Tuesday, November 10, 2009


It wasn't easy or cheap, but I made it to Russia for 5 days to visit Alissa, my sister who's studying in Moscow this term. As seen above I got to deal with the Russian visa process and it's "special" rules for Americans. I was a bit intimidated by all the rules and fine print and the prospect of transliterating my information into Cyrillic without knowing what any of it meant, but it turns out the whole thing is mostly a money-making boondoggle at this point (assuming it was ever about more than that). They even managed to compress my surname by 2 letters (BONNEAU→БОННИ), showing an impressive grasp of French phonetics that I've rarely seen amongst Americans.
Starting out in the subway was a nice concise preview of my experience in Russia. It was a mix of surprising beauty you'd never see in "the West" (check out the chandeliers), big crowds of people in hurries, loads of security/policeman/soldiers everywhere, and a few things that seem right out of a Russian Halloween costume, like the furry hats (ushanka).

Despite my fears though it wasn't all that difficult to get around. The level of English is low but Alissa speaks enough Russian to get by. The food was okay, even for vegetarians, though I had to take a few leaps of faith I got to try many of the famous things, including some meat-free borscht.
In many ways the modern Russia is as capitalist as you can get. They certainly will sell you as many nesting dolls (matryoshka) as you can buy. Right across from the Kremlin is the GUM, one of the biggest and nicest shopping malls I've ever seen. There's clearly a lot of money flowing around in some parts of the city.

Other parts, not as much. This guy is selling knives, and yes, a taser which he is giving a live demo of.
The Soviet era is still all over the place though. They have a whole park dedicated to old statues of Stalin, Lenin, and Marx which we visited, some are still in quite normal places though, and the hammer and sickle is built into so many buildings and monuments I think they've given up trying to remove every one of them. They don't seem particularly keen to wipe it all away though. I got the feeling that there's more of an indifference to the era than anything else. It's quite different from traveling in Germany where Nazi era history is very difficult to spot, and it makes it much more interesting to visit. Lenin in particular seems to be fondly remembered as they have his body on display still in Red Square. We waited about 30 minutes for 30 seconds of viewing, with soldiers telling us to keep moving throughout the whole thing.
Alissa and I saw a ton of historical sights-Lenin's Mausoleum, the Kremlin, St. Basil's Cathedral, Christ the Savior's Cathedral, Victory Park, the Statue Park, the Military History park, the Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery, and many others I'm surely forgetting to name. Of course, Russian's view of history is very different from what I learned in American schools, as this plaque above from the the Modern Russian History Museum (formerly Museum of the Revolution) demonstrates. 
As always though it's not about the big things as much as the little things. This is an underground passage between two subway lines which had one of the most amazing collections of art for sale I'd ever seen. 
And the cemetery was the most creative I've ever seen. Most cemeteries are solemn and dreary, but this one seemed more to be a celebration of some of Moscow's residents. People's tombstones were elaborately sculpted to represent them. I loved this mathematician, who had some of his equations carved into his tomb. 
I loved the whole trip despite the weather and the mild hardship (we badly botched our attempts to catch a show at either the Obraztsov Puppet Theatre or the Nikulin circus). Alissa was a great travel guide though and with her experience living there a few months made a big difference in how much I was able to discover. 
I could sense major changes going on all over the country. I have a sad feeling that if my children travel to Russia they won't see it a being so much different than the US. Poland certainly shocked me with how Western it seems to be becoming. But for now, Russia is still a unique and amazing place.

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