When I was a child, my impressions of Russia included Soviet troops and missiles parading through Red Square and Nikita Khrushchev’s angry face on TV at the UN, air raids in our schools where we students were told to hide under our desks and cover our heads. Communism evoked fear. The Berlin Wall was built. Then later, I remember stories of Mikhail Gorbachev unsuccessfully trying to rescue his huge nation’s economy and President Regan coaxing him to tear down the Berlin Wall. Other than that, my knowledge of Russia was extremely limited. TV photos showed gloomy gray block-shaped buildings and I felt glad I didn’t live in such a seemingly oppressive place.
Last month, I returned from a three-week river cruise exploring along the Volga River from Moscow to St. Petersburg with post extensions to Estonia and Finland. I can’t say I had much in the way of advanced impressions of Estonia or Finland at all, but today’s Russia is a completely different place than the one I had imagined as a child. I never thought of Russia in color—that’s what the times and the old black and white TV did, I guess.
I started out in Moscow and spent four days exploring its political, historical, artistic and cultural wonders and as our tour’s Program Director promised, every day was even better than the last. I saw the typical sights like Red Square with Lenin’s Mausoleum and St. Basil’s Cathedral, its colorful twisting onion domes gleaming in the sun like embellished ice cream cones. The adjacent red walled Kremlin, which is actually a 15th-century walled city, houses the seat of government and Putin’s office. In addition, there are six cathedrals and numerous museums within those walls.
One museum, the State Armory, left me breathless. This Russo-Byzantine building was designed to protect the Kremlin’s collection of valuable items, some of which dated back to the 12th-century. Sights to boggle one’s mind included historic armor, royal thrones covered in gold and studded with diamonds and precious jewels, huge gilded imperial carriages, coronation robes, the wedding dress of Catherine the Great. There were Faberge eggs, created by Carl Faberge, the jeweler to the tsars of Russia, Russian weaponry in jewel-studded cases, battle-axes, sabers, equestrian harnesses and saddles, priceless silks, velvets, and brocades, encrusted with jewels and pearls worn by the tsars. This museum definitely topped my former favorite, the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. I know it’s not fair to compare, but when I left the Kremlin, I thought my mouth would be forever stuck in the O position. It was a magical place.
I haven’t even begun to tell you about Moscow’s beautiful churches and cathedrals filled with gold, carvings, icons, mosaics and sculptures, or the GUM Department Store (pronounced GOOM) where one can purchase items from Fendi, Louis Vitton, Hermes, Gucci, etc., or the excursion to the Moscow Circus, or the Tretyakov Gallery with its more than 130,000 paintings, sculptures and graphics from Russian artists dating from the 11th to the 20th-centuries, or the beguiling flower-filled parks and street venders selling their unique wares, or the pastoral Novodevichy Cemetary, where writers Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogal and former president Boris Yeltsin are buried, or exciting stops on Moscow’s ornate Metro. What I can tell you is that Russia is fascinating, colorful, vibrant, friendly and not at all the country of my ignorant youth. It’s young again and, I’m told, the youth are full of hope, the elders are cautiously waiting to see.
Next month, on the eleventh, I’ll share some more about my trip. I hope you’ll join me.