Saturday, 31 July 2010

Is the US likely to bomb Iran?

Time has an interesting article on how war drums are beating louder and louder for an attack on Iran. And this Washington Post article by neo-con Charles Krauthammer is a sample of the support building up for such an attack. With the war in Afghanistan going very badly (the July death toll being the worst ever for the US) and the one in Iraq still a long way from being declared a victory, it might seem ludicrous to consider opening a third front by bombing Iran. However, it is very likely that within a year from now, the US will bomb Iran using its overwhelmingly superior air force and even more likely that that the US will get away with it, provided it does not get sucked into a war on land. Here are the reasons why this should be so.

1. Iran is a pariah in the middle-east. It is not an Arab nation and more importantly, it is predominantly Shi’ite. None of the important Arab states support Iran. The only country in the middle-east which has good relations with Iran is Syria. However, Syria is a very funny kettle of fish and its support for Iran will make little or no difference if the US starts to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. I call Syria a funny kettle of fish because it is ruled by the Syrian Baath Party which is controlled by the Shi-ite Alawite faction. During the Iran –Iraq war in the 1980s, Syria supported Iran though Iraq was also ruled by the Baath party at that time. The main reason for the Iran-Syria friendship is their common support for the Hezbollah. However, Syria has a Sunni majority and Muslim Brotherhood continues to have a very strong base in Syria. It goes without saying that even though the Syrian government officially supports Iran, many Syrians, especially the Sunis don’t.

2. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Sunni monarchies in the region actively hate and fear Iran. Iran is not only Shia, but is also democratic, the only real democracy in that region other than Lebanon. For these regimes, a nuclear Iran is an even greater threat though Iran claims to develop the Bomb to strengthen the entire Islamic world.

3. Israel is petrified of a nuclear Iran and is very likely to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities if the US doesn’t. If Israel were to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites, it will ignite a storm of protest throughout the middle-east. Even though the ruling houses of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and other Arab states (with the exception of Syria) may privately support the Israeli attack, public fury on Arab Street will know no bounds. US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq will be under increased pressure. It will be far better for the US to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites than to wait till Israel does it. The alternative, to clamp down on Israel altogether and prevent it from bombing Iran, is beyond the US’s imagination and ability.

4. Obama’s administration is losing popularity by the day. Israel still enjoys overwhelming support from the American public and a successful bombing campaign against Israel’s arch foe Iran is a sure-fire way of going up the popularity charts.

5. Russia and Iran are no longer friends. There was a time when they were, but now Russia has realised that it is more profitable to be chummy with Saudi Arabia and Israel and it supports UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme. BBC has an interesting article on this change. If the US were to bomb Iran, Russia may remain silent.

6. No one really has a clue as to what Iran’s real intentions are. Western intelligence agencies which failed to provide accurate intelligence in the case of Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction, have even less resources on the ground in Iran. It is possible that Iran is only sabre rattling and does not want to develop nuclear weapons. However, no one really knows. If Iran is in serious pursuit of a nuclear capability and if its nuclear facilities are not destroyed soon, it is only a matter of time before it actually succeeds in developing the weapons. This might be a matter of months or years or even a decade. However Iran will get there if it wants to. Iran has a proven track record of helping not only Shia militant groups such as the Hezbollah, but even Sunni militant groups like the Hamas and of late, even the Taliban who profess to hate the heretical Shia. If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it is very likely to brandish them, if not actually use them.

7. Even if Iran’s nuclear facilities are bombed, Iran is likely to persist in its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Therefore, the earlier Iranian nuclear facilities are bombed, the greater the delay caused to the Iranian nuclear weapons programme, if there is one.

What will happen if the US air force were to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities?

Arab Street will erupt in fury, but with less than one-tenth of the force if Israeli jets were to do the job. Pedestrians in Riyadh, Muscat and Cairo will protest, animosity towards the heretic Shia temporarily forgotten, but how long will the anger last? Will it be sufficient to result in a mass movement that could overthrow their monarchs or dictators and install democracies? I doubt it. Saudi Arabia and other monarchies in the Gulf keep their nationals in reasonable comfort and bombing of Shia Iran’s nuclear facilities is unlikely to trigger a mass uprising. Of course, if there is a long term downturn in the price of oil and the Gulf monarchs are forced to curtail subsidies and other perks in a big way, something nasty might brew.

