Return to Russia after Forty-Six Years: Exploring Moscow, St. Petersburg, and cruising Russian Waterways

"Russia Revisited," with photographs taken by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, Dec. 7, 2008, 16-18.

Moscow, June 7, 2008: After almost half a century, I am again in Red Square and gazing at the sumptuous exterior of St, Basil's Cathedral, the elegant façade of the ornate three-story glass roofed shopping arcade known as GUM, and the outer walls of the Kremlin. These wondrous landmarks create a Proustian moment taking me back to memories of a long ago visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

First Visit: Looking Backward to the USSR under Communist Rule
In 1962, after my junior year abroad, I took a four week train tour to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, and Berlin. Khrushchev was in power and the Berlin Wall had been built in 1961. Russia then was the centerpiece of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), which formed in 1924 and broke up as of 1991 into 15 separate countries.

Russia was a drab place in terms of dress and food selection; many Russians were dressed in traditional garb rather than Western clothes. We were often approached with offers to buy the very clothing we were wearing.

Our student hotel called Sputnik was no exception to the grey tenor of Moscow daily life. Without private bathrooms, it was more like a dormitory than a hotel. Included meals revolved around cabbage soup, borscht—and cabbage and beets in other forms--and potatoes (mostly boiled).

A climate of fear and paranoia prevailed. People were convinced the KGB was everywhere. The nominal leader of the group warned us that our every move might be watched and that we should be careful not to talk politics in public.

We met somewhat feisty young people who wanted to learn about the West. We would meet in the parks, walking while we talked, or in a riverside café where they felt safe. When visiting our hotel rooms, where they felt safer than in their own apartment buildings, they took precautions because they were certain that the room contained listening devices. They unscrewed the speaker piping in music and announcements because they suspected that the speaker had the capacity to listen to those speaking in the room.

Hugger Mugger
Another American on the tour and I were approached in St. Petersburg by an attractive and unusually well-dressed young woman who wanted to leave Russia and who told us she was a daughter of an important nuclear physicist. Were we being entrapped? Upon our return to Moscow, we went to the American Embassy where, after being asked in a whisper by the first official person we met what we were there for, had us exchange messages in writing. We were taken to a room dug out below the basement. We were introduced to a senior embassy official who was a few years later, I learned from a first page story in the New York Times, expelled as a spy from the USSR. He took us to an unfinished room in the basement, which had been constructed, we were told, without the knowledge of the Soviet government.

While we spoke, he played tapes of Nikita Khrushchev's speeches backwards so as to confuse any listeners. We were told if the person who wished to depart were the important nuclear physicist rather than his daughter, something could be done. We were not only admonished not to discuss this with anyone and that we were probably being followed and would surely be after we left. We were given a phone number to memorize in case we were picked up by the police.

Essentials of our 2008 Trip
My wife, Marcia Jacobson, and I purchased a 16 day tour to Russia from Grand Circle Tours, including air, for about $4000 a person; the tour included four nights in a serviceable Moscow hotel, 3 nights in a somewhat better St. Petersburg Hotel, and 7 nights on a Russian waterways cruise.

Selling "optionals' is a version of disaggregation that enables Grand Circle and other companies to advertise a better price. Even if you buy them as pricey optionals, do not miss the stunning fountains of Peterhof, summer residence of Russian royalty; Catherine the First's rococo luxurious palace (especially the Amber room) in the town named after Pushkin; and the splendid Russian circus in Moscow. We bought tickets for a touristy "Swan Lake" for $8.50 each that the tour sold with bus ride of less than ½ mile for $80 each. (For world class ballet, be sure to go to the Kirov Ballet, if is in season, at the Marinsky).

Moscow subway

Moscow and St. Petersburg are accessible to American travelers in ways that were impossible before 1991 Glasnot and Perestroika. We did many things on our own. Subways are easy to negotiate. Take a map and ask; many younger people speak enough English to help.

The Russian waterways cruise, 829 miles from Moscow to St. Petersburg, begins on the Moscow Canal, then enters the Volga—largest river in Europe—for less than 100 miles, crosses the Rybinak Reservoir, enters the Sheskna river before crossing the two largest lakes in Europe, Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega, and then enters the Neva River where St. Petersburg is located.

On the Volga

One of the trip highlights was the long days; on the cruise we were watching sunsets at 11pm. And as we approached June 21, the nights did not get fully dark.

On the M/S Rossia, carrying 200 passengers, our nice room had a good-sized window enabling us to enjoy scenery, TV (with CNN much of the time), air conditioning, and a functional bathroom including an enclosed shower. We were divided into six groups of 35, each group with its own tour guide. The food was reasonably good and nicely served.

Grand Circle provides a well-organized trip where the safety of their travelers is uppermost. Their core clients are well-traveled retirees, especially teachers, and I would guess the mean age was early 70s. If our cruise is any criteria, Grand Circle travelers are participants. They went to concerts, lectures, language classes, doll painting, vodka tasting and cooking classes.

Wooden church on the Volga

Our Grand Circle trip was an excellent value. Our best cruise stop was the middle-size city of Yaroslav (population 600,000), which has some interesting churches. The town of Uglitch has some historical interest because one of Ivan the Terrible's sons was killed there. We saw the wooden churches on Kizhi Island and walked about the remote village of Goritsky.

Moscow Highlights:
With its monumental Red square and equally imposing Kremlin, Moscow, the capital, is an imposing city--especially the center--with elegant Russian Orthodox churches and statuesque buildings dating back to Czarist days.

