Capitalist Pigs


This blog entry about the events of Thursday, July 29, 2004 was originally posted on August 07, 2004.

DAY 285:  Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I always knew Russia as the U.S.S.R., the Soviet Union, a place where citizens living under the system of Communism drank vodka and stood on really long lines at the government store to buy toilet paper.  On a national scale, they were America’s adversary since the beginning of the Cold War, a formidable competitor in the space race, the arms race and boxing in Rocky IV.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ruskies are now America’s new best comrades, perhaps because American and other Western companies can go over to Russia and make money — and vice versa to American and Western tourists.  Capitalism reigns supreme in Russia’s capital as I was soon to find out.

I FLEW INTO MOSCOW FROM PRAGUE on Aeroflot Airlines and right away Russians were trying to make a profit off of me.  The entry visa I got issued in Paris cleared problem free, but once out into the arrivals hall, I was bombarded by taxi drivers all trying to get me somewhere in their cars.  One guy followed me.

“You need taxi?  I have official yellow taxi,” he said in his yellow shirt and Russian accent.

“No, I’m okay.  Thank you.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m meeting a friend.  I don’t know if I’m meeting him here or at the hotel.”  I was hoping my bluff of things to do would get ride of him, but it didn’t.

“Which hotel?”

“The Hotel Rossiya.”

“Ah, central Moscow.”  He pulled out a laminated slip of paper with prices.  “For central Moscow it’s eight-six dollars [US].  Are you student?”

“Uh, yes.”

“For you, sixty.  Okay, let’s go.”

“I have to wait for my friend.”

“Maybe later?”


I went on line for the official information desk to see if there was a cheaper way, a shuttle bus or train or something.  They told me if it was my first time in Russia, the Metro would be too confusing with its signs in the Cyrillic alphabet, and that I’d be better off taking a taxi.

“How much should it be?” I asked.

“About fifty dollars,” the woman said. 

Wow, fifty bucks?  Maybe it’s true what Lonely Planet says; Moscow is the second most expensive city in the world after Tokyo.

Yellow Taxi Man was still lurking and offered his services again.  I bluffed with having to make a phone call, but he just lent me his cell phone.  So I called the hotel and let it ring, told him there was no answer and went with him outside to see his taxi.  I checked his ID and everything seemed okay, although how was I supposed to know what an official ID looks like?

“The woman at the information booth said it should be fifty.”

“Fifty?  Okay,” he said with no argument.  he called one of the official-looking yellow taxis over and gave the non-English-speaking driver directions.  I paid him the 1500 roubles ($50 USD) and went off.  Immediately I felt wary of what I had just done, but at the same time was enthralled that I was “back in the game” of uncertainty, after predictable train travel through Western Europe.

How come we’re in the countryside?  Shouldn’t there be a major highway or something into the city? I thought.

I kept an eye on my driver for any questionable behavior, but it turned out that he was just trying to avoid traffic by taking a shortcut.  Soon we were on a highway into the city center and eventually to the Hotel Rossiya right outside Red Square and the Kremlin, where my friend Sam (the behind-the-scenes guy who helped set up my entry into Russia) had made us a reservation.

Sam was passed out in the room after a long, tiring two days of connecting flights and lost luggage since departure from San Francisco.

“How much did you pay for a taxi from the airport?” I asked him.

“Don’t tell me you paid—”

“The information booth said it should be fifty, so I paid fifty.”

“I got here for twenty three.”

Yes, capitalism was alive and well in Russia.

I HAD MET SAM IN FEBRUARY 2002, in a much cheaper taxi ride from an airport.  Both eager young travelers, we had touched down at the same time in Ushuaia, Argentina on the southern tip of South America and we split a cab for about a dollar each to the docks.  From there, we hopped on a ten-day expedition cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula, where we became good friends and future travel buddies.  In 2003 we met up in Australia and traveled together for about a week through Sydney, Melbourne and Uluru.  A year later we planned on meeting in 2004 at St. Basil’s Cathedral near Red Square (our first encounter on the northern hemisphere).  Luckily for me I decided to drop my bags off in the room first, only to find him not waiting at the famous Russian cathedral, but passed out in his bed.

Splurging on a former Soviet, but swanky hotel with a prime location, we were staying at the Hotel Rossiya.  It was listed in the latest but still outdated Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook in the budget places to stay section, but at $145 USD a room for two, I hated to see what a high-end place went for.  No matter, it was all about location, and our window looked out right to the Kremlin wall at St. Basil’s Cathedral itself.

Making the most of the rest of the day before both of us passed out from exhaustion, Sam and I went to get our bearing and see the immediate sights.  We walked through Red Square, outside the eastern wall of the Kremlin, the site of Lenin’s tomb, the State History Museum and St. Basil’s Cathedral (picture above), arguably the iconic building of Russia ever since it appeared as the background image of level one in Tetris, where the blocks still fall really slow.

“This is so cool,” Sam said with enthusiasm, walking down Red Square, the former symbol of Communism.  “Red Square.  We’re not supposed to be here and now they want to be like us.”

By “us” he was referring to us American capitalists buying and selling goods and services in a free enterprise.  Capitalism had really taken its toll since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union — Moscow had American chain restaurants, a Sephora and an Ikea — and it was most exemplified in the GUM State Department Store, once the place where Communist citizens stood on lines to get their ordinary goods, but now stood as one of the most extravagant (and most expensive) shopping malls I’ve seen in the world.  Louis Vitton, Hugo Boss and Christian Dior now filled its store spaces, all in an architectural masterpiece that reminded me of a multi-level Venice with no water.

