Go to Russia

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jlane jlane

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February 2012 - Done

tepsicity tepsicity

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I should admit up front that despite two years of college Russian, I could never say the word “fifty.” My ear hears the word spoken, my mouth tries to follow suit, and what comes out…well, based upon the laughter it’s incited, I can only guess that it directly translated to “clown getting hit in the face with a pie and then farting.” I thought this would be a great trip to practice my Russian. I would learn to say “fifty,” goddamn it, if my life depended on it.

Visiting Russia was by far my biggest lifelong travel dream. I won’t bother eating up my entire entry by going in depth into the reasons behind this dream (see below, re: entire Master’s thesis), except to say that for a kid in the 1980s, the Soviets were our enemies. They were evil. They had to be stopped, possibly Red Dawn-style. This changed literally overnight in a kid’s mind, and the best explanation we got for it was, “well, they’re like us now,” and Fake Gorbachev standing up to applaud Rocky defeating Ivan Drago. This is what “like us now” looked like.

I essentially got two International Relations degrees and wrote an entire Master’s thesis in an attempt to make sense of all of this, but it never felt complete. The Formerly Evil Empire was still a stranger to me. So once I booked the trip, I downloaded a playlist with everything from Ruslan and Ludmila to Winds of Change, and basically just dorked out.

In Moscow, I ended up staying steps from the Izmailovo Market, which I can only describe as a crazy Epcot Center version of Tsarist Russia. It was handy for getting souvenirs, but the park just beside it on the river became kind of my favorite place during my stay. It was surprisingly scenic and quiet, for a tiny little throwaway park in the middle of a major world city.

I love that you can’t (from the metro side, at least) see Red Square until you’re in it. If you remember the Cold War, it’s immediately familiar and overwhelming, because this place – filled with high-stepping troops and enormous missiles – was the Soviet Union to you, in the stock footage on the news that was your only window to it. And while GUM is hours of diverting fun with Russian food and Bunker 42 is a must, and the Moscow Metro is truly gorgeous, Red Square was the last place I went every night in Moscow.

I’d plop down on the curb to watch the tourists walk by, with everything all lit up, and feeling that dangerous hope that I think has infected everyone who remembers the Cold War, probably to our detriment. Because somewhere in the back of our minds, we think, if the mighty Soviet Union buckled, what chance does North Korea or ISIS have? If my American ass can sit in the middle of Red Square when we were at each other’s throats twenty years ago, who’s to say my much older ass won’t be sitting in the middle of Pyongyang or Aleppo twenty years from now? I hope it will. It probably won’t. Things got mighty philosophical on that curb.

Now, I’m generally against planned tours and like to travel independently. But going with a planned tour got me documentation for my visa quicker. That being said, I actually did enjoy the tour. For most of it, I was the only person, so I basically had somebody just driving me around to places I probably wouldn’t have bothered with on my own, because the logistics would have been impossible.

That’s how I ended up in Pskov, which is incredibly beautiful (with a lot of dorky history I ate up with a spoon) and Pechory, a small, breathtakingly beautiful monastery hidden in the mountains. We ended the day at a tiny, family-run banya that ceded the entire building to my guide and I so we could alternately steam ourselves and immerse ourselves in freezing water to our heart’s content before gorging ourselves on sausage, cold cuts, pickles, caviar, black bread, and vodka, vodka, vodka.

It was the best meal I had, until I discovered the soups. God, these are a thing of beauty in Russia. I was raised on a lot of Slavic cooking, and thus love cabbage and pierogies and know that sour cream makes any dish better, including microwaveable Healthy Choice meals. I have had a good deal of borscht in my life, but it was nothing like this. Just surprisingly light and yet filling, while I was eating hot soup outside in the middle of August. And solyanka? I had not met you before, but am so glad you entered my life. You are a marvel.

And then I got to St. Petersburg. God. I had only academic history for this, no stern dictators hated by America or marching troops or horrifying missiles. It got dark around two o’clock in the morning and got light again around six. It was fucking wonderful.

My organized tour took me through the Hermitage and the Peter and Paul Fortress, where you should know they shoot off a cannon at noon. I did not know this, heard the cannon go off right next to the tombs I was visiting, assumed it was Russian 9/11 and hit the deck. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy. Now, the closest I got to 9/11 was being about a mile from the Pentagon when the plane hit, so…yeah. This was the level of my automatic response thirteen years later, so if you’re a veteran, you might want to avoid Peter and Paul around noon.

Then my tour ended, and my real fun began. My friend’s dad lived in town, so I met up with him for a city tour (Armory? Oh, yeah, armory) and then a trip to Peterhof. He was just great – incredibly funny and knowledgeable and wise. Much as I loved my extremely experienced twenty-two year-old tour guide, she had zero desire to engage with me about Cold War history, not just because she didn’t remember it, but because…I’m not really sure.

It was kind of weird. It’s not like I ever framed any of these questions in a “we won, you lost” way, because, again, entire Master’s thesis on this topic. I was familiar with the nuances. But I couldn’t get past the impression that no matter how I phrased any question about the Cold War, she just seemed to view it as an empty bit of history, better off forgotten.

Vagaries of today’s youth, or maybe Putin was spying on her. Either way, my friend’s dad (who totally needs to start hiring himself out for tours) totally got my obsession with Soviet weapons; he’d spent pretty much his entire trip to the US going to war museums and wishing he’d been able to visit a missile silo. He knew his weapons’ specs. I knew ours. Twenty years before, we’d have been an awesome spy couple.

I was mostly thrilled that finally, FINALLY, I had a good old Soviet someone I could commiserate with about how, once upon a time, we’d been prepared to wipe each other off the map. And then not only decided not to, but became friends. And how incredibly fucked up that was, in both a cognitive and historical way. Again, things got mighty philosophical on the hydrofoil back from Peterhof, which is just incredible: a water park with wit and marching bands and pasty white Russians tanning themselves.

I then spent a glorious night in St. Petersburg with a Ukrainian-born British dude and his Russian friends, and at least managed to follow the gist of the conversation without too much translation on his part, even if my limited contributions were in sad pidgin Russian that often – right in the middle of a sentence sometimes – just turned into French, vodka having reduced my brain’s capacity for foreign languages into one big, undifferentiated hotchpot.

At the end of the night, our bill ended in many rubles, plus fifty kopeks. I demanded another chance to work out my latest Russian iteration of the word “fifty.” I eked it out. Everybody understood, insofar as everybody got what I was talking about. I asked the Ukrainian if it would’ve been understood out of context. “Sure,” was his kind response. Gratified, I paid up my portion. When the waitress arrived, I asked her where the bathroom was. She answered. I understood (“straight ahead to the back, then go right”). I got to the bathroom, which had a fifty kopek charge. I counted out my coins and handed them to lady.

“Fifty,” I stated triumphantly.

She stared at me for a moment. And then – weirdly enough – somewhere behind me, a clown must have appeared, gotten hit in the face with a pie, and then farted.


Hysadie Hysadie

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 Saint-Petersbourg + Kazan + Moscou + Ufa 

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