I’m at the airport, reflecting on my time in St Petersburg before the quick flight back to London. It’s been an inspiring and energising trip. You can’t escape the vibe of St Pete’s – cosmopolitan, very European and inescapably Russian.
We flew down for a long weekend to meet with our long standing partners in Russia – an engaging mother and son team, Bella and Roman. With a wine or two over dinner at the atmospheric downtown Chaliapin eatery, the conversation inevitably floated back towards the collapse of the mighty Soviet Union, a point in time that’s no doubt, irrevocably etched into the psyche of all Russians today. Well, those old enough at least – it has been almost 20 years.
Roman was a boy at the time and his enduring memory is of all the TV channels playing Swan Lake on the fateful day. Bella, on the other hand, held a quiet and considered reflection on life in Russia today and how it has changed. Which prompted me to probe further on what was it like being in the USSR – was James Bond all too amusing, what of counter revolutionary movements, the massive underground Beatles following?
Bah! Forget pop culture. Bella talked of her time pre-Perestroika with pride. Being a clever lass, she rose amongst the ranks and had a significant role with Education in the region. Life was good but the empire, she suspected, very corrupt too. Things reached crescendo and the USSR collapsed. Chaos all around – but there was optimism for the future.
“So Bella, tell me – is life better today?” I ask. Her initial answer is matter of fact – “Now it’s possible to run my own business, be rewarded for what I put in and what I do. I also feel that the country has strengthened her international position significantly. No one really liked the old ‘one party’ system.”
I sense a certain nostalgia for times gone by and the comfort of provision by the state. “We have to survive on our own now. I work very hard and I’ve been lucky. It’s not that easy for a lot of Russians today – particularly in the provinces where there is a lot of poverty. Adjusting to a free market really has not been easy at all. In the balance, it’s been good for us though and I really do love the choice we have on goods these days – I have a fine collection of shoes!”
We all ended the evening back at Bella’s flat over a few tequilas, taking in the wonderful views of St Pete’s. Quite the capitalist dream.
For anyone generally curious about the world, please visit Russia – it will challenge you.
My flight is being called. On goes the iPod and the not-so dulcet tones of Roger Daltrey … “I’m free – and freedom tastes of…”