rome upside down
So the empire thing. The general attitude of Finland was "Look! Look at us! Look how beautiful we are, and also how Finnish! We've got a whole big world of culture that's distinctively Finnish! It can all stand on its own! It's so GOOD! It's so WELL-DESIGNED! We have so much pride in Finland and everything Finnish! We have saunas that will cure any trouble you have, and you can stop any Finn on the street and hear all about them! We think hard about how everything is experienced, and we want you to tell all your friends how lovely Finland is! You like us, please! Say you like us!" A couple of people have called it "a friendly little puppy of a country," but that's not quite true: it doesn't just want to be loved and paid attention to, it wants to send out waves of Finnish goodwill across the world.
St. Petersburg, on the other hand, is formally exquisite but totally surly. It's a real surprise to leave the Helsinki airport (spacious, hyper-contemporary, high-ceilinged, gleaming) and arrive an hour later at the St. Petersburg airport (flat, squat, sawdusty, grim). As we waited in line to get through customs, there was a woman in a military outfit stomping around in four-inch spike heels, looking very bitter about something. For most official transactions, one pays in rubles; for everything else, everybody's much happier about greenbacks. (At e.g. state museums and the Kirov, ticket prices for foreigners are about ten times what they are for locals.)
The vibe toward Americans was generally "we need you but we hate you," as Chris Knox sang. There were many more signs in English than I was comfortable with, and many more free papers in English, too--one doesn't see too many free papers in Russian here in NYC. One night, Sasha was walking home alone from the nifty little veggie restaurant we found (called "The Idiot"--yes, in Roman characters--their menu was haltingly bilingual, their food and prices quite good, their vibe convivial and expat-centric, and Andras remembered it from a previous trip), and asked a policeman if he could point him toward the Hermitage. The guy shot him a look and didn't say anything. A few blocks later, a car pulled up with a few military police; they pulled Sasha over, demanded his passport, frisked him, searched him, and kept asking him "guns, drugs? guns, drugs?" After leaving him sitting around for a while, they gave him back his jacket and waved him away; as he was heading off, one of them yelled "Hermitage--that way."
It was not clear to me which the Russian restaurants where Russians eat were. We went to a very high-end place called something like Cafe Russia (I may have this wrong) where the food was superb, but the prices & general mood were such that I can't imagine locals eat there like ever. Ditto for the "'rustic'" wooden restaurant out in the country near Nicholas II's palace where we had a $35 prix-fixe multi-course lunch, complete with singing balalaika-and-accordion ensemble whose repertoire included "Tico-Tico No Fuba" (I was semi-expecting "Katrussja" and "La Paloma" too, but didn't hear either), and which had maybe two other patrons when we were there. I did go one afternoon to a little cafeteria with no English on its menu but lots of piles of very fresh vegetable salads, and by far the lowest prices of anywhere I ate. When I sat down at one of the communal tables, I noticed that the woman next to me was reading an Anglophone paper; chatted with her for a few minutes and found that she was in fact a translator/tour guide, who gave me her card and asked if I knew anybody else who was coming to town and might need her services. On reflection, I suspect that might be why she was sitting in the cafe reading an Anglophone paper.
I wrote about Russian MTV below, but the rest of Russian TV is pretty insane too. One news station had images from the war with no commentary at all; another was a German broadcast from some days ago (an occasional English bulletin at the bottom of the screen announced that the U.N. had decided to pull inspectors out of Iraq). After midnight, we found a station showing something that was clearly heavily inspired by The X-Files, except that the plot screeched to a halt every few minutes so that the female characters could take their shirts off and writhe around for a bit. There was also some kind of late-night art appreciation show, with a decrepit-looking fellow sitting at a desk in front of a battered paperback whose pages he never turned, monologuing with lots of hand gestures while a screen behind him showed a man walking very slowly through a museum that scrolled behind him as he stayed in the center of the frame and passed by one framed image after another. Sasha was providing a running commentary on what he imagined the guy was saying: "Here we have big picture of horse and landscape. Is good--landscape art, representational art, is very good. Pictures show people, animals, places, is good. Abstract impressionism? Is no good. Reminds me of time, middle of century, my whole family live in post office box. Color field? Is bullshit." There were also a few American sitcoms, translated rather than dubbed, exactly--one heard the original soundtrack with the translation lagging a few seconds behind it, in the style of translated political speeches on American news.