By Donald Harder
I moved to St. Petersburg Russia in 2004, just three short years after witnessing fully-armed US military personnel blocking Key Bridge between Georgetown and Rosslyn, Virginia on September 12, 2001. We spent what seemed at least the first half of 2002 in full lock down in response to the anthrax attacks and a sniper that was on the loose picking unknowing, innocent people off one by one as they stopped at traffic lights, filled their cars with gas, mowed their lawns or while they were walking from their cars to the supermarket entrance. At work, I passed through 3 layers of security just to make it to my cubical.
At the time we moved to Russia, it was legal to walk around town with a beer in your hand and traffic laws were basically non-existent. It was no wild west, but there wasn’t much law enforcement going on either. And on the backdrop of moving from the security state I had been living in, it felt to me as if the 800-pound gorilla that had been sitting on my chest had suddenly decided to get off and let me breathe.
Russia, back in the early part of the millennium was still evolving and shaking off the dirt, sweat and blood from the awful hangover it experienced during the 1990s as result of the bad samogon (moonshine) the Harvard boys had spiked her punch with. An old tram used to wobble with a terrible gait down Engelsa (named after Friedrich Engels) street where we lived because the asphalt had worn away over the years, leaving the tracks to sit in the dirt. The water in our house used to come out in shades of browns and reds due to the rusty old pipes.
The city was relatively safe, but there was street crime. Tourists were often targets of pick-pocketing schemes where they would be mobbed and groped and relieved of telephones, cameras and wallets. I once saw a guy break a car window and grab a purse someone had carelessly left on the front seat and on a separate occasion, I witnessed some homeless street urchins jumping the turnstiles in the metro. Nothing extreme. Just items that slipped into the memory bank.
Back then, it was very common to witness the ills that alcoholism run amok can leave on a society. I lost count of how many times someone fell asleep on my shoulder in the metro. Outside the train stations, old alcoholics and mangy street dogs blended in as just part of the local scenery.
The scene wasn’t altogether different from what I regularly saw in Washington DC near my office. The difference, perhaps, was only in the skin color of the poor and the desperate.
Cost of Living
What stood out to me most during my first year in the country was absence. Absence of a mailbox full of bills in particular.
We sold our car before we moved, and in St. Petersburg, cars are superfluous. To get around back then, all you had to do is stand on the street and put your arm out and within a minute or so, someone would stop to pick you up. These were the days before Uber and Yandex Ride. Back then, legitimately-licensed taxis were the exception, not the rule. The rule was what was commonly referred to as ‘gypsy cabs’, which were basically just old Lada Zhigulis with drivers willing to go out of their way to make a few extra bucks. It only cost about 200-300 rubles ($5-$8) for a 30-minute ride to the center back then. Alternatively, we could ride the metro into the center for just 5 rubles ($0.15) and get there in 20 minutes. So, no car payment. No gas bills. No insurance. No auto tax. Boom! Gone.
We hardly noticed utility bills either. In Russia, you pay them all in one payment once per month. Gas, electric, water, apartment maintenance, all come in one convenient bill. Back then, like today, these come to around $80-$100 per month. Other than food, entertainment and internet, that was it. Like most others in St. Petersburg, we didn’t have any housing costs. We lived in the flat of one of our relative’s and then eventually bought our own. Internet. That was a big one back then. I had an online business at the time and needed an internet connection. Our neighborhood at that time wasn’t wired, so we ended up getting a radio internet connection that gave me 1G of bandwidth per month for $400. Netflix and chill was out of the question in those days.
To be continued…