Built in the 1890s as a shopping arcade and a Government run department store in Communist times, GUM now contains small upscale shops such as Dior and Ferragamo. St. Basil's Cathedral, built in the sixteenth century, is perhaps the most beautiful site in Red Square. Its iconostasis—a screen of icons--had been plastered over during the Soviet period.

Red Square, Moscow, St. Basil's

What is immediately most strikingly different from my 1962 visit is the restoration of those Russian Orthodox churches that were not destroyed by the Communists. The major synagogues in Moscow and St. Petersburg—which we visited--are prospering, although the numbers of worshippers are tiny compared to those of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Within the walls of the Kremlin, the State Armory museum is the highlight. Jeweled crowns, swords, thrones, robes covered with emeralds and diamonds, and the legendary Faberge bejeweled eggs show how Tsarist luxury benefited from the immense labor of the many on behalf of the few.

The Pushkin Fine Art Museum is strong in Rembrandt and other 17th century Dutch and Flemish painters. Requiring separate admission, the adjacent Gallery features Impressionists and Post-Impressionists with a special focus on Matisse and Picasso. Do visit the Tretyakov State Gallery with its focus on Russian Art and the separate New Tretyakov, which focuses on 20th century Russian art featuring Malevich, Goncharova, Kandinksy, as well as social realists of the 1917-1991 Bolshevik period.

St. Petersburg Highlights
On the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea with more than 60 canals and bridges, St. Petersburg, "Venice of the North," was founded by Peter the Great in the early 18th century and was the capital from 1712 until 1918. Called Leningrad in Communist times, it is a beautiful city with spectacular views. We were there for the White Nights during the year's longest days.

We spent most of two days in the Hermitage, which, along with the Met in Manhattan and the Louvre, is among the great museums in the world.
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Unlike my last visit when many rooms were closed, the entire Hermitage was open and most of the rooms have been refurbished; many paintings have been cleaned, although far from all. We reveled in the awe-inspiring masterpieces of Rembrandt, Leonardo, and Raphael to Matisse and Picasso.



Russia Today: Continuity and Difference:
What we encountered was rampant capitalism with exorbitant unregulated charges for Internet (especially at the Moscow Holiday Inn where the charge was $10.40 at the business center). A small map of the cruise path which should have been given to every passenger as a courtesy cost $3.50 and a cruise video $50. A very slim paper ballet program was almost $7. At least one restaurant bill was padded.

Fostered by oil and natural gas, Russia has been booming economically and there is among the wealthy and even the rising upper middle class a strong taste for luxury goods. The Bolsheviks nationalized all private property, but now people are buying their own homes. In contrast to mostly drab dress in 1962, urban women (more than men) are not only chic and fashionable but even at times excessively made up and overdressed by western standards.

During both my visits, I heard the recurring phrase "after the Revolution," but the phrase has a different resonance after Perestroika and Glasnost, both terms implying greater openness and transparency, freedom of the press, and freedom to dissent. "The 1917 October revolution" is no longer perceived ideologically as a utopia but as something of a puzzle. Now the phrase means something like "after the now obsolete Bolshevik 1917-1991 period when financial opportunity was disrupted by nationalization of private property."

But the Bolsheviks—who under Stalin renamed themselves Communists-- are not completely discredited. Lenin is still something of hero for opening the doors of opportunity in the wake of Tsarist rule. Stalin is credited with saving the country during the German Invasion of World War II, a war in which the former USSR lost by their count 27 million people—most of whom were Russians-- while we in the USA lost less than 500,000. Not surprisingly, the country is punctuated with war memorials, mostly built during the communist area and in the social realistic mode. Many, however, date back to the previous centuries and honor earlier defenses of the homeland against invaders, most notably Napoleon.

Stalinist architecture, which most Westerners think of as unimaginative and clichéd in its striving to be monumental, is recalled favorably for the well-built apartments constructed under Stalin's rule both before and after WW II. These residential buildings are still preferred over those less well built in other periods— Khrushchev or Brezhnev—even though the latter have exteriors that are more appealing. With their stucco over masonry, some of these Stalinist era buildings are still prestigious addresses.

Until the recent world economic downturn, it would have been safe to say that Russia is a booming country. But there are many problems in the Russia of 2008:

1)) Limits on freedom of expression in a country where government controls much of the media, especially television. The repression in 1962 that gave way to great openness in the 1990s has been followed by some contraction in last few years under Putin. A strong example of this repression is the October 2006 assassination of prominent Russian journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya.

2) Economic disparity: 40 per cent of the population lives below poverty line. We saw a fair share of drunks on streets as well as young people with enormous bottles of beer. We also saw a fair share of beggars. And a handful of our fellow travelersfell prey to pickpockets in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

3) The tradition of violent and extreme behavior. Many Russians believe in the necessity of a strong leader and do not hold it against Putin that he was a KGB figure before the fall of the Communists. Putin follows a history where first the Tsars and then the Bolsheviks insisted on a unified ideology to further their goal and did not tolerate dissent. Russia's recent invasion of Georgia under Putin--still the real power as Prime Minister although Medvedev has succeeded him as President--illustrates the continued presence of the imperialistic tradition of Russia. Putin had suppressed the rebellion of Moslem Chesnya, an area striving to breakaway from Russia and become an independent country.

4) The role of the Russian "mafia" in so-called legitimate business and the accompanying rampant corruption.