Monday, May 08, 2006

Pictures From Russia

I have placed my pics from the trip on Snapfish. If you would like a larger copy of a picture, leave the picture name and your email address in a comment below.

Moscow Pics and Videos

St. Petersburg Pics and Videos

Random Thoughts from the Russia Trip

Here are some random thoughts and observations from the last 8 days in Russia.

Mullets are definitely in here. I seen tenfold the number of mullets you would see at any given NASCAR event. Even the women wear mullets. The mullet's distant cousin, the rat tail, is also popular to a lesser extent. Our tour guide in St. Petersburg had a rat tail and I couldn't help but laugh every time I saw it. After three days it still never got old.

Fashion here is an interesting mix of the latest European styles with hint of American 1980's. All of the women wear the big bug-eyed sunglasses and I saw more than my fair share of fingerless gloves and Michael Jackson leather coats. If I had seen Max Headroom t-shirts and parachute pants I would start to wonder if I arrived here in a flying DeLorean.

I've definitely seen worse. I heard some stories about people being booted from restaurants and clubs, but about the worst experience I had was an old lady cutting right in front of me in line for a subway token when she realized I didn't speak Russian. One of the speakers at the university commented that in general, Russian's didn't like Bush, but were not averse to American people. I've heard the "waiting-out Bush" sentiment before. I wish more people had this more pragmatic view of things and realized that what you see in the American media and in American politics isn't a true reflection on America - sad but true.

When in Russia:
Buy a beer and walk around with it. Apparently this is illegal, but it is not enforced and everyone does it. Bars were hard to come by in Moscow and with sidewalk vendors selling beer for as little as 67 cents I can see why.

It’s a Small World:
Granted we were all hovering around the same tourist spots, but I still found it amazing how many times I ran into other people on the trip when I'd go out. It was also funny to run into several people that went on the Netherlands trip in the Amsterdam airport during my layover on the way home.

Buses and Aeroflot:
Two modes of transportation I don't ever care to experience again. Enough said.

Russian airports put us to shame. Every person and every bag (whether you are traveling or not) is scanned when you go through the front door of the airport. You and your bags (checked and carry-on) are screened again before you check-in and check your bags. For our international flight, we were screened a third time before we entered the gate at Moscow and a forth time when we went to the gate in Amsterdam. The ironic thing is, cumulatively these four scans took up less time than waiting in one line in the US.

Apparently Moscow and St. Petersburg get 30-60 days of sunshine per year. I'm counting myself lucky that we had 8 days of great weather. Now if people would just turn off their heaters when it's 75 outside. I guess that what happens when you pay next to nothing for natural gas (thanks Putin and Gazprom!).

- Tony

Russia - Day 6

Free at last! The "official" trip is over. There is an optional trip to Star City and Russian cosmonaut academy, but I can't endure another four hours in a bus. Instead, I slept in until 8:30, took my time getting dressed, and rolled into the hotel lobby and met up with some folks around 10. We headed down to Red Square hoping to see Lenin's tomb. Unfortunately, most of Red Square is barricaded off in preparation for Victory Day on May 9th (Russia celebrates May 9th instead of the 8th because when the treaty was signed, it was already the 9th in Moscow). We ended up walking through the G.U.M. and toured St. Basil's instead. For such a large exterior, the church was quite small inside, but interesting nonetheless. We decided to head toward old Arbot street and pickup gifts to take home, and swung by Sbarro pizza on the way. I'm normally not a big Sbarro fan, but it was great to have some familiar food for the first time in a week. The restaurant was decorated with American flags and mini Statues of Liberty. It was strange to see these things in the shadow of the Kremlin.

While we were walking, I learned that Vice President Cheny spoke out against Russia, and Gazprom in particular, over yet another pricing dispute. While I agree with him whole-heartedly, I really wish he would hold off on the bold statements until next week when we're all out of here!

On Arbot street, I was surprised to find a Texas A&M nesting doll. I bargained the vendor down, but in the end still overpaid. But hey, when you find A&M paraphernalia in Moscow, you buy it. I also did some looking for jewelry for Holly, but I really don't trust myself to pick out jewelry for her, especially since she just bought herself some jewelry a few weeks ago. I ended up leaving empty handed other than the nesting doll, but that's really a present for both of us :)

After shopping we headed back to the hotel where I caught up on my journal and took a break from my shoes. When we got there, we found out that one our classmates had her wallet and passport stolen from her hotel room. Things got pretty ugly, and she and a few others spent the morning going back and forth with the police, the embassy, etc. It's not a good situation to be in. She was able to get a letter vouching that she is in Russia legally, but she will have to stay in our hotel and get a new passport and visa. Since the next few days are a holiday here, she will most likely not be able to leave until Thursday or Friday - missing a side trip she had originally planned. I was impressed by her relative calm over the whole ordeal; I would be going ballistic, and that would pale in comparison to my wife's (or even worse, mother-in-law's) reaction.