How would the Iranians react to such bombing? Ahmadinejad’s regime would utilise the attack to clamp down on the opposition and increase its control over the nation. Democratically elected Ahmadinejad would gain even more legitimacy. In retaliation for the bombing, support for the Hezbollah would be ramped up. However, the Iranians are already supporting the Hezbollah in a major way and there is not much more they can do, keeping in mind the logistical difficulties involved in and barriers to say, sending across a truckful of missiles. Support for the Sunni Taliban and Hamas might also increase, but then, there will be elements among the Sunni fundamentalists who would rejoice at Iran’s pain there is always a limit to the extent the Taliban and Hamas would seek and accept Iranian help.

The biggest impact of such US bombing of Iran would be in Iraq. That’s right. In case you have forgotten, Iraq has a Shia majority and in the recent Iraqi election, incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition of Shia parties came second with two seats less than the Iraqiya coalition, which though secular, is largely supported by Sunnis. The State of Law coalition of Shia parties has been trying for some time to form a coalition government in alliance with the Iraqi National Alliance which includes radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr and they have Iran's backing. How would Iraqi Shia’s react to an attack on Iran by the US? On the whole, Iraqi Shias were happy that Saddam was overthrown, though they don’t particularly like the USA. After a great deal of bloodletting between Shia militias such as those led by Moqtada Sadr and Sunnis who worked with the Al Qaeda, Iraq is experiencing relative calm. Awakening Councils formed of ex-Baathists and other Sunnis have driven the Al Qaeda away from Iraq. However, these Awakening Councils are not too happy with Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s government. Iraqi Sunnis know that after the American exit, they will have to march to the majority Shia tune and they are already uneasy about it. Will the Shia dominated Iraqi government retain the Awakening Councils as a militia distinct from the Iraqi army? Al-Maliki has already indicated that he does not like that idea. Integration of the Awakening Councils into the Shia dominated Iraqi army is not an easy task. For this reason, a weakened Iran will make Iraqi Sunnis happy and the Shias unhappy. Is there likely to be a spurt in attacks on coalition forces in Iraq if the US were to bomb Iran? So far, most of the attacks on coalition forces came from the Al Qaeda and Sunni/ex-Baathist fighters. It is very unlikely that Shia militias will start attacking coalition forces now that a deadline for their withdrawal has been fixed. Such attacks may cause the coalition forces to lean in favour of the Awakening Councils and Iraqi Shias are smart enough to avoid doing anything that would result in such a bias when they are on the cusp of having control over Iraq.

For these reasons, I think that the US will get away with it if it were to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Personally I would support such an attack. It is fashionable in certain liberal quarters to argue that if the USA, China, Russia, UK and France are entitled to have nuclear weapons, Iran is also so entitled. So far, the only country to have used nuclear weapons is the United States, right? Yes, but this argument ignores the fact that Iran is likely to, given its track record in such matters, provide material for a dirty bomb to an organisation such as the Hezbollah. I am not for a moment saying that the Hezbollah or even the Iranian regime is totally evil. No, they are not. However, Iran and the Hezbollah do consider Israel to be unworthy of existence and it will not be beyond them to do the inconceivable. I would rather the US bombs Iranian nuclear facilities than carry on in the hope that Iran has no nuclear ambition or even if it does, it will not transfer nuclear technology to the Hezbollah or a like-organisation.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Impressions from Russia

Initial Paperwork

At first glance, the requirements to obtain a Russian visa looked very onerous. After doing serious research, my initial fears were confirmed. I had to fill out a lengthy on-line form, which asked me questions ranging from the countries I had visited in the last 10 years to contact details of two previous employers to details of educational institutions I had attended after high school. I also had to provide a zillion documents, ranging from a letter from my employer to payslips to bank statements to insurance documents. To top it all, I had to provide something called a tourist voucher from a tourist agency or hotel authorised by the Russian government which costs 40 Euros per head. Even my 3 year old daughter needed one. I still haven’t figured out what purpose the tourist voucher served, though I paid 120 Euros to get three of them from one of the hotels I had booked into.

