I am now sitting in the Departures Lounge of Vladivostok Airport (after a completely hair-raising trip through traffic that can only be described as Delhi-like) and have a few minutes to pen some thoughts on what has been a quite extraordinary trip. If truly rewarding travel is about anything, it is differentness: it is so easy to live in a first world bubble, even if you actually cover huge distances – the travel “product” is a global one, which is a shame in many ways, even if it plays to the vast majority of travellers for whom “chardonnay” needs to be understood wherever they go. Sitting among the exhausted tartars, the soldiers going on leave, the paralytic hostesses and the babuskas with more gold in their mouth than the Bank of England has in their vaults, it is possible to see another world.
And what a world it is. Earthy, uncompromising, honest, Russia is more at peace with itself than I had anticipated. In much the same way that Kruschev’s “Secret Speech” didn’t really bury the legacy of Stalin, the end of the Soviet era hasn’t changed things very much: it has struck me how similar things are since I studied in the Soviet Union 30 years ago, not how different. And whilst in the West we may despair of an economy too dependent on commodities, we can’t really talk when the only avenue open to wealth to seemingly educated Englishmen is to pile into property.
A word on the women: dangerous territory, I know. I could not quite put my finger on it for a while, but the reason why they look different to Western women in general is that they dress for men, not for each other: this is a world where male qualities are still relevant, and it is easy to see why. Violence is closer to the surface here, so sanctuary is important. Equally, business is done according to basic rules of power among networks of men, so they still represent important avenues for advancement. No “leaning in” here. Of course, there are so many things that whiff a bit as a result of this, but you cannot deny that one small consequence is that people are happier being their sex, as opposed to the timid androgyny of the Developed World.
Anyway, I must catch a plane. Tokyo here I come, where I will be reunited with my wife and son. I can’t wait!