After some downtime, I headed back to Pushkin Café for dinner, this time with a different crowd. It was excellent again, but I was surprised to find that the restaurant has a different, more expensive menu on Saturday night. Oh well, it was my last meal in Russia and I blew through all of my remaining Roubles - mission accomplished.

Back at the hotel, our crowd was firmly entrenched in the normal party spot in the lobby. I tried to stay and socialize as long as I could, but I was fading fast and needed to pack. I headed back to the room and said goodnight to Moscow one last time. Tomorrow home! I can't wait to see my wife and sleep in my own bed. Freebird's and Starbucks are definitely on the agenda as well.

- Tony

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Russia - Day 5

We headed off to the airport bright an early for a flight back to Moscow. Nothing too exciting to mention other than the fact that I'm somewhat dreading flying Aeroflot from Moscow to Amsterdam. I'm fairly certain our two planes have barely made it between the two cities that are an hour apart. In any event, I expect it to be a painful flight. Coming back to the hotel from the airport settled another debate - I'm never riding on a bus again. I will be skipping the Star City trip tomorrow (and the 4 hours of bus time) in favor of a trip back to Red Square and some of the other sites I missed in Moscow.

For lunch we had - you guessed it - borsch. Thank goodness for the 70 cent beers we bought from a sidewalk vendor. Other than my last bowl of this soup, lunch was actually pretty good, but very similar to the meals we had been eating for the last several days. Some of the group headed to McDonalds, but once again, I don't do McDonalds (unless my choice is between a Big Mac or salmon, or borsch from this point forward).

After lunch we headed back to the hotel for a talk from Shell's president of Russia operations. He was by far the best speaker of the trip. He was British (how can you not love Brits) and in his 30 years with Shell had worked all over the world. He downed a Nevska (Hebckoe) while he spoke, and had a very practical view of doing business in Russia (as compared to the somewhat idealistic view of some speakers). He also made the assertion that Russia oil and gas reserves, while huge, would never surpass the Persian Gulf. In addition, there is an 80% export tax on oil and gas, making it very difficult for western companies to make money in the country. Despite these costs, there is still a very big upside to operating in Russia as most major players (ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Shell, Total, BP, etc.) have a presence here.

The night ended with dinner at the Pushkin Café. I decided to avoid the dinner crowd from the last two nights (see "White Lightnin'" on day 3 and "$70/bottle" on day 4). The restaurant was very classy. Apparently, it was a historic café but was torn down in the Soviet era to build a new, modern building next door. Some time later was a song written about the café and people began hunting around Pushkin Square trying to find it. An industrious businessman decided to rebuild the café to match its 19th century appearance, and I must say he succeeded. It was a beautiful restaurant with great food. I'm glad I was able to see it before leaving on Sunday.

After dinner, a few of us headed over to Red Square to see it lit up. Most of the square was partitioned off, but we were able to get some pics of St. Basil's lit up. The square being closed was actually good because the pictures don't have a bunch of tourists in front of the building. We hit the beer garden in front of time square where we ran into some friends and called it another early night. I can't wait to sleep in a bit tomorrow!

- Tony

Russia - Day 4

The morning of day four was pretty much a blur (see "White Lightnin'" on day 3). We visited the American Chamber of Commerce in St. Petersburg first thing in the morning. The speaker told us about some of the challenges of doing business in Russia (some of which where dispelled by the day 5 speaker) and was all-in-all a very animated and pretty funny speaker.

The morning talk was followed by a boat tour around St. Petersburg, the way Peter the Great meant for people to see the city. It was great to see the city without a window between me and the sites. However, despite the relative calm waters, it was quite an exercise in now losing any food remaining in my stomach (see "White Lightnin'" on day 3). The only saving grace was the cool breeze coming off the water as we navigated the canals and the Neva river.

The boat cruise was followed by another tourist lunch (ala day 2) and included what else but borsch. I think I've had my fill of beet and cabbage soup for one lifetime. The main course was mystery meat Stroganoff, of which I was able to stomach about three bites (see "White Lightinin'" on day 3).

