhood. I can't deny it  ... "I had a great time."  (there, I said it Pete, willingly. I had a great time in St. Petersburg. Happy?)
check out the catapult ride Peter, myself, and friends went on and our reactions

Dancing in the amusement park to MC Hammer with the kids

at the Go-Cart track

along the canal
To boot, Peter's friends were generally warm and happy. They're also rather well to do, and I believe there is a strong correlation between these two facts as most Russians slave away for little reward financially or otherwise. In Putin's Russia, wealth is concentrated at the top, generally amongst those with political connections.
That said, to merely call the journey a "success" is an understatement, as, though exceedingly rare, I can confirm the existence of the Russian Unicorn, and I thank my host profusely for evidence this long hoped for scenario could in fact exist in reality. And though I can never again describe Russia as "hell," my dear St. Peter, it will be a long time before I describe the city gates you've so graciously held open for me as "pearly."
But being with your family was a little slice of heaven.   
St. Peter, Olya, and Rich ready to hit the air tunnel 


  1. Wait just a minute here!!! I'm sure we have established rules about you dancing in public!

  2. Having lived in Russia four years (1/2 in St Petersburg, 1 1/2 in Petrozavodsk, and 2 in Pyatigorsk), I can state unequivocally that Russians are the warmest people on earth. With Russians friends, one is never far from smiles, laughter, jokes, generosity, political astuteness (generally), informed conversations, dancing, singing, playing of musical instruments, banya hours, picnics, and long-term friendships. Russians on the street and certainly in bureaucratic capacities are wearing what they are taught to wear: neutral faces. That is, they are cautious to the point of seeming callousness. I found it so so easy to break through that with a sympathetic comment or the briefest of friendly gestures. Again: you want to have a great time and feel like you're somebody special? Get a few Russian friends.


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