Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Forsaken Russia


Map picture


The Forsaken Russia

The Kamchatsky Peninsula of Russia is one of the most isolated regions of that country. The area is so remote that it is not even connected to the rest of Russia by road. The only way to enter this area is by sea or by aircraft. We visited the only city in the Peninsula, Petropavlovsk.

Petropavlosk, Russia

Until around 20 years ago, it was a closely controlled military district closed to anyone who did not have special authorization to enter its confines. During the Cold War, its natural harbor and close proximity to the United States made it an important military installation. At the height of the military occupation, it was home to over 300,000 people. It was built in the typical Soviet style of the time, in a very haphazard fashion, cheaply, and with a senseless jumble of Soviet Style high-rise apartment buildings scattered about.

Today, that drab history is readily apparent; in fact, we saw almost nothing that was new. Prior to our arrival, we were warned that the authorities here would act in a way that was reminiscent of the old Soviet days. They would be very dogmatic, frustrating, and would constantly change entry requirements. We were advised to simply be patient. So it was no surprise that after dropping anchor shortly after dawn, clearance for us to tender ashore did not arrive until around 9am. By that time, each and every passport had already been closely examined. That, however, did not stop the authorities from inspecting each and every passport again in great detail as we departed the ship. Poor Lisa had to stand so long while they went over her documents that I begin to believe we might have a problem. Not one of the officials would smile, and each looked at us as if we should be immediately arrested.

Finally our tender departed for shore, where buses were waiting to show us the sights.Petropavlosk, Russia After we were all on the bus, our guide gave the obligatory warning to the effect that roads in this part of the world were not in good shape and that everyone was required by the authorities to put on their seatbelt. There was only one little problem: there were no seatbelts on the bus, but clearly that did not bother the guide, he had done his duty and advised us!

He got the part about the “bad” roads correct. Most of the roads in town were simply dirt packed. The few “main” roads were in a manner “paved,” or at least had been at one point. Today they were a hazardous pot holed mess that would have been better left “unpaved.” As we drove through town, all I could think about was what a drab place this was.Petropavlosk, Russia It was dirty, the buildings were shabby, and the streets filled with trash.

Our bus did the best it could climbing a nearby hill to take us to a “beautiful” overlook, but at times I really did not think the poor thing would make it to the top.Petropavlosk, Russia Once there, we stepped off into a trash filled walk littered with broken glass and other assorted garbage. Sadly the day was not a clear one because the city is surrounded by 150 volcanoes, 29 of which are still active, so the vista could have been stunning. The snow line started at the level of the lookout, so I can only imagine just how pretty it would have been to look on the snowcapped peaks surrounding us.Petropavlosk, Russia Instead all we had before us was a drab little town that truly would be a great place to be FROM. In fact, someone asked our guide if he was going to stay in Petropavlovsk, and he looked as if the questioner was nuts.

Leaving our” picturesque” lookout, we labored back downhill to visit the military museum.Petropavlosk, Russia It was a very small two story building painted a pleasant blue on the front, and falling apart on the sides. Our group was quite small, but even so, we filled the entryway. For the next 90 minutes a typical little older Russian lady wielding a conductor’s baton labored mightily to describe in great detail each and every item in their displays. No item was too small to merit her attention, and just to add enjoyment to the excruciating experience, she spoke only in Russian. So after she would finish, we all had to stand admiringly while our guide translated into English. Normally I would have run outside screaming for fresh air, but it was clear that would be considered very rude, and in addition, they did not want us just wandering around on our own.

After the museum, we were driven to a beautiful small Russian Orthodox Church which was surrounded by slums.Petropavlosk, Russia Before we arrived, our guide went to great length to explain that while the area to which we were going might look like a slum, it was not really one. It was just old and built from whatever material was available to people at the time.Petropavlosk, Russia A slum is a slum – you can look at the pictures and decide for yourself, slum or not. Our next stop was the newly re-built Orthodox Cathedral. During Soviet times, all churches had been destroyed so they are being re-built. This was a pretty building that had been recently consecrated, but which was not yet finished on the inside. Petropavlosk, RussiaSo--our stop took just minutes in order to allow us time to take a photograph and jump back on the bus. A quick stop at the market marked our last visit point, but along the way I did learn a few interesting items.

First, all of the buildings in the city are heated with steam provided by a central power plant. We saw large steam pipes running everywhere. According to the guide, this was not an efficient way to provide heat and it was expensive. It also allowed the authorities to decide when to turn the heat off each spring. They always seemed to do it early, and then when a cold night hit, the city enjoyed a nice chilly evening. The population of the town today has declined to 200,000, and is continuing to drop. During the Soviet era, people came to work in Petropavlovsk because wages were double what could be earned elsewhere in Russia. Also at the time, the price of goods was uniform across the entire country. Today wages in this area still run high, but now that the cost of goods is free to float, prices in the area are more than double that of the mainland because it cost so much to import supplies to this desolate region. The only real industry today is still the military presence. Petropavlovsk is home to one of Russia’s largest nuclear submarine bases.

Speaking of wages, our guide told us that the average salary of a worker was $400/ mo. A college teacher could earn upwards of $800/ mo., and a physician as much as $1,000/ mo. However, if you wanted a good income, the place to be was in the military. A young lieutenant just graduating from the academy will earn over $1,000/ mo., plus as a military officer, he is entitled to many nice perks. As that officer advances, it will be quite common for him to earn over $4,000/ mo. Our guide said that many people were openly beginning to question such a situation.

Returning to our ship around 2pm., we had to undergo the entire immigrations screening in reverse. Then all of the passports were taken to a large room filled with officials who did whatever it is they do for yet another two hours before the ship was finally cleared for departure.

Saying our farewells to Petropavlovsk was not too difficult for us, after which we set our course due East towards Alaska.

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