[I’m dropping any narrative prose for this one and just hashing things out in a stream of consciousness ramble of words. Apologies to the discerning reader (who, admittedly, wouldn’t be reading this amateurish rag anyway, but one can dream!)].
The city is a hulking, impersonal bulwark of social realist concrete punctuated by the occasional onion-domed cathedral, czarist palace, and ultra-modern office building that appears all the more dramatic juxtaposed against the deliberate depression of its brutalist grey counterparts. Also, the city is littered with Krispy Kremes . . . (your guess is as good as mine).
Social realism stands all around you: massive buildings built with grand monolithic stone that evokes a feeling of raw power and betrays perhaps a not so subtle desire to make the viewer feel small and inconsequential by contrast. The hammer and sickle still adorn just about every building of any historical significance. Dramatic men wielding construction tools hoisted high into the air serve as an ever-present reminder of the ideals the soviets claimed to hold dear. Hagiographic plaques stand on every corner and remind of some proletariat hero or location of any revolutionary activity. Memorials to the heroes of the Soviet Union line certain streets with biographies describing each individual’s total dedication (and often mortal sacrifice) to an indifferent and oppressive regime. The city is also rattling under the noise of constant construction as Russia rapidly prepares (a la Sochi 2014) to host the 2018 World Cup.
From the Spartan accommodations offered, one could gather that Moscow holds a certain contempt for the many tourists that come here and spend their money. Extremely limited signage in different languages – particularly in the metro, where one would reasonably expect there to be some minimal effort made in the capital city to assist curious outsiders on a trip. But no. Thankfully, my Russian allowed us to navigate what would have otherwise been a very tricky experience.
Below the grim horde of soviet architecture one meets the cold severity of a Muscovite’s face. The people in Moscow seem to wear a thin veneer of annoyance that they put on for each other. It’s a mask of suspicion that (I’ve been told) was inherited from the well-founded reasons to mistrust strangers that existed during the USSR. Thankfully, I’m an obnoxiously gregarious and persistent American. With a few attempts to make conversation or ask for help, I was never rejected. Even an annoyed metro attendant was willing to write down directions for me when I asked (after the obligatory eye roll). A certain minority of Russians do seem objectively cheerful (most commonly the youth), and, in my experience, zero of them (save for customs officials) reveal themselves to be overtly unfriendly.
My language comprehension is functional, which allowed me to interact with a number of people throughout my time in the “evil empire”. I can read Cyrillic perfectly well. I can give instructions and am understood, but I have difficulty understanding others. I’m at level 60 of my Russian language program, but the grammar of this Byzantine tongue is so complex that the language program has dedicated most of each lesson to teach the relationship between words rather than words themselves.
I enjoyed revealing my American identity to Russians after a period of brief conversation, once I recognized a friendly rapport had been established. They could obviously tell I was foreign from my non-Russian accent, but each seemed surprised that I was American. Usually their faces informed me it was a good sort of surprise, “Oh, well that’s interesting.” There was a sense of great curiosity that we shared and a slight amusement that we could enjoy each other’s conversation in defiance of the bellicose rhetoric emanating from our respective governments. It was only in the company of one ardent taxi driver that my Americanness was regarded as a particularly grave sin. There was a moment’s pause after my big reveal, and he frowned and proceeded to discuss something about politics with me and that America was doing something bad towards Russia. I dialed up my friendliness and tipped him generously. At the end of the ride with dear Kiril, it was clear that I had atoned for my existential transgression. He shook my hand vigorously and wished me a pleasant journey home.
To be honest, I liked every Russian person I came to know and many went out of their way to help us. For example, we asked an over-eager university student who moonlighted as a photographer to take our picture and he held up all of his friends for about ten minutes, taking and scrutinizing every picture to ensure we received a number of flawless images in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior overlooking the banks of the Moskva.
In addition to possessing an often hidden friendliness, Russians are strikingly patriotic. Russian flags abound on government buildings, tattoos on forearms, and miniature flags dangle from the hands of a stray children. Stores offer a wide
selection of patriotic white, blue, and red garb. And, of course, the almond shaped face of the half-dictator, half sex-symbol, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, stares at you with those infamous dead little eyes from t-shirts, coffee mugs, and the ever-present matryoshka dolls. You can choose from a selection of Putin riding Russian bear, Putin playing glorious game of hockey, Putin performing heroic judo takedown, or Putin giving you cool look of contempt, to name a few.
This patriotism naturally carries into open defiance against the perceived anti-Russian policies of the West. A perfect illustration of this is found in the establishment known as “Sanctions Bar” near Lubyanka Square (the site of the headquarters of the KGB/FSB). This public house was designed as an existential middle finger to the West, with each mixed drink comprising some parodied take on a Western leader or policy. Also available are the “Crimea is Ours” plates and posters (I settled for a refrigerator magnet) that celebrate the Russian Federation’s annexation of that embattled peninsula in the Black Sea.
