June 14, 2002
I wanted to catch up with you and let you know what is going on in Russia after two weeks of my trip. I have been in Moscow for four days now after taking the second leg of my Trans-Siberian Railway trip from Irkutsk, Siberia. The second leg went even better than the first. More people spoke English, including one of the people in the restaurant car, an Australian couple, and a woman from Finland who just completed nine months of teaching English in Mongolia. The train was newer, the service was better, and everything went very smoothly. Once again, first class travel paid off. I had a cabin to myself and had two train custodians in my car who would break their neck to make sure I was comfortable. It was simply great.
Since this is actually my second time in Moscow since my trip began, I wound up staying in the same place as before. I am doing a “home stay” which is quite common in Europe and Russia. I am staying in an apartment of a Russian grandmother. She earns extra money by hosting travelers. There are also a couple Swiss women staying there, too. The grandmother doesn’t speak a word of English, but she is a great hostess. She is very doting and makes sure I have everything I need. She has a grandson who speaks excellent English who I can call to get advice as needed. She also does laundry and knocks on my door when the bathroom is free for me to use. A couple days ago, I had trouble finding a place to do e-mail, so she walked me to the place since she and her grandson couldn’t give me clear directions. Not bad service for $15.00 a night!
I really like Moscow. It’s huge, but it’s very, very clean and it is very easy to get around. After seeing an endless string of crumbling cities across Siberia, it has been very refreshing to see such a prosperous place. The buildings are often very old, but they are all in good condition. The mayor of Moscow is famous (sometimes notorious) for taking measures to make the city more cosmopolitan, exciting, and friendly to tourism. Many Siberians frown upon Moscow and label it as the big, ugly, modern, boring capital, but I have to say it is a pleasant change.
At the moment, I am in a very new and upscale mall across from the Kremlin. It is simply beautiful. I am sitting in an “Internet Salon” that is absolutely cool. There are more than 100 PC’s here, all with flat panel screens and fast connections. This is just awesome!
I am killing time before my overnight train trip to St. Petersburg that leaves at 11:30 pm. I’ve run out of things to do at this point, so I’m going to take the time to write an even longer e-mail than before. Hold on tight, cuz I have a lot to report.
Before you travel to a far away place, you often ask yourself, “What will be different?” or “What will amaze or impress me?” Since I have arrived, I certainly have noticed so many different things, but I have caught myself being amazed by what is similar, too. They are often little things, but they are enough to make me feel like I’m not so far away from home after all and that all people are basically the same. That statement could make it sound boring, but instead, it feels reassuring. Here are a few things that I have found to be similar:
1. Cell phones are the rage here. It seems like they are used even more than in the U.S. In fact, I have heard that the statistics uphold that impression. They also have the same annoying rings.
2. I was sitting in a pizza place and heard “Away in a Manger” playing in the background. Huh??
3. Russians, like us, love parades. More on that later…
4. I always love to watch children in other countries for some reason. Here, they are just the same. A little girl screeches with glee at the sight of a butterfly in front of the Kremlin, another girl hides behind a tree to scare her daddy at the train station, and moms always have a napkin to wipe their child’s mouth within milliseconds of them making a mess. Kids are kids wherever they are. But then again, parents are parents, too, for that matter.
5. Women go to the restroom together here, too. Why do you do that???
6. Russians love to drink… even more than we do. You can drink anywhere at anytime in Russia. That means you can drink on the bus, the subway, in public buildings, on the street, in cars, anywhere. Beer costs only a little more than bottled water, too. So, as the saying goes, “When in Rome…”
7. You are free to move about anywhere you want. For some reason, I was expecting to have my passport checked constantly or to have police officers eye me suspiciously. The exact opposite has happened. I have had my passport checked only two or three times since I have been here. Once at Customs (obviously), once at the hotel in Vladivostok (this is very normal in any country), and maybe one other time related to my train ticket. I don’t see any residual signs of a stifling, controlling Communist regime that spied on its own people. I wonder how bad it ever really was. Russia has been an extremely comfortable place to travel. I don’t stick out that much apparently, either, since I have had numerous Russians approach me asking for directions.