The afternoon was spent in the Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace. The museum was huge, and definitely ranks up there with the Louvre and British Museum. We had a short, 2 hour tour that hit the highlights of the museum which had works from Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rafael, Michelangelo, Monet, Picasso, etc. Although it wasn't our tour, I was also able to break away from the group and find probably the last remaining Caravaggio painting that I haven't seen (thanks, Mom!). The palace itself was as interesting as the art it contained and I can see why the Bolsheviks were pissed-off at the royals.

At first I was hesitant to head out for dinner (see "White Lightin'" on day 3), but we ended up making a hike across town to Aquarel, the same place I ate and loved on our first night in St. Petersburg. Under compulsion, I had a couple shots of vodka as we toasted our trip, but otherwise stayed away from anything other than water. As the night wore on, our party increased from 6 to around 16 and the vodka flowed like water. I called it an early night, paid my bill and left only to find out the next morning that the $7/bottle of vodka was actually $70/bottle. I'm sure I owe someone money, but since I spent most of the night avoiding the vodka rather than drinking it, I don't feel that bad.

- Tony

Russia - Day 3

Our first full day in St. Petersburg presented a very familiar feeling - traffic. We took a guided bus tour around St. Petersburg and thus begins my hatred for buses. The advantage of a bus tour is that we covered a lot of ground in a short time, despite the traffic. We stopped at several of the sites to take pictures but didn't have the opportunity to go into many of them. Unfortunately, most of my pictures from the day have reflections from the bus window. But I'm taking the shotgun approach to pictures, so hopefully I'll still have a handful that turn out. The highlights from the tour included the Saint Isaac Cathedral, and Kazan Cathedral.

We ate lunch at restaurant name for Tchaikovsky. It was a very beautiful restaurant, very 19th century French looking. I can't say the same for the food. I have a haunting suspicion that the places we ate for our group lunches were providing a kickback to the tour guides. Lunch consisted of canned peas, rice pilaf with canned peas, and some sort of pork with sour cream mushroom sauce. I can't say that I'm in a hurry to go back, but we were able to wash down the food with a couple of Nevska (spelled Hebckoe) beers.

After lunch we headed over to the St. Petersburg Academy of Administration and Economy for some presentations and interaction with students. The presentations themselves weren't stellar, but the speakers and the dynamics of the presentations were great. The older professors confirmed what we had been told - the older generation of Russian's simply don't speak English.

The first presentation was more of a welcome address delivered through a translator. It was a good overview of the new privatized university system in Russia. Historically, there have not been national, standardized tests (SAT, ACT) for entrance into universities. The system has relied on school or region-specific tests who scores are not altogether trustworthy. There is a push for a new standard exam, but it doesn't sound like there has been much success in implementing it. Another challenge is the decreasing population in Russia which has resulted in lower graduation statistics in the country. I was surprised to learn that Russia still has two years of mandatory military service for men once they turn 18. This has caused a 2:1 female to male ratio in universities and was confirmed by the group of students we met that was probably more like 8:1. Other issues include housing (foreign students cannot live in dorms, most students from outside of St. Petersburg have to find alternative housing with friends or family that live in the city, etc.) and the lack of student loans (or any form of personal debt, including credit cards). Still, Russia is very focused on higher education with over 100 universities in St. Petersburg alone.

The second presentation was by a young professor (probably younger than most of the students in our program) and covered Economical Life and Development in Russia. This young professor spoke fairly decent English and gave a good overview of the post-Soviet Russian economy. He stated that there are two main periods of the post-Soviet economy: 1) Radical reform from '91-'98 covering the collapse of communism to the financial crisis. This period was marked by the privatization of the state and the laying of the infrastructure for a market economy. 2) Growth reform from '99 to the present, essentially the recovery period from the Rouble devaluation in '98. During this period, Russia has experienced 4-7% yr/yr GDP growth and decreasing taxation (40% down to 13% flat rate). The speaker was very idealistic and optimistic. While it was good to see that there is optimism in the younger generation (a very rare trait historically in Russia), I still wanted to say "take the blinders off and look around, man". He very much took the party line on most issues, denying that the state was actively involved in nation protectionism and that the economy was largely tied to oil and gas. He seemed to be very defensive when asked questions about the Russian Strategic Sectors bill and other slow-coming reforms, and simply used the "everyone else does it" excuse. While its blatantly true that the US and EU protect industries, it doesn't necessarily mean that it’s a good idea for either the local or world economy. Gazprom, which seems to be held in fairly high regard by the speaker, is a perfect example. The state owns 51% of the company. This could be advantageous because the dividends of the worlds 3rd largest company could be used to reinvest in the economy or be used to tweak the monetary supply to control inflation, but the state appears to be doing nothing (at least nothing transparent) with the money.