“U vas est Starbucks?” Sam asked a woman working in a store.  We figured a place like GUM would have a branch of the capitalist coffee empire — it didn’t hurt to ask — but the woman just laughed.  We settled on a local cafe on a balcony overlooking the mall promenade for cappuccinos and Russian cream puff desserts.

EVERYTHING WRITTEN IN RUSSIAN is in the Cyrillic alphabet, which has some letter from the western Roman alphabet, some of them written backwards or inverted, and some letters, one of which looks like a simple drawing of a squashed bug.  Sam had time before arrival into Russia to brush up on his Cyrillic (I was too busy Blogging) and taught me the pronunciation rules.  For example, P, O, C, C, backwards N, backwards R is pronounced “Rossiya,” the name of our hotel.  Any Russian written in Roman characters is not actually Russian, but the phonetic spelling of how the actually written Russian word is spoken.  I started to get the hang of the Cyrillic alphabet with the help of Sam and the help of the logos of American chain restaurants like Sbarro and TGI Friday’s, which used the same logos in the other alphabet. 

And speaking of American chain restaurants, none is more famous than the original location of McDonald’s in Russia, one of the first “American embassies” of fast food in Moscow when capitalism began seeping in.  Sam figured his way with the Cyrillic signs of Moscow’s intricate Metro system and soon we were at the famous original location of the Golden Arches, a fairly big place decorated with statues of world monuments.  I was hoping there would be some country-specific item on the menu like I’d seen in other places, but there was none, so I settled on a good ol’ American fusion of an upper-case E and lowercase b, backwards N, upside-down inverted L, M, A, K, or “Big Mac.”

“Do you realize we’re in Russia and the two things we’ve asked for are Starbucks and McDonald’s?” I pointed out to Sam, laughing while munching on one of “America’s favorite fries.”  “I’m going to call this entry ‘Capitalist Pigs.’”

Keeping with the newly-realized theme of the day, we walked passed Moscow’s Vegas-like strip of capitalist casinos and went to Moscow’s branch of the Hard Rock Cafe on Arbat Street — the pedestrian mall once a haven for artists and writers but had been overridden by trendy cafes, bars and restaurant — so Sam could buy yet another shot glass in the souvenir store for his collection of them from the many world cities he’d been to. 

Tired, we headed back to our hotel that night via the Metro system, with its beautifully designed and constructed underground stations with theme sculptures in each of the main stations that doubled as bomb shelters — they were about twenty stories below street level.  We walked back through Red Square and that building from Tetris to the Hotel P, O, C, C, backwards N, backwards R.

“No more American tomorrow,” Sam said, ashamed of our stereotypical American tourist behavior of the day.

We both passed out from our long mornings of travel and long afternoon of sightseeing through the new capitalist country while watching the American Reality TV channel.

Next entry: Classic Russia

Previous entry: Classical, Hip Hop and the Ghosts In Between

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Comments for “Capitalist Pigs”

  • Wow, everyone must still be sleeping in N.A.  Love the pic of Basil’s Cathedral at night. 
    I thought you could get arrested for taking pics of the metro stations - they’re still considered military places.  Were you doing it with the spy cam?

    Posted by Liz  on  08/07  at  03:37 PM

  • Well, I woke up and checked to see if Erik was back in ‘business’, and he was!  so I HAD to take some time out to get caught up on the posts! 

    Erik: Great pics and as usual great writing!  Have fun in Russia!  (guess you couldn’t make it down to my country (not that I’ve ever been there; Armenia) If you meet any Armenian people there, tell them a compatriot from NY says hello, lol.

    Now…I MUST go take one last boat ride on my soon to be sold boat.  With the car already gone, and soon the boat, I should feel sad…but all I feel is more ‘free’.  With my free place to live, and no cell phone anymore, my ONLY bills left are my cable and regular phone bill.  Now, if I can just find a way to get free high speed internet access from home…

    Catch’ya all later!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/07  at  07:08 PM

  • 20 stories below…did they install mobile “towers” down there?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/07  at  08:01 PM

  • Man, if you think the Moscow stations are deep, you should get to St Petersburg - they’re even deeper. Some of the stations are so far underground, you can’t see the light at the top. And, your ears pop on the way up!! Some of the stations outside the ring in Moscow aren’t AS deep… I’m so jealous.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/08  at  09:50 AM

  • Thanks for bringing back memories of Russia for me =)  Things still look the same from my trip about 11 years ago (minus GUM).

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/08  at  07:52 PM

  • Yvette - I would completely agree! I didn’t go into GUM in 93, but it was there. Oh - question for you, Erik, did you get a chance to watch the changing of the guard at the gate to the Left of Lenin’s tomb?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/09  at  12:58 AM

  • Very cool pics, as always. I saved the cathedral at night pic—it’s a keeper!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/09  at  02:37 AM

  • LIZ:  Spy cam yes… like I always do…  although Sam took regular tourist photos with a flash and no one seemed to care; plus organized tour groups went through the classic stations as a tourist attraction.

    HARRY:  Wow, sounds like you’re on your way to “getting rid of your sheep…”  You’ll see it will be worth it in the end.

    MARKTY:  If I remember correctly, people did text on the Metro…

    YVETTE / NOELLE:  So what did GUM look like back then?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/09  at  10:23 AM

  • There were lines outside it, I don’t think we went into the building itself, but I just remember that it was giant. And there were a ton of people outside it. It looked like a lot of other buildings around there - big, imposing, gray. smile To a kid who was a sophomore in HS who hadn’t learned all of her 20th century history yet, it wasn’t too big a deal. It all fell into place after I took my next year’s humanity class.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/09  at  04:58 PM

  • Like Noelle - I didn’t go to GUM either.  But I’ve seen a lot of the sites you mentioned in these blogs - brings back lots of fun memories   =)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/09  at  05:54 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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