Moscow and St. Petersburg have the cleanest public toilets I’ve ever seen. The streets are equally clean and mostly devoid of trash and graffiti. I don’t know if this is by government mandate (there is little public defiance of Russia’s government) or simply the nature of Russians. Regardless, whether visiting the loo in a museum or restaurant, you are sure to find a clean, nearly odorless experience, with abundant soft white toilet paper. That’s something that’s never been written about India.


Maybe it’s because of my career as a history teacher. Perhaps it’s my socialist leanings that emerged as a young man in the late 60s and 70s. Whatever the cause, I find myself both dazzled and disturbed by ostentatious displays of fabulous wealth. I’m not talking about rich people in Rolls Royces and three homes, which they may have earned by long hours of hard work and smart investing. What I’m referring to is hereditary rulers who believe that God has made them king/tsar/emperor with the right to take whatever they desire while ignoring the needs of their people. I first visited France with my family as a fourteen-year-old and I never considered how Louis XIV had constructed Versailles, I only marveled at it’s mirrored halls and massive, manicured gardens. Over the decades I have seen some spectacular palaces, estates, art collections and other displays of wealth that were hard to fathom. Recently, there has been a tiny voice (growing bigger and louder) reminding me that hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people labored and suffered so that those at the top could live in luxury. The Pyramids were not built by unionized workers being paid a fair living wage. With that said, I must admit that Russian tsars and tsarinas were every bit as talented as French royalty in building and buying the best that the world had to offer. (Not every piece was outstanding art. Russian rulers seemed to buy in bulk, ending up with mediocracies along with masterpieces.) If one can appreciate the fabulous wealth on display without considering the source, one can’t help but appreciate the magnificence.


We were initially intimidated by the solid, dour Russians, particularly men on the metro dressed in camouflage pants with military haircuts. The French aren’t particularly warm, but I never felt intimidated by them. As I wrote in my first essay, my perceptions about Russia were shaded by a long, grim history of invasions, Stalin’s purges and mass starvation, dark literature, downing of civilian planes and poisoning of spies. I could list dozens of movie villains and even an infamous cartoon duo: Boris and Natasha on Rocky and Bullwinkle. After the first few days in Russia, however, we became fond of the many Russians we met and dealt with. They could be abrupt and cold at times, particularly older ones who lived through the grim days of the Soviet Union. We saw many smiling faces, happy families clapping along with a military band, people rushing to work as they do everywhere. The times we did talk with Russians we generally avoided politics, a good idea anywhere you are visiting. Sandy and I never felt threatened or uncomfortable. Whether on the metro or on quiet side streets, during daytime or evenings, we felt safe. The U.S. State Department’s suggestion that Americans reconsider visiting Russia seems unnecessary.


I’ve known people who visited Russia over the past forty years, including a neighbor who rode the Trans Siberian Railway in the early 70s. In all that time I never heard of any problems besides rough toilet paper, bad food and cold water dripping out of the hot water taps, and those complaints were decades ago. Moscow and St. Petersburg are modern cities packed with McDonalds, Subways (I’ve never seen so many) and Shake Shacks. I was able to visit any website that I normally visit in Denver or London and CNN International was available. There is no apparent hostility toward Americans and tourists are made to feel welcome. There is a heavy police presence and tight security at airports and tourist sites, not unusual considering the terrorism that Russia have dealt with, such as a suicide bombing in the St. Petersburg metro last April that killed 15. Security lines were long and slow, the new normal in many countries. Russia is clean, safe and packed with extraordinary art and architecture, with a rich history. So why don’t more Americans visit? I suppose a lot has to do with the historical tension between the U.S. and Russia. The brutally cold weather limits the advisable tourist season. The visa process is the most unpleasant I’ve ever dealt with. Current U.S.-Russia relations are tense. Would I recommend a visit to Russia? Definitely, especially for those who are interested in history and culture. If Sandy and I don’t return to Russia (it is highly unlikely) it is because we have a long list of places we’d like to visit while we are physically and mentally able to travel. (Hey, we’re not dinosaurs, but travel does become more difficult with age.) Portugal, southern Spain and Greek isles beckon. We’ve never gone on safari. I’d like to spend time in Latin America (Colombia, Costa Rica), where I’ve only visited a few times. Overall, Russia was a great trip.


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