The third speaker was great. He was an older generation who has seen communism, the explosion of capitalism, and the slow transition back to central planning and control. It was interesting to see how bold the gentleman was to criticize the government for the slow move away from democracy. The best statement of the day was "democracy is a self-managed system, but if one person rules it, it is not a democracy". How true for any democracy. After the presentations, a few of us spoke to him for a while and he went on to say that the collapse of the Rouble in '98 was not the result of economic conditions. Rather, he asserts that the Russian government planned and orchestrated the crisis in order to wipe-out small and medium business in order to bring more control back to the state. It was an interesting observation. We also asked him about the young professor and he laughed stating that he was like that once when he was young (taking the party line), but now he's older and has seen a lot since then. Our conversation ended with him asking if we could get him a job in the states, so one of my classmates took his email address and is planning to forward it to one of the school deans that is traveling with us.

Our meeting with the students was another one of those trip experiences. They served us bologna and salmon sandwiches that I know for a fact were sitting out for about two hours. I tried my best to be polite and downed the bologna half of the sandwich (I don't do salmon even to be polite). It was funny because not many people were keen on eating, but one of the Russian ladies kept insisting (in fact dragging) that people go into the small snack bar and eat a sandwich. The students were very young and although they were very nice, I really found it more interesting to talk to the professors who had seen a wide array of conditions in Russia.

For dinner I went with some folks to to a genuine Georgian (not Atlanta) restaurant. The food was great, but the vodka came in a glass carafe and was more rough than any cheap tequila could ever be. We were pretty certain that we had just experienced Russian moonshine. Every drink was followed with "whsheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeew, While Lightnin'". One of the guys with us (who had seen "Over the Top" with Sylvester Stalone a few too many times) challenged a burly waiter to an arm wrestling match
and won, at which point the waiter treated us to shots of "cha cha", which from what could tell was either kerosine or rubbing alcohol. It came in a plastic bottle (never a good sign), and had a delayed reaction - I was completely sober for about two hours after drinking it, after which I sold Buicks for the next hour. Needless to say our boat cruise around St. Petersburg was very painful the next day. Actually, me and our prof were the only two in the group that managed to make the 8:00am departure time.

- Tony

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Russia - Day 2

Today we visited the Boeing Design Center in Moscow and made the arduous flight to St. Petersburg for our three day stay there.

The morning was very interesting at the Boeing Design Center. Boeing's Moscow office is an engineering operating that works with the Russian space agency and does new and sustaining product development for Boeing. The Center designed the interface that allowed the Space Shuttle to dock with the Mir space station. It also does work for the International Space Station and has designed a satellite-launching vehicle that uses excess Cold War ICBM rocket and an offshore oil platform to deploy satellites into space. The office is also heavily involved in the design and in partnered with other Russian companies/agencies in the manufacture of the new Boeing 787. Working for a global, engineering-centric company, I found the talks by Boeing managers and engineers very interesting. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the complexities working on such geographically and culturally separated teams and all of the logistical issues (work and IP/legal) associated with such projects.

At lunch, we had two former HBS graduates talk to us about investment banking and entrepreneurship in Russia. From both talks, it was very clear that working in the grey areas of business are still commonplace, if not required, in Russia. It was also obvious that central planning and control did not disappear with the fall of communism and are still very much in play in Russian politics. It seems like there are always exceptions to the rules when talking about state controlled companies like Gazprom or Aeroflot.

Speaking of Aeroflot - wow what a painful experience! JD ( isn't kidding when he talks about the Russian airlines in the Middle East - "door here, bathroom there, no smoke". The fact that the flight attendants are so glum was actually quite hilarious. I'm hoping for better things when I fly Aeroflot to Amsterdam on my way home, but the puddle jumper we took from Moscow to St. Petersburg may have been in service when Stalin was in power. I'd talk about the leg room or air conditioning, but there wasn't any of either to speak of. I was also reprimanded twice by the flight attendants for have the window shade closed on takeoff and landing. Apparently when a plane is glued together with uneaten mystery biscuits, the windows shades must be opened to provide additional structural integrity for the plane. Speaking of mystery biscuits, I just hit my limit on airline food and haven't felt quite right since.

