Kama Sutra and feral cats

To understand contemporary Russia, consider its airports

The Economist | December 19th 2006 | MOSCOW

WORKING as a journalist in Russia, with its eleven time zones, its endless steppe and perpetual taiga, means spending a lot of time in the air. It involves flying in planes so creaky that landing in one piece is a pleasant surprise —then disembarking in airports so inhospitable that some visitors may want to take off again immediately.

But, if he has the strength, beyond the whine of the Tupolev engines and the cracked runways, a frequent flyer can find in Russia’s airports a useful encapsulation of the country’s problems and oddities. In their family resemblances, Russia’s airports show how far the Soviet system squeezed the variety from the vast Russian continent; in their idiosyncrasies, they suggest how far it failed to. They illustrate how much of that system, and the mindset it created, live on, 15 years after the old empire nominally collapsed. Russia’s awful, grimy, gaudy airports reveal how much hasn’t changed in the world’s biggest country—but also, on closer inspection, how much is beginning to.


Landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, first-time visitors may be unnerved to see their more experienced co-passengers limbering up, as if for a football match or gladiatorial combat. When the plane stops taxiing, or before, the Sheremetyevo regular begins to run.

Sheremetyevo is war. The international terminal was built for the 1980 Olympics, to showcase the Soviet Union’s modernity; now it recalls the old regime’s everyday callousness (the anarchic domestic terminal is even worse). On a bad day, the queue at passport control stretches almost to the runway.

The Sheremetyevo virgin soon meets the various species of Moscow queue-jumper: the brazen hoodlum; the incremental babushka; the queue-surfing clans who relocate in groups when one of their number reaches the front. The immigration officer—usually sporting peroxide blond hair, six-inch heels and an abbreviated skirt—offers an early insight into Russian notions of customer service. Reflecting the country’s neo-imperialist confidence, the immigration form was for most of this year available only in Russian (“distributed free”, it says, in case anyone is tempted to pay).

As with most Russian problems, cash can mitigate the Sheremetyevo ordeal: beautiful girls meet VIPs at the gate and escort them straight to the counter. If he passes customs unmolested, the visitor emerges into a crush of criminal-looking taxi drivers. If, as it will be, the traffic is bad on Leningradskoe Shosse, the road into town, the driver may try to ingratiate himself by driving on the pavement; a 50-rouble backhander will settle things if the police pull him over. On his return to Sheremetyevo, to reach his departure gate the visitor must negotiate a bewildering series of queues, starting with one to get into the building: if he is unassertive, he will still be standing in one of them when his plane takes off. There is nowhere to sit. Forlorn African students camp out in the upstairs corridors. The attendants in the overpriced food kiosks are proof incarnate that the profit motive is not yet universal—though stewardesses on Russian carriers offer unofficial upgrades on reasonable terms. For a small consideration, they sometimes oblige smokers on long-haul flights by turning off the smoke alarms in the toilets.

Mineralnye Vody

To reach this airport, in the north Caucasus, passengers pass through a series of military roadblocks, where documents and the boots of cars are checked by slouching policemen, looking for weapons or terrorists. But a sensible terrorist would leave his weapons at home and buy new ones at the airport, where a wide selection of enormous knives and ornamental Caucasian swords is on sale. There are also embossed Caucasian drinking horns, and a large number of Brezhnev-era copies of the Kama Sutra.

Mineralnye Vody airport is a lower circle of hell. In Soviet times, before the region that the airport serves was desolated by separatist insurgencies, blood feuds and government brutality, the nearby mineral spas were popular holiday resorts. The building is incongruously large for a part of Russia that today, for all its macho hospitality and merriment, feels more African than European in its violence, poverty and corruption. It is weirdly cold inside. Feral cats have been sighted. The floor has not been cleaned since perestroika; the toilets are hauntingly squalid. On the wall there are arrival and departure boards that no longer work, and a big, proud map of the Soviet Union.


Roughly meaning “to rule the Caucasus”, this city, south of Mineralnye Vody, is an old tsarist garrison and the capital of North Ossetia, one of the semi-autonomous ethnic republics of the north Caucasus. Backed by the Caucasus mountains and bisected by the rugged Terek river, Vladikavkaz might be pleasant, were it not for the occasional terrorist eruption and internecine gangster bombing. The Ossetians are Christians, give or take some residual animism, and are Moscow’s traditional allies against the restive Muslims of the other republics. Like several other local peoples, the neighbouring Ingush were deported by Stalin in 1944; the Ossetians took part of their territory, and the two fought a war in 1992.

Vladikavkaz airport is actually closer to another, smaller town, obscure and unremarkable until September 2004: Beslan. The road to the airport leads past the auxiliary cemetery that was used to bury the hostages slain in the terrorist atrocity at a Beslan school; toys and drinks (because the dead children were denied water by their captors) are scattered on the graves. The airport ought to be hyper-sensitive to security risks.

