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July 15, 2004 -> circling the square: moscow

The Kremlin is not as spooky as I expected it to be.  I had imagined a high wall enclosing fat, grey buildings where communist leaders once concocted nefarious schemes.  So I was taken aback by the ‘gingerbread house' quality of the red brick wall and its colorful towers, the pastel government offices, and the cluster of gold-domed churches inside.  There were dozens of gun-toting soldiers, but they looked bored rather than sinister.  The same thing happened in Red Square.  It is a spectacular space, bound by the Kremlin wall, the Russian History Museum, GUM (the old State Department Store), and St. Basil's Cathedral.  No towering ‘socialist realist' sculptures.  No old communist slogans on big plaques or banners.  The busts of Lenin, Stalin, and other communist leaders were hidden behind the Lenin Mausoleum.  Even the Lenin Mausoleum only becomes spooky once you have entered its dark inner chamber and circumambulated Vladimir's preserved body.

The hardest thing for me to do was to approach Russia objectively.  I grew up on a steady diet of the ‘Evil Empire.'  An ‘Iron Curtain' was drawn across my mind.  The Russians wanted to nuke us and that was that.  “Red Dawn” - a movie where US high school kids fought a guerrilla war against Russian troops who had parachuted into town - did not seem that farfetched at the time.  In the earliest days of my political awareness, I cheered on Reagan as he prosecuted the Cold War.  None of us knew just how bad the situation was in the USSR at the time, but we did know that Nikita Kruschev had threatened to “bury” us, that Russian missiles had made a brief (but unsettling) appearance in Cuba, that “socialist” governments modeled on the USSR were cropping up all over the world, and that Russia had invaded Afghanistan.  The world seemed pretty black-and-white back then, and in many ways, it was.

Moscow is more than just the capital of Russia.  It is the very soul of the Russian people, in a way that young, pretentious St. Petersburg could never be.  Russia converted to Christianity around 1000 A.D.  As religious schisms divided the Byzantine world, and Ottoman Turks triumphed in Constantinople, Russians began to see their version of the Orthodox faith as, well, the most orthodox.  Moscow became the religious heart of the Eastern Orthodox faith, just as Mecca is for Muslims, and Jerusalem for Jews.  There are churches everywhere in Moscow.  When Napoleon marched unchallenged into Moscow (finding the city abandoned) in 1812, his secretary noted with amazement "this great city, Asiatic rather than European, spreading out at the end of a naked plain, topped with its 1,200 spires and sky-blue domes, strewn with golden stars, and linked one to the other with gilded chains."  The Emperor's triumph was short-lived, however.  That same evening, Napoleon was forced to flee his bed in the Kremlin.  Moscow was on fire, a conflagration most likely started inadvertently by French officers.

Moscow may not be spooky, but it is definitely large and intimidating.  Like St. Petersburg, the outlying areas are comprised mostly of ugly apartment blocks.  Unlike St. Petersburg, Moscow's riverside development is fairly unattractive.  Most tourists stick to the areas around Red Square and the Kremlin, and so did we.  We sipped cappuccinos under the great arcs of glass that linked the three wide ‘avenues' of the GUM department store.  Forget images of empty shelves and low-quality goods: GUM is largely filled by high-end European and American clothing and accessories shops.  We saw very few Russians shopping there.  We stood dumbfounded before St. Basil's church and its fantastic domes.  These are usually described as onion domes, but I can do better.  Think instead of an uneven line-up of soft serve Dairy Queen ice cream cones, some swirled with two flavors, others spangled with candies.  Near Red Square are several smaller squares with cute cafes and a surprising variety of ethnic fare.  For the most part, however, we ate ‘blinis,' the light crepes that can be breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert depending on the stuffing.  And of course, being American, we had to visit Moscow McDonald's.

Good service, as we know it, is virtually unknown and rarely practiced in Russia.  Glum, apathetic waitresses are the norm.  But it is hard to blame them.  They have never experienced good service themselves, and customers are often nasty to them.  Many times we saw Russians (mostly men) sit down and immediately begin barking at the waitresses from across the restaurant.  The contemptuous circle of bad customers, bad service is hard to break.  So where did we get good service (and clean toilets with toilet paper?)  McDonald's.  Young Boris - they all wear name badges - greeted me warmly, took my order (which had already been marked down on a sheet of paper by another employee while we stood in line), and suggested I have some ice cream with my meal.  He looked happy and sincere.  Was he faking it?  I really did not care.  An older Russian couple sitting nearby opened a bag full of steaming hot French fries and swooned in ecstasy as the aroma hit their nostrils. 

I had high hopes for the Russian History Museum, housed in a magnificent red fairy tale castle on the north side of Red Square.  While the exhibits were amazing (none with English descriptions; so we listened to an ‘audio tour' narrated by a nasally New Yorker), history stopped at the tsarist period.  As I discovered, you cannot find a good museum on post-revolutionary Russia or the USSR in Russia.  I had to buy my Russian history book in Sweden.  The best museums covering the USSR are in former Soviet Republics (we would visit some great ones in Latvia and Lithuania.)  Russians are still not encouraged to examine their own recent past.  It is fine to discuss the tsars, accepted to discredit Stalin, but to question the ideals of communism or the foundations of the modern Russian state – particularly in public – is discouraged if not disallowed.  Most of the guys in power today are products of the USSR.  The current President, Vladimir Putin, rose up through the ranks of the KGB. 

Russia was both better and worse than I expected.  St. Petersburg and Moscow were both more interesting and beautiful than I had imagined.  There is an incredible variety of historical sights and museums in both cities, as well as many great day trips.  The visa process was a pain, but everything worked out in the end: no hassles at the border on entry or exit, and no police officers ever stopped us to check our documents.  The Metro systems in both cities were extensive and quite easy to use (particularly if you can read Cyrillic).  Maybe it was the Russian that I had learned, but I did not find the Russians that unfriendly.  No one is going to start calling Russia the “Land of Smiles” anytime soon, but if Hong Kong can have a Disneyland, there is always hope.  The state of the economy, and morale of the people, however, seemed worse than I expected.  There was little of the energy and vitality that we had already experienced in Estonia, and that we would soon experience in other post-Soviet states.  Attitudes must change before the country can change.