The Russian embassy in London has outsourced its visa processing function to VFS. The staffers at VFS’s office are Russians. The very friendly girl to whom I submitted my application took one look at the Permanent UK Residency stamp on my Indian passport and did not bother with any of the documents I had painstakingly gathered, except for the tourist vouchers. ‘Come back in two days’ she told me. I had been told to expect a delay of at least five working days. ‘I will be travelling. I will come back in a week,’ I said. I went back after seven days, rushing out of office at four thirty and hoping to get to VFS’s office before five. The Tube let me down and I did not get to VFS’s office till ten past five. As I walked the last 100 metres, I expected to see a ‘closed’ sign at the gates. However, the door yielded to my push and I went inside to see another friendly face at the counter. ‘I came to collect my visa. I am sorry I’m late,’ I gasped. ‘Not a problem,’ came the non-committal reply, which reminded me of India. Two minutes later, I left the building, having collected three passports with Russian visas stamped on them.

Moscow – First impressions

At first glance, Moscow is very impressive. The roads are wide and the buildings are grand. I am not too sure how comfortable they are to live in, but they are mighty impressive. My hotel in Moscow was located just off the Tverskaya, the most prominent road since Czarist times that runs through the heart of Moscow. And what a road! Eight lanes going each way with numerous subways under it for people to cross over! Known as Gorky Street during the communist era, the Tverskaya has the most fashionable shops, hotels, restaurants, dress-boutiques and malls in Moscow. The men look rich and the women are dazzling, not only in terms of looks, but also in the way they dress (conservatively) and carry themselves.

Russians, especially Muscovites, gave me the impression of working hard at having fun and looking relaxed. We saw so many “24 Чaca” (24 Hours) signs, more in Moscow than in St. Petersburg, signalling that the shop or mall was open 24 hours a day.

We saw lots of statues of Lenin and even of Karl Marx, but none of Stalin.

Hot, hot, hot

Since it was July, it was very hot in both Moscow and St. Petersburg which were both experiencing heat waves. It was close to 35 degrees centigrade in Moscow and around 32 degrees in St. Petersburg. We were told that St. Petersburg has never experienced so many warm days, being so close to Finland as it is. The buildings are all built to trap and retain heat and we were constantly sweating. Public buildings such as airports and Metro stations don’t have air conditioning or even fans and it is common to see people carrying hand fans with which they fan themselves vigorously. Thankfully both the hotels we stayed in had air conditioning. Plus, it didn’t rain at all during our six days there, though rain is very common in the Russian summer.

Not posh enough to enter?

We had been warned that one needs to dress up to be allowed into high-end restaurants and bars. However, it didn’t make sense to wear anything other than tee-shirts and jeans when wandering around a very warm Moscow or St. Petersburg. On our first night in Moscow, we went to a restaurant that must have been one of the more posh ones and were told that it was full, though it was obvious that my sweaty, dishevelled appeared was more likely to be the reason for the lack of space for us. For the rest of our stay, we stuck with middle-class restaurants and did not suffer any further torment.

Bollywood music

The evening we landed in Moscow, we went for a walk along the Tverskaya. A street urchin (of Central Asian origin) was playing a mournful tune on a mouth organ, a small bowl in front of him. We recognised the tune, which had been lifted from a Bollywood song. Soon we were poorer by five roubles.

Taxi drivers

Just as I had expected innumerable delays in getting my Russian visa, I also anticipated being ripped off by taxi drivers. My first brush with a taxi driver did nothing to lessen my fears. We had taken a train, the Aeroexpress, from Domodedovo Airport to Paveletsky train station in the heart of Moscow. The family ticket (for two adults and a child) cost me 600 roubles (around £15). At Paveletsky, I found an honest looking man at the platform with a tag around his neck saying ‘Taxi’. I gave him the name of my hotel and said ‘skol’ka sminya’ which, according to the Russian phrasebook I had wrestled with for two months previously, was the way to ask a taxi driver the fare beforehand. The reply came in fast and furious Russian. This was something I would experience throughout my visit. Having mugged up thirty odd Russian sentences, I had thought that I would be able to ask for directions and make my way around. I wasn’t wrong, but speaking broken sentences in Russian is one thing. Understanding replies made to my questions was something else. I was forced to say ‘Nye panimayu’ (I don’t understand). ‘Ya nimnoga gavaryu paruski’ (I speak a little Russian). The taxi driver was obviously used to stupid tourists like me. He cleverly took out 150 roubles from his pocket and showed it to me. 150 roubles was less than 4 pounds. I cheerfully nodded assent and followed him. Once outside the station, the driver accosted another man and had a brief chat with him. My heart sank. Within seconds, the original taxi driver had gone back inside the station and I had a new taxi driver who led us to the most beat-up car in the whole of Moscow. We got in without a word, after stashing our luggage in the cramped boot.

