Americans are fat, eat hamburgers, and don’t know geography, said our Russian train guide, Lada, summing up an unflattering stereotype. Parroting the official propaganda, she also mentioned the American invasion of Ukraine. Although Lada was on the conservative side of the Russian political spectrum, her remarks and our other guides provided an alarming view of Russia under the reign of Vladimir Putin.
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 our early retirement. After Russia, we planned to visit Turkey, but in the next 10 days, we would experience life in Moscow and then St. Petersburg.
Moscow vibrates with stylish young people. At 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 that Muscovites are happy with their cell phones and Internet but are living under “a free dictatorship.”
Sluggish tourism was hurting the Russian economy, but there was an upside for Americans. A dollar now buys twice as much as it did in 2011. Our private bike tour cost only $25 per person, bikes included. Sitting down for a $14 lunch in Santa Barbara costs $6 in Moscow. Cheap vodka is another perk. To curb moonshining, the government had reduced the minimum price of a half-liter of vodka to $2.70 from a record high of $3.15. We expected to see plenty of vodka drinking. We didn’t. Curious, we asked our biking guide. He explained that Putin told Russians to either knock off drinking vodka in public or be fired.
Unable to speak Russian, we used our guides to move beyond the historical spiels about the tourist sites and get the lowdown on what locals think of Putin. On that day, we toured Red Square and the Metro, Moscow’s subway, with stations beautiful enough to be in a museum. 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, you’ll see the walls of the Red Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the 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 the two Russian guards, and pass through yet another metal detector. Roman, our guide, noticed something missing: Russian flags flown in honor of Boris Nemtsov who had mysteriously been shot in the back. The flags were gone but not the intimidation. Roman recited a Russian saying: “If you think, don’t talk. If you talk, don’t sing. If you sing, don’t dance. If you dance, don’t be surprised.”
After Moscow, we took a four-hour train ride to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg didn’t vibrate with the youth and wealth of Moscow, but it had canals as well as better-endowed museums and palaces. Lacking locals or shops, 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.
Moscow’s most impressive museum was the Kremlin Armory, but St. Petersburg’s Hermitage/Winter Palace outclassed it. 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 pretentious than even the palace at Versailles. Europe’s 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, but instead Elizaveta chose Teremok, Russia’s answer to McDonald’s. These McRussia joints, as we called them, were as numerous as McDonald’s are in the States. Each consists of a line where you order and then watch your crêpe be filled with your choice of ham, salmon, or caviar as you shuffle along the counter before collecting 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.
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 paths of our three, college-graduate kids gave Elizaveta further, and needed, inspiration.
For the adventuresome travelers, now is a great time to visit Russia. In both Moscow and St. Petersburg, locals were overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. All were anxious to share their political views and were curious about the lack of American travelers. Given Donald Trump’s admiration for Putin, witnessing the effects of Putin’s policies is educational. And even with a short attention span, the excess at the Hermitage museum makes for an enlightening visit.