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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

This is St. Petersburg

Never do things turn out as you expect; I should have expected nothing less in moving to Russia.

It has been a month since we landed at Pulkovo airport, but only today did I feel that I actually 'live' here. Despite my hope that my summer would abound with free time to read and write, each day has flown by with a series of small tasks, whose size alone could not predict the induced stress and required time to complete. Yesterday, we visited a friend that was holding part of our luggage while we searched for an apartment. I timed the 9-mile journey: 8 minutes walking to the bus stop; 13 minutes riding to the Metro station after waiting nearly five. We spent another 39 minutes total in the subway (three lines, two transfers), after which we walked 8 minutes to another bus stop and waited 4 minutes for the right bus, which drove 8 minutes to our stop. Only 10 minutes of walking remained (that's 95 minutes total) before we took an elevator to the ninth floor and called victoriously through the door: "Мы пришли!"
"The Crimson Drawing Room", Yusupovskiy Palace

I miss my car and my freeways, but really we shouldn't complain. In exchange, I am living in the heart of a world-famous city that is ripe with history and cultural opportunity.

So perhaps I should begin with the good news? After more than two weeks of searching, we found a comfortable, clean apartment on one of the most famous streets in all of Russia: the Moika river embankment (Набережная реки Мойки). Alexander Pushkin once lived on the same, along with countless Russian nobles during the imperial age. Our apartment building—built in 1862 by a noble family for naval officers—faces the river, on which boats full of tourists or unwinding locals continually pass. Only a 5-minute walk takes us to St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral (Никольский Собор), the Neva River (see below), or the famous Yusupov Palace (Юсуповский Дворец; worth a Google-image search), in which Rasputin was assassinated shortly before the family was forced to flee Russia by rising revolution.

About 1:30 AM, the bridges of the Neva open for oversized traffic.

It was not without trial, however, that we recaptured what I came to know as a 'romanticized' view of the city. During my visit in December, we did not venture far outside of the 'Noble' city center. Upon our arrival, we soon learned that the most of St. Petersburg is not unlike any other Russian city: endless blocks are filled with familiar Soviet infrastructure and architecture; public trash cans overflow onto the streets and parks; cigarette smoke bellows from sad faces with a beer in one hand and a baby stroller in the other; excessive graffiti marks otherwise historical monuments, to which rusty metal doors offer little invitation; constant traffic inspires every driver to act as though he/she is transporting a woman in labor on a reality TV show. More importantly, however, we now had to deal with a range of services (from real estate markets to mobile phone providers to educational institutions) not used by tourists, as well as the peculiarities produced by a free market catered to Russian demands (of which common courtesy is not one!).

To be fair, we Americans share many of these habits and attitudes toward ourselves and our own cities, which are far from spotless. I think we just tend to 'hide' them better with countless misdemeanor laws. Though these laws exist in Russia, the police have no interest in enforcing them and the fines are so minimal (about $3 for speeding ~10 km/hr over the limit) so as to be ineffective. And though we take pride in our smiling faces behind the counter, a sincere care for strangers is notably rare.

Russian Real Estate

This common wooden flooring is creaky and
hygienically suspect, but quite durable!
Our greatest challenge by far was finding a permanent residency. After staying a weekend with friends, we managed to find a temporary 2-room apartment for rent. Although the conditions of the 80-year-old apartment were somewhat shocking at first, by the end of our weeklong stay (half the price of a hotel) we were very surprisingly comfortable and desired not to leave. This apartment was located downtown, one-block from Nevsky Prospect and Moscow Train station (i.e. the station from which trains depart toward Moscow), which made it a convenient, central point from which to explore the city. We did not anticipate, however, the complexities of the local real estate market. In fact, I would like to suggest to any entrepreneurs that one could turn a significant profit by streamlining this process.

