How long does it take to convert from communism to capitalism? While Russia’s recent hard currency gains for oil exports may point to substantial progress, my recent experience in the Baltic city of St. Petersburg suggests that it takes longer than the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
My reasoning stems not from the Russian pursuit of a sale or the desire for cash – tourist prone areas are inundated with zealous trinket salespersons charging outlandish fees. My logic rests in the notion of the refined customer service that has become commonplace in the West, where every detail of a sale is designed to make the customer feel comfortable with their purchase. Unfortunately, this tacit knowledge has not become well ingrained in the Russian business sense.
Saint Petersburg is an extraordinarily beautiful city, built to be Russia’s ‘Window on the West,’ where ideas and goods from Western Europe and the New World could be exchanged. From the principles of the Enlightenment to pineapples of the Caribbean, Saint Petersburg ensured that Russia’s primarily land-locked status and lack of warm water ports would not detrimentally insulate the country from the rest of the world. Yet, a window’s visibility is a two-way street, prompting Peter the Great to build extraordinary temples to Russian grandiosity that would awe and humble Western observers. A visit to this amazing city still manages to achieve the same effect.
Once-upon-a -time, Russian traders were exemplary navigators of the international marketplace and were buying and selling goods for a tidy profit. However, their skills at commerce evaporated in 1917 when Lenin launched his Bolshevik revolution from this fabled city, plunging the country into a disastrous period of totalitarian communism for the next seventy years. Rejoining the world would require Saint Petersburg to once again become the window to learn from the West’s practices, and it would be here that I would catch a glimpse into the heart of Russia.
First impressions are omnipotent. Arriving by sea, my very first interaction was with a pursed lip, uniform-clad woman who proceeded to ignore my attempt to say “Good Morning” in Russian, examined my passport with the intensity of a forensic scientist before pounding it repeatedly with several stamps. Unfortunately, I know that my own country also instills the feeling that you are entering a prison when passing through its customs terminals, but if the inspectors must be grim and focused, then the least authorities can do is to incorporate the equivalent of the ‘Walmart Greeter’ into the process and hand you a shot of vodka.
“Hi! Welcome to Russia! Enjoy your stay with us! Here, have a drink comrade!”
When Peter the Great built his summer residence in the city in the 1700s, the possibility that it would be a draw for hordes of tourists 300 years later was probably fairly remote and he didn’t see the need to build restrooms, benches, or lay rubber walkways to protect the floors from so much foot traffic. However, customer service oriented managers in charge of the residence today would do just that. After hopping from one leg to the other in an effort to slip the medical booties on over my shoes in a room without chairs and packed with 30 others trying to do the same thing, we skated across Peter’s marble floors from one amazing room to another, soaking up brilliant elements of Russia’s illustrious history.
After walking, standing, and navigating the crowds inside the palace, nothing sounded better than to sit down outside and marvel at the palatial grounds where the fountains and statues gracefully stood side by side with lush green trees all the way down to the water’s edge in the distance. Concluding that a cold bottle of water or a place to sit was nowhere to be found on the residence, I decided to sit down on a set of stone stairs and take in the view. Seeing me take the lead, a heavy-set man with his shirt drenched in perspiration and on the verge of heat exhaustion followed and collapsed onto the steps a few feet away. No sooner had we gotten our bearings than a uniformed security guard rushed up to us barking orders in Russian. Judging by his curt arm movements, he wanted us to depart the stairs and go somewhere else. Seeking to avoid a one-way ticket to the gulag, I grudgingly complied. The exhausted man however launched into a tirade in English directed at the security guard before finally moving on.
Currencies are invariably a source of national pride. When the Germans surrendered their prized Deutsche Mark to the Euro or when Ecuador adopted the US Dollar as their official currency, there must have been a slight feeling of loss mixed in with the joyful prospect of greater economic gain. In Russia’s tourist sector, that dread of loss has hampered their ability to maximize their gains from Euro-sporting tourists. Finding a place that would accept my Euros in heavily touristed areas proved to be a serious challenge. Thus, when I finally found someone willing to sell a cold beverage amidst the sweltering heat, I could only hold out my hand filled with Euro coins in desperation for a water bottle sparkling with condensation before the vendor replied, “nyet.”
After a well-organized and tasty lunch inside a fortified, high security hotel that has hosted prominent politicians, we navigated the gruesome Saint Petersburg traffic to visit the onion-domed Church on Spilled Blood and the Peter and Paul Fortress before returning to the pursed lip border guard for another round of authoritarian passport stamping. Needless to say that I was excited to return aboard my ship feeling enriched by Russian architecture and history. However, after 20 years into the post-communist era, the fine art of customer service is still lacking in Saint Petersburg. While it may not hinder the flow of tourists in the short-term, the city’s strategic development plans must focus on empathy for the savvy traveler fresh from other Baltic states like Estonia and Denmark where the art of customer service has been mastered.
Someday, I look forward to returning to Saint Petersburg to explore the sights that I missed, like the tremendous art collection at the Hermitage Museum. Here’s hoping that the city’s services will have improved and do not take another 20 years to develop. However, I think I’ll bring my own water and rubles – just in case.