China Friendly, Part Two: “There Are Lots of Them, and a Few of Us”

Russian literature is often credited with a rich tradition of satire, parody, and absurdism, a tradition associated with writers otherwise as different as Gogol, Dostoevsky, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Kharms, Ilf and Petrov, and Zoshchenko. But this is a misconception. All these writers were stone-cold realists. You only have to live in Russia for a time and know the language well enough to realize they did not make anything up. They just had to turn on their tape recorders, so to speak. As reporter Elena Rotkevich did for the following article.

There is also no little irony in the fact that this article was going to press just as reports had begun coming in that the almighty Chinese economy was going pear-shaped. Although that now-dubious omnipotence seems to have been achieved at a totally unacceptable cost.

“Our goal is communism!”


“The Hermitage is not particularly interesting to the Chinese”
Elena Rotkevich
July 6, 2015
Gorod 812

Red itineraries will be popular if they are pitched properly to tourists from the PRC. Tourist guide and interpreter Ekaterina Guseva shared her impressions of working with Chinese groups.

Are the Chinese really interested in Lenin?

I think the Chinese will find tours to Lenin and revolutionary sites interesting, especially the fifty-something generation. It is this generation that mainly comes to Russia, because they studied our history and know our literature and culture fairly well. The Chinese were raised on stories about the Soviet Union. It was Big Brother who helped them. They call us a great or militant nation, and they are very curious about how this great nation is faring right now. Do we still sing “Katyusha”? Do we respect Lenin? They often ask whether life under communism was good and whether we miss the communist regime.

They are very interested in domestic details: what our daily schedule is like, whether we eat black bread, how many benefits we have, whether there is still free medical care, whether apartments are provided for free. The questions are not always easy.

And what do you say to them?

We try and reflect the real facts when we answer them. For example, that apartments were distributed for free in the Soviet Union, but some people miss those times, while others don’t.

The most popular sight in Petersburg among the Chinese was the cruiser Aurora, but now, unfortunately, it is undergoing restoration. The main museums—the Hermitage, Peterhof—are not particularly interesting to them. They don’t like boring, highly detailed tours, for example, when the kinds of woods used in the unique parquet floor in the Throne Room are listed. They like something a little more fun.

Touring Lenin sites is not a bad idea. At present, they are not taken to Lenin museums. We only drive up to the Smolny, but we don’t go inside. The demand for red tours will hinge on the right advertising campaign and cooperation with Chinese tour agencies. We could combine Petersburg with Finland and Sweden: with the right revolutionary commentary, Scandinavia will also be popular. The main thing is pitching the material.

Have the numbers of Chinese tourists increased?

This year we had a 300% increase in the flow of tourists from China. We lack licensed Russian tour guides. We have gone public about the problem on more than one occasion since the deficit is made up for by illegals. Semi-legal Chinese tourist firms operating in Petersburg hire similarly illegal Chinese immigrants as tour guides. Someone lends them a young [Russian] woman licensed to lead tours in English or Spanish, and under the guise of this young woman, they show groups around the city. These illegals badly mangle our history, and they distort the characteristics of Russians and Russian culture. I myself once saw a female Chinese tour guide on the grand staircase [in the Catherine Palace] at Pushkin make a sweeping gesture with her hand, pointing to everything in the vicinity, and heard her say to her group, “The Russians stole everything you see here. They went everywhere with warriors, tried to conquer everybody, and stole and stole wherever they went.” We are trying to combat this, but there are lots of them, and a few of us.

Isn’t it time to do the signage on the streets, in the subway, and in museums in Chinese?

In terms of quantity, Chinese tourists outnumber all other foreign tourists, of course. But Chinese tourism is usually group tourism. Quite often they have a group visa, which theoretically does not imply they will be navigating the city independently. They don’t walk the streets or ride the subway on their own, only with a guide. So there is probably no need for this.

Is it hard to work with the Chinese?

It is a lot more pleasant to work with Chinese tourists than with Americans, for example, or Canadians because from the get-go they have a more positive attitude toward Russia and Russians. They buy the same souvenirs as everyone else: matryoshka dolls and scarves. And they love amber.

Translated by the Russian Reader. This article was published on page 19 of the July 6, 2015, print edition of Gorod 812. So far, it has not been published in the magazine’s online edition. This post is a sequel of sorts to a collage of translated material on Russia’s “Chinese turn,” published here last autumn.