Oligarchs and Airport Beer: Dispatches from the Kremlin
Editor’s note: For context on why Max is flying from Perm to Yekaterinburg and not continuing on the Trans-Siberian Railway, please see Dispatch Three.
Before our adventure to the Far East continues, I must recall an episode from the shoebox-sized airport in Perm (which, I may have mentioned is the sketchiest place I have ever been, and I’ve been to Camden). There are a lot of memes about the Russian oligarchy, hierarchy, autocracy, bureaucracy, and whatever other terms you might want to bandy about, but we foreigners (even those of us who live in Russia) rarely tend to witness it firsthand other than applying for passports, buying train tickets, getting registered to work, etc. A great glimpse into the difficulties of modern Russian life can be found in the film Leviathan, released last year. Despite being a work of fiction, it rings especially true. I highly recommend it. In any case, I am really trying to paint a picture of two things: 1) how getting things done as an average person in Russia takes time, and 2) how those who are on top in Russia are treated quite differently by those who act as control gates for any sort of expediency for the rest of us. Unless I am very much mistaken, I got to experience firsthand just how ridiculous it can all get at the Perm airport.
As I mentioned, this airport was not only miniscule (a single, one-room terminal), but also highly disorganized and shady. One of my biggest concerns once we got to the airport was the lack of a bar in the registration area of the airport. I think most will agree that the airport beer is a close second to the shower beer, and in Perm, I was not ready to be deprived of one of life’s simple pleasures. I remember hoping that there might be a bar of sorts in the terminal, though I was not optimistic.
Concerned about missing our flight, we got in line for the security checkpoint. If there was one upside to the Perm airport, it was that security was about as tight as the marijuana laws in Amsterdam. We breezed through without having to remove our belts or shoes and entered into what looked more like a doctor’s office waiting room than an airport terminal. To my surprise, there stood a very grumpy looking bar maid behind a counter, adorned with butterbrodi (pieces of bread with cheese and meat on them), small bottles of wine, and a few draft brews! I even saw some labels that I did not recognize, assuming them to be “local,” and hastily asked for a half liter of Perm’s finest. As is commonplace in Russia, the draft lines were empty and I was forced to settle for a very overpriced bottle of Heineken.
As I sipped my overpriced brew, I began to wonder if we had made a mistake regarding our terminal, as there had been no announcement that our flight was even scheduled. Was there another terminal? Were we in the right airport? I figured if we were in the wrong place, it was already too late, and that fact merited another pricy Heineken. Our flight was not announced until about halfway through my second beer. I did my best to polish it off quickly, and hustled to the “shuttle bus” (read: unmarked panel van that you wouldn’t want to see outside a school) that would take us to our equally tiny plane about three minutes before our scheduled departure. I was quite nervous that we were going to miss the flight because no one seemed to know where we were going. Furthermore, the lady who locked and unlocked the doors leading out to the murder van boarding area decided to go on break about 10 minutes before we were scheduled to leave.
Anyone who has been to Russia knows that the only time Russian employees are punctual is when it’s time for their break. Unfortunately, they tend to be less concerned with timeliness when they need to actually get back to work. So, when the time came to get on our shuttle, airport workers outside of the airport were unable to let us out through the doors, because the literal keeper of the keys had locked them before going on break. Official positions such as “Keymaster, Perm Airport” are common in Russia. For example, there is usually a woman who sits in a little glass box at the bottom of most escalators in the Moscow Metro whose job responsibilities largely consist of yelling at commuters to stay on the right side of the escalator if they are standing (no word on if WMATA plans to hire these women, despite the compelling need). Occasionally, glass-box-yelling-lady has to stop the escalator if someone falls (these escalators move fast), so you could say it’s not an entirely one-dimensional, pointless job. In the case of the Perm Airport Keymaster, all was sorted out after the airport employees on the other side of the doors spent a few desperate moments on their radios trying to locate her. Visibly upset that her break had been interrupted by a bunch of antsy travelers, she bustled in, opened the doors, and let us out into the fresh Ural air. I’m fairly certain she went straight back to her break after releasing us from the hell that is Perm’s airport.
