Moscow and St Petersburg

My brother says that Russia would be wasted on me because I haven’t read any of the Russian authors except Tolstoy. Would never know “the Raskalnikov walk” or “follow Rasalnikov till the pawnbreakers room”. I agree with him but it is too late to do anything about that now. I am already here.

First impressions: Taxi dropped us outside the Ritz & insisted that that was our hotel. We tried explaining that it wasn’t but language barrier came in the way & then we gave up. Spent ten minutes wandering around asking people. They were very friendly & so helpful. No Parisian rudeness here. Made us feel welcome. Spotted a MacDonalds (ye log yahan bhi aa gaye!!!). Finally we located our hotel just behind the Ritz.

Spotted the trademarks of Russia – numerous beautiful & colourful onion shaped domes. Cannot wait to explore further.

The GUM Store

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The GUM departmental store is allegedly the most expensive store in the world. However there was no stuffiness here. It was airy & pretty. Lots of smiling staff. When I asked the price of an unusual bookcase (made of cardboard) that I found interesting & rolled up my eyes on being told that it was for 1000 pounds, the pretty staff member did not laugh at me but laughed with me, which was some consolation.

We ate at the Soviet style canteen here (clear up the plates after you comrade – was a sign board, I saw). Though the store may have been expensive, the food was ridiculously cheap with a lot of variety.

In fact, it is a good place to hang out. There is a certain buzz here and the classical music that is played is a bonus.

The Moscow Metro

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Took the metro tour organised by Moscow Free Tours. These beautiful metro stations were built (or started) by Stalin because he wanted to bring the beauty of palaces to the common people.

During the war these were used as underground bunkers. Numerous children were born during these times in these underground stations. They were known as the children of the underground.

Lots of these metro stations had pictures of Stalin. These were later either removed or re-painted. (Err, Modi trying to erase Nehru from textbooks comes to mind).

There is another secret metro called metro 2 under the current one. The metro 2 was built exclusively to ferry important government officials, quickly from one place to another. It may still be in use but Putin travels by helicopter. He is supposed to work 24/7. His helicopter can sometimes be seen in the Kremlin.

I sneaked in a question about Putin to my tour guide. I wanted to know what the general public thought of him. The tour guide said that to answer that would require a whole new tour. She herself was indifferent to him.

Saw eleven stations in all. Each unique. The tour ended with a group hug.

 

The Novodevichy Convent

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A bit off the tourist track but which was very much on my list was the Novodevichy convent and monastery.
This was the place where women of noble families retired (or sometimes were forced to retire). There are nuns still living here & it has now been declared as a UNESCO world heritage site. I needed a guide here because I had several questions but could not find one.

The VDkNH

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The VDkNH is an open air exhibition of achievements of the Soviet Union/Russia. It is massive! Bikes, skates, mini transportation like the Segway etc were available on hire. We used our legs. It was also a place where young people come to look at each other. I don’t think that there is anything quite like it, on this scale, anywhere in the world.

St Basil’s Cathedral

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When we showed the ticket to go in, the ticket checker asked us – Indian? We said Yes. He said ‘Hindi Rusi bhai bhai’. All of us had such delighted smiles on our respective faces. Truly felt great. My daughter wanted to know what it meant & we told her how USSR/Russia had steadfastly stood behind India right since independence.

On my last day in Moscow

Last day in Moscow today. I’m pretty sure that the place has its share of dodgy shady areas but I could not see any. All I could see was affluence & beauty. I hadn’t imagined Moscow to be so beautiful. I think Russia is the only country today that has managed
to excel in space technology, sport, music, architecture & the arts.

I know the country gets a lot of tourists from Britain & parts of Europe & China but not so sure about the rest of the world. Met a US resident Indian, who had travelled here with his mom. He had paid 700 US dollars for their visas alone. The visa process was the only minor downside of the travel so far. They make you list all the countries that you have travelled to in the last ten years with the dates!

Moscow to St Petersburg on the Red Arrow

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Normally whenever we wanted to visit a place in Moscow by taxi, we would google it beforehand in our hotel & then show it to the taxi drivers on our phone. They cannot always read the English script but they look at the picture of the place to understand. When we wanted to visit the Leningradsky train station, we forgot to take the details of it on our phone. We kept repeating ‘Leningradsky, Leningradsky’ but we were probably pronouncing it incorrectly & the taxi driver could not understand. We did not have wi-fi so could not use our phones. Finally Meg mimicked a train & got slightly carried away while doing so. She gave him the full works with a ‘Choo Choo’ moving her hands in a circular motion & then even went ahead & gave a train whistle. The taxi driver understood at once. He in turn, mimicked his own version of the train, just to ensure that we were on the same page & finally we set off. Excellent mimicry saved the day.

Took the Red Arrow (Кра́сная стрела́) overnight sleeper train from Moscow to St Petersburg. This historical train leaves Moscow at midnight & reaches St Petersburg at eight in the morning.

Finally, I had my share of literary references from Russia. Anna Karenina takes the Red Arrow to meet Vromsky in Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. Though I found the train experience more like something from a Agatha Christie book.

Each carriage has a host/hostess in full uniform to take care of the people. None of the announcements are in English. Even the host did not speak a word of English. [Only the younger generation speak excellent English as they have started to teach English in schools here in the not so recent past].

When the train arrives in St Petersburg, they play the music to the St Petersburg anthem called ‘The hymn to the great city’. Reminded me of the music that was played when the Deccan Queen arrived in Mumbai/Pune but this music really makes you feel grand.

Moscow or St Petersburg

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Between Moscow & St Petersburg, I liked Moscow better.

St Petersburg, no doubt, has got some stunning buildings, numerous cafes and is generally like an upmarket pretty European city but something seems to be missing here. People are still as friendly & accommodating but Moscow has got more character.

It may be that other than the historical nuggets & the initial curiosity about the Russian way of life, we did not have too many expectations from Moscow but it managed to surpass our expectations. We were expecting to find beauty in St Petersburg anyway & we found it – no more, no less.

A major thrust of the history of St Petersburg is to do with having defeated Napolean and how the city was never ever conquered by Napolean. Peter the great & Catherine – 2 seem to have been responsible for making the city what it is.

 

The Eliseevsky grocery store 

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The Eliseevsky grocery store is famous in Moscow. We did not have time to see it there. When we were ambling in St Petersburg, we saw an interesting store & decided to enter it (Since all names are in Russian there is no way to know). It had a restaurant & we decided to eat there. It was only after looking at the English menu that we realised that it was the famous Eliseevsky store. St Petersburg had one too. Don’t know if the photos do justice to it but it was very atmospheric.

The Literary Café

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Aleksander Pushkin had his last meal here. Pushkin is the Shakespeare of St Petersburg. (He had once referred to his wife as “my 113th love”).

The Idiot restaurant

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In tribute to the man himself – Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Thoughts

Russia is a wonderful country. Was genuinely humbled by the friendliness of the locals. I liked it so much that I have made plans for a second visit.

 

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