MOSCOW: CHALLENGING AND REWARDING by RJ Furth
As a Baby Boomer, I am also a Cold War kid, raised in the era of the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis. Movie villains (Bond’s From Russia With Love, Rocky Balboa’s Russian opponent) have frequently been Russian. The Olympics were always the U.S. vs U.S.S.R. I have always been intrigued by Russia, but not attracted to it, reading too many stories of mass starvation, shortages of basic goods, Siberian gulags, spies and invasions. I never feared nor disliked Russia or Russians, I simply had no desire to visit and never did until two weeks ago. Even then, it seemed likely that Sandy would not be joining me. The U.S. State Department’s travel advisory listed Russia as three out of a possible four, advising Americans to reconsider a visit. With mounting tensions regarding the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter in London and conflict in Syria―especially after U.S. bombing of Syrian bases that had been occupied by Russian military personnel―Sandy had decided not to join me. Fortunately, we called our friends Jane and Marc Fogel, who we were going to visit where they teach at the Anglo-American School, and they assured Sandy that Russia was safe. Thanks to Marc and Jane, Sandy agreed to come with and we had a memorable trip.
Moscow is a big, bustling, bulky city with massive buildings built over the centuries. Old palaces are grand and classic; Soviet era apartments and official buildings are grim structures constructed from gray concrete, though Stalin’s Seven Sisters (seven stunning structures featuring light stone, towers and decorative designs) are impressive; and a single area downtown that has world-class skyscrapers including some unusual designs. Unlike St. Petersburg (a planned city started in 1703) or Paris (always attuned to fashion and style), Moscow is a hodge podge of styles that lacks coherency. I would never call Moscow classy or charming, preferring historical or powerful or even awesome in the true sense, since I was often in awe at the size and strength of the architecture. The heart of the city, Red Square, exemplifies this, with it’s massive cobblestone square; the formidable red stone walls of the Kremlin, an ancient fortress; and even GUM (pronounced ‘goom’) the famous shopping center that lines one enter side of Red Square and hosts some of the top fashion stores in the world. (Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik. During the Soviet era GUM was where you could buy goods that you couldn’t find anywhere else in the U.S.S.R., affordable to only a few.). Moscow’s magnificence (I’m running out of superlatives, not surprising in the world’s biggest country that spans eleven time zones) continues underground where Stalin constructed a subway systems that has stations featuring marble pillars, colorful mosaics and chandeliers. It is in the Metro, as it’s called, that we met our first challenge.
I studied Russian (informally) for six months preceding our trip, including learning the Cyrillic alphabet, and it paid off after some initial struggle. Incredibly, with the World Cup less than two months away, there are no signs using the Roman alphabet (basis for English) in the Metro nor on street signs or buses or most menus we encountered. When Sandy and I got off the first, long escalator to the Metro we faced huge crowds and only Cyrillic signs. I managed to find the right line, then we jumped on going in the wrong direction, away from Red Square. I had struggled to read and hoped somebody would offer help. Nobody came to the rescue. (When we encountered similar difficulties in Tokyo train stations in 1990 somebody always offered assistance.) We crossed the platform at the next station, boarded the next Metro, and made it to Red Square where our struggle continued. There were few signs pointing us toward Red Square or the Armory (terrific museum in the Kremlin) and we wandered for a while, trying to figure how to actually enter Red Square. When we finally found it we were rewarded with the view of the iconic St Basil’s Cathedral with it’s famous colorful onion-shaped domes. The challenges continued throughout our five days in Moscow as we dealt with restaurants that often had neither menus in English nor waiters who spoke it, and navigated streets with signs in Cyrillic. I’ve had sufficient experience being in places without English speakers or signs and I took great pleasure from finding my way or ordering a meal that wasn’t too strange. (The gigantic deep fried pig’s liver in the Czech Republic was a memorable failure.) We eventually became comfortable with the lack of English.
Moscow’s challenges were made easier with the able help of Jane and Marc who hosted us when they weren’t teaching. The tens of thousands of soccer players and fans attending the World Cup in Moscow may find it a struggle at times, though hopefully the city will offer multilingual helpers in critical areas. As I will relate in the next essay, they will also find a rich culture with incredible art and architecture, a wide variety of ethnic food (Russian, Georgian, Armenian, to name a few) and a city with a history that stretches back seven centuries.