We had been planning a trip to Russia since last
winter and even though our experience with the Russian consulate
last May was, at best, terrible, we were looking forward to the
trip. Lynn was looking forward to it with great anticipation; I was
looking forward to it with fear and trepidation. During World War
II, Russia, or more correctly, the Soviet Union, may it rest in
peace, was our friend. Iím a bit younger than World War II, which
the Russians call the
Great Patriotic War, and by the time I became aware that there
was a world beyond my neighborhood, the Soviets were our mortal
enemies. We were scared to death of the Soviets when we were kids.
No wonder. We had monthly and sometimes weekly air raid drills where
we had to either hide under our desks or go into the windowless
hallways making sure we didnít sit in front a door with glass
because the glass could shatter and cut us to shreds when they
dropped their bombs on us. The
doomsday clock was two minutes before midnight. (Itís now five
minutes before midnight, recently upgraded [downgraded?] from seven
minutes and is at itís worst position since 1991, thanks in part to
the brilliance of the current occupant of the White House.) At any
moment there could be Communists coming down our street ready to
carry us away. Boris Badenov was a famous cartoon character.
Anything Soviet or Russian was inherently evil and inspired fear.
And then, and then, Americans became collectively embarrassed when
they beat us into space with
in 1957 and then again in 1961 when
Yuri Gargarin became the first human in
space during a
sub-orbital flight. Along with a suitcase, this is the baggage I
carried with me to Russia.
Moscow moves at a frantic pace. Itís not chaotic
like Rome, but itís easy to get bowled over by traffic and people.
Drivers are totally lacking in courtesy, weaving in and out, leaning
on their horns, and generally encouraging a tourist not to notice
that most the city appears rather rundown. The area around Red
Square and the Kremlin is, as one might expect, a showcase, but,
generally speaking, the city is not in good repair, it seemed to me,
even though there was a citywide renovation in 1997 for its 850th
anniversary. Our guide, Kate, a native Muscovite, was as nice as she
could be, but everywhere we went we were pushed and shoved while
going through revolving doors or lining up to get on an escalator.
The hotel provided breakfast and dinner buffet style, and while
getting our meals, Lynn had her toast knocked off the plate she was
carrying. Another time, some other joker knocked her arm while she
was filling a coffee cup because he reached over her for the milk.
Unlike our British cousins who apologize even if you bang into them,
here nobody ever acknowledged they had done anything. On a couple
occasions, we spent evenings out, one at the Moscow Circus and
another at National Russian Dance Show, both of which were
excellent, and we wondered who all these smiling and happy people
were in the audience because we seemed to see none of them on the
street. Even the first person we encountered in Moscow, the woman in
the money exchange at the airport, was pretty miserable. I asked to
change Ä100 into rubles. The sign said I should get 3410 руб back.
She gave me 3250 руб and a look like I had just assaulted her
mother. I donít even know her mother but I felt pretty dirty anyway
so I wasnít about to question the amount.
The hotel we stayed at was built for the Olympics
in 1980. You may remember those games. Or you may not. The U.S.
didnít win a single medal because we didnít participate. Something
Afghanistan. Anyway, the hotel looked like something out of Las
Vegas. In front was an enormous
statue of that famous Russian,
Charles de Gaulle. I donít get it, either. Slot machines were all
over the lobby and a casino was nearby down the hall. The lobby,
crowded at any time of the day or night, was also frantic. The hotel
looked like it was magnificent, though very gaudy, in its day but it
seemed to us that no maintenance had been done in the 27 intervening
A book we read before we left warned us that the
police have the right to ask for passports and other documentation
at any time for any reason. One of those weekly hotel throw-away
guide books said the same thing. So did Kate, our Muscovite guide.
It was really drilled into our heads. On the night we went to the
circus, Kate thought one of the people in our group had left the
hotel without her passport, and she became very alarmed. It doesnít
provide for a warm feeling. We were warned not to even go to the
supermarket across the street to buy water until the hotel returned
the passports after processing. We especially needed the water
because we were also warned not to drink the water from the tap.
After filling the tub and seeing that the water was some splendid
shade of rust, we understood. We didnít even really have to fill the
tub because in the sink and the tub, the white porcelain under the
spigots was something akin to the same lovely rust color.
