Moscow and St. Petersburg, Fascinating and Enlightening
Dale Zurawski | August 16th, 2016
Biking through Moscow on a nearly six-hour tour, our Russian guide, Ivan, relayed to my husband and me this theory for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of McDonald’s. On the day McDonald’s opened its first restaurant, 30,000 meals were served. Muscovites braved the January cold to stand in a line that wrapped around Pushkin Square three times. In 1990 the Russians sank their teeth into an American hamburgers, and in 1991 they dropped communism for capitalism. Although the collapse was more complicated than a bite of a hamburger, enthusiasm for Western culture did play a part. The Russians we met were as appreciative of Americans as they were of our hamburgers.
My husband, Geoff, and I had just stumbled off a 12-day ride on the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Beijing. Before boarding we had traveled through northern China for two weeks. That was the first leg of a three-month around-the-world celebration of early retirement. In the next 10 days we would experience life in Moscow then St. Petersburg.
Passing through metal detectors, we entered the downtown Marriot Hotel Novy Arbat for a taste of United States. I picked up a free copy of The Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper. The front-page news included an article about 43% of Russians supporting a government ban on foreign made condoms. Since Russia can only meet 4% of the demand, non-state outfits could continue to buy from abroad. The government pays for families to have kids, so the proposal to ban condoms may be motivated by more than a desire to give a few Russian factories a boost.
Another Moscow Times article, this one lifted from Reuters, noted:
“Russia has added Albania, Montenegro, Liechtenstein and Iceland to a list of countries from which it has banned most food imports in retaliation for Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Thursday.” But analysts believe that Russia’s efforts to curb meat, fish, dairy, and produce imports, end up hurting Russian consumers for the sake of whipping up support for Vladimir Putin. The dropping cost of oil was causing problems, but state media wasn’t talking about that. Even some of our university-educated guides seemed to believe the West was at fault for Russia’s problems.
Moscow vibrates with stylish young, people. Leaving the Marriot the first night, we headed for an outdoor jazz concert in Gorky Park. The crowd and atmosphere wouldn’t have been out of place in Central Park. The crowd was fashionably dressed. One woman had blue hair. Music featured American jazz singers with the crowd singing along in English. The Russian specialty of salty, fried herring was worthy of a taste but in the end we resorted to the universally available French fries. One guide told us Muscovites are happy with their cell phones and Internet but they are living under “a free dictatorship”.
A lack of tourism was hurting the Russians economy, but there was an upside for American tourists because one dollar now buys twice as much as a dollar in 2011. Ivan’s private bike tour costs only $25 per person, bikes included. Sitting down for a $14 lunch in Santa Barbara, costs $6 in Moscow. Cheap vodka is another a perk. The government had reduced the minimum price of a half-liter of vodka to $2.70 from a record high of $3.15, so we expected to see plenty of vodka drinking. We didn’t. As Ivan explained Putin told Russians to either knock off drinking vodka in public or be fired. The reduced price of vodka was due to a government effort to curb moonshining.
Unable to speak Russian, we decided to hire private guides for half-day tours. In addition to the bike tour, we hired Roman for a tour of Red Square and the Metro, Moscow’s subway, with stations beautiful enough to be in a museum. We wanted our guides to move beyond the standard historical spiels about the big tourist sites, and get the lowdown on what locals think of Putin’s reign. We found that, depressingly, all three of our young Russian guides were resigned to the current political state.
Red Square, Moscow’s main attraction, is neither red nor a square. It is a black triangle, but in Russian, “red” means “beautiful,” hence its name. As you rotate around the square, you’ll see the walls of the Red Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the historic, flamboyant Gum department store, and the massive State Historical Museum. The Kremlin is no more open to the public than America’s Pentagon. However, the Armory, hidden inside the Kremlin walls, is open to tourists willing to stand in the longest line at Red Square, pay $12, face down the two Russian guards and pass through yet another metal detector. We found the grand collection of jewels and weapons to be worth the extra hassle.
Even vodka diehards can skip the Vodka Museum, despite the tasting included in the $30 admission. There was only a single room of glass displays, with signs in Russian, explaining how vodka is made. Not even the ornately carved wooden bar that shows off a collection of bottled vodka is worth the time. We should have saved our energy for the museums in St. Petersburg.
