Birds are singing. Architecture from centuries past brightly reflects in the green tinted street puddles. Cars rev and whiz by, then I turn the corner into a quiet, undiscovered square and marvel at its grandeur. It’s quiet. Grandmothers in headscarves scramble past. High-heeled young women walk the uneven streets with the confidence of supermodels. I wander into the low side of town and it’s surprisingly safe. This is Russia, so much unlike the place that I expected to meet.
At this moment I decided that I had to tell everyone that I knew that our preconceived notions about this mysterious country are totally wrong.
- It’s Not What You Think
Before we left American friends made jokes about leather jackets, encounters with the mob, rotting in a Russian prison and being tortured for political intelligence. Europeans have joked with us about rogue dogs wondering the streets. I even made a tasteless joke about hoping “None of my organs end up in an ice chest”.
Out of all the countries that we have visited my husband and I were in concurrence that this was the safest that we’d ever felt on a trip.
It is said that on the outside, Russians appear to be rather cold and rude. This can be true, but isn’t necessarily–especially once you get to know them. Being strong is a valued characteristic in their culture which accounts for the harsh facade that some of these people have .
If Russia was in a Facebook relationship with the rest of the world, it would most assuredly be listed as a “it’s complicated” status. Political tensions are high. That’s why we hopped on the opportunity to go. We were scared that a future war may prevent us from going later on. It’s a sad reality.“Visit Russia, before Russia visits you!” this was the joke of a young Siberian girl who gives historical tours of Moscow. “Russia is the biggest country in the world, and we are trying to get bigger . . . I don’t understand it!”Russians joke about their political situation. Most hope that the totalitarian regime is changing, but let subtle hints slip about how they doubt it. They struggle with the fact that there is little that they can individually do to make changes—but they sure are enjoying the freedom that they have. The Russian people are very different from their Russian government in complex ways. This made me think about the U.S.The long of the short of it is, you should go while you still can. There was evidence of the political pissing match with the West everywhere, but the Russian people are very friendly and welcome foreigners with open arms.
- Saint Petersburg’s Beauty Rivals Any European Capital
I expected to find massive conglomerates of gray, dirty, crumbling apartment buildings and Soviet structures. And while I will confess that there are SOME of these, that it is not an accurate description of the country as a whole. Saint Petersburg is the most beautiful city that I have ever been to. It reminded me of a cleaner, quieter, more authentic version of Oui-Pari.
- It’s Got Culture, It’s Got Class
The Hermitage hosts the largest art gallery in the world, and the building itself is more beautiful than the works of art in it. Communism stifled the creativity in the field of cuisine in the region, but chefs are making leaps and bounds to make up for lost time. The cafes have cool vibes. The churches are more colorful than those of their Western sisters. I was surprised to find Bentleys and Lambos parked everywhere in the large cities. If you know me, you know that I do EVERYTHING on the cheap, but there’s definitely an opportunity to spend some serious cash here if that’s your thing. Tickets to the Bolshoi cost about $300 a pair, and those are the bad seats. Russian women always wear heels. That’s how you can tell the locals from the tourists. If anything else it’s fun to watch all of these ritzy people prance around and spend their money.I know when I say this you won’t believe me, so you will just have to see for yourself. Moscow is very similar to New York, but cleaner. The Kremlin and Saint Basil’s Cathedral are the icing on the cake.
Attending an Orthodox church service was a strange experience for me, but no stranger than a Protestant or Catholic service is to some I suppose. I was surprised to see that they do not use church pews. I also visited a place where I did not expect to see pews, a Russian mosque (my first mosque visit ever).
- It’s Cheaper than Disneyworld
Need I say more? About half the cost to be exact.
- It’s Changed Since Communism
The first McDonalds opened in Russia in 1990. Grooms used to take their brides here to eat on their wedding nights. Those two golden arches marked the beginning of a new era in Russia.
Capitalism is operating smoothly in the country. People seem happy and educated. They can speak freely.After communism, many statues of leaders were pulled down and relocated. These were no longer idolized, but they were not destroyed because of their historical and artistic value.
Vernal Green & tulips everywhere
Immigration is often an issue that is oversimplified in stating two opposing sides. Mark Twain once said that:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime”.
Russia has seen an influx in migrant workers. This photo is of a worker with a make-shift broom. Watching these workers and talking to them has reaffirmed some of my stances on the issue that citizens all over the world argue about amongst themselves.
- You’ll Learn History
The Siberian friend that we made also told us stories about how once, during communism, her mother brought home a piece of Mars Bar chocolate. The family cut the candy into five pieces. They each took tiny bites to make it last for as many weeks as possible, and every day that you got a tiny lick of that chocolate was a good day. She said that there was a period of six months in Siberia where they had to survive only on the food that they could grow in their small garden. During this time period, the government spent 50% of the country’s money on weapons and military defense for the Cold War while people starved.I was surprised to learn that after winning WWII that Soviet soldiers were banished to Gulags or ostracized from the large cities because they knew too much about the West. (If you don’t know about Gulags you should definitely look into that because Stalin killed more of his own people in these camps than the number of Jews that Hitler slaughtered).Remember how I told you about the beautiful churches? Russians have a joke that, because they were built by wealthy men of the past, that “The bigger the church, the bigger the sin” committed by that man. Russia’s most famous landmark, Saint Basil’s Cathedral of Moscow (with the onion domes) was paid for by Ivan the Terrible. Afterwards, he blinded the architect so that he could not build any churches more beautiful. There was a naked vagabond named Basil in the Moscow square, he was the only one who could talk moral sense into Ivan. The church was renamed after Basil and he was buried there.
- It will Make You Question
The farther I go, the more that I realize that as humans, we always have more in common with other people than otherwise. As humans, we have a tendency to want to think that our “tribe” is better than all of the others. This is evident throughout history.It frightened me to learn how similar our current society and political system is to that of the Soviet era. The U.S. has a state-run media. The government spies on its citizens. We redistribute wealth. All of these things are done (and were done in the past) for the betterment of “the community or group as a whole”. This trip reaffirmed my willingness to dig in my heels and defend individual liberties at all costs. I’m baffled at the frailness of democratic states and at the human condition when it comes to politics. I decided that I love my country, but that the United States and Russia really are not that different from each other after all.
I came. I saw. I learned.