Iíve gone on here for more than 800 words about
general awfulness making it sound like we had no fun. I donít want
to leave that impression because after forgetting about all the
above which admittedly wasnít easy, we had a lot of fun.
We entered Red Square which is really a
rectangle. Refer to this
Red Square is the
A. Itís just outside the Kremlin wall which is the southwest
boundary. Along the Kremlin wall is B,
Leninís tomb. We really
wanted to go there but it was closed to visitors on the day we went.
Stalin also used to be buried there when he was a designated good
guy. Nikita Khrushchev subsequently designated him a bad guy so he
was removed. Now, heís officially still a bad guy but maybe not as
bad as he used to be because they sell souvenirs with his picture.
There were also souvenirs with Osama bin Ladenís picture but I
didnít even touch those. The C is
GUM, pronounced "goom" rhyming
with room. Itís a
department store. Our guide referred to it as a museum with
prices because everything is so expensive. We stopped in there for a
quick, easy lunch at a Sbarro (СБАРРО in Cyrillic). All we wanted
was a slice of pizza and a Coke. We stood in line for 30 minutes.
The D is
St. Basilís Cathedral which is a
sight to behold. The onion
domes are seen in many places in Russia but this one youíre most
likely to be familiar with. Itís more than 400 years old. We went
inside where there were several rooms to wander about in. For a
building that old, it wasnít surprising that the floors were very
uneven and it was difficult to walk around. The
inside isnít nearly
as large as might be expected from the outside.
The Kremlin is inside the area bound by the red
lines. Pun intended. "Kremlin" derives from a word meaning fortress
and it has
walls from 16 to more than 60 feet high and 11 to 21 feet
thick. The perimeter of the wall is almost 1.4 miles. Breaking in is
highly discouraged. The area bounded by yellow is where a visitor is
permitted to walk. There are a host of
cathedrals in here which, our
guide said, have different purposes. Inasmuch as they are all
Russian Orthodox, I donít know what "different purposes" means.
During Soviet times, they werenít used as cathedrals.
The green line bounds a building known as the
Senate. Unlike in the U.S., the Senate is not a legislative body.
That would be the Duma located a few blocks away. The Senate is the
official "residence" of the president. Itís really his
He lives elsewhere in Moscow and when he commutes to work
in the morning, traffic is stopped. Our guide said itís not known
where in this building his office is. You can see a street between
the yellow line and the green line. It was crowded that day but
nobody was in the street. Donít even think about crossing that
We visited a Russian Orthodox church called the
Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer. Russian Orthodox churches have
no seats; parishioners stand during the services. This one has room
for 10,000 people. You can see that the outside is pretty
spectacular and the inside is the same but no pictures were allowed.
This building was under construction from 1994 until 1999. The
original cathedral on the site was built between 1839 and 1881. So
what happened to the original? My mind boggles at the wanton
destructiveness of some alleged humans. It took more than 40 years
to complete the original, itself a masterpiece, but Joseph Stalin,
then a designated good guy, decided in 1931 that it had to come down
in favor of a "Palace of Soviets." This was to be a building more
than 1,000 feet tall topped by a 300 foot, yes a 300 foot high
statue of Lenin. Hereís what 300 vertical feet
That's some statue. Big surprise: it never happened due to technical
difficulties. It became an outdoor swimming pool until construction
began on the current version.
This was the first trip weíve taken that was a
guided tour so there were several others in our group. The right mix
clearly enhances a trip and the wrong mix can wreak havoc. Happily,
we had the former. Besides Lynn and me, we had Monica from Croydon,
England, and Kim from Sydney, Australia, two women who were
schoolmates in Malaysia from the age of 12 (or 11, they couldnít
agree on which). Also, there was Ann from Liverpool and her daughter
Eleanor from London. Our trip was much better because of them.
On our last day in Moscow, we went to the train
station for the five hour ride to St. Petersburg. The big event on
this train ride was that the downpour in Moscow ended and the clouds
completely blew away. Had we taken this very same ride a week later,
we would not have fared quite as well because this was the route
blew up, allegedly Chechen rebels, sending 38 people to the
See all my pictures of Moscow.
See videos from Moscow.