I tried to make some conversation in Russian. ‘Eta krasivih gorat’, I said. This is a beautiful city, one of the first Russian sentences I had memorised from my Russian phrasebook. The driver wasn’t impressed, though he seemed to understand what I was saying. He shrugged his shoulders and asked me something I didn’t catch at first. Then I understood what he was saying. ‘Musulmanin?’ Where we Muslims? I knew that some Russians were racist and didn’t like Central Asians living there. I don’t look Central Asian, but I didn’t want to be mistaken for a Muslim either. ‘Nyet Musulmanin’ I said with unnecessary haste. ‘Ya iz Indii, no zhivu v Anglii.’ I am an Indian, but live in England.

‘Azerbaijan,’ the driver said, pointing to himself. Ah! The driver was Azeri which meant he was a Muslim. That was why he wanted to know if we were Muslims! I looked at the driver again. I thought that he looked more Russian than anything else. Maybe he was of mixed parentage. Maybe some Azeris look Russian. ‘Baku?’ I asked, showing off, my knowledge of world geography. The driver indicated something with his fingers to show that he came from a place not very far away. In less than ten minutes we were at out hotel despite occasional heavy traffic. I took out 150 roubles from my wallet. The driver shook his head in disbelief. He then took out 700 roubles (around £17) from his wallet and waved it at me. I was shocked and my Russian totally deserted me. We were outside the hotel, but there was no one else around. The driver looked menacing and we were tired after the journey. I quickly parted with 700 roubles and we went inside.

For the rest of our stay in Moscow, we did not hire a taxi, except once when we got the hotel to arrange one to take us to the Red Square from our hotel. We had a nice posh car and a smart driver who spoke decent English and charged us the agreed rate of 500 roubles for the five minute drive. When it was time to go to the airport for our flight to St. Petersburg, we booked a taxi through the hotel rather than travel via Paveletsky station in the rush hour morning traffic. 1,200 roubles (£29), the hotel’s booklet told me. I mentally steeled myself to pay a lot more than that. If it had cost me 500 roubles to travel to the Red Square, a journey of less than two kilometres, twenty odd kilometres to the airport was likely to be more than 1,200 roubles, I thought. This time I was determined to do some bargaining before I paid up. After we were dropped off in front of the terminal building at Domodedovo, I got out of the taxi and took out two 1,000 rouble notes and gave them to the driver, who shook his head.

‘Skol’ka stoit?’ I asked. How much is it? The reply was unintelligible. The driver showed me one finger and then two. My blood boiled. I was prepared to pay up to 5,000 roubles, but 12,000 roubles was out of the question. I shook my head angrily and prepared to take out another 1,000 rouble note from my wallet. The driver gave another sigh and turned away to dip into the taxi. In front of my disbelieving eyes, he gave me a 500 rouble note and started to fumble for more change. I suddenly realised that I was only being charged 1,200 roubles, but the driver didn’t have much change. Giddy with relief, I waved my hand at the driver, in effect giving him a 300 rouble tip. The man looked shocked. We hurried into the airport.

Even in St. Petersburg, my experiences with cabbies continued to be very good. The stern looking driver who took us to the hotel from the airport did not ask for a single kopeck more than the 700 roubles (£17) agreed at the taxi hire desk. Further, I realised that the driver was actually one-eyed and in reality a very humble looking man. The return trip to the airport booked through the hotel cost me only the pre-agreed amount of 800 (£20) roubles. Each time I happily gave a 100 rouble tip.

Russian airports

I was told that Domodedovo airport is the best (or rather most hassle-free) airport in Moscow and for that reason, I avoided the Sheremetyevo which has a bad reputation. Domodedovo airport turned out to be no different from other international airports. Clearing immigration was very easy and the queue was a lot shorter than at the JFK where I had been a week earlier on work. I guess that is more because there are a lot more visitors to the USA than because Domodedovo is overstaffed with immigration officers. When flying to St. Petersburg from Domodedovo, as part of the security check, I was asked to stand in a particular spot and raise my hands, as if in abject surrender. That morning I was still smiling after my anti-climatic experience with the taxi driver and I raised my hands as instructed. Two glass semicircles snapped shut around me. As they opened and let me out, I realised that I had been subjected to a body scan! The middle-aged lady officer who sat nearby looking intently at her computer screen did not look at me or show any emotion on her face as I walked away.

