We didn’t get sick on the train. At least not yet…
After a nine-hour train ride on which I slept like a baby, we arrived in Moscow and were greeted with something perfect – snow! There wasn’t much snow, and it wasn’t sticking, but just to be in Russia and having something come down, I don’t know,it seemed like an experience that I feel had to have as part of the trip to Russia. That and the freezing cold, both of which I got to feel during that first day in Moscow
From the train we boarded a bus and were thrust right into Europe’s biggest city before breakfast. Moscow’s population is around 12 million people. The population of Denmark, the whole country, is between five and six million people, or half the size of Moscow. That was a shock that I never got used to. But anyway, we got breakfast and then were bused to the Kremlin and the Red Square.
I learned something interesting and fundamentally important about the Red Square when we visited, that is that the name has a different origin and meaning that I thought. The name is really more of a mistranslation of the original name Красная площадь – or the Beautiful square. And the name seemed fitting. Passing through the Iberian Gate, with the GUM Department Store and Kazan Cathedral on my left, Lenin’s Mausoleum on my right, and of course, St. Basil’s Cathedral ahead. This was the heart of Russia. This is what you see in your mind when you think of Russia, or at least this is what you see when you Google it.
We spent a long time, maybe too long, in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral taking pictures. we were out in the cold for so long that we had to take a bathroom break, which meant that we had a chance to go into the GUM Department store. GUM stands for Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin, or Main Universal Store. Now it is just a very pretty, very large building with some very expensive shops. Obviously, what with the whole Communism thing and all, it wasn’t always this way. It was always the GUM, but during the time of the Soviet Union the G stood for Gosudarstvennyi, or State. This shinning store once sold the same goods as any other store, but it tended to actually have those things instead of just claiming to. That’s your history lesson for the post, at least I think that’s all that is going to make its way in here.
After our wandering around the Red Square and the inside of St. Basil’s we finally made it to the hotel, which took quite a while. Traffic in Europe’s biggest city can be rather challenging. We passed the stadium built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics and found out that we were staying in a hotel built for those same Games. We had little time to rest in our rooms before we did something that I had been excited and nervous about since we were told about it. That afternoon we were going to form groups and have dinner with a pair of Russian students arranged by our teacher and one of his Russian professor friends. And so, at 4:30 that afternoon we went into the lobby and met our forced Russian friends.
I was in a group of four DIS students and our Russian friends were a very nice couple. We went grocery shopping, wandering around the cold city, and back to their apartment where we had potatoes and chicken. I don’t know what to say because the experience isn’t something that is easy to describe. It’s not like I can describe the conversations that we had. That would be too much. However, after dinner we left, and we thought we were headed to a park with some tea on our way to the metro station, but we somehow ended up wandering around the freezing cold city for hours. It was interesting to hear about everything from somehow who lived there. And we had the opportunity to see the red stars glowing above the Kremlin at night which along with a few other things that we certainly would not have seen otherwise. One of my favorite experiences was crossing an 18 lane street in Moscow. Yes, 18. That was not a misprint. We waited on the corner for probably about five minutes as the cars sped by and then we had 30 seconds to cross all 18. So, we had to book it because I had already learned in my brief time in Moscow that cars do not yield to pedestrians. 30 seconds means 30 seconds in this country.
The next day was our last full day in Russia, and it was a busy one. We finally had an academic visits for DIS. We started with a question and answer session with the Young Guard of United Russia, the younger people involved in the largest political party in Russia, the party that is strangely associated with Vladimir Putin. I’ve heard the term “Putin Youth” tossed around a few times, which is full of uncomfortable connotations. But it was an interesting meeting. We met with the leaders, who were all a little older than us, and our teacher (who has translated for Putin and the Queen of Denmark – no big deal) translated for us. With the US election just weeks away, our hosts wasted no time in finding out who was voting for who. In case you were wondering, all of the Russians that I talked politics with (which weren’t many, mind you) were on team Obama, and the Young Guard was no exception. After that we asked a few questions, and they asked a few of us. You could tell by their answers that they were certainly politicians.
Our next visit was to the Kremlin, which I thought was actually great timing. We met the type of people who controlled the country and then we saw from where. In Germany the Reichstag has a glass dome on its roof that allows anyone who is there to look down into the main hall of Parliament. The government offices are also set up with one glass wall so that anyone walking along could look into any office. This transparency is their way of making up for the not so great history of government control. Russia is exactly the opposite. The seat of the government is located within the Kremlin which is just an enormous wall. It was the original heart of the city from which Moscow grew. It is still a wall and just as impenetrable as ever. We made it through security but I don’t want to even think how much of a pain it must have been to book the tour. Apparently our group was not allowed to follow our teacher on a tour to see it ourselves but we were required to hire a certified tour guide. Also there were guards everywhere who would not even allow anyone to step from the outside of the sidewalks. We saw a couple get thoroughly chewed out in Russian for attempting to cross the street.