We piled into the murder van and, as is tradition in Russia, idled for a good few minutes. I began to wish that I had packed a to-go cup. Russia is pretty similar to a few American states regarding open container laws, as in, as long as you are not driving, feel free to enjoy a few road snacks. I think a drink would have helped my nerves somewhat, as we were now five minutes behind schedule. I was certain something was awry. I heard the driver talking on his radio about someone who was ready to be picked up. The van lurched into gear, and began ambling towards what I assumed was our plane.
At that point, it began to rain rather heavily, and the van suddenly stopped in front of what looked like another terminal (which was strange given that I thought that there was only one terminal in Perm airport). A rather large fellow with a puffy face was waiting in the rain along with another airport employee. The airport employee walked alongside him, holding an umbrella over his head as he huffed his way into the van unassisted, looking very uncomfortable as he heaved a sigh and plopped into his seat.
The sighs began to increase in frequency, and were quite audible throughout the short trip in the murder van. It was as if traveling alongside other people was simply too much for this poor fellow. It slowly dawned on me that this guy was getting some sort of special treatment, because I became aware that other people in the van were staring at him intently, unblinkingly, as if they knew who he was. His special status was confirmed when we crammed into the tiny plane (a twenty-seater) and he was the only passenger who had an entire row to himself (four seats). When we arrived in Yekaterinburg, there was a government car (a black Ford, interestingly enough) waiting outside of our plane, and the VIP lumbered in the car’s direction. Two men in suits and black sunglasses appeared out of nowhere, opened the door of his car, shut it behind him, and just like that, puffy face sighing guy disappeared from my life forever.
While I was of course intrigued by who the mysterious doughy gentleman was, I was more vexed by the fact that he seemed to expect special treatment on a one-hour flight in a plane smaller than a truck container departing from the world’s worst airport. The pilot even made mention of “our passengers in first class” when giving us his introductory spiel, awkwardly glancing a few feet over at our only “first class” passenger. Why was it so important for this fellow to have his own row, let alone his own terminal in the airport? The only conclusion I can draw is that, as with most aspects of Russian life, the idea of social status was playing its eternal role.
It seems as though in Russia, it’s very important for those up top to show that they are indeed superior, even through trivial means. Personally, I didn’t see myself as the inferior one. In fact, I think it’s pretty funny that people all over the world feel the need to assert their dominance and prove that they are worthy of respect by demanding and expecting special treatment from those they deem lower than themselves. In Russia, the idea of presentation is huge — many people care deeply about how others see them in society. While I like the idea of presenting oneself in a positive light, I think that going to such extremes as expecting your own terminal and row of seats when effectively flying coach like the rest of us is just a little over the top.
Having just witnessed some serious kowtowing for what I assume was a government official, I was struck by the fact that I was in Yekaterinburg. In case you weren’t aware, Yekaterinburg is the city where the Bolsheviks killed Nicholas II, the last tsar of the Russian Empire. Interestingly enough, one of the Bolsheviks’ main goals in overthrowing the tsar was to bridge the gap between classes and create a new society, based on brotherhood and equality. We all know how well that turned out. Then again, in 1991, the Russian people called for a more democratic government.
Since then, it seems like things are coming full circle regarding inequalities in economic and social statuses in Russia. The coincidence of witnessing a (rather small) piece of new Russian power firsthand in the city where old Russian power met its demise was too much for me to handle, so I headed straight for Maximilian’s Brewery, a network of German beer halls in Russia. There, I washed down a bratwurst with a few unfiltered lagers and waited for the next train to arrive. Despite the previous troubles in Perm, we were back on track and ready to carve our way into legendary Siberia. Our next destination was Novosibirsk, a measly 1,500 kilometers eastward on the Trans-Siberian line. Having learned from my previous error regarding to-go cups earlier that day, I made sure to bring some lager, poured fresh from the tap at Maximilian’s straight into a plastic bottle, with me on the train. Bringing beverages along would prove to be a wise decision over the next 22 hours until we reached Novosibirsk.
Until next time, Za Strovya!
Max Shelton is an American M.A. candidate at Middlebury College currently living, working, and drinking in Moscow, Russia. In his spare time (when he is not drinking), he enjoys writing, reading, and watching Better Call Saul. He is writing his dissertation in Russian about American intervention in the Russian Civil War between 1917-1922.
Photo credit: Colin Cooke Photo