If you want to find an apartment in the U.S., the process is rather straightforward and simple, especially if you have a neighborhood in mind. With internet access, you can basically 'walk' your prospective streets on Google maps until you find a nice looking complex, or sift through pages of website databases that sort by price, amenities, etc. In either case, you need only call the office to inquire about details or check out their website to find numerous pictures of each model. If you're in the area during business hours, you can even drop in for an immediate showing of available units. Rinse and repeat until you are satisfied with your new residence.

A very typical Russian kitchen: small, with
small appliances (including the washing
machine!) and minimal counter space.
Let's take a step back 80 years, and forward twelve time zones.

During the Soviet era, every piece of property was nationalized. Your residence was essentially assigned to you, and tenants had no liberty to move around or upgrade to different units (though a waiting list was available). On the one hand, you could enjoy life without the anxiety of mortgage payments and potential loan defaults. In exchange, however, three-generation families typically lived in a cozy, but incredibly tight space (300–600 square feet). Showers were nonexistent and bathtubs were a luxury. Many buildings were not even designed to carry them, as bathing was reserved for a weekly trip to the communal bathhouse (banya). The familiar 'blocky' Brezhnevka units, produced in mass during the late 60's, were notably cold from the concrete walls/floors and visually unappealing, but they were a significant step up for those living in 'Kommunalki', or Communal Apartments.

Everything changed with the post-Soviet 'reconstruction' era, when all property was instantly privatized. This meant that each family inherited the apartment(s) in which they lived. No mortgage, no rent; it was yours. Moreover, any family fortunate enough to have turned a profit in the free, but fierce, market could finally purchase something newer, bigger, and better. Enter the modern Russian real-estate market.
Somewhat reminiscent of my own childhood,
metal swings and teeter-totters fill the yards.

Although newly constructed apartment buildings appeared very slowly in the 1990's, vacancies abounded as millions of Russians fled through recently opened borders. Even today, many landlords of Russian apartments live abroad and rent out by giving power of attorney to friends/family (keep this concept in mind). The owners of our temporary home, for example, live in Germany and typically rent the place to international students at ~50% above market price. As an aside, most landlords prefer to deal only in cash, for it allows them to hide their supplemental income from being taxed. Since ~100% of your rent payment is income for the landlord, and the average rent and average salary are approximately equal, it pays well to be a landlord in Russia.

So what does all this mean for the potential letter of a Russian apartment? First, there is no such thing as a commercial 'apartment complex' with a manager's office, website, model units, and the like. Each individual unit is privately owned. Consequently, you can find vacancies only by word of mouth, internet databases, or real estate agencies. Second, the demand for apartments in major cities is extremely high, so you can hardly afford to be picky. Unless you work in the oil industry, your best economic opportunities are in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and the Volga cities. Russia is second only to the U.S. in terms of immigration, moreover, so thousands of new workers flood these cities each year, hoping for a chance to send money back home (in fact, the political parallels in immigration debates between the U.S./Mexico and Russia/former Soviet Republics are striking, right down to the cultural stereotypes). Lastly, where there is money, there is fraud and corruption. Renting an apartment from a crook is a common way to lose your savings.

The Search

Since real estate agents understand the market demands, they do very little work for too much money. In major cities, you can expect to pay 100% of the monthly rent as a "finder's fee" to the agent, and unless you are well connected or extremely patient, agents are necessary to your search. Very few are courteous/helpful, and many will not even take the trouble to e-mail you photos. Online databases are a tempting place to start, but once you call the number on the ad, you are likely to hear the following:

"Hello, I am calling about ad online for the apartment on Soviet street." "Sorry, it has been rented out. What are you looking for?" "We need a place with x, y, and z, no more than such and such price, near this metro station." "And who will be renting?" "We are a young couple, husband and wife, no kids or pets." "Both Russian?" "No, one is American." "White or black?" "White." "Good. Let me search and I will call you back."