We were subjected to full body scans at both Moscow and St. Petersburg. No one seemed to be offended and I too wasn’t. If it makes flying safer, then, I didn’t care, though I do wish I had received some sort of warning beforehand.

At Domodedovo airport and later at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, I made acquaintance with scores of airlines I hadn’t heard of till then. The most popular ones seemed to be S7 and Transaero, but airlines such as Daghestan Airlines and Ural Airlines also had a presence. We flew on Rossiya to St. Petersburg and back. The service was decent, or rather, much better than what one receives on the so-called cheap airlines such as Easyjet or Ryan Air. It is also possible to take an overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg (and save one night in a hotel), though we didn’t do so.

Making friends

On our way back to Moscow from St. Petersburg, we saw a number of school girls, one of whom had a head-scarf on. A lady teacher was in charge. Must be a school trip from Central Asia, I though, though two of the school children were African looking. ‘Can’t be Central Asian, may be Brazilian?’ I told my wife. Later it turned out that they were from Egypt and were in St. Petersburg to attend a camp for synchronised swimming. My wife and I got talking to the lady in charge on the bus that took us to the aeroplane. Russia was the best place in the world to train for synchronised swimming. Oh! Were we Indian? They loved India. Indian movies in particular. They used the song track from Slumdog Millionaire for their swim-dance routines. Jai Ho was mentioned as was another song. We parted in Moscow, the best of friends.


Russian food is so very different from European food. The Moscow hotel we stayed in served a sumptuous breakfast buffet that included Kasha, a buckwheat porridge that is a staple breakfast item all over Russia. A richer and slightly sweeter version of oats, I really liked it. Unfortunately our hotel in St. Petersburg didn’t have Kasha in its buffet spread. Borscht, beetroot soup with sour cream, bits of beef or eggs floating it in, was another Russian dish that I liked. I had it both hot and cold and I am not sure which version I liked better. I guess if it was winter, I would have preferred the steaming one. Kvass is a drink made out of fermented rye bread and is mildly alcoholic. I found it being served everywhere at all times of the day. We had it many times. Okroshka is a soup with a Kvass base which I tried once, but didn’t like all that much. Pelmeni turned out to be a large dumpling with rice, beef and vegetables stuffed inside. A bit bland, but still very tasty. I had fish a couple of times during my trip. Russians seem to like their fish rare – not deep fried. Normally I wouldn’t like fish unless it is cooked very well, but the fish I ate was so well marinated in a way it brought out so many subtle flavours and was very tasty. I don’t think a vegetarian will find life easy in Russia, but all the restaurants we went to had at least one vegetarian option.

Restaurants and bottled water

Eating out is expensive in Russia, as are hotel rooms. Though we never ate at an expensive restaurant, the average cost of lunch or dinner was around 2,500 roubles (£60) for the three of us. There were a couple of meals that crossed 3,500 roubles (£83). One reason for this is that bottled water is very expensive when purchased in restaurants. Unlike in Western Europe where potable water is available on tap, one is forced to buy bottles of water all the time in Russia. Restaurants as a rule only sold very small 150 ml bottles of water at around 250 roubles a bottle. We were forced to buy three or four such bottles for each meal. When purchased at a kiosk, a large 5 litre bottle of still water costs less than 40 roubles!

We didn’t see any Indian restaurants in Moscow or St. Petersburg, though I am told that there are a few. The only Indian meal we had in Russia was at Domodedovo Airport (on our way back to London) which has a restaurant that serves mainly India food. A light meal of two plates of rice, one naan, one chicken rogan josh, one tarka dal and two bottles of water (each one litre) cost approximately 1600 roubles (£38), which I guess is very decent by Moscow standards. I think this was the only restaurant where we managed to buy one litre water bottles at the table.

Please do smoke

We almost never saw any no-smoking signs, except inside the Rossiya flights between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Restaurants did not have no-smoking areas and even while having buffet breakfast at our Moscow hotel, cigarette smoke would gently waft over to us.

