Saturday, July 2, 2011


Last year Bob and I spent a day in Sochi, a city in southern Russia on the Black Sea.  We didn't have Russian visas, so we had to stay with the tour group we were with at all times. Our guide was a young college student who seemed nervous about saying too much about politics or social issues, and it felt really stifling.  Our experience reinforced the negative stereotypes we held about the country.

Our attitude changed drastically during our recent four-day stay in Moscow.  This time we had Russian visas, which gave us much more freedom while in the country. We were part of a tour group of about thirty-six people, but we didn't have to be with them all the time and could walk anywhere we wanted to any time of the day.  (Of course, no one ever asked to see our visas once we left the airport, so I have to wonder how those without are restricted.)  We wandered around on our own quite a bit in the evenings, and we found Moscow to be a vibrant, modern city, not so different from other world capitals such as Paris or Tokyo or New York City.

Another important difference from our first Russian experience was that our two guides spoke very freely about the Soviet Union, the current government, the economy, and social issues. One of the guides, an elderly woman named Svetlana, was the daughter of Stalin's Air Marshall.  (She is retired, but loves the people who ran our tour and came out of retirement for them.)  It was both sobering and exciting to get a first-hand account of the Stalin era.

We have never really associated modern Russia with the idea of abundance, but on our way into town from the airport, we stopped at a huge grocery store that our guide called "the Costco of Moscow."  It was jam-packed with Russians stocking up on food and other supplies.  Get a load of the sausage aisle:

Very impressive, right?  The whole store was like this!  This store is partnered with a French chain.  It appears that capitalism has a good foothold, at least at this store.

A few days later, Bob and I bypassed a McDonald's (where most of our group was going for lunch--not our style), and checked out a nearby grocery store.  We found similar signs of plenty:

Another thing that surprised us was the beauty and cleanliness of the city.  We expected it to be somewhat like Bucharest, which we also visited last year: gray and dingy and full of depressing Soviet-era concrete block buildings.  NOT.

First of all, we were impressed by how clean Moscow was.  We passed street cleaners washing things down in the morning:

There was very little litter anywhere, and almost no graffiti, but there WAS lots of renovation going on--painting, resurfacing, power washing--and we loved the way Moscow was able to make even renovation attractive by using these creative screen facades:

There were beautiful flower beds and well-tended grass all over the city--not just in the tourist areas:

Apparently June is wedding season in Moscow just as it is in the States because we saw joyful bridal parties in almost every park and church:

Yes, there were soldiers and policemen:

But we didn't see any altercations, or really even any interaction, between the soldiers, police, and the crowds, and no one jumped out of the bushes to confiscate my camera when I surreptitiously snapped these photos.

And those ugly concrete Soviet buildings?  Nowhere to be seen.  Instead, the skyline was dominated by what are known as the "Seven Sisters," seven Russian baroque and gothic-style skyscrapers built in 1947-1953 as part of an ambitious plan by Stalin to create a city that could compete architecturally with the other major cities of the world. 

This "Sister" is part of the University of Moscow

All of the Sisters are architecturally similar and have wonderful spires.

Location of Seven Sisters

The other distinguishing feature of the skyline was the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches:

These frequently sighted domes were part of the final surprise: With the exception of Germany, Russia seemed to us to have the most extensive religious history and current religious activity of all the places we visited.

Finally, one of the most moving experiences we had in the city was on the day when we gathered around the base of a statue of Marshal Zhukov, a World War II hero, and listened to our group educator, Michael Wilcox, recount the events of the Cold War, perestroika, glasnost, and the break up of the Soviet Union. We had all lived through those times and remembered both the fear and the exultation we felt as events unfolded.
At the end of his lecture, Michael led us to the underground tomb in which the body of Vladimir Lenin is eerily still on display (It was the most guarded, regulated place we visited in Moscow--nothing could be carried in), and then we walked into the Kremlin.

The Kremlin.  The place from which Lenin and Stalin and Khruschev and others wielded such power, where Gorbachev and Yeltsin oversaw the transformation of world politics, and where Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev now have offices. 

After that, it was tough for any other city to compete for the top spot of our tour!

No doubt there are undercurrents of control and unrest that we, as naive American tourists, were not aware of, and I still would not want to run afoul of government officials there, but overall, Moscow knocked our socks off.  American cities could learn a lot from this clean, hard working, up-and-coming city. 

Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva begins with 41-year-old Svetlana's defection to the United States, her two children left behind in the Soviet Union. Author Rosemary Sullivan then goes backward in time, way back to Svetlana's grandparents' days, and tracks the events that led to the defection, and then the events that followed as Svetlana lived out her life in the United States, never able to escape her father's brutal legacy.

Svetlana's life is never easy, and after numerous failed marriages, she and her American-born daughter Olga try living abroad and even returned to the USSR, but after little more than a year there, they returned to the US.

This is a fascinating look at the interior life of Stalin's regime, and gives many new (to me) insights into the ripple effects of the dictator's cruelty and hunger for power.


  1. I put Moscow up with many of the other great cities of the world as a great place to visit. I would put it behind New York, London, Paris, Rome, Florence and Istanbul, but probably above any other cities I've visited. Certainly the most perception changing place I've visited.

  2. Wonderful, and so interesting! That "sister" building looks like and LDS temple. I didn't realize you had been in Sochi. Remember our Russian exchange student? She has a home in Sochi with her husband and little boy.

  3. And while you were reliving the experiences of the Cold War while in Russia (it gave me chills to read this post), we were watching news reels about the Berlin Wall at the Newseum in Washington, DC, next to a guard towner and five pieces of that wall behind us. I remember many of those events, like you, and it was sobering.

    I'll have to add this city to my list of places to see--great photos! I'm looking forward to my armchair travels over the next few weeks. Thanks for writing them down.