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sallyjane3 Sep 7th, 2008 02:01 AM

A Tale of Two Russian Cities..It was the worst of times and....
...the BEST of times.

jetlag still has me partially in its grip, but I thought I'd begin a summary trip report. I'll continue as I feel better / have time / sense anyone wants me to!

Flew from ATL to SVO on Skymiles. First Class. What a difference that fact makes in how jetlag has affected me. I went to visit friends, one of whom works in the American Embassy in Moscow. It was incredibly fortunate to have her there as a source of information and support. She had to work each day, as did her husband, but it was comforting to know I could just phone if I needed to. (Actually, she told me in the case of an emergency, I was to call the Marines first and they would call her while they were responding to me. That's sorta cool.)

Anyway...a summary of impressions of Moscow and St. Petersburg:

The Worst of Times:

Moscow is HUGE. Some of the most incredible architecture surrounded by enormous areas of industrialization and decay. There are far too many people for the Metro and for the highways. Yet there is a government campaign going on that offers incentives for having more children. The population has decreased steadily over the past decade and the powers-that-be don't like that. Word is they won't outright hand you money, but if you want to remodel your kitchen or add a pool...

I have been a mental health counselor for over 35 yrs. It was continuously interesting and frequently frustrating to look into the faces of the Muscovites. They are a private bunch I am told, but it was clear that so many are just existing, not really living.

Life in Moscow is hard for most of its least the thousands I ran into! That first morning I was there, I went with my friend to the Embassy to register (you have to do that within the first 3 days. They keep your passport, give you a copy and a letter to keep with you. Oh, also keep your portion of the paperwork you complete on the plane prior to Passport Control. You have to go back and get your passport whenever they inform you. Fortunately, Friend brought me mine.)

Anyway, the Metro is incredibly easy to navigate...if you have a map that has both the Cyrillic markings and English. Easy in the sense that it is simple. Not easy at all when it comes to the mental and emotional stress it can have on a person, especially during rush hour.

That first day Friend said, "OK, here we go" as she took me by the arm and plunged into the sea of expressionless faces. I later commented to her that I felt like a storm trooper going into battle.

The analogy is accurate. I was surrounded by people who fight every day to keep going. Glancing at people's faces let me know that some of them have currently misplaced their very souls. I have dealt with faces like theirs all my professional life, just not in such a MASS. I thought "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder." Then I re-thought, "No, the old term of SHELL SHOCK suits them better."

Now I am sure there are Muscovites who smile and laugh and chat with each other, but not so much in the thousands of ones I saw.

The Best Of Times:


Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh. Laughter, politeness, chatting, smiling, greeting strangers, offering help if one looks a little lost or puzzled. Just downright friendly. I am so glad I experienced the polar opposite of Moscow so that I now have a better taste of the country.

Beautiful architecture. Accepting atmosphere. The Counselor in me got to take a vacation; i.e., I didn't feel my heart break for any of the folks in this city.

Enough for now. Feel a nap coming on...

Take care,

afterall Sep 7th, 2008 03:05 AM

Now that's very interesting. I too found myself looking at the faces of the people coming down those long, long escalators as I was going up. And at the faces on the metro too.

And there did seem to be a lot of "glumness'. That was my instant inner response. But then one of the days I was in Moscow was a public holiday and I saw families going home after a day out, happy, smiling, entertaining the kids.

Conclude it's not so very different from London where rush hour is rush hour and you do what you have to do.
And I met kind and helpful people in both cities.

Of course there are people there doing it hard, and Moscow and St P are not Russia. But then the same applies to the USA, doesn't it? And Europe? What are the figures for people living below the poverty line? And we have far less excuse.

sallyjane3 Sep 7th, 2008 03:57 AM

"Conclude it's not so very different from London where rush hour is rush hour and you do what you have to do."

Nope. Couldn't disagree with you more. I too have experienced both cities and my experiences were quite different.

Besides, I'm not writing a travel guide or a textbook stating facts. I clearly labeled this as MY impressions of THIS trip.

Aramis Sep 7th, 2008 05:49 AM

What is this sallyjane - a debate?

If you don't want response to your comments (and mental health diagnoses of the masses based on visual observations) go with you first instinct and stop posting.

anna_roz Sep 7th, 2008 05:53 AM

As a very young person, I loved going with my parents to visit my uncle in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), but did not at all like going to visit cousins in Moscow. Moscow just did not have the charm and personality that appealed to me. How odd that it would still hold true for you almost 40 years later.

