Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Recognize this?

The most obvious difficulty in visiting Moscow is the language. Unless you can read Russian a little you have great difficulty moving around independently. There are few signs using the Roman alphabet; some subway maps do, but it's hard to find one. So I traveled in a tour group most of the time. This necessarily limits what I saw, and anything I say is based on limited data. But here goes.

Moscow is big--15 million people and growing. New high rises are going up everywhere, and traffic is a major problem. Everywhere we went, we spent much of the trip sitting in traffic. This is true in spite of the fact that the excellent public transportation system is also jammed. The city is extremely pedestrian unfriendly; six and eight lane roads filled with speeding cars who DO NOT care about pedestrians separate neighborhoods, even in the historic center. The only way to cross many of these roads is by pedestrian underpasses, which have no signs indicating which way to go. Almost everyone in Moscow lives in high rise apartment houses, which range from old and shabby and to new and rather expensive looking, with every combination in between. They're mostly without charm: boxy, grey or brown, no window boxes, even in the heart of summer. However, there are lovely older buildings (both baroque and Victorian) mixed in, and churches with the familiar Russian onion domes are everywhere.

Here's the skyline. The large "Soviet Gothic" building is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I think. There are actually six of these, called the Seven Sisters (number seven was never built) scattered around the city so one is visible from any direction.

This is one of the lovely churches, the Cathedral of the Assumption, inside the Kremlin walls. Tsars were crowned here.

The first thing that would strike an American about the people is the Moscow Stone Face. To say that the service industry is lagging behind there is an understatement. No hotel clerk, store clerk, or museum person smiles; most of the women have their eyebrows plucked into pencil thin arches, which somehow adds to the unpleasantness of their stare. In addition, there are many incomprehensible rules and procedures that produce cries of "Nyet, nyet, nyet," when you misstep. You need a thick skin to visit Moscow. I suppose this is a holdover from the days of Communism; when you consider the history, openness is probably not to be expected.

This picture illustrates an example. The beautiful young woman to the left was the guide for the museum we were visiting. Some places don't allow the commercial Moscow guides to conduct tours and insist on having their own person, who only speaks Russian. So the museum guide conducted a long tour, full of statistics like the square footage of the room or how many kilos of gold leaf were used for ornamentation, all without changing expression or varying the monotone of her voice. Our guide Irena (on the right), who could make information fascinating and convey excitement for the historical places and events described, was force to translate, probably gritting her teeth in frustration the entire time.

That being said, if you have any kind of personal relationship, the people are delightful. Irena had a wonderful sardonic wit; her comment about the museum people: "We don't understand the rules either. We just say "Don't break your brain, do what they say.'" (There's lots of history in the creation of that attitude.) The Russian conference organizers, who struggled with the bureaucracy as much as anyone else, were warm, helpful, and gracious. And best of all, we were invited to the home of the parents of one of my husband's post docs. His mother had prepared a traditional Russian meal, with her own home made salted salmon (delicious), home made blinis, and other snacks. A meal includes many toasts, each one to be followed by downing a shot of vodka and taking a bite of food. Fun! One could imagine the hilarity when a big party like this gets going; we were rather staid, but I hope not unappreciative! I haven't any pictures from that occasion, but here's a band that entertained at one of the dinners. They're playing traditional Russian folk instruments, and had a wonderful time doing it.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about some of the incredible things to be seen in Moscow.


jenclair said...

I bet the traffic and the inability to read the signs was intimidating! Glad you had the opportunity to visit and dine with an ordinary family and that at least some of the people with whom you had contact were warm and friendly.

Karen Dianne Lee said...

Its a Study to note the class struggle, the history - the battle scars are still there. What is woven into their history and what you see they've done with it (or communism did) is a Study.

15 mill? Sheesh. I think the reason the city isn't pedestrian safe is this - they want to reduce their numbers. With 15 mil you've got to have every option on the table. ...or on the street I should say!

Points for Pedestrians Love, *karendianne. with bad humor in tow./ Living Life at LeeHaven

Anonymous said...

Im enjoying reading about your travels very much....but I dot think you;ve inspired me to visit Russia!

Allison Ann Aller said...

Tragic, doomed, and ever compelling Mother Russia! Hers is a mysterious force in this world of ours...
My grandfather escaped her anti-Semitic clutches at the turn of the 20th century as a boy, the swords of the pogroms just missing him. Decades later, I have a photo of him in Red Square in the 1950's, one of the first Americans to get a visa to visit under Stalin. (He went as an economist.) In the picture he has an exceedingly complex look on his face...

Could you feel the immeasurable past suffering on those streets?

Debra said...

Between divorce & remarriage, I met a number of men who had been to Russia with oil business and they always commented that young Russian women were beautiful and brainy because they didn't have anything to do for work so spent all their time studying and going to school. I always marvel at the eastern european girls of the beauty contests, they do look so lovely.

Wes's grandmother, who was from Croatia, used to tell him he needed to go to Croatia and get a nice Croatian girl to marry!

I understand the language barrier. I decided to do some independent traveling in Indonesia and their language is totally foreign and in some of the thicker areas where people don't see Americans, you don't have any way to communicate except with hand gestures and the like. It can reduce one to tears (and terror).

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! I am enjoying your travelogue so much. My exotic travel days are probably over, but I do hope to visit Moscow one day. It is a very interesting place.

I wonder if you noticed any enthusiasm and excitement on the faces of the youngsters? Unlike the older ones who have been poisoned by terminal oppression.

Kay said...

Interesting question, Rian. Actually, I don't remember seeing any children, although there were delightfully painted playgrounds all around the residential area near our hotel. Maybe everyone was in school; this is just an indication of how limited my sample was.

Kim said...

It's so difficult to know a place from such a small sample. Politics have colored the culture for so long, I do wonder how it will evolve now that the country is "visible" to the rest of the world.

15 million? too many for me!

Anonymous said...

So interesting, Kay (as all your travelogues are). It is a grim society. The only smiles we saw were from a horde of street vendors trying to sell us things. Our guide, who did smile, said she had learnt to "because Americans expect it. RRRRusssian people do not smile." "We noticed," I muttered.

The guides/pinheads at The Hermitage were also tedious. Any time you get fed up with American bureaucracy, try Russia!

I'm delighted to say I've been, but I would never go back. Too much fun lies elsewhere.