ROSTOV: Boris went to a lecture in his home town of Rostov attended by 50 people. The lecturer asked who had Rostov roots going back at least 3 generations. Boris was the only one. He is the 5th generation from Rostov and he says it hurts that many friends leave Rostov for Moscow or St Pete for better opportunities and lifestyle. Boris has stayed in Rostov to open a barbershop and hopes to open a motorcycle shop later. "I love my city, but I understand it's not ideal. I believe you have to create comfort zones around you - around your home, your courtyard - and that will lead to change. I see my barbershop not just as a business, but a comfort zone for clients and friends."
ROSTOV: Roman, 18 (center), was heading home after a day of skateboarding with two friends in Rostov. All three boys recently moved to Rostov from nearby Ukraine to study. Roman said his university plans changed after Russia annexed Crimea. A Russian by nationality, Roman grew up in Kerch, Crimea and initially planned to attend university in Kharkov, Ukraine. However, he became a Russian citizen in March 2014, opening the door to universities on the Russian mainland.He chose to attend university in Rostov, about 10 hours by bus from Kerch, where his parents still live. Roman, who would like to work as a programmer ''for a major company,'' said he thought the change in university plans was for the best. ''If I could study anywhere in the former Soviet Union, I would still choose Russia because the education and job opportunities are better.'' Roman said the skateboarding is better in Rostov than in Crimea. ''The streets are more level and there is more asphalt."
Svetlana, 20, was sitting near the second floor window of the only Starbucks in Rostov-on-Don on a late Saturday morning. There was only one other person on the entire second floor. A public relations and media student, Svetlana said in very good English that she was waiting for a friend to arrive to practice conversational English. I asked if she had studied English abroad. She said no, but that she watches US TV serials, such as 'Friends' and '2 and 1/2 Men.' Svetlana said that is why she prefers US English to British English. She said its hard to improve her English in Rostov. ''I would love to travel a lot and use my English. You don't have any opportunity to use it here.''
Polina, 25, was wearing the type of leather boots - black greenish with writing and laces - that immediately gave away her musical tastes. The Pearl Jam fan said the boots were actually her mothers. Polina said her mom got ill as a young girl in the 1970s and spent some time in a hospital. The patient sharing the room was a rock fan and 'infected' her mom with his music taste though it was banned in the Soviet Union. A freelance translator, Polina has inherited her mom's love of rock and alternative music, and attends outdoor concerts. Polina also loves traveling and dreams of hitchhiking several thousand kilometers to Baikal in Siberia. ''You don't have the moral right to emigrate unless you know your country well,'' she said when I asked why she wants to travel halfway across her country. ''Russia is a big and beautiful country. I will hopefully do this trip ... and then I will see what I will decided to do next.''
Sofia, 20, was among the few thousand attendees at a St. Patrick's Day celebration in Moscow. She was standing near the entrance of Sokolniki Park in a green scarf, green shamrock hat and with a shamrock painted on her face. She was holding a sign that said ''free hugs.'' Sofia said she is studying English and Korean at university and has visited Korea twice. She said she wanted to take an oriental language as she already knew French well. Sofia said she comes from a family of doctors and dreams of being a medical translator of Korean-Russian and English-Russian. I asked why Sofia why she didn't follow in her father's footsteps to become a doctor if she enjoyed the medical industry so much. ''I have problems with physics and chemistry, but no one said you can't be a medical translator.''
KHABAROVSK: He was working the bar at the Pool Club in Khabarovsk. He introduced himself as "Vladimir...like our President." A colorful character, Vladimir spoke a mile a minute, joking constantly, and all I could understand after 5 minutes was that things were "f@cking awful" following the 1998 Russian default and ruble collapse. Once he slowed down, I learned he started working in bars in the late 1990s, while pursuing a degree in bio-chemistry. Like many Russian science/engineering students of that era, he didn't bother starting a career in science. But it wasn't just for financial reasons. "I understood that this [bartending] was my thing. I wanted to work with people and this was the best club." Vladimir has been serving up drinks at Pool Club for 15 years and knows the city's movers and shakers. "All the privledged youth used to come here. Now they own businesses, restaurants...they have become important people." Vladimir joked that he knows their secrets as well.
Khabarovsk: Zoya, 23, was with her former dorm roommate at a new, ‘hipster-styled’ bar in Khabarovsk on a recent evening. Zoya grew up in Komsomolskaya, but like many young people from that town, moved to Khabarovsk to study. She worked for the tax inspection upon receiving her bachelor’s degree. Having heard so many terrible stories about the tax agency during my years in banking, I asked her about that job.
Khabarovsk: I passed a kiosk in the center of Khabarovsk offering coffee and donuts and stopped to get a cup of java. Artyom, 25, opened the window to take my order. He had model-like features with pierced ears and tattooed arms. He said he also worked at a bar and is a drummer in a 'turborock' band called Fucknroll. When I asked which western group his music would be closest to, he mentioned Motley Crue and Black River, but added that his group's music is a mix of styles. I asked if his 4 year-old group would try to play in Moscow and St Pete. "We want to conquer the (Russian) Far East first," he said.
SAMARA: Alexander, an Austrian, has been working in Russia for a large German retail outlet for the past seven years with stints in Moscow, Rostov and now Samara. At the suggestion of a Russian friend, he co-opened men’s barbershop franchise Chop-Chop in Samara in 2013.
After six months of observing business at Chop-Chop, Alexander decided to create Chica, a woman’s version of the high-end barber shop. His logic was straight forward.
”I realized, if men can pay 1,500 rubles for a haircut (~$50 in 2013), they probably have wives or girlfriends that could afford a similar women’s salon. Samara may not look very good right now, but people here have money.”
SAMARA: Alina (left) was hanging out with friends Alexandra and Nastya by the Volga riverside in Samara, each holding hot drinks from a nearby McDonald's as they watched people skiing, walking and winter kite surfing along the frozen river. Alexandra and Nastya, 17, first met Alina at an art class they all currently attend outside of their regular studies. Alina said her favorite artist is Salvador Dali, but that she is inspired by work of modern, unknown artists ''as their art is normally created from their hearts.'' Alina said her first portrait will be that of a girl ''to show her deep inner world…what she sees and the nature she feels.''