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.