Russia

WATCH: Nizhny Novgorod City Preview

England's World Cup fate has been decided. Gareth Southgate's men will have to navigate their way through a group containing Tunisia, Panama and Belgium to go one better than four years ago and reach the knockout stages. 

Of the three cities England will play in, Nizhny Novgorod is without doubt the most appealing. Centrally located, with excellent transport links and a rich history dating back to 1221, it is simply more enticing than Volgograd or Kaliningrad. England will play Panama in Nizhny, on paper their easiest fixture, so it could really be a city that the players and fans will enjoy. 

The Moscow Metro: An Underground Museum

The Moscow Metro is widely regarded as the most beautiful in the world. Intended to reflect the magnificent, radiant future that Soviet leaders envisaged when construction began in the 1930s, many of the stations are a joy to behold. The whole metro complex is an impressive blend of arches, columns, balconies and chandeliers, made of marble, glass, metal and stone. Forty four of the metro stations are cultural heritage sites. Often the metro feels like a museum, as tour guides lead groups round and statues loom over you. But it is first and foremost a transportation system, so rather than dwell on its beauty, I’ve compiled a little ranking system. 

Welcome to Moscow: A Georgian Hustle

An underground billiards bar in central Moscow. Customers blithely ignore anti-smoking laws and a tired-looking waitress slopes between the tables, handing out drinks. Kostya and Ivan, a pair of Georgian ‘businessmen’, watch through the gloom as two Englishmen struggle through a few games of Russian billiards. A couple of hours and several dodgy frames of pool later, the Georgians emerge with ₽1000 (around £13) to their names. The hustle is complete. A poorly executed and time-consuming hustle yes, but a hustle nonetheless. Could I have hoped for a finer return to Russian life?

Demistifying Siberia

There is no denying that Russia is a country riddled with controversy. Political corruption, powerful displays of military muscle and some questionable human rights laws are just a handful of the polemic issues that surround the country. I cannot condone many of Russia’s recent actions, be it the nation’s haphazard military intervention in Syria or the stance on LGBT equality. However, I would argue that the international response to these issues has been shambolic, demonstrating a total unawareness of Russian culture and customs. In short, the issues have been exacerbated by serious diplomatic misjudgements.

Life at -35

Sadly, Tomsk’s winter temperatures have not quite lived up to their billing or my expectations. I have not reached the magic -40 mark yet and I haven’t endured bitter cold for much longer than a few days. I haven’t succeeded in turning boiling water instantly to snow, but I did get to walk across a frozen river.

Despite the temperature not quite reaching ridiculous levels, it still has posed a few problems, which I would like to share with you now: 

Dating in Russia

I wish I could take this opportunity to wax lyrical about my newfound role in life as an international player, but alas, this would be an extremely short post. Nevertheless, I have inadvertently stumbled onto the odd date with a Russian, despite the best efforts of some mind-numbingly awkward attempts at flirting, which frequently grace my conversations. If I may, I would like to share some dating experiences with you.

The Russian Nightclub: Pros and Cons

The nightclub. A phenomenon in existence all over the world, largely based on the same premise: people of a certain age can dance, socialise and drink in a predetermined establishment. Of course, as with anything, cultural differences manifest themselves everywhere and the nightclub is no different. Below are my observations and thoughts on the Russian nightclub.

An Outsider Looking In: The Lowdown on Homophobia and Racism

Two deep-seated concerns have resurfaced in the world’s media this week, with regard to Russia’s capability of hosting two major sporting events: the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 World Cup. As ever with an the Olympics, people have questioned the cost and time management of Sochi’s organising committee, but on this occasion, it is the social problems of homophobia and racism that are attracting the headlines. Given my current location, I want to offer an insider’s view on both of these issues.

