Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nine Days in Russia

St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square
Moscow  

Onion domed cathedrals, Red Square, the Kremlin, Siberia, bitter winters, Nicolas and Alexandria and a peasant class held down by the fists of dictators. These were my images of Russia. I’d never included Russia on my travel list, having grown up during a period of Russian totalitarianism, the era of Stalin and Khrushchev, and the threat of Communism. But since the demise of the U.S.S.R. in the late 1980s and early 1990s, changes had taken place and the country was supposedly more welcome to tourists.   Not entirely true.   

My trip in October consisted of four days in Moscow and five days in St. Petersburg. It is Moscow, however, that I found most unnerving, not only for its lack of civility but for its resistance to true change, despite perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness).

I signed up for the trip with a group based in Dublin, so I was flying alone. Although the Irish travel agency had made my plane reservations for me, I soon discovered that Aeroflot Airlines does not permit Americans to check in online for their airline boarding passes and seat assignments. That meant an early arrival at JFK so that I might get an aisle seat for the nine-and-a-half-hour flight.

The forty-minute ride from Sheremetyevo Airport to the Hotel Cosmos on the outskirts of Moscow set the tone for the next four days. After finding what I hoped was a scrupulous cab driver - I’d read the warnings in the guide books - off we sped. The gray sky was a perfect backdrop for the dreary commercial and industrial sights along the highway. I recognized a few names - Toyota, Citibank, Ikea and, of course, McDonald’s. What seemed like dozens and dozens of apartment buildings also lined the highway. I’d read how the apartment buildings were designated by the era in which they were built. Even later when our guide pointed them out, I still couldn’t tell the difference among the Stalin, the Khrushchev or Gorbachev buildings. They all looked alike - tall, imposing with crumbling concrete facades in need of repair.

Throughout the entire trip the basic tenets of hospitality and tourism were rare, especially among hotel personnel.
No welcoming attitude, no warmth, no smiles. This only enhanced the underlying tension I felt caused by the presence of police, the military and government officials almost everywhere.

Rather than making me feel safe, I kept reminding myself of the warning printed on the Metro map: “Any foreigners visiting or living in Russia are reminded that it is a legal requirement to carry a passport or Identity Card and visa and migration card at all times. Police can stop you to check documents at any time, and failure to provide proper documentations can result in detention or fines."                                                                                                                                                                     
 

Kremlin Adminstration Building
 No wonder then that a survey reported in the Moscow Times, printed in English, showed that only one percent of the people said they trusted or had faith in the police.  Our tour guide in Moscow was Sergei, a man in his sixties who had lived through several regimes. Though its citizens are now freer to criticize the government, visitors sense the tension and an underlying feeling of intimidation that comes through in the warnings and observations of officials on every corner. Even in our hotel where security guards stood at the elevators to check our status as hotel guests. 

While planning my trip, I’d been advised to register with the U.S. Department of State. I had already applied for and received my visa with the exact dates of my entry and departure. The State Department sent me pages of information, including these remarks: “Russian visa requirements are highly complex, and U.S. citizens must take care that they do not unintentionally violate entry and exit regulations. The Russian government maintains a restrictive and complicated visa regime for foreigners who visit, transit or reside in the Russian Federation. A U.S. citizen who does not comply with Russian visa laws can be subject to arrest, fines, and/or deportation. Russian authorities will not allow U.S. citizens to depart the country if their visa has expired. Travelers must wait until a new visa is approved, which may take up to 20 days. Please be sure to leave Russia before your visa expires!”

When planning a trip to a new city or country, I have certain expectations of what I’ll find. But I also look forward to surprises and to learning more of the history and culture of the place.

 In Moscow, I was surprised at the prevalence of Russian Orthodox churches which have seen a surge in attendance in the past few years. Because the Russian people had been deprived of so much in previous years, their religion is an important part of their lives. In each church that we visited we saw men and women who had come to worship and to venerate the icons.

Red Square, without its marching soldiers and dictators in the reviewing stand, was not intimidating. I soon learned that the red building with the spire at one end of the Square was not the Kremlin, as I had presumed, but an historical museum.

The Kremlin is actually a complex of buildings set behind the tall red brick walls. It includes the State Armory, now an impressive museum displaying the clothing, coaches, Faberge eggs and paraphernalia of the former tsars; the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Cathedral of the Assumption; Cathedral of the Archangel; Church of the Twelve Apostles; and three more cathedrals. There’s also the State Kremlin Palace, now used for ballet performances, and the Patriarch’s Palace. Before my visit I had imagined the actual Kremlin government offices as dark and imposing edifices instead of the deep yellow and white buildings that house the administration.
Kathy O'Grady inside the Kremlin complex.

A long way from Brooklyn!
 
       Throughout my days in Moscow, I kept thinking of a Nelson DeMille novel I read this past summer, recommended to me by Kathy, my cousin and traveling companion. The Charm School is about a spy school where Russians are taught to speak, think and act like Americans. The KGB, of course, was the villain Just as art often imitates life, a few weeks before my trip a couple of Russian spies who lived as Americans were arrested in Montclair, just over the hill from where I live. So, between the novel and the arrests just a mile away, I could not shake off thoughts of the KGB throughout much of my time in Moscow.

I returned home with many images and impressions which I’ll talk about in my next blog.