It seems not to be. When your correspondent passed through, he noticed a couple of shady characters and their hulking bodyguard talking to an airport official. The official took their documents to the security desk. “Who are they?” asked the security officer. “They are businessmen,” replied the official, as the documents were stamped. The party appeared to reach the runway via a side door, with a large hold-all seemingly unexamined.


This airport has a sort of holding pen in which passengers are kept before being released onto the tarmac. Surveying the assembled crew, with their standard-issue gangster coats and tattoos, it becomes obvious why Kaliningrad has a reputation as a smugglers’ haven.

It used to be Königsberg, city of Kant and celebrated Prussian architecture. By the time the Nazis, British bombers and the Red Army had finished with it, little of pre-war Königsberg was left. Then Stalin took a shine to it, deported the remaining Germans and incorporated the region into the Soviet Union. It is now an island of Russia in a sea of European Union—an anomaly that is profitable for a certain class of businessmen. As well as contraband, the exclave boasts most of the world’s amber and Russia’s ageing Baltic fleet.

The Kremlin worries that the Poles or the Germans might try to take Kaliningrad back; but, in truth, no one else really wants it. As the aromas of vodka and Dagestani cognac waft around the airport holding pen, the consolation for the nervous traveller is that if one group of dodgy passengers starts something nasty on the flight, another one will probably finish it.


At the other end of the Russian empire, near China and on the Sea of Japan, Vladivostok is the terminus of the Trans-Siberian railway. It became famous during the Russian civil war as a wild eastern entrepot of refugees and interventionists; nowadays it is described (mostly by people who haven’t been there) as Russia’s Hong Kong or San Francisco. Here you face a classic Russian-airport dilemma.

You have clambered around the tsarist fort, and inside the decommissioned Soviet submarine. You have seen the children riding reindeer on the cigarette-ash beach, and peered at the disconsolate alligator in the aquarium. You have also met the mayor, known in the city, not altogether affectionately, as “Winnie the Pooh”, or “Vinnie Pookh”. He acquired his nickname during his fabled reign as a gangland boss. The mayor has ridden the post-Soviet escalator from crime to business and on into politics, securing his office after his main election rival was wounded in a grenade attack. In response to questions about his past, the mayor inquires whether you yourself have ever been in prison. You are not sure whether the mayor is asking or offering.

A dubious car arrives to take you to Vladivostok airport, about an hour’s drive from the city, along a road lined with the forests that, like crab and salmon, are one of the great but fragile prizes of far-eastern Russian power struggles. Your driver is keener on talking than driving. “The Chinese are too cunning for us,” he says, decelerating with every fresh lament. “We are giving away our natural resources”. The factories are all closed; there is no place for anyone over 40 in the new Russia. It becomes clear that this driver is not entirely sober. You are running perilously late for your flight out of Vladivostok. Should you or shouldn’t you ask him to go faster?


Well into the month of May, the runway at Murmansk is still fringed with snow; it dusts the pine trees over which incoming planes descend, along with still-frozen ponds and rivers. In the airport’s VIP lounge there is a set of sofas of daunting tastelessness. The main terminal is mostly empty, save for a bar, a pool table and some fruit machines. Downstairs, outside the toilets, there is a strange drawing of a man wearing a trilby hat, silhouetted against the sun. But upstairs there is a lovely metallic relief on the wall, depicting everything that is produced in the Murmansk region, or that was once produced.

The biggest city anywhere inside the Arctic Circle, Murmansk was built for and shaped by war. It was founded during the first world war, and was a destination for the famous allied sea convoys during the second, when it was utterly destroyed. When the Kursk submarine was raised from the floor of the Barents Sea in 2000, the corpse-laden wreck was towed back to the nearby dry docks; nuclear icebreakers are their regular customers. A church was built in memory of the dead sailors, and stands amid the other monuments to deceased warriors. Otherwise, Murmansk is cluttered with the usual post-Soviet paraphernalia: a Lenin statue; shabby kiosks; gambling halls; pavements that seem to dissolve into the road.

For all that, the Arctic setting has its own appeal. Icy it may still be, but from late spring the Murmansk girls don their short skirts, and it is light around the clock. In the small hours, down at the port, seagulls wheel around the cranes resting motionless, like giant, paralysed insects, against the illuminated pink clouds. A Ferris wheel rotates on a hill above the town.


In tsarist times, Sakhalin island was a giant prison camp. Visiting in 1890, Chekhov considered it the most depressing of the many depressing places in Russia. From 1905, when Russia lost its war with Japan, the southern part of Sakhalin was ruled by the Japanese; it was taken back in 1945, along with four smaller islands that the two countries still bicker over. Traces of Japanese architecture are still visible; so are the descendants of the Korean slave labourers whom the Japanese imported. The Soviet experiment bequeathed sparse squares and omnipresent Lenins. After the experiment failed, many of Sakhalin’s inhabitants fled its wasting beauty. Salmon can still be scooped by hand from its rivers in the spawning season, but much of the fishing fleet is rusting in the bays.