Road Safety: Five Rules Ignored in Russia

The rules of the road in Russia are difficult to determine. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they are utterly nonexistent. I embarked on a weekend away to Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city and capital of Siberia. Izzi and I were driven there by the delightful Pleshakova sisters, who will hopefully feature heavily in my Tomsk experience. Incidentally, Tomsk is the 32nd biggest city; I know some of you were wondering. Anyway, a complete lack of road safety and no rules is what I'm claiming to have experienced. You may think I am exaggerating somewhat; surely there must be some rules? Well, here are five rules that you might expect road users to adhere to, but quite simply, they don't:

1. In Russia, you drive on the right.

Yes. Well, not always. Rather alarmingly, on motorways, this 'guideline' seems to have been forgotten. The problem is that often the motorway is just a bog-standard road, your average single carriageway. As a result of this, the only way to overtake is to venture onto the other side of the road, something you might occasionally do in England, but not as a prerequisite for every single journey you make. Diving, darting and weaving are commonplace, with cars, buses and lorries all getting involved in the action, on corners, hills, everywhere. I found myself reminiscing about those wonderful "hidden dips!" signs we have at home... To be fair, there were 'no overtaking' signs on the road, but these are quite religiously ignored, exemplified by a one car overtaking a police car, next to one of these signs. The mind boggles... I genuinely believe that some drivers spend more time on the left hand side of the road, such is their addiction to absolute mayhem. And we did witness some carnage, the aftermath of a crash, presumably caused by one of these outrageous manoeuvres. Several cars were involved, one of which was fairly smashed up. It's safe to say that the atmosphere in our little Fiat Picanto became noticeably tenser...

2. Pedestrians are not allowed on motorways.

After my expedition to Novosibirsk, I can confirm that this is not true. Pedestrians can often be seen on the roadside, from hitchhikers to old ladies, selling baked goods. But the authorities even encourage this behaviour. The road briefly widened to a dual carriageway, which I assumed was to allow for overtaking and, as a result, greater speeds. But instead, a cafe appeared on one side and a toilet on the other, connected by a zebra crossing! Inside the cafe were the smells of meat soup and пирожки - pirozhki (pasty-type snacks), accompanied by the sound of screeching brakes and tyres as burly Russian truck drivers marched obstinately over the road. Strangely, stopping at zebra crossings seems to be the only thing that every driver does. I also nipped into the toilet, paying the 10 rouble surcharge (20p), only to be greeted by a hole in the ground. I can't decide whether I was more amused at paying 10 roubles to use a hole in the ground or at the fact that there were fully-functioning, electric hand-dryers but no locks or loo seats. On the bright side, it must have been worse for the girls.

3. The car on the roundabout has the right of way.

Now this one is a real brain-tickler. In Tomsk, the roundabouts are fairly orderly, working in much the same way as they do in the rest of the world: you wait until there's a space and then make your move. However, all of that changes when you arrive in Novosibirsk. For some bizarre reason, in Novosibirsk, the cars on the roundabout have to wait. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted. Miraculously, we weren't hit, but it was a close run thing. This happened about 2 days ago, and ever since I have been trying to work out what part of this is a good idea. Firstly, I would have thought that cars could pile up on the roundabout if they can't get off. Secondly, and more importantly, WHY does the rule change between cities?!? It is absolute nonsense.

4. Lights must be switched on at night.

Whether or not this is a rule, it falls under the common sense section of road safety, along with "look where you're going" and "open your eyes". Of course, at night you may as well do neither of the above if you're not even going to switch the lights on. But there was a bloke driving a rusty, old tractor (yes they're allowed on motorways too) without lights, but with a rather large trailer. I saw him as we went past and am glad that he was on the other side of the road...

5. Driving through roadworks is not permitted.

This is a bit of a strange one. Normally with roadworks, there's a diversion and signs for the drivers. Here, the road was closed for repairs, but instead of a nice diversion, there was the option of driving around the roadworks on a temporary road surface of stones and grass, before rejoining a few hundred metres later. Our vehicle wasn't built for 4x4 driving, but just about managed. In Russia, there's always a way. It's refreshing to know that just because the road has gone, it doesn't mean people will give up. They just get on with it.

Whatever the rule, Russians have a canny knack of getting around it. You have to admire their boldness, but as a cautious Brit, these things can be difficult to come to terms with. At least I know to be careful with the roads. Put it this way, I won't go and sit on the motorway with a 'no overtaking' sign any time soon...