Letters from Russia - Following Tolstoy

Russia Photo Album

I travel light!

So - back in early March I find myself sharing a train compartment with a Frenchman, we are on our way to Varanasi, India. We start with the usual casual chit chat typical of 2 travelers just getting to know each other… where are you going, where have you been so far, where are you from… the simple back & forth that quickly led on to more interesting & in depth topics while we passed many more hours crossing the countryside of Uttar Pradesh. Though we had a great conversation of all the things I was stuck on was that he had flown Aeroflot via Moscow to get from Paris to New Delhi. Hmmmm I kept thinking… Moscow… Russia… wonder what that would be like, it sure can't be too far away then!

One of the great aspects of my travels this past year is having the opportunity to receive inspiration from a wide variety of sources about potential destinations.  I may hear about a country that I know little about… perhaps some unique cultural traditions, perhaps a specific location or an interesting creature or feature of wildlife.  I just pull out my smartphone & pull up Google Maps to see where this potential new destination may be. A similar situation happened when I met an Israeli & was then inspired travel a bit in the Middle East. Now Russia - Moscow, St. Petersburg!  I can do that!

St. Basil Cathedral at Red Square, Moscow

The transition from Delhi to Moscow was intense! I left the 110 degree Fahrenheit temperature of crazy chaotic crowded Delhi to land in the incredibly civilized organized predictable city of Moscow. Every day has been such a pleasure getting around on efficient metros, walking along spotlessly clean streets & canals (believe me - there is no trash, not even a plastic bottle or plastic bag laying around anywhere!). The weather has been mostly in the low to mid-60's F with a day or two in low the 70's.  The sky is bright blue, no smog, & no haze. The streets are quiet - no horns! - just occasionally I'll find musicians playing in the metro stations or on the street - everything from pop, to jazz, to classical music. The sidewalks & the streets are wide & large size cars are typical (motor bikes & scooters are rare).  People seem to enjoy strolling so weekends are festive with families & young people filling the metro & buses, the streets, restaurants, & the sidewalk cafes. 

The Russian people seem to enjoy the historical sites - probably mostly tourists from around Russia - and there are so many palaces, museums, & monuments to visit. I don't see too many modern buildings in the central part of the cities - as the older buildings are beautifully restored but updated with all the modern conveniences of electricity & plumbing on the inside. The shopping malls here are very high end, with all the very best international designers & brands. And yes the imports are very pricey.  Even ibuprofen - $8USD for 12 tablets!!  Oh - but the rooms are heated & there is great hot water & ample clean public bathroom facilities (remember, I have just spent almost 3 years in developing countries so the availability of those luxuries still surprise me). My hostels have been warm enough so that I only need the duvet provided & not a mound of blankets as I did in the mountains of India.

Moscow to St. Petersburg over 400 miles in 4 hours

Moscow & St. Petersburg share many similarities but there are few easy to spot differences. Moscow does seem more upscale in terms of the style of the local people whereas the people of St. Petersburg like to say they are more relaxed & casual than the Muscovites.

Typical street, Moscow

Typical street in St. Petersburg
In anticipation of my visit I finished reading Dostoyevsky's Crime & Punishment & I have almost finished Tolstoy's War & Peace. Tolstoy's depiction of Moscow & St. Petersburg is easy for me to see as a tourist. I can follow the streets he mentions as the members of the Bezukhov, Bolkonsky, Rostov, the Kuragin, and Drubetskoy families move between Moscow & St. Petersburg, country home & mansion, and boudoir & ballroom.  The number of palaces, mansions, & majestic state buildings that line the streets, rivers, & canals is incredible - the stereotypical Soviet bloc buildings must be located in the outer reaches of the cities as they sure do not mar the beauty of the cities. The love of the French esthetic from those early days is apparent in the architecture & furnishings - the Russians seem to value the grandeur as so much seems to have been restored to its original state.

The Orthodox Cathedrals though are uniquely Russian & they are so many throughout the cities. The fanciful onion shaped spires with whimsical colors & patterns create an impressive contrast to the baroque & neoclassical architecture of the private & public buildings. The artwork inside the cathedrals is incredible - intricate mosaics & paintings create realistic depictions of the religious figures in the icons that adorn the walls; there are very few statues like what we would see in Christian & Catholic churches.

All the art in this cathedral is mosaic

Bolshoi Theatre where I saw an opera by Mozart!
There are more than enough historical sites, many that have been converted into well-stocked museums - it would take weeks & weeks to see everything. The Catherine the Great's Hermitage in St. Petersburg & the Pushkin Museum of Art in Moscow are exceptional - both of these have very impressive collections of Impressionist artists, while the Hermitage has an extensive collection of the old European classical masters of the 1500-1700's including Rembrandt & Da Vinci. Though slightly smaller in scale than the Louvre, the Hermitage collection offers the palaces as a backdrop for the art. The rooms that you pass through have been restored to their original splendor (though I had to avoid dwelling on the opulence & how that was all acquired!).

At the Bolshoi - small theater

Picasso at the Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Faberge Egg at the Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg

Moscow Metro Station

Though I have really been awestruck by the beauty, organization, & cleanliness of Moscow & St. Petersburg - I have missed getting to know the Russians I meet casually. English is not well spoken here at all in spite of the socio-economic status - so it is very difficult to have a conversation with people I meet. It's often very difficult to do much more than point to something I need or want - I use Google Translate for even simple exchanges. Fortunately a few folks have been come forward to help in in the Metro stations when it was painfully obvious I was having trouble. 

In spite of the language barrier seeming to put some distance between me & the local people I meet - I do see people in the streets & cafes as very warm & charming with their friends. And, again because this is not so typical in Asian & African countries, I see so many couples on the streets holding hands & being very affectionate - it is as if the beauty of the cities just brings out that romantic nature.

I am really so happy that I made this short 2-week trip to Russia. Who knows where our politics will take us - but for me it was a lovely spring adventure in a beautiful beautiful country. 

Matryoshka - traditional Russian wooden nesting dolls

Classic Borscht ` beet soup