Speaking of crossing the street, while we were waiting outside we had an interesting experience with the traffic guard outside the Kremlin. First, one of our group attempted to take a picture or two of the entrance, the guard saw him and waved him over. Somehow conveyed in gruff Russian-English that he wanted to see his pictures and said “delete” to every picture that we was in. Apparently even the crossing guards can implement censorship in Russia. That was the second most interesting thing that happened while we were waiting after that. The guard got a cal on his walkie-talkie and seemed to become a little more strict, not allowing anyone to cross even if the light allowed it. Soon a cavalcade of big black cars with tinted windows pulled up, the guard tightened, saluted, and relaxed as the central car went inside. Our professor said that it could have been Putin. we all agreed that it must have been Putin. Who else could it possibly have been, right? That’s my story and I am sticking to it.
Our final visit for the night was also political. Because of lack of space we had to have our question and answer session outside on the rooftop terrace of an opposition newspaper. Our meeting was with Roman Dobrokhotov, an opposition journalist who had recently made a name for himself when he cried out at the conference announcing the extension of the presidency from four-year terms to six. He has done quite a bit since then and become somewhat of an opposition celebrity. So, to recap I somehow found myself on a rooftop in Russia on a cold night, the Kremlin in the background on one side and the city on the other, talking to a man who the government would very much like to not have speaking to anyone ever. I felt like a spy. The conversation was interesting but understandably shortened due to the cold. One thing he said did stand out, though. Someone asked something along the lines of “what advice do you have for solving problems in the US” and his response was basically “You don’t know real problems so just relax.” Obviously I am paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it.
The next morning was reserved for one purpose – shopping. Our flight was in the afternoon, which meant that we had to leave around noon to ensure that we made it through the congested Moscow traffic. This meant that the only thing that we really had time to do was peruse the enormous outdoor market right next to our hotel.
It was part flea market, part tourist trap, and overall pretty great. It was so large and winding that I spent between two and three hours shopping despite my running nose and frozen fingers. At first I spent time in the tourist area and found the typical matryoshka dolls modeled on NFL and MLB teams as well as fur hats, t-shirts, and replica Soviet Union paraphernalia. I actually really enjoyed this. There were a few more handmade goods at this market than at any other place that I had seen yet in Russia and for some reason even the tourist junk seemed nice now. Maybe it’s because I realized that in a few hours I might never again get to be around these things that I had come to take for granted. I would not be in Russia again and since a lot of what was around me was actually what I thought of when I thought of Russia it was perfect at the time. Tourist areas are created as an amalgamation of all that people would come to see, and this condensing of a country allowed me to quickly soak in as much Russia as I could in my limited time remaining. Yes, I know that it is not all Russia, but try to tell me that you don’t think of at least some of the things sold at tourist markets when you think of Russia. And besides, up a set of stairs was the real authentic market. The one still fr tourists but also for those who lived nearby and just needed to pick up something to decorate their apartment with or a new knife, or something else just as mundane. This area was part stalls full of antiques which I did not doubt the authenticity of nearly as much as the area below (though still a little bit) and part blanket maze with goods spread out in front of shop tenders. Here I found old watches, old razors, old comic books, old shirts, old furs, old pictures, old picture frames, old propaganda posters, old instruments – basically anything that was part of daily life in the past 50 or 60 years could be found here somewhere. The problem was actually finding it. It was cold and I had a limited time, so i made an initial speed-through to get my bearings, but the market just kept going. When I thought that I had finally reached the end I turned a corner and realized that there was more. I turned back around a saw that there was a staircase leading down to a whole other level that I was not even aware of. This was hopeless and I unfortunately never ended up buying anything from those people in Russia. It’s a shame really, after it had become a habit to discreetly check every new street for an antique or second-hand store, here I was in the middle of the largest garage sale in Russia, and I was too overwhelmed to even start. I suppose I should be careful what I ask for. I wound up taking my bag full of tourist treasures (that I had spent every last ruble on) and running into a friend. Instead of running around frantically searching for the perfect memento we ended up spending our last bit of time in Russia happily drifting through the market together instead of a mad dash to find a forced memento. That was a good choice.
Oh yea, and some of us did get sick. Pretty badly actually. But not really sick until the last day and even then one of the girls was up and ready to shop before I was. What a trooper.