We found that many ads are left posted because they draw a lot of calls, despite the fact that the unit is unavailable. Also, if you are single, or have kids, pets, or a face that doesn't look Russian or 'western European', your choices will be limited. At this point, the agent will search the common database (a highly specialized task, I know) and call back several hours later with some options:

"Hello, I found four apartments! Here are the addresses and specifications. Would you like to see any of them?" "Yes, the third one sounds nice." "Okay, I will call you back with an appointment time."

Now the agent will call another agent, who will call the apartment owner about a showing time, since the agents themselves do not have access to each apartment. Once the owner returns the call, the other agent returns his/her call, and you will hear back from the first agent within...1–2 days. You may have figured out by this point that working with multiple agents simultaneously can speed up the process.

Now it's time to see the apartment. Making your way across town can take up to an hour or more, so be sure you have no other priorities in life. Keep in mind also that 90% of apartments here are barely livable by modern standards, so you must give each the benefit of the doubt. Nonetheless, on three occasions we didn't even make it to the building before deciding 'absolutely not'. On three other occasions, even the realtor was shocked at the condition of the apartment. In two cases, the kitchen was in the hallway; once the bathroom was in the kitchen (I couldn't make that up). Sometimes the elevator worked, but just barely, and life's too precious to trust equipment with that much rust. Other times, the elevator was turned off to preserve power, or there was no elevator at all. Sometimes the real estate agents would smoke and talk on their phone while showing you the apartment. Often the address you were given was not the actual address, so the online street view would become a shattered dream. And as a last reminder, '10-minute walk from the Metro station' seems to be code for 'a 20-minute jog'.

To complicate matters (though for our own benefit), we received some friendly advice on how not to get scammed. Consider the following for future reference:

1. Never sign a lease with anyone but the owner of the apartment. Even if the unit is rented via Power of Attorney, the owner can arbitrarily vacate the premise ("Sorry, my family wants to visit St. Petersburg, so you'll have to move out now"). Demand to see the papers proving ownership before signing the agreement.

2. That being said, do not deal with realtors alone. The agents are nothing but middlemen, who profit by hiding information from you and from the owner. They make no guarantees and their fees are non-refundable.

3. Try out everything—stove, fridge, faucets (both cold and hot), bed, bath, shower, and toilet. Even do some business and make sure it flushes. Apartments are not likely to come with free maintenance.

4. Take pictures of all original documents. If you can, take pictures of the realtors themselves. It is not uncommon for crooks to rent an apartment temporarily using a forged passport, and then impersonate a real estate agent with a forged Power of Attorney to rent it to you, the hopeful tenant. If they are successful, they will make off with the agent fee, first month's rent, and a security deposit (~$2–3,000 total), while you are stuck with a set of keys that don't even fit the lock.

Next stop, St. Isaac's Cathedral—an architect-
ural masterpiece and cultural icon. View from
our street.
5. That being said, sign the lease and pay the fees inside the apartment with owner and realtors present. If everything works in your favor, you will never see the agents again; make sure you have no reason to. On the other hand, you will deal with the owner regularly. It is good to leave an endearing impression.

6. Lastly, don't be afraid to bargain and pretend that you are poor. Although market demand is high, and the odds are not in your favor, every case is different—you might get lucky! In our case, the owner was willing to replace the stove and sink, install a dishwasher, and redo the main plumbing at no cost, just to make it comfortable and presentable to her American tenant. We were very blessed.

At last, a place to call home

We did not expect to find a reasonably priced residence in the heart of the city, but rarely do things turn out as you expect. We faced none of the worries implied by the points of advice above and were rather shocked by the grace and kindness of our landlord. By the kind providence of God, we have come to experience that romantic perception and may live comfortably in what once was Peter's noble bastion, what became Leningrad—the city of heroes—and what is now a piece of living history. The neighborhood is both beautiful and friendly; numerous grocers, restaurants, and bus stops are within short walking distance. On that note, if any of you find the opportunity to visit St. Petersburg, do not hesitate to contact me. We'd be happy to show you around the city.