Yet Siberia and Russia’s far east have always been lands of opportunity, as well as exile. On Sakhalin, today’s opportunities are mostly in oil and gas, which foreign consortia are extracting from beneath the frigid Sea of Okhotsk, off the island’s northern shore. New pipelines cut through forests, and up and down mountains, to an export terminal in the south. A stone’s throw away, there are elderly Russians living on what they can fish and find in the forest; the few remaining indigenous reindeer-herders survive on even less. But in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the capital, there are new hotels, bars and jobs.

The primitive domestic terminal at the airport has a tannoy system, but the announcements are inaudible, and their main effect is to spread fear. Destination names are put up, taken down and put up again above the check-in desks. The upper floor is appointed with weirdly ornate Soviet chandeliers. Last year a family of bears wandered onto the runway: the airport authorities hunted them in vain. But there is also a new international terminal to serve the flights from Japan and South Korea. The staff there speak English, and do not regard checking in as an unforgivable insolence.


Five hours ahead of Moscow, in eastern Siberia, Irkutsk is the nearest city to Lake Baikal, the world’s largest body of fresh water—water so clear that it induces vertigo in many of its visitors. The drive to the lake leads through vast forests, past the roadside shamanistic altars of the indigenous Buryats, under an enormous Siberian sky. In the 19th century Irkutsk was home to many of the so-called Decembrists, and the wives who followed them into exile after their 1825 revolt against the tsar: men and events that might have changed Russia’s history, and the world’s. Alexander Kolchak, a diehard White commander, was shot in Irkutsk in 1920; his body was thrown into the icy Angara river.

Planes descend into the city’s airport over identikit Soviet apartment blocks and rickety Siberian dachas. The current arrivals terminal is a hut on the apron of the tarmac. Passengers wait in the street until the baggage-handlers feel inclined to pass their bags through a hole in the hut’s wall. The bags then circulate on a terrifying metal device apparently borrowed from a medieval torture chamber. The nearby departure terminal is chaos, though by ascending an obscure staircase passengers can find an interesting photographic display on “minerals of eastern Siberia”.

The hut, however, is only temporary: a new, modern terminal is being built. It will be needed if the local authorities attract all the tourists they are hoping for. Lake Baikal, the awesomely beautiful main draw, was threatened by a new oil pipeline—until Vladimir Putin ordered its route moved away from the shores of what Buryats call the “Sacred Sea”.


Long-term residents of this city in the Urals shudder when they recall the state of its airport in the 1990s: never any taxis, they say, and very often no luggage. The arrivals hall still has a faint abattoir feel. But, next to it, a colonnaded Soviet edifice has been turned into a business terminal. And there is a new, glass-walled international terminal of positively Scandinavian gleam and efficiency, erected recently using private money. It has a swanky bar that serves edible food. There is an internet café where the internet connections work. “An airport”, says one of its managers proudly, “is a city’s visiting card.”

It is not too fanciful to see the contrasting parts of Yekaterinburg’s airport as a metaphor for the city’s development. It was in Yekaterinburg that the Bolsheviks murdered the last tsar in 1918. Outside town, close to the border between Europe and Asia, there is a memorial to the local victims of Stalin’s purges—a rare and moving place in a generally amnesiac nation.

In a nearby cemetery stand what wry locals describe as memorials to the victims of early capitalism: life-size statues (complete with car keys) of the dead gangsters who earned the city its 1990s sobriquet, the Chicago of the Urals. Because of the military industries that moved there during the war, Yekaterinburg was closed to foreigners until 1990. But these days most of the surviving crooks have gone straight, or into politics. Hoteliers are parlaying the city’s infamy into a tourist attraction, foreign consulates are being opened, and businessmen and tourists can fly directly to the new airport.


Ignore the snarling waitresses and look again at Sheremetyevo: something is happening. Its operators have come under pressure from Domodedovo, Moscow’s other main airport, which was reconstructed a few years ago, and to which airlines have migrated in such numbers that its spacious facilities are often overrun. Sheremetyevo is getting a makeover (as are several of the other airports mentioned in this article).

There is a new café. There are now electric screens on the baggage carousels, displaying the numbers and origins of incoming flights (even if they do not, as yet, always correspond to the baggage circulating on them, much of which is still wrapped in clingfilm to keep out thieves). The nightmarish domestic terminal is being replaced, and a third terminal is going up. A new train service will one day replace the agony of Leningradskoe Shosse. Haltingly, frustratingly but undeniably, Sheremetyevo has started to change—much like Russia itself.

Category: Russia