The Forgotten (?) Payphone

I am always amazed at how past and present coexist in today’s Russia.

On example of that are funfairs, especially in smaller towns. There you can almost always see old Soviet relics (like 50-year-rusty old mini ferris wheels or decrepit bumper cars, which not only violate each and every safety standard, but also look like they could literally fall apart at any given time), next to stands with virtual reality goggles and mobile 4D cinemas. The truly amazing thing, to me, is that children always go from one to the other and/or vice-versa without a second though. They don’t find that the old is to be discarded just because it is old, nor that the new is more exciting just because it is new. And their parents aren’t scared or perplexed by the (lack of) safety standards in the beat-up, nor by the novel way of having fun of the ultra-modern.

Another example that always fascinates me is that of the public payphones. They are not as common a sight as they were 20 or even 15 years ago, but you can still spot them fairly regularly both in cities and small villages. And it is not uncommon to see people actually using them. This surprises me not only because payphones have all but disappeared from Western Europe, but also because of the huge diffusion of cell phones in Russia.

According to Wikipedia, Russia is the 5th country in the entire world both considering the total number of mobile phones in use (over 250 million!) and also relative to the population, boasting a staggering 155,5 connections every 100 citizens. This becomes even more significant if you consider that these data refer to 2013, a full four years ago, while data for the countries preceding Russia in the list is much more recent.

Mobile phones have actually existed in the Soviet Union from as early as 1963 (by means of car phones), but until the fall of the regime they were only reserved for high ranking party officials. They became available to the public, as yet another sign of a freedom that was once unthinkable and forbidden, in the middle of the 90s. In 1994, a joint venture of Moscow City Telephone NetworkT-Mobile and Siemens, which later became part of Mobile TeleSystems, offered Russia’s first mobile phone service for the public in Moscow. In the same year in June, VimpelCom also started Beeline mobile phone service, which is still one of the country most popular providers.

In the feature picture of this post I tried to capture the colourful (perfectly maintained and fully functional!) payphone, resting on a rusty pole in a field at the edge of a small village in the Smolensk Oblast. Judging from the absence of any sort of path leading to it (or by the fact that the grass completely covered it with overgrowth) I guess it is not used very regularly. But it is still there, an old technology available and reliable, ready to be a “last resort” if your fancy new smartphone runs out of battery of falls from your hand and breaks…

Would you like to discover the Russia that foreigners rarely, if ever, get to see, with an English (and Italian, Spanish and French) speaking guide (me and my wife) showing you the sights and telling you a bit about Russian history and traditions? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you!




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