St. Petersburg - a European city

Unlike Moscow, St. Petersburg has the feel of a European city and is called the Venice of the North since it is crisscrossed with rivers and countless canals and waterways. It is not as beautiful as Venice itself, but could be a city anywhere in continental (western) Europe. Of course it is much more populous and bigger than most European cities. Even our hotel was more (continental) European than the one we had stayed in Moscow. The buffet spread for breakfast was not as sumptuous (no Kasha), but was more functional and it reminded me of a hotel I had stayed in Venice. The people are a lot more relaxed than in Moscow and there seems to be less money floating around. I got talking to the Sommelier at one of the restaurants we ate at. A lady, not more than thirty years old, self educated and bolstered by a few brief trips to Spain, Italy and France, she not only spoke very good English (she told me that she has never been to the UK, USA or any other English speaking country) but also gave me a crash course on Spanish wines. Very European she was.

Russian TV

I watched snatches of Russian TV while in our hotels rooms and in restaurants while having a meal. What constantly amazed me was the sheer quality of the programmes that I saw, though I didn’t understand much. There were comedies that were as funny as a Chaplin movie, action movies which could give any Clint Eastwood reel a run for its money.

The Metro

I should confess that during our entire six days in Russia, we did not venture beyond the nicest parts of Moscow and St. Petersburg. I was especially impressed by the Metro in Moscow which seemed to be of uniform depth everywhere and very well maintained. More importantly, it was cheap and each ride, irrespective of the distance cost only 26 roubles (60 pence). I had been warned that the Moscow Metro could be very crowded and we tried to avoid it during peak hours. However, we did end up travelling on it once during peak time and did not find it any more crowded that the London Tube. In any event, it is much cleaner than the Tube, and much, much cleaner than the NY Metro. The Moscow Metro appeared to be run in a labour intensive manner, with a lot more attendants than one sees elsewhere in the developed world. The Metro in St. Petersburg is much smaller, but not much different from the Moscow Metro. The rides are cheaper, at 22 roubles per ride. Unlike the Moscow Metro which uses smart cards, one buys zhetons (tokens) in St. Petersburg, which look very similar to 2 rouble coins. The only flip side to the Metros in both cities was that they did not have air conditioning.

Evening entertainment

While in Moscow, we managed to watch a ballet one evening and a circus on another. The tickets were expensive, especially because like India, Russia follows a system of charging foreigners more. The ballet tickets (not the Bolshoi, but at a theatre right next to the Bolshoi) came to around 550 roubles (£13) per adult. These were the cheapest seats available. For the circus, we got the best seats and paid almost 2,000 roubles (£47) per adult. I believe the locals pay around one fifth of what we paid. We really enjoyed the ballet and the circus. What struck me about these performances was that the audience was almost entirely Russian. The ballet’s audience especially was full of middle-class looking Russians who seemed to be used to watching the ballet routinely. They sat there quietly, many of them old and frail, fanning themselves with paper fans since it was oppressively hot inside the theatre without any air conditioning and watched the performance with an occasional chuckle and a burst of clapping after each scene. The circus was great fun except towards the end when a tiger tamer showed his skill in controlling six large tigers, probably Siberian Amurs, with his whip. The sight of six majestic animals trembling at the cruel whip made me angry. Till this incident, I had never understood Maneka Gandhi’s crusade to ban the use of animals in circuses, but after seeing those tigers behaving like puppies, I became a convert, at least in the case of tigers.

Not too touristy

Except for a few places like the Kremlin or Red Square in Moscow or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, we never saw many tourists or even a serious attempt to lure tourists to Russia. Even at places like the Kremlin, at least half the tourists seemed to be from various parts of Russia or ex-Soviet Republics like Kazakhstan. There was one Kazakh lady I spoke with outside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg who started to compliment me on my Russian till she realised that I could not go beyond four sentences.

No one cheated us

At St. Petersburg, we used the bus as much as the Metro. All buses had conductors and each ride cost only 19 roubles till we got into a bus which didn’t have a conductor. The driver, a rough looking Central Asian chappie, pointed to a board which said 27 roubles. After I paid sixty roubles for two tickets, I got my change back, but didn’t get any tickets. What was more, no one else was being given a ticket. What a con, I thought, till I realised that I was on a private bus. Many cleaners in restaurants and other public places were Central Asians. Yet I never saw a Central Asian working for the Metro or as a bus driver. Frankly, I don’t think those people have a great time in those Russian cities.

