The full article was published in the Ottawa Citizen on March 4, 2012.
‘Svobodnykh mest net” (“there are no free places”)! Of all my memories of the months I spent as a student in the Soviet Union, perhaps the most vivid is that restaurants were few and far between and when you did find one, you couldn’t get in, because the doorman would inevitably turn you away despite the rows of obviously empty tables in view in the dark dining room behind him. The phrase summed up the sheer awfulness of daily life in the Soviet Union; the utter lack of customer service (why bother serving anybody when you will be paid anyway?), and the authoritarian rudeness that pervaded the entire country.
By contrast, when I was in Russia last month I was struck by the sight of four cafés stacked on top of each other in the atrium of the glittering multi-storey Galeria shopping mall in St. Petersburg, each one full of bright young things sipping cappuccinos and tapping away on their iPads. Although I have visited Russia regularly for the past 30 years, the memory of Soviet grimness is so seared into my brain that the comparison between then and now continues to amaze….