After five days in Moscow, we took the four-hour fast train to St. Petersburg. While watching the sunset, we reluctantly ate the airplane-style dinner placed in front of us. St. Petersburg didn’t vibrate with the youth and wealth of Moscow, but it has a beautiful network of canals, as well as better-endowed museums and palaces. At least for the five remaining days we visited, the city was also sunnier than Moscow. But the historic area felt like a façade for empty buildings. Moscow pulsed with life; St. Petersburg seemed to be dozing off into dreams of its past greatness.
If the only must-see museum in Moscow is the Kremlin Armory, then the Hermitage/Winter Palace alone is worth a trip to Russia. I don’t believe in full-day museum tours, but if any museum deserves a full eight hours, it’s the Hermitage/Winter Palace. This is art in a form so extreme, it is gaudier and more pretensions than even the palace at Versailles. Catherine the Great, art collector extraordinaire, started her collections in the Winter Palace then expanded to the Hermitage. She intended to show the world that Russia rivaled western European royalty. She was successful. Now Europe’s foremost must-see museum, the Hermitage/Winter Palace exceeds all standards for royal excess.
After six hours of being impressed, we envied the mummy, stretched out in the Egyptian room. We convinced Elizaveta, our museum guide, to stop and have dinner with us. We wanted a quiet restaurant to sit down, but instead Elizaveta chose Teremok, Russia’s answer to McDonald’s. These McRussia joints, as we called them, were as numerous as McDonalds are in the States. Each consists of a line where you order and then watch your crepe be filled with your choice of ham, salmon or caviar, as you shuffle along the counter before your tray of food at the end. The McRussia menu, in Cyrillic, was expansive. There was a long line of young kids, busy parents, and end-of-day workers, so we ordered randomly and suffered through a terrible meal, to hear Elizaveta’s story.
The next morning, a hydrofoil took us from the Hermitage jetty to the Summer Palace in 30 minutes. Walking along a canal from the landing dock, we arrived at the Grand Cascade fountain. Here Peter the Great outdid Versailles, creating a sight that beats even Europe’s best. At the center of 64 impressive fountains stands a larger-than-life, golden statue of muscleman Samson tearing open the mouth of a lion. From the mouth of the lion shoots a 66-foot high jet of water. No pumps are required. All the fountains are gravity fed, with natural spring water in a reservoir higher up.
The grounds of the Summer Palace are like a city park packed with families on a summer vacation. We didn’t buy tickets to enter the palace, but instead picnicked under a tree’s shade while we talked about the pride Russians take in their past magnificence. We chose traditional Russian fare: bread, cheese, pickles, and vodka. Putin may have discouraged public vodka drinking in Moscow, but I had grown quite fond of a shot or two with my meals.
Like Germans, Russians smile little on the street. But we got warm welcomes in hotels and restaurants. Consider our experience at Café Mindal, a restaurant we spotted on the banks of the Neva River during a nighttime float around St. Petersburg. Handed menus in English, we selected, as appetizers, pickled herring and mushroom dumplings choosing pork ribs as the main dish to sidestep the boiled veal cheeks. After we requested sorbet for dessert, the waiter seemed to hesitate, but soon the chef, Marina Naumova, appeared in a Dr. Seuss-like, white chef’s hat. She gave us a tableside performance, creating sorbet using liquid nitrogen to quick freeze fresh raspberries. We were impressed by both the sorbet and effort to welcome two Americans- such shows are usually reserved for large groups.
My husband described St. Petersburg as sunny on the outside but empty on the inside. That also describes Elizaveta. She said that she and her post-1991 classmates were told to major in economics or architecture. Now they aren't wealthy and can’t do much about it. Though just 28, Elizaveta sounded powerless and defeated. Having never lived in a country with a dynamic economy like that of the United States, they lack role models for guidance. She was amazed to hear that I had three separate careers. The career stories of our three, similarly aged, college-graduate kids, gave Elizaveta further and needed inspiration.
Russians in Moscow and St Petersburg were overwhelmingly friendly to us upbeat Americans. You don’t need to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad or travel through China to get to the European portion of Russia. You can fly nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Moscow. Putin has made Moscow a fascinating destination and, even for travelers with a short attention span, St. Petersburg’s the museums and palaces are enlightening.
If you go….
The Idiot Café,
Sunset drinks, rooftop, W hotel
Café Mindal, outdoor cafe along the Neva River
Teremok, fast food
Marriott Hotels downtown, Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The Metro subway
The Hermitage/ Winter Palace
The Summer Palace