Those are just a few of the similarities I have seen in Russia. There are also a lot of other interesting things to mention that I have seen, observed, or experienced. Here they are:
Many of you have heard about the long lines people had to wait in during the era of the Soviet Union. Those days seem to be over. There are shops, markets, and department stores everywhere stocked to the brim with every item any American would ever shop for. Nonetheless, there are still “lines” for things just like in the U.S., but they have a funny style to them. Russian lines aren’t exactly lines like we know them. They are more like a football huddle or a rugby scrum. If you go to a ticket counter or an ATM, everybody “behind” you in line stands right next to you waiting their turn. I have not gotten used to it at all. First of all, I like to have some elbow room when I’m making a transaction, second of all, I like a little privacy, too. Thirdly, is this some scam to cut in front of me? And lastly, how the heck can anyone tell who is next in line? Somehow, it seems that their collective unconscious senses who is next. Otherwise, I don’t know the secret to their system, but it seems to actually wind up working.
As I mentioned earlier, people love parades, and Russians are no exception. I was lucky enough to be in Moscow during the Russian independence holiday. I believe it is in celebration of the nationalization of Russia after the Soviet Union broke up. There is a very huge street that runs by where I am staying that leads all the way to Red Square and the Kremlin. It seems to be the main drag where the big parades occur in the city. As I was walking through this area, people started lining up in the middle of the street. All traffic had been blocked off to accommodate the event. As I stood there with everyone else, suddenly swarms of participants in the parade started coming my way. The parade consisted only of groups of people from all regions and ethnic groups of Russia. There weren’t dorky floats or out of tune high school bands. It was similar to the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. One person carried a sign in front of their group that announced where they were from. Following him or her were 20 or more people from that area wearing their traditional clothing, carrying their flag, and all of them singing their local folk songs and performing their traditional dances. It was so cool! The clothes they wore were incredible. The crowd cheered loudly for every new group that came along. You could see groups that looked like Eskimos, probably from Northern Siberia, you saw people of Armenian and Mongolian descent from southern portions of Russia, and then you saw tons of different groups from all areas of “Russia Proper.” It was really a humbling display of unity and support of the diverse people in this country. I was deeply touched and impressed. I am not a parade fan, but this one was one of the most uplifting, joyful parades I have ever seen.
One of the most profound experiences I have had has been to visit Red Square. It was the number one place I wanted to visit when planning this trip. In fact, I have been there several times since it makes such an impression on me. Red Square is a huge cobble-stoned area that sits right next to the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral in the center of Moscow. It is also the home of the tombs of Lenin, Stalin, and several other revolutionary figures. The history here is mind-boggling.
Red Square symbolizes how I remember the Soviet Union during the Cold War as I was growing up. I still remember seeing Leonid Brezhnev sitting above Lenin’s Tomb overseeing the intimidating military parades. Soldiers, tanks, and trucks carrying cruise missiles would trudge by, sending the Western world a dark message that the Soviet Union was our enemy. It still chills me today. Now, I have actually walked on those same cobblestones, I have viewed Lenin’s preserved body in it’s cavernous display case (very eerie), and walked by Stalin’s grave directly below the Kremlin wall (how can anyone be so evil?). Just around the corner, you can watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This kind of stuff just blows me away.
Overall, it feels like Russia is re-inventing itself. It is trying to shed its Soviet skin and burst out into the world with its own national identity. Leningrad and Stalingrad have been renamed back to St. Petersburg and Volgograd, there is talk of burying Lenin once and for all, Cathedrals and other religious institutions are being revived (and rebuilt) after living through the atheistic age of Communism, and capitalism is taking hold more than ever.
There are still intriguing links to the past that may or may not disappear. Nearly every city or town in Russia still has a statue of Lenin in a square somewhere. There is a Karl Marx Boulevard in many places, too. You still see the Hammer and Sickle occasionally on government buildings or stamped on souvenirs. I even saw a pro-communist rally near Red Square where people were holding signs up with pictures of Lenin and Stalin on them. Though they seem like useless relics of the past, I would almost hate to see them go, since that has what has made Russia so interesting to me. I wish I could have visited it when it was still Communist so that I could see the differences.
Well, this has been a really long e-mail and that’s just a drop in the bucket. I could go on about the bad side of Russia, i.e. alcoholism, poverty, crime, the loss of close to 50 million people during the 20th century from war and purges, and other “minor” details, but I think I must stop now. For the next week I will be in St. Petersburg which is supposed to be an amazing place.
Each new place I go to, I walk in as a trembling boy, not knowing where to go and what to do. It can be quite nerve-racking. But each time I leave, I walk away confident, having learned my way through a new experience or culture. I guess it’s time to go to St. Petersburg and become that trembling boy again. Wish me luck and please feel free to e-mail me as much as you’d like since it is very comforting to hear from home. Take care and I hope you are all doing well.