Trip notes for Michael and Christina O'Brien. July 10 - 20, 2004

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Christina and I visited Russia from July 10-20. I had a business trip to our office in Moscow, but we took a few extra days to sightsee.

A quick note on this site's design. This page has general observations about Russia and noteworthy things that Americans may find interesting. I created four picture pages for Moscow, St. Petersburg, Soviet Leaders, and 'Russia and American Capitalism'.

The most noteworthy part of the trip was Christina's super-human ability to get around. Having sprained her foot three weeks ago, she was wearing one of those blue, velcro dorkey shoes and using crutches. Getting around was slow going, but Christina walked miles every day with a great attitude. She gets the hero award for this trip. We quickly learned that there is no Russian version of the ADA.

The first question everyone asks is whether we liked Moscow or St. Petersburg better. We LOVED St. Petersburg -- it was absolutely beautiful. The architecture, the rivers, the palaces -- wow! BUT, St. Petersburg was designed to look like a European city -- so if you have seen Venice, Amsterdam, and Paris, you have largely seen St. Petersburg. Moscow on the other hand is very different -- it looks unlike any city you have ever seen. It is exotic and full of intrigue. Because of this, Christina and I liked Moscow more.

In Moscow, we saw the Kremlin, the Pushkin Museum, the Tretrakov Museum, Christ the Savior Cathedral (a.k.a. Christ the Redeemer), Novodevichy Convent and Monastery, etc. In St. Petersburg, we saw the Church of the Spilled Blood, St. Isaacs, Our Lady of Kazan, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Hermitage, Peterhoff, and more.

One thing that reallllly helped was learning the Cyrillic alphabet and basic Russian. For instance, there are thousands of Pectapahs but if you didn't know that P was really and r, c was really an s, and H was really a N, you would never know that pectopah actually spells 'restoran'.

Instead of going into super detail of each venue and boring everyone to death, I thought that I would point out the things that we found most interesting about Russia.

  • The line to visit Vladimir Lenin used to be hours long. Today it is only 30 minutes. The beautiful irony is that the line ends at a McDonalds. Just think, the line to see the founder of communism ends at the very symbol of western capitalism.
  • There is a very small middle class in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
    Outside of these cities, we are told, it is all lower-class. In Moscow, you will find very few middle-class cars like Hondas and Toyotas or even Fords, but you will see many BMWs, Mercedes, and Bentleys, as well as ultra-cheap Volgas and Ladas (Russian-made cars). One Russian friend said that he only buys Fords since the quality of Russian cars are so poor. Oy!
  • There has been a concerted effort to rid Russia of Soviet symbols. Many statues have been taken down, but some remain, and many buildings have inscriptions on their walls with either a cut-out of Lenin, hammer and sickle, etc. Their breath-taking metro stations are frequently decorated with soviet-era art -- such as a beautiful mosaic of people working on a farm. We did not meet one person who has fond memories of communism.
  • Everyone lives in tiny apartments. It is not uncommon for an entire family to live in a 400-500 sq. foot flat. This obviously begs the question – how does a husband and wife, um, make more 'family' – well some things you just don't ask.
  • Real estate is expensive. Moscow follows Tokyo as the most expensive city to live. Flats in Moscow that are under 800 sq. feet can go for over $10,000 a month in rent! We saw a real estate magazine where 200 sq. foot flats were going for $4,000 a month. With so much income going to rent, and no place to put new stuff, I wonder if Moscow can be truly a consumer society -- which is usually necessary to form a middle class.
  • You can't get a mortgage in Russia. We met a couple who had to pay $50,000 up front for a 300 sq. foot flat in St. Petersburg. No lending institutions have faith that in 30 years, Russia will still be a stable place.
  • Although we felt safe the entire time, in Moscow, every single business has a guard. Even the supermarket. Some wear uniforms, but most wear suits and have ear pieces.
  • We met a couple who had $5,000 in photo equipment stolen from their car. They went to the police and the police suggested that they use the Russian mafia. So they paid $1,000 to the mafia and they had their equipment back in a day or two.
  • Russians classify churches as 'active' or 'inactive'. They have several churches that they have spent millions to restore that are no more than museums. Although there is a resurgence of religion in Russia, it is sad to see huge churches without a congregation. The Soviets used the churches that they didn't destroy for all sorts of creative things -- Our Lady of Kazan in St. Petersburg was the Museum of Atheism, the Church of the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg was used to store vegetables, and then was used as a morgue.
  • If you want to fit in and look Russian, you need to walk around with a scowl on your face. At first, they appear to be very unfriendly. But every Russian we got to know was incredibly friendly, and whenever Christina and I entered a subway car, someone got up to give her their seat (she was on crutches).
  • Moscow has casinos everywhere. St. Petes has them too, but in Moscow, they are on every corner.
  • Taxis in Russia are interesting. First of all, there are many unofficial taxis -- i.e. private citizens who want to earn extra money. Whether you use an official or unofficial taxi, you need to negotiate on the price up front before you get in. Christina and I did this, but it is an odd experience.
  • There is an odd mix of Cyrillic and latin letters. We were in a rush and went to an outdoor place called "Pizza Bravo" but although they had an English name, they did not have English menu or English speaking staff. Many store fronts had writing in Cyrillic, but then in big latin letters it would say, "SALE". There was a casino called 'Super Slots' but it was spelled phonetically in Cyrillic.
  • ATMs in Moscow and St. Petersburg give you a choice of getting money in Rubles or Dollars. Because the Ruble is not stable, many restaurants publish their prices in 'units' which is equivalent to US Dollars. Once again, it is interesting that the former mother ship of Communism now frequently uses the US Dollar as their financial base point.
  • Riding the Moscow subway is an experience. Each metro station is decorated differently. Some have beautiful mosaics on vaulted ceilings, some have beautiful chandeliers, some have stained glass, some have beautiful statues. They were created to show the world that the Soviet Union was a workers paradise. The Moscow subway system moves more people than New York and London combined. At 10:00 at night, they are very busy, and they come about 1-2 minutes. Many of the stations have police that randomly pull people aside to check their papers.
  • Feelings about the Napoleonic war in 1812 run as deep as those for WWII.