Wild dogs and Cappuccino Culture

After 75 days, 6000-plus miles, and 11 cities, we're finally back in St. Petersburg! We launched the trip from here on Sept. 1st -- a day that now feels like a distant dream.

This week, we'll describe how the city has changed since 1995, and we'll track down our final Road Story subjects from 1995: Larisa Fedotova, the young businesswoman from Khabarovsk, and the surviving members of the five-generation family of Maria Gurevich.

But first, here's a random assortment of observations on what's changed in Russia over the past ten years:



Photo Gallery: Young boys gather at an Internet cafe in Birobidzhan to play video games. (David Hillegas)

Cheap, easy Internet access. In 1995, Gary and I uploaded our photos and text by connecting, through prior agreement, to Sprint telecom nodes across Russia. Our average total upload was only about 400 kilobytes -- miniscule by today's standards -- but it sometimes took up to eight hours over the rickety Russian phone lines. There was no Internet dial-up service in most cities, and the vast majority of people we met had never heard the term "web site."

Now, reliable Internet access is available across Russia -- through ubiquitous Internet cafes, pre-paid Internet usage cards, and national services like Russia Online (which had local dial-up numbers in all but two of our cities). DSL and cable internet are still hard to come by outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, though we did have a surprisingly fast connection at the Birobidzhan Internet café.

ATMs. A rarity in 1995, these are now all over the place. If you're in a town with more than 100,000 people, you can pretty much count on finding one there. Any standard ATM card from a major bank should work, and there are no big hidden fees.



Photo Gallery: "Marshrutki," or private vans, now provide a convenient alternative to public buses, trams and trolleys in most cities. (David Hillegas)

Cheap telephone calls abroad. Anyone who remembers the Soviet system of placing international calls (standing in endless lines at the Telephone-Telegraph office) will appreciate this development: Kiosks and telecom stores now sell cheap international phone cards. We bought one card in Moscow with a rate of 98 kopeks a minute to the U.S. That's 3.5 cents, making it cheaper for me to call my mom in Florida from Moscow than from my home in Washington.

Packs of wild dogs. Don't worry; they're gentle. But has anyone else noticed the huge numbers of stray dogs wandering around Russian cities? They jaunt along in little packs, hanging out in courtyards and occasionally popping into stores.

Marshrutki, marshrutki, marshrutki. In 1995, the only public transportation options in most cities were the creaky municipal buses, trams and trolleybuses. You could stand on a corner for 20 minutes waiting for your bus, and three would wheeze in at once. Now, the "marshrutka" has taken over. Privately-run van services, the marshrutki run routes all over the city. They charge a couple more rubles per ticket, but they're fast, numerous and convenient.

Espresso yourself. The land of the samovar has begun to embrace cappuccino culture. In all the bigger cities, coffee bars now serve up frothy concoctions, though in the smaller cities, watery instant brew still rules the day.

Tomorrow: St. Petersburg!

By Lisa Dickey |  November 14, 2005; 10:16 AM ET
Previous: Murmansk: Hunting for WWII Artifacts With An Expert | Next: St. Petersburg: The Grand Dame Has a Facelift

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Here's a few more things that I've seen change since 1995, as observed in Krasnodar and Moscow:

* Restaurants: There are more, better and more diverse restaurants, but my point is that they are beginning to offer competition to the fabled Russian kitchen as a place where friends meet and talk about life, love and everything else. They're also becoming a favored venue for birthday and New Year's get-togethers and other special occasionas that used to be exclusively celebrated at home.

* Beer: Vodka is still the tipple of choice among real men, but in the early morning or at work a beer is seen as more appropriate. That's only half-joking. More seriously, beer is brewed locally by local brands, and is coming to be seen as a national drink to be proud of.

* Smiles: Russians used to say "a smile is the sign of idiocy". And they took it seriously. Very seriously. Even Aeroflot's motto for a time was "we're not smiling because we're working so hard". That pessimism is now past, and Russians more openly display warmth and humor.

* Hope for the future: Perhaps that's a warm-and-fuzzy thing that can't be quantified, but there are now mortgages, long-term job benefits, bank accounts with non-speculative interest rates, and other objective indicators that Russians are thinking of the long term.

* Travel: An awful lot of Russians have seen at least some of the outside world: maybe only Egypt's or Turkey's cheap resorts, but it's a lot more than before. More than a few have been to the West, and America in particular.

* Contact with foreigners: Even small cities have resident expatriates, sometimes working for local industries, sometimes married to locals, and sometimes as missionaries. Foreigners still get stared at, but not as much as before.

* Racism: Not all changes are good. Maybe the dislike of dark-skinned individuals has always been there, but restrained in its expression by the joy of the Soviet brotherhood of nations. There doesn't seem to be much restraint anymore, and racist party platforms, skinhead attacks and military harassment is on the increase.

* Home ownership: Almost everybody has privatized their apartment or home, and fixed it up at least a little.

* City lights: Remember how dark Russian cities used to be?


Any other changes I've missed?

Posted by: Mark | November 14, 2005 12:44 PM

Was in Russia this past august and we saw packs of dogs everywhere.
At a museum in St. Petersburg, I can't remember which, there was a display about the history of wolf attacks in st. petersburg. Apparently when St. Petersburg was first being built it was still largely surrounded by forest, and packs of wolves would occasionally enter the city at night and attack people.
The packs of dogs roaming the city now are certainly much more docile though.

Posted by: Dan | November 14, 2005 01:39 PM

Russian cities may not be as dark as they used to be, but they are still dark in comparison to American cities.

Posted by: jack perry | November 14, 2005 02:31 PM

A couple of changes I've noticed over the last 10 years in addition to those mentioned (in Moscow; I'm not as sure about the rest of Russia):

--A major increase in the number of imported cars, particularly in the last 2-3 years.

--The growing number of large retail supermarkets, hypermarkets, and similar outlets (like IKEA).

Posted by: John Semlak | November 14, 2005 02:40 PM

the car shown on the picture is not actually a "marshrutka" but rather a regular Lada-wagon intended for personal use, produced in Toliatti. Marshrutkis are larger and are produced on GAZ car production plant.

Posted by: Denis | November 15, 2005 03:13 AM

I go back to St Petersburg once a year so each year changes are sort of more subtle than a ten year absence, but one thing I noticed this year from the air and the ground-- a lot more suburban, one family houses in little subdivision type of clusters. These have been around for a while for the really rich, but in much smaller numbers-- now they're spreading a lot faster as more people can afford them.

Posted by: aprilushka | November 15, 2005 10:39 AM

I recently lived in St. Petersburg and noticed all the stray dogs rooming around. Some of those packs had the most beautiful dogs, I've ever seen. And the marshutki...brillant, dangerous, but love them.

Posted by: Erin | November 15, 2005 03:47 PM

From what I understand, it is considered inhumane in Russia to euthanize stray dogs. Instead, authorities catch, sterilize, vaccinate and release strays. For a city like Moscow, the program costs millions of dollars per year.

I think the roving packs you are seeing can probably be attributed to this policy.

Posted by: Nastia | November 16, 2005 06:28 PM

Denis - Sorry, didn't mean for the caption to appear to imply the red car was a marshrutka! It isn't, of course -- you couldn't fit too many paying passengers in there. Unless it was a '60s college prank and they were wearing clown suits.

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | November 17, 2005 11:10 AM

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