Anna Roz

Denise Sep 7th, 2008 07:47 AM

Thank you sallyjane3:

We are going to the Baltics, Finland, Russia and Germany next month. My partner wanted to go to Moscow but St. Petersburg connected well with our plans so I'm happy they are happy. And if they are happy then we'll all have pleasant visit.

Pegontheroad Sep 7th, 2008 08:28 AM

Interesting observations. I was in the USSR during the late 60's--the height of the cold war, so my impressions are not current.

Unfortunately, when I was in St. Petersburg (still called Leningrad at the time), I was sick and was holed up in my room, so I didn't get to see any of the city.

But my reaction to Moscow was that I thought the people looked REALLY tough compared to us effete Americans. At the time, the idea of armed conflict between the west and the USSR was thought to be a possibility, and I remember thinking that if that happened, we'd get our butts kicked.

SeaUrchin Sep 7th, 2008 10:42 AM

When I was in Moscow one of our local day tour guides and I went to lunch at Pizza Hut. She asked me why Americans are always smiling when there is no reason. She said we look goofy walking around smiling, that in her city only buffoons and mentally retarded people smile constantly. She really wanted to know so she could tell her friends as they were all questioning our sanity.

I smiled at our hotel's floor manager who kept watch in front of the elevators, as it was only the two of us while I was waiting. She mocked me and made a grotesque smile and in Russian I suppose she set me straight.

I think some of it is cultural differences and Moscow is a pretty hard city, at least when I was there.

I think people are just more light hearted in St. P, and in smaller country towns.

sallyjane3 Sep 7th, 2008 11:45 AM

The first day I was in Moscow, I remarked to Friend, "This place is unlike any other place I've ever been. " To which she replied, "Ahhh, yes, one of the reasons you wanted to come!"

She is right and I am so glad I went.

Spent the first day at Red Square. Absolutely magical. Enjoyed going inside St. Basil's Cathedral, but the interior pales in comparison to that grand exterior. It is difficult to stop taking photos b/c there is always one more angle from which to shoot!

Lots of street vendors just on the other side of Resurrection Gate. Picked up several Matryoshka dolls for family and friends. Wandered into the gift shop at Historical Museum. If you go to Moscow, do not pass up this little gem. There are absolute treasures to be found there.

Wherever I roam, I go into as many churches and cathedrals as I can. I love the architecture and the feel. So, the Kremlin certainly did not disappoint me. Again, difficult to stop taking pictures because Cathedral Square is ripe with opportunities. I was fascinated to learn that the cathedrals have no pews. During my stay as I wandered into various places of worship, it was universal: Everyone stands during the service and I was told that some services last 3 hours.

One day I took a self-guided Metro tour. As I said, the massive system is easy to understand and as long as you don't surface, the price of one ride (about 19 rubles) entertains you for hours. There are some fairly plain stations, of course, but there is also a multitude of stations with chandeliers, mosaics, statues, paintings. If you want photos without a lot of people, best to go late at night.

Other highlights included Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, Alexander Gardens, and roaming the Arbat District. Actually, the shops on Ulitsa Arbat appealed to me more than the huge enclosed mall named Tsum (Gum) next to Red Square.

The weather was very hot, very cold, very rainy. Then the next HOUR, it all repeated! Not much of an exaggeration I'm afraid. Have to dress in layers b/c one never knows...

My guide book said I'd probably be relieved to see a McDonald's, just for the clean restrooms. It was right. Restrooms are few and far between and a good many do not supply toilet tissue, so take your own just in case. The thing about bopping into McDonald's is that MOST everyone else was there, too. I never went into or passed by & glanced into a McDonald's that wasn't packed to the gills.

My side trip to St. Petersburg when I return.....

SeaUrchin Sep 7th, 2008 11:55 AM

sallyjane, I am glad you enjoyed yourself. It is an amazing city. From what I remember, only Peter the Great was allowed to sit in a chair during services.