Russia is the largest country in the world and is populated by a vast array of ethnicities, language groups, and religions. For example, we met a number of people from Dagestan, a Russian state that has particularly captivated my interest (I really want to go to Derbent, but it will likely be the death of me). On TV you’ll see what appears to be a deliberate effort to assimilate this war-torn fractious region into the Russian fold. On the equivalent of “Russia’s got talent” you may find a slew of singers in traditional garb belting out the glories of Dagestan (and a pretty good rendition of nesum dorme) before an enraptured audience of mostly ethnic Russians. With any understanding of the history of this region, the emphasis seems particularly defensive and with an obvious purpose: making Dagestanis feel more Russian and quelling the Islamic extremism and separatism that yearns to throw off the Russian yoke just as the Russians threw off that of the Islamic khanates that ruled them centuries ago. The rebels defeated the conquerers, and the once-conquerers become themselves conquered and rebellious.
In the storied Hotel Metropol, our lodging and one of the few places Westerners could stay on a visit to Moscow during the soviet days, I found myself downing a tasting platter of vodka shots decorated around spoonfuls of raw fish and caviar. I ate it. I drank it. I liked it. The salty film of the raw fish was tempered by the refined heat of a good vodka. Nowhere to be found was that all-too-familiar chemical burn on the back of your throat that goes down with a mouthful of cheap Popov or the like, the kind you experienced far too often in undergrad. After a number of emptied shot glasses, I found it difficult to control the often-irresistible urge to shout things in an exaggerated Russian accent. Why is that so much fun?! I managed to satisfy myself with a more socially acceptable “nazrdoviye” with the obsequious bartender.
Also on the tour of rusky haute cuisine were more than a few encounters with caviar. The buttery, sea-driven black bubbles popped delicately in your mouth. On top of a warm, crisp Bellini with a little Smetana and a few green wisps of dill, it is positively delicious.
We also ate plenty of Blinchikis (Russian pancakes), had some borsch, and pelmeni (some of this list occurred in Kyrgyzstan, which I will describe in a later writing). And of course, we consumed a variety of mediocre beers (Zhivoe, Baltika, and the like).
We decided to overindulge for our four year anniversary in Moscow at a world-renowned restaurant called the White Rabbit. The restaurant exists as an enclosed glass rooftop at the 23rd floor of a skyscraper, which overlooked (and, admittedly, was dwarfed by) the jagged and imposing Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, which is one of the most recognizable buildings in the Muscovite skyline and a fascinating piece of Stalinist architecture. We fell into a gluttonous habit of elk milk, elk tongue, swan liver, a bite of pickled pear in a bird’s nest decoration, a parsley sorbet amuse-bouche, other forgotten but enjoyed delicacies, and several bottles of Georgian wine. The service was tremendous and these particular customers were left in a state of booze-addled stupor and gastronomical wonderment.
This is a cultural practice I’d like to encourage the USA to adopt. While the communal (naked) single-sex option was available and admittedly more traditional, we opted for a suite at Sanduny, this one called the Kamchatka suite, consisting of a “recreation” room, bathroom, sauna, marble massage table, private pool, two showers, cold tub, and circular lounge with a TV tuned to Dagestani folk music. Pretty nice digs. #oligarchlife.
We ordered several armfuls of beer and Sydney got most of her epidermis removed by a rough masseuse from Orenburg. The burly lady from Orenburg was more than willing to peel me back to my blood vessels as well, but having witnessed Sydney go through that ordeal a few minutes earlier, I felt it better to keep my skin where it was. Instead I lounged about, drank cold beer in the hot sauna, and watched the spasmodic kafkaz dancers furiously kicking at the air on the state-run television channel.
The metro is a glorious and chaotic admixture of proletariat celebration and Lenin hagiography echoing throughout the subterranean concourses in differing artistic arrangements of black, white, and red stone. Each station is curiously different. Some are more subdued and minimalist, and others are grand and awe-striking in decoration. Some have Victorian flair with intricate crown molding and embellished chandeliers and light fixtures, while others are decidedly more mid-century and sleek. At Ploschad Revolyutsii, for example, renowned rifle-wielding bronze-statued partisans peer around corners and line the entryways, on constant watch for bourgeoisie oppressors. Among them stands Lenin, the one mug you are absolutely guaranteed to encounter in the course of your transit experience.
To enter the metro, look for a nearly invisible red “M” attached to any number of urban surfaces, walk through the closest door, and hope for the best. If it turns out you entered the metro, then you should also go and buy a lottery ticket because things are going your way. Next, buy your ticket from a slightly annoyed woman behind the ticketing counter. While she is guaranteed to speak zero English, the cost for a ticket is flat fee of 50₽ (78 cents USD), no matter the distance of your travel. But, for some reason, she still asks you where you are trying to go. Next, ride the steep descent on board a never-ending escalator as unintelligible Russian PSAs drone on from acoustically challenged speakers hidden in the walls. There’s really no need to look at timetables because the trains arrive every 3-5 minutes. Also, beware that the train doors close with extreme prejudice. Hopefully you know where the line you are riding is headed, because the transit maps look like they were designed by Jackson Pollock.