In St. Petersburg, we took a boat ride on the Neva. At the ticket counter, I handed over a 1000 rouble note and said ‘dva billet’. A paper stuck above the counter indicated that each adult ticket cost 350 roubles. The lady at the till told me something in Russian which I didn’t understand. ‘Nye panimayu. Ya nimnoga gavaryu paruski’ (I don’t understand. I speak only a little Russian) I unleashed my standard dialogue meant for such situations. As I started to ask if she spoke any English, she said ‘2,000 roubles’ in English. I was shocked. ‘2,000 roubles for a ticket?’ I stuttered. Was it because I was a foreigner that I was being asked to pay so much? I wanted to walk away, but I had already paid 1,000 roubles. Can I have my money back? I wanted to say, but she looked really angry, as if I had wasted her time. Then she said ‘No, no, 200 roubles’. I then realised that she wanted me to give her 200 roubles since she didn’t have the right change. I gave the desired 200 roubles and got 500 roubles back. I could well understand the mix-up between 200 and 2000. Having memorised the Russian numerals, I was also getting my numbers mixed up. In particular, I had trouble with Pidisyat (50) and Pitsot (500) and more often than not, had to fish out my Russian phrase book from my pocket for a quick reference.

Let me say this, I was never cheated by anyone in Russia, except maybe the Azeri taxi driver who took us to our Moscow hotel. However, when at our St. Petersburg hotel, we saw a sign at the reception which said something like this. ‘Taxi Drivers in St. Petersburg almost never use their meters. Make sure you negotiate the fare before entering the taxi. Usually, a ride within the city will cost around 500 roubles. Maybe even the Azeri driver who charged us 700 roubles hadn’t cheated us? In any event, I never got to tell a taxi driver ‘fklyuchitye shotchik pazhalusta’ (please put the meter on) because we always negotiated a rate beforehand. It had taken me a whole day to memorise this sentence which I thought was going to be very useful.

The closest we came to being cheated was on the boat over the Neva River. The boat had just a few passengers, most of whom sat on the upper deck. We three sat below on the lower deck where loud music was playing. A woman in her fifties with a prominent silver tooth seemed to be in charge. She came over and spoke to us in very basic English and later danced a jig with our three year old. We ordered a cheese sandwich and an apple juice for our daughter. After some time, we joined the other passengers on the upper deck. The waiter, a pasty faced young lad brought us the bill. 200 roubles. I left 220 roubles in the green docket and the boy took it away. Soon he was back, waving the docket at us. Inside was the bill, but no money. Forgot money? He asked us in halting English. My wife and I were both sure that we had put the money in. People were staring at us, the only brown faces in the vicinity. I was all set to agree that we had made a mistake and my hand reached for my wallet, but the righteous anger on my wife’s face made me stop myself. No, I put the money in it. I told him firmly. Two minutes later, the woman in charge was back. Did you put the money inside? She asked us. Yes, we both said. Nothing more was said. As we walked out, I asked her, ‘is it alright?’ ‘Yes, alright,’ she told us with a smile, her silver tooth as prominent as ever.

Not so pretty

Bad dental care was a key feature of Soviet times. We saw lots of people with gold or iron teeth, almost all of them middle-aged or old. I guess the Soviet State had decided that decent dental care, especially orthodontic treatment, was too bourgeois and not for its proletariat. There were a few youngsters who had lousy teeth or iron filings, but these were very rare.

The unimaginable wealth of the Czars

The Hermitage in St. Petersburg was Catherine the Great’s winter palace and it houses much of the art treasure acquired by the Czars. There is nothing really Russian about the art since they are all entirely the work of Italian or French or other European artists or sculptors. However, the Hermitage is the best example of the immense wealth the Czars possessed. There are scores upon scores of rooms of paintings and sculptures, each of them deserving hours of admiring gaze. It is very easy to see how such enormous wealth in the hands of a select few could have made it easy for Lenin & Co. to stir up the proletariat and take over power.

Child friendly

I had heard that Russians like children, but hadn’t really believed it. But it is true. Our daughter got so many gifts from total strangers so many times. We would be having a meal at a restaurant and someone sitting near us would pay, get up, walk over to us, give our daughter a toffee or chocolate and walk away. No one ever looked offended when she bawled or created a nuisance, as she often did. Only once, at the Dostoyevsky museum in St. Petersburg, did a caretaker ask me politely to hold my ‘ribyonak’ in my arms rather than let her run around and cause mayhem amongst so many antiques.

