Tag Archives: russia
January 16, 2012

Thoughts on Russia

Red Square, 2006

The first time I traveled to Russia was in 2006.  Oksana and I split our time between Moscow and St. Petersburg, because while she is originally from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy in the Far East, her family happened to be spending time in the big city.  Her brother, Andrey, played host and seemed to have an all-day itinerary planned for us every day we were there.  We were exhausted by the end of our “vacation,” but looking back through our photos, I’m amazed at all the things we got to see and do in just three weeks.

I always felt guilty for not writing much about our first trip through Russia.  Even way back then, I had a mental list of things to write about for one of these “Thoughts On” blog entries.  When we crossed the border into Russia again last September, my notes were already full of half-remembered items that I jotted down on the bus from Estonia.


Asking “What is Russia like?” is like asking “What is the United States of America like?”  How do you answer that?  When a country spans most of a continent, has citizens from every socioeconomic background, as well as a history dating back thousands of years, you can’t just sum it up in one or two sentences.

I’ve seen two of the biggest, most prestigious cities in Russia, a couple larger cities in the east, and passed through many a rural town on the rail line between St. Petersburg and Irkutsk.  About the only thing I know for sure is that Russia isn’t easily summed up.

I can tell you, however, that there’s a strange dichotomy when Russians think about their own country.  On the one hand, there’s the feeling that Russia is the greatest country on the planet.  Mention that you’ve been to the world’s largest lake and they’ll tell you that Russia has the world’s deepest.  Describe to them how something is done in the States and they’ll explain to you why the Russian method is better.


January 5, 2012

PVX: McDonald’s in Russia

Going to McDonald’s in Russia was almost and afterthought for us.  We spent our first week or so in St. Petersburg without stopping by one, and then, a day or two before we were set to hop on a train to Irkutsk, we realized that we might not get another chance.  I wasn’t sure there was a McDonald’s in Irkutsk, but I knew for sure there wasn’t going to be on on Kamchatka.  We’d already eaten at a Russian McDonald’s in 2006, so it wasn’t like missing it this time would bother me.  Still, we weren’t making videos back then…

So, while we were on our way to buy a new pair of hard drives, we decided to stop off for lunch.  I remembered to bring the video camera, but it turns out I forgot to bring a battery for the microphone.  The on camera mic did well enough, even if it did pick up a bit too much traffic noise.


March 2, 2007

Парк Победы (Park Pobedy)

Park Pobedy

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I could spend an entire vacation exploring Moscow’s Metro system.  Seriously.

While we were in Russia last summer, Oksana’s brother encouraged us to the use the metro as our primary means of travel around the city.  Whenever he was with us, which was more often than not, he’d steer us toward roundabout routes just so we could catch a glimpse of a new station.  Each station is designed with a different style.  Some are covered in ornate scrollwork, some in mosaic tiles, others have murals between every arch.  Some, like Victory Park Station, almost qualify as science fiction.

I think it was after the first long day of touring the city that I took this picture.  We were on our way back to the apartment, it was late, but Andrey decided that we need to take a look at Victory Park.  Парк Победы, as it’s known in Russian, commemorates Russian’s victory in World War II.  There’s an impressive museum on the grounds and all sorts of WWII relics both inside and out.  We returned to see all that later.  The first night was just to see the station.

Amazingly, the throng of humanity in most of the metro (even at that time of the night) was absent.  Between trains, Victory Park station almost emptied out entirely.  As we walked down the length of the corridor to get a better view of the murl, we passed only a couple communters and one lone janitor buffing the highly-polished floor tiles.  After taking pictures of the mural and getting an Oksana-sponsored translation of the plaque, I turned around to see the entire station, empty.  I took a couple pictures of the impressive marble and reflections — portrait, landscape, next to the wall, out in the open — before I had the idea to just set my camera on the floor.  The first snap, on auto, fired the flash and created an arching shadow where the lens blocked the light.  I could hear another train pulling into the station, so I rushed to manually turn off the flash and snapped one more photo.  Shortly after this picture was taken, the station was full of people again.

Canon Digital Rebel XT
Date: 7 August 2006
Focal Length: 18mm
Shutter: 1/8 second
Aperture: F/3.5
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Auto Levels only

September 18, 2006

Old Arbat

Arbat PortraitOn our last day in Moscow – but still three days from home, because, you know, Moscow is, like, on the other side of the planet – Oksana and I returned to Arbat to have our portraits painted.

