Our editor-in-chief, Russell Valentino, is writing a series of posts from a trip across Eurasia via ferry, plane, and Trans-Siberian Railway.
One of the first times I went back to Russia after the USSR was no more—it must have been about 1993 or 4—I stopped in at one of our old student haunts, the European Hotel, across from the Philharmonic Hall, and had to sit down to compose myself. The place had been transformed from an old Soviet dive, a place where we used to bluff our way past the doorman stammering to get us to show our hotel ID cards—supposedly the place was for guests only—and on to the shvetskii stol (the buffet, such as it was) on the second floor, where for seven rubles we could get a half-decent meal amid the dimly lit, dingy hall. The harp music and waterfall were a pretty good signal that this was no longer the same place. In fact, since the remodel (and new, international conglomerate ownership) it’s now one of the most chic, not to mention pricey, spots in St. Petersburg.
Having read about various Soviet-era hotels in the customer comments online, I was half-expecting to find something of the old fare at the Hotel Mira, where I stopped for a day in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, but it was just your typical Italian-owned modern high-rise hotel. Hm... It was fine, actually quite nice, though on the menu in the downstairs restaurant they had halibut, tilapia, and sea scallops, I ordered the trout filet, and got a salmon steak. Fine. But as I’d been looking for things that might be familiar all day (first recognition: the roads!), I was comforted to note that the potatoes were Soviet, no mistaking them. Irregular shapes, vegetable-oil fried, slightly under salted, on the whole not bad, but distinctive, formulaic—definitely Soviet. Hell, old things die hard, they could have been pre-revolutionary potatoes for all I know, recognizable after all these years even amidst the Italian opera music and the imported Indian tourists obviously trying to fool me.
The day had begun a week before, when I got to the Wakkanai ferry office, on the domestic-port side of the street, at 5:30 a.m. to ask—because I couldn’t find this info anywhere online or in print—whether I could buy a ticket on the same day I wanted to travel and, if so, where I was to do this. The answer was yes, across the