White Nights

View looking north in mid-June, ~2 AM.
In St. Petersburg, part of the summer is devoted to celebrating "White Nights" with nightly fireworks, concerts, and heavy pedestrian traffic past midnight. At 59.5° N latitude, the summer nights scarcely end. Jet lag is a challenge wherever you go, but here it was complicated by the lack of regular darkness. After the first week, we had adjusted to the Russian time zone; after two weeks, we nearly adjusted forward to PST. It is difficult to convince oneself that it is time to sleep when the sun never sets completely. On a clear night at 2 AM, it appears to be sunset, until you realize that the sun is 'setting' in the north—not the west. At 4 AM, it is fully bright again. Nonetheless, we enjoyed many late-night walks along the riverbanks of the Neva and Moika. It is a brilliant contrast to the cold, dark winter we had previously experienced.

What's next?

Now that we are settled in, my goals are simple: take advantage of the university to learn Russian more fluently; complete field work on several geological projects; write some posts about the latest in YEC news; eat lots of soup, pelmeni, pirogi, and chocolate; drink lots of tea, but only a little vodka; enjoy the city, especially its museums; and of course, stay healthy and have fun. The tea/chocolate are perhaps the most pertinent.

I hope this personalized detour has kept your interest. I will end here with some photos that didn't make it into the main text. See you next time.

St. Petersburg–Helsinki–Tallinn–Stockholm–Copenhagen;
sail the Baltic at a reasonable price! The port is a 5-minute walk
from us. (Photo taken from the bridge in the video above.)

Artificial zoom on the iPhone: just good enough to capture the midnight
skyline along the Neva.

Sleepy? Marry a Yusupov.

Arched entrance to "New Holland" island, built in Peter I's
time to house lumber for the shipyards and naval prisoners.
View looking across the Moika river from our street.
Looking west down the Moika; New Holland Island on the right.

I've always wanted a circular love seat under a hemispheric ceiling...

The concert hall and dance floor became deceptively large with the raised ceiling and its fleeting geometry, as well as  mirrors on both walls. Keep that in mind when designing your next home.

Did Alexander Pushkin leave a personalized copy of Homer's Iliad on your bookshelf, too? Strangely, I had an easier time reading the Greek on this page than the Russian translation...

This art gallery (i.e. the hallway connecting the concert hall to the theater) was once filled with a private collection that rivaled most in Europe. Note the skylight and brightly toned walls to illuminate the canvas paintings.

This hallway connects to the prior...

And leads here: another art gallery, which connects to the theater. The door on top is for the family 'box seats', while the stairs lead down to the guest seating (including those for the Emperor).

"Because it's my house, and I want to be noticed when I invite world-class musicians and thespians to entertain me and my guests." This has to be one of the most beautiful theaters around. Fortunately, the Russian educational ministry has kept it open for the occasional play/concert.

The stage is apparently as large as the theater itself, though it is hidden by curtains. Also hidden is the orchestra pit with seating for twelve musicians (look for the gap before the stage).
St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral. We happened to pass it on one of our walks downtown (of course, it's hard to miss).
This inspirational monument watches over Palace Square (see below).
Hermitage Museum (former Winter Palace of the Emperor). View from Palace Square.
I saw the masts from our apartment window and had to take a look. Can I steer?
View of the Izhora Plateau from Dudergof—one of several hills that breaks the flat landscape. During WWII, the city of Leningrad was under siege for 2 1/2 years. Hitler fully expected to capture it swiftly, rename it Adolfsburg, and then move forward to take Moscow. Instead, he was met with fierce resistance by a starving population. The campaign inflicted more than 1.5 million deaths—many of whom were civilians—but ultimately failed, nonetheless making it the most deadly in history. Essential to the siege was constant bombing from artillery, which gained a vantage point from this and other hills.
Speaking of German artillery...
View from the adjacent hill.
Ordovician carbonate strata underly much of the landscape (part of a field trip with the Physical Geography class at the university).

Something serene about the Russian summer cottage... Photo taken on the Izhora Plateau.