More paperwork

When we cleared immigration at Domodedovo Airport in Moscow, we had to fill in a migration card which had two parts, the second part a duplicate of the first. The authorities retained one part and gave us the other with a seal and signature on it. We were asked to keep the other part for the duration of our stay and submit it card to the immigration authorities at the time of departure. When we checked into our hotel in Moscow, the reception asked us, ‘shall I register your daughter as well?’ I was instantly suspicious. ‘Is there a registration fee?’ I asked. ‘No, of course not.’ ‘Well, then what is the matter?’ ‘Would you like us to register your daughter?’ Sure, why not?’ I said after some hesitation. As I filled up three long visitor registration forms with details such as our home address and date of birth, I realised that these forms would be sent to the authorities by the hotel that very day.

Police harassment

I had also heard that the police, especially in St. Petersburg, much like their counterparts in India, routinely haul up foreigners, especially dark-skinned ones, and fleece them. Everyone is required to carry ID on their persons. As advised by Lonely Planet, in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, we carried with us photocopies of our passports and visas, which we planned to produce if asked. But we were never stopped, though I did see a man, probably an American judging by his dark blue passport, being stopped and questioned at a Metro stop in St. Petersburg. Walking along Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, I did see cops drive past with an I-am-the-Lord-of-all-I-survey look which I have never seen in Western Europe, but have seen many, many times in India.

Registrations - We didn’t get it wrong

The hotel in St. Petersburg went a little beyond what our Moscow hotel did. After registering all three of us, we were given registrations receipts (something we did not get in Moscow) and told that we would need them to clear immigration on our way out. ‘Do I need it only for my last place of stay? I asked, as a knot tightened in my stomach. ‘No, you need it for all the places you stayed in Russia,’ I was told. ‘But I didn’t get it from my hotel in Moscow,’ I protested, only to be faced with a shrug. I debated whether I ought to contact the Moscow hotel and ask them to fax me a receipt. Then after much deliberation with my wife, we decided not to bother. There was no mention of the registration receipt in the Lonely Planet Guide for Russia, which was our Bible for those six days. We only had to retain the second part of the migration card according to our Lonely Planet Guide. Finally the Lonely Planet Guide turned out to be right. In any event, we were not asked for registration receipts at Domodedovo airport. Was the St. Petersburg hotel wrong or were the immigration authorities at Domodedovo airport lax? I don’t know.

Final impression

On the whole we had a good time in Russia and we were sorry when our six days came to an end. Russia is big, Russia is beautiful and Russians are really warm-hearted and generous, once they open up, general dour expressions notwithstanding. One general impression I carried back with me is that in one particular respect Russia is very much like the USA and very unlike the UK or the rest of Western Europe. It is so big and self-sufficient with so much of Russia still very much unexplored and relatively underdeveloped that Russians can afford to ignore the global markets and the rest of the world. Finally, I should say that most of my fears and prejudices about Russia turned about to be baseless.


If there is one bit of advice I have for future visitors to Russia, it is to acquire a Russian phrase book and learn a couple of dozen sentences by heart. ’Ya nye gavaryu paruski. Vih gavaritye paangliski?’ (I don’t speak Russian. Do you speak English?) was very useful, may be the most useful pair of Russian sentences I learnt. They always resulted in a sympathetic smile and an attempt to be of help, even if the helper could not speak much English. ‘Nye panimayu’ (I don’t understand) was just as useful. Another useful sentence was ‘Izvinitye pazhalusta’ (excuse me please). ‘Skazhihtye pazhalsta kagda mih padyedim …….’ (Please tell me when we get to ….) is useful when you are on a crowded bus and not sure when you ought to get off. ‘Zapishihtye pazhalusta tsenu’ (Can you write down the price?) is useful when asking for the price or charge has elicited a response in fluent and indecipherable Russian. Very often sellers, even ticket sellers, would display the price on a calculator.

In addition, do mug up the Cyrillic alphabet. If you had one of those standard Indian schoolings where one mugs up vast quantities of unnecessary and pointless information, then it won’t take you more than a few days to do so. Very few signs are in English and being able to read the Cyrillic script, albeit slowly, is of immense use.

More advice

My final advice is, go visit Russia, before the tourist mobs discover it.

If you would like to know

Please email me if you would like to know the names of hotels we stayed in or the restaurants we ate at.