Earlier on the trip we had walked the length of both streets known as Arbat – Old and New.  New Arbat was a four-lane highway bordered by loud neon, bright casinos, and TGI Friday’s.  Old Arbat was pleasantly pedestrian with souvenir stalls, outdoor restaurants, musicians with hat-pushing assistants, and dozens of portrait and caricature artists.  It was these artists’ work, photo-realistic and painted while you wait, that captured my attention and imagination.

While Oksana put her Russian to good use comparison shopping for prices, I wandered among the painters.  I stopped behind one woman who was painting a portrait of a young boy.  To my eye, the monochrome image was almost photorealistic.  Watching her perfectly recreate his eyes, I decided that if the price was right, she would be the one to paint us.

It seemed as though most of the artists on Arbat had agreed to set their prices uniformly: 700 rubles for one person, 1500 for two; doubled again for color.  You could either leave a favorite photograph and pick up your portrait later, or sit still for an hour while they painted from the source.  It seemed incredible to me that anyone could paint so well, so quickly, but on this street in Moscow, that particular talent was in abundance.

Oksana’s cousin, Vanya, was with us that day and because he was planning to wait around with us, I convinced her to ask our painter if it would be alright if we videotaped her process.  I could tell that our selected artist, Lena, thought it a rather strange request, but she was polite enough to rearrange her easel for the camera, anyway.  I set the camera on the ground, against a wall and out of the way of Arbat’s foot traffic, and started recording in LP mode.

We sat down and began our suspenseful hour-and-a-half wait.

(Don’t want to wade through more prose?  Here’s a link straight to the video.)


July 11, 2006

Plane Crash in Russia

Some of you may have been watching the news and heard about a fatal plane crash in Russia. Rest assured, Oksana and I are fine. We arrived in Moscow three days ago and have been seeing the sights. We’ll be leaving to St. Petersberg on Sunday night and we’ll return home on the 25th of July.

More then.

July 26, 2005


Skype LogoI’ve found a new online toy. It’s called Skype, and you should check it out.

Skype is a free program that resembles MSN (or AOL or Yahoo) Messenger, but instead of a chat utility, it’s a Voice-Over-IP utility. It’s a familiar interface and very easy to use: Just build up a list of contacts, see when they’re online, then click their icon to start talking with them.

That, in itself, isn’t all that amazing – heck, Messenger has voice chat built in, right? Trust me, Skype excels in the details.

The best feature is called “SkypeOut,” which allows you to use Skype to dial out to any phone. To use it, though, you’ll need a credit card. The minimum purchase is 10 euros (~$12 US), but that goes a long way. Oksana’s been testing SkypeOut with calls to Russia and it’s coming in under 4 cents / minute (compared to about 21 cents / minute for a telephone calling card or a whopping $1.54 / minute for direct dialing!) What’s more, both she and her brother agreed that it was by far the best sounding, static-free, no-delay, international phone call they had ever heard. In fact, it was better that any local call they’d ever heard.

(Which isn’t too surprising, really. Telephones are notorious for their substandard audio quality, and even the lowest-quality computer microphone is likely to have a broader frequency range. Not to mention that VOIP compression technology has come a long way in recent years.)

Granted, there were a few problems with Oksana’s Skype-to-Russia test. The call was dropped twice, and she had to redial many times to get through again. I doubt that the trouble was on Skype’s end, though. These things happen consistently, even when she calls direct.

Another great aspect about Skype is that it’ll run on a Pocket PC. Imagine discovering a free wi-fi hotspot anywhere in the world – with Skype installed, you’ve got a free phone that will allow you to instantly talk to anyone on your contact list. With a few dollars in SkypeOut account, you could call them on the phone, too. No more worrying about whether or not your cell phone works in some foreign country; just find an internet connection!

Anyway, Skype has impressed me enough to install it on my laptop. Unfortunately, there’s no one on my contact list yet. If you think it might be something you want to play around with, grab it from Skype.com and add me as a contact! I’m “a_midgett”.

July 18, 2005


What if Moscow was the capital of Hawaii?Oksana and I have been strategizing a semi-elaborate trip to Russia since last year. Until a couple weeks ago, the plan was to:

1) Coordinate three weeks off from our respective jobs in August,
2) Fly to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski,
3) Spend time with Oksana’s family while finalizing the sale of her parent’s apartment,
4) Fly to Moscow/St. Petersburg to play tourist,
5) Return to the States.

Due to unforeseen complications with visas, money, and our jobs, we were forced to come up with a new, slightly different plan:

1) Go to Hawaii.

You may be craving an explanation; this is a desire which I can fulfill.