The saints icons are positioned in the rows on the wall in a classified way too. I will have to go back to my notes now that you have tweaked my curiosity.

sallyjane3 Sep 7th, 2008 01:49 PM

To you posters who have been to Moscow and St. Petersburg: I would love to hear your favorite things/places. Intrigued by the statement about the icons, Sea, and yours about the passage of 40 years, Anna. And, Peg, I'm totally with you: I wouldn't mess with any of those folks!

So, on to St. Petersburg. Took Aeroflot, which did the job but seems to have a dubious reputation. As I was waiting to check in (they allow you to do so only within 90 mins of your flight) a young Londoner struck up a conversation with me. He needed to vent about the fact that his Aeroflot flight was delayed so he missed his connection in Moscow (also Aeroflot) and he was told he'd have to buy another ticket! THEIR fault but he'd have to pay. OKKKKKKK.

I stayed at Hotel Dostoevsky on Vladimsky Prospect. Quaint little lobby which opens up to Snoopy's Doghouse; i.e., cavenous hallways with lots of rooms. My room had two twin beds and was quite large by typical European standards. Breakfast was excellent. Staff pleasant and helpful; all spoke English. And, one walks thru an almost hidden passageway and enters a 24-hr shopping mall, ultra sleek, full of glass and chrome. Complete with a supermarket that really is super. And only 200 meters from Nevskiy Prospect.

I never got on the Metro in St. Petersburg b/c the hotel was so close to everything I wanted to see: St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Church on Spilled Blood (which looks like St. Basil's sibling), Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, Gostinyy Dvor shopping, and the spotlight of the trip: The Hermitage.

I am typically not a big museum fan. I am usually more interested in the people rather than the artifacts. That said, I spent almost 6 hours in this incredible palace which is a piece of art on its own.

Like Moscow, the architecture is wonderful. It was cold on the day I explored the Peter and Paul Fortress, but the cold didn't deter me. I kept taking photos and telling myself I'd get warm later!

I especially enjoyed the bridges, all different, all works of art.

I had plans to go to Peterhof but a boy about 9 or 10 was running to get around a tour group, clipped my arm and knocked my camera memory card out of my grip. By the time the tour group passed by, the card was gone. So, instead of going to Peterhof, I retraced my steps and took my photos again. That day BBC News and CNN were talking about Gustav and Nepal so I couldn't bring myself to feel sorry for having to miss Peterhof...

Back to Moscow for the last 2 days of my trip. More walking, more borscht and more blinis. (And thus the need for more walking.)

If you have ever considered a trip to Russia, go for it. I'm betting you won't regret it.

LowCountryIslander Sep 7th, 2008 05:18 PM


Thanks for the trip report. I'll be in these 2 cities this time next year.

When you say it was cold is cold for you? I'm just curious and trying to gather as much information as I can! :)

nytraveler Sep 7th, 2008 05:31 PM

Don't know where you're from - and I have noticed - eps in Moscow that people don;t smile a lot.

But - subways in big cities have some similarities - mobbed at rush hour - not looking people in the face (can be seen as a challenge by those not very balanced) and the anonymity needed for so many people packed into small places at the same time. I must admit it is a little more so than in NYC - but the basic attitude is the same - and necessary for self-preservation.

Also - agree that St Pet is a much prettier city than Moscow - as far as cities in Russia can be pretty. You're looking at the result of decades of failed communist rule - overlayed by a couple of decades of more open economy that benefits the few - mostly.

Believe it or not - the average person is better off than they were 25 years ago. then the roads were empty since only the very few uber wealthy politicos could afford cars.

amp322 Sep 7th, 2008 06:15 PM

Moscow is a dark city. The "Stalin" buildings are everywhere you look (I suppose he planned it just that way!), and they add an ominous feeling to the atmosphere. People just walk around after work drinking beer and hard liquor from bottles, which they throw on the ground when they're done. Nice atmosphere. People don't smile. True. I didn't expect them to, though. I did encounter young people working behind store and hotel counters eager to help me. I met some very nice people, but, in general, I found it to be one of the ugliest cities I've ever visited. It ties with Beijing, when I was there in the 1980's.

St Petersburg was more aesthetically pleasing, due to the architecture, but the pollution and crack head drivers knocked it down several notches on my "charm scale". I did see a ballet performance there that I was very impressed with. Peterhof was nice, also, but all the gold leaf in Russia cannot cover up the underlying poverty and decay.

thursdaysd Sep 7th, 2008 07:13 PM

Thanks for the TR, sallyjean. Did you stay with your friend in Moscow? Because that's the first I've heard of registering your passport with your embassy. Your passport and visa do need to be registered with the Russian authorities within three working days, but if you stay in a hotel the hotel takes care of it.