I haven't had much of a chance to see St. Petersburg, but we ventured across town to eat and a very nice restaurant on the Neva river. We drank Chilean wine while we ate Italian food and looked across the River at the Winter Palace. I'm looking forward to hitting the pavement tomorrow for a tour of the city in daylight. As it stands now, I've seen more of the subway than any other part of this town. I do enjoy subways though. You get a good feel (and smell) of a city when you take the subway. Tonight had the extra degree of difficulty in that no signs or announcements are in English. If you lose count of stops, good luck!

- Tony

Russia - Day 1

Our first day on the streets of Moscow and we hit them hard. We hit a slight detour in the morning due to the May Day holiday parades (and protests, the Communist remnant is still strong and bitter). Most of the morning was spent in the city center and near Pushkin Square. This city is definitely in love with Pushkin, it's favorite poet. We saw several statues, a square and café named for him, and the church where he was married. We also walked past the first McDonald's in the USSR. No, I didn't eat there (I don't eat it in the States, the same rules apply abroad) but other children of the late 80's/early 90's should remember seeing people lined for hours to get a tasted of the food that would go on to make so many Americans so fat. We ended the morning on Arbot street at the Hard Rock Café. Not exactly my choice of cuisine, but when you are traveling with a group you need to go where the numbers can be accommodated. After lunch, the manager of the restaurant spoke about running the business of an American restaurant in Russia. I couldn't hear much over the ambient restaurant noise, but what I did take away was that he became the manager because he was a good bartender and spoke good English - maybe a graduate degree isn't all it's cracked up to be :)

In the afternoon we toured the Kremlin and Red Square. Both were amazing, but it was somewhat depressing to hear how much history was destroyed by the Communists - namely churches, monasteries, and other buildings. In some respects it makes sense because of the Soviets' ban on religion, but you can't help but think that it had an adverse effect on country pride due to the long-standing role of the Orthodox church. However, the Orthodox church seems to have been resilient and has made a strong comeback in post-Soviet Russia.

As I mentioned yesterday, you can tell that the seeds of Capitalism were planted long before the fall of Communism. Running the length of Red Square, there is a beautiful old building that was intended be a marketplace. The building, built in the 19th century, is pretty much a blueprint for modern malls (which is what it is today; and a high-end one at that).

Even though we were exhausted after the walk, we enjoyed happy-hour at the hotel and did some more exploring for a local restaurant for dinner. A good meal was easy enough to find, but a decent pub was nearly impossible. It's ironic that in a country with excessive alcoholism, a bar is so difficult to find. Then again, there are street vendors selling beer on every corner, and as far as I can tell there are no restrictions on when an where you can drink. After two hours of searching yielded only a small karaoke bar, I called a night and headed back to the hotel.

- Tony

Russia - Day 0

Travel day. I actually had a good little Saturday planned. I slept in Saturday morning - I was pretty wiped after flying home from Bellevue on Friday. I spent the morning packing then went to lunch with my wife and the folks to get my first taste of Mexican food in a week (I don't trust Seattle Mexican food) and also my last taste for a week (I'm not anticipating trusting Russian Mexican food). Went to the airport early and watched the NFL draft at Papadeaux's while enjoying my last tastes of Texas beer (Shiner), and almost missed the plane (good thing my wife called!!!).

The flight to Paris was pretty uneventful; it was actually much less painful than I expected. The flight from Paris to Moscow more than made up for the first flight. To begin with, good 'ol DeGaulle airport makes you take a 30 minute shuttle ride to get to a gate that's about 50 feet away. Then I spent a wonderful three hours on an Air France cattle car filled with people who spent the entire flight stacked 10 deep waiting for the restroom. Needless to say I didn't use the restroom on the Flight.

We got into Moscow and through customs at about 7pm. The drive from the airport to the hotel was very interesting. Moscow met several expectations and had a few surprises. I was anticipating the Soviet-era dormitory-style buildings - large, grey, non-descript. I was surprised by how rapidly capitalism has taken hold here - obviously the roots of capitalism were seeded long before the fall of Communism. On the way in from the airport (which I'm not even going to begin to try and spell), there were several very modern malls with pretty far-out architecture and billboards on top of just about every building. From what I've seen, Moscow is one big Times Square in that regard. There is also a large Mercedes Benz presence in Moscow - clearly the US isn't the only former enemy of the USSR to be taking advantage of the market liberalization. There are also a lot of third-world elements - abandoned construction projects, shanty towns in the woods off the airport runway, etc. The center of Moscow has a European feel to it blended with remnants of the Soviet era as well as the rise of capitalism - lots of shopping and casinos.

After a long day of traveling, some classmates and I settled in for a laid-back night at the hotel bar, sampling some Russian beer and pub fare. I'm looking forward to seeing what the next week will bring.

- Tony