Quotes of the Month
Since the last Webletter, my wife and I have journeyed to Russia for one of our most memorable trips ever. We traveled with David and Mary Corley who have been our traveling companions on many excursions. The Corleys have been our good friends for many years. Mary runs their antique shop in Santa Fe, NM while David has an Interior Design business in Dallas, TX and commutes back and forth from their Fort Worth home and Santa Fe.
Our journey began with an American Airlines flight to Frankfurt Germany and then a Finnair flight to Helsinki, Finland. A caveat about the Frankfurt Airport; it is one of the most difficult to negotiate I have ever witnessed. We spent two hours trying to find the Finnair gate. Finally we arrived in Helsinki where we would spend three days before taking a train to St. Petersburg, Russia.
Helsinki is a beautiful city with creative and somewhat modern architecture. It is spotlessly clean and located on the Gulf of Finland. Our tour was expertly managed by INTRAV and they supplied the English speaking guides for sightseeing. One of the highlights of our visit was a concert at the famous Sibelius Institute of Music and a visit to an avant-garde monument in his honor. Sibelius was one of Finland's most famous composers. According to the guides, Finland has a two tiered medical system with a state run program by their democratic government and then a private sector for those citizens who can afford a more luxurious (no wait) service. There were no complaints from the guides about the free subsidized system, and also no comments on the quality of the medical infrastructure and equipment. If it mirrored the cleanliness and neatness of Helsinki then it must have been more than adequate.
All of the tour members who were on the optional Helsinki segment part of the trip went by train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg; while others flew directly to St. Petersburg. It was interesting to see the difference in neatness in the countryside, comparing Finland to Russia. Granted that railroads typically run through more depressed areas, it should be the same for both, yet the Russian countryside was littered with rusting appliances, cars, and other dumped items. This was in stark contrast to that of Finland. The trains in rural Russia were rusting due to peeling paint and age, and homes and buildings along the rail road were dilapidated and run down.
The St. Petersburg train station was relatively new since it was built in 2002 to commemorate the city's 300 year anniversary. We were bussed to the port on the Neva River and boarded the Novakov Priboy, which would be our home for the next 14 days. There a many river boats navigating Russia's vast inland waterway system. Most are German design and therefore look the same. You have to be careful returning alone to the boat so that you get the right one. The river boats are about 300 ft. long and have 5 decks. They hold about 200 passengers and have a crew of 120. They also have a shallow draft which is necessary for some of the canals which connect the rivers and lakes.
We spent 3 days in St.Petersburg and visited most of the world renowned treasures located in the city and its environs. I highly recommend visiting St. Petersburg. A detailed description is beyond the scope of this letter, but I would like to comment on the Hermitage. This was the ornate and baroque winter palace of the Russian Tsars. It currently is a museum containing 3 million objects. Anywhere from 10 to 30 thousand tourists visit the Hermitage daily during the summer months.
From St. Petersburg the boat motored to Moscow, stopping and visiting a number of historic smaller Russian towns along the way. On board the boat we got to listen to typical Russian folk and classical music. We had a crash course in the Russian language and lectures on the Tsars and the Romanov dynasty by a quite knowledgeable female Russian Professor from the University of Moscow. She spoke impeccable English and fielded questions on every aspect of Russian history and politics. She discussed their medical system in detail. Russia has state owned system and also a private system for the more financial affluent. She said the physicians were well trained but were embarrassingly underpaid (about the equivalent of $200 per month). According to the professor, one of the Russian medical system's major problems is run down hospitals and equipment. The Communist government did not keep up with medical advancements and the Democracy that followed apparently has this problem low in their list of priorities. The male life expectancy is low and alcoholism is rampant especially in the men. Almost everyone I saw on the streets smoked. This was especially noted in the young male and female group as was their proclivity for cell phone usage and bad dyed red hair on the young girls.
The Russian people have experienced much in the way of oppression since it merged into a country around 8-900 AD. The peasants were virtual slaves until the late 19th century and the other members of the proletariat were indentured servants. There was no middle class. It was the haves and the have-nots. Even today, according to the guides, poverty is a major problem. At least with education a middle class is developing in Russia. Despite these problems the people, in contrast to pre-Gorbachev, have a smile on their face and a sense of hope. The major sin in Russia is despair and I did not appreciate this in the people we were associated with. They were friendly and seemed appreciative of your attempt to speak their language.
My wife and I are extremely glad we made this trip and got to see a country which is rich in history, natural resources, national treasures, and resourceful people. I had hesitated to visit when Russia was under Communist rule since friends who had traveled there reported so many negatives, such as bad hotels, bad food, and unsmiling inhabitants. Speaking of food, I was pleasantly surprised by the good quality served aboard ship and in the various hotels and restaurants where we dined.
I highly recommend Russia as a travel destination and especially the river trip as expertly managed by INTRAV. The river cruise allows one to see two of Russia's major cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as a number of smaller towns and villages along the inland waterway. In addition, if you go, I recommend reading Massie's biography, Peter the Great, and Rutherfurd's Ruska. The preliminary summary of Russian History will make your trip to the country, which I view as a sleeping giant, much more enjoyable. Given proper leadership Russia with its vast geography, enormous natural resources, and adaptable people has, in my opinion, unlimited potential.
QUOTES FOR THE QUARTER
The Soviet people want full-blooded and unconditional democracy.
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Take care until next time,
Richard J. Turner, III, M.D., F.A.C.S.
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