I actually liked Moscow more than St. Petersburg, but I'm not a fan of baroque, and I preferred the architectural variety in Moscow. I also didn't notice any more smiles in St. P. than anywhere else in Russia. One thing I did find annoying was that there's no consensus about whether you pass on the right or the left on crowded streets - I asked one home-stay landlady about that, and it was clear the idea had never occurred to her.

sallyjane3 Sep 8th, 2008 05:03 AM

I did indeed stay with my friends while I was in Moscow. I personally am appreciative of how much "colder" the city would have been if I had been on my own. They have a 5 mo old daughter and thus a nanny. Natasha. Wonderful woman. She and I communicated thru smiles and Hello and Boca Boca (SP??) but when I left, she hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. From the get-go I have realized there are wonderful people in Moscow, it's just very different than any place I've ever been...and I've been on a ton of subways in a ton of cities!

The temps ranged from 34 degrees C (93 F) to 9 degrees C (33 F). And as in any large city, the wind whipping around the buildings was brutal, so wind chill factors..??

The Stalin buildings are awful...except for the Seven Sisters. Those I like, for their architecture, not the fact that Stalin wanted them to be reminders of who was in charge. There is one near my friends' home that is being turned into a Hilton. Wonder if Stalin is turning over in his grave?

FrankS Sep 8th, 2008 05:29 AM

I too enjoy St Petersburg over Moscow, though I wouldnt say Moscow was the 'worst' of times. You either need to spend lots of money or know people in Moscow to really have a great time. Whereas anyone would fall in love w/St Petersburg. The canals, The Summer Palace the parks, the Churches, and even the buildings are absolutely enchanting. I even loved the train ride from Moscow to St Petersburg.

To answer your question, the best time I had was visiting Dachas outside Moscow, and for St Pete the Summer Palace

caroline_edinburgh Sep 8th, 2008 07:03 AM

Hi sallyjane3, I was pleased to see your trip report appear - all very interesting.

Coincidentally I've just come back from visiting the PILs and saw their photos of St Petersburg which they just visited on a cruise. It is somewhere I want to visit and from the photos it looks much greener and of more open aspect than I'd imagined from novels etc.

As for Moscow... I visited it in 1985 and really liked it then. I found the people quite friendly - I was on my own so used to go out and wander around Red Square after dinner (I was lucky enough to stay just round the corner), and locals sometimes came up to speak to me and practise their English. It felt very calm and safe to me, and the streets were so clean (no litter or graffiti) compared to London where I then lived. When people told me they'd like to visit London, I felt embarrassed to imagine what they'd think of it. I only went on the metro once, though, and not in the rush hour - my first reaction was to think that what you described there was similar to London, but evidently not. I came back wanting to go again, but from what I've read since I've been afraid to as I think I'd be disappointed with how it's changed. I don't agree with the other poster that people are better off now : back then everyone had a flat and a job or pension - no retired doctors begging in the streets.

Your description of how changeable the weather is makes it sound like Britain !

sallyjane3 Sep 8th, 2008 11:39 AM

Hi, caroline!! How are you???
Moscow DOES sound different now than when you were there. Even salesclerks in three different shops warned me to be careful, to keep my purse close to my body (which I already was doing), and to be constantly aware of my surroundings.

I remarked to Friend that I saw no children whatsoever on the Metro, no matter when I traveled (and I used it a LOT).(Again, I am SURE some children DO ride, but I saw none on this trip.)

She translated that to Natasha who promptly starting shaking her head vigorously and saying something. Friend translated for me: " It is far too dangerous physically and emotionally it terrifies most small children. We do not like to subject our little ones to such a difficult task as riding the Metro."

US Diplomats are encouraged to get their Hardship tours of duty out of the way right off the bat. My daughter went to the Republic of Congo. My friend went to Moscow. That says a lot.

I do not regret one moment of my trip. I encourage everyone to go!

Lovejoy Sep 8th, 2008 12:17 PM

Just a small correction 9 degrees Celsius is about 49 degrees Farenheit,not the 33F you stated.

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