What will World Cup visitors to Moscow find? All I can say is nothing prepared me for the Russia I saw on my recent trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg with New York Times Journeys in coordination with Abercrombie & Kent, one of a terrific series of educational trips led by a bureau chief, editor or contributor to the Times joined by guest lecturers.In this blogpost I’ve chosen not to describe many of the tourist sights – you can find that in any guidebook or travel article. Here are Russia travel surprises, revelations and curious observations I thought you’d enjoy reading about (even if you’ve been there before), with images of course.
My work took me to Moscow over 30 years ago when the country was in a deep recession and everything seemed gray, drab and often sad. The Russia I found now would be a totally surprising revelation to most fellow Americans, as it was to the very well traveled and well read members of my group.
To be sure, one still finds the characterless apartment blocks and government buildings built during the Stalinist times , but in the center are gleaming glass skyscrapers, well maintained buildings and metro with no sign of the graffiti now found around the world, numerous well tended parks with spring flowers, gilded domes from the stunning Eastern Orthodox churches, and the only litter – a few cigarette butts here and there.
Owing to its isolation for many years, not many people in tourist spots speak English, but many have a good attitude and enjoy trying to practice their English or communicating with gestures, so one manages to communicate.
Food: The expectation? Heavy, cream laced, fried foods, potatoes and yeasty breads. The reality? That but much more – refined Italian, Asian, modern Russian cuisine along with new favorites – food from Georgia, Armenia and Uzbekistan. Vegetables are not in great demand in Russian cuisine except the pickled variety, and Vegans have hardly arrived. One can eat very well, and in grand surroundings. Food halls, too, have arrived. Russians like their white tablecloths and white glove service, and many seriously dress up to dine. My favorite restaurant was the Bolshoi that had it all – beautiful people, Old World atmosphere, divine food and service. It is owned by the highly successful restaurateur Arkady Novikov who has 50 restaurants from Russia and Dubai to London. Interestingly enough, he recently opened Novikov Restaurant & Bar an eating spot at 300 South Biscayne Boulevard.
A highlight of the meals of the day is, as you find in many northern climes – breakfast. At the top hotels it’s a sumptuous affair with an assortment of smoked fishes, charcuterie and cheeses, fruits and vegetables, all kinds of breads and pastries, house made jams, ample hot buffet, and in the case of the Belmond Grand Europe – blinis, caviar, sour cream and champagne. Not a bad way to start the day!
Russians also like their donuts, the usual being to eat three at a time. Here a donut shop I found in St. Petersburg.
Fashion: Global luxury brands are everywhere in the best areas of town, and it seems they feature their most “out there” models here. There’s not a lot happening with Russian fashion designers. The only Russian fashion I saw was in a popup at legendary department store GUM in Moscow, but it was hardly exciting. The most attractive garment – the jacket of the hostesses in the bar at the Belmond Grand Europe in St. Petersburg. That being said, the young women at the top restaurants are stunners – tall, slim, short skirted, often blond, long haired – what you imagine. Sitting at cafes in the tony part of town, you could be in many of the other global capitals.
Culture: Russians greatly value their cultural heritage. During World War II when the Russians in St. Petersburg knew the Nazis were coming, not only did they bury the statues at Peter the Great’s palace, but they removed paintings from the palaces and the prized panels of the Amber Room so they would never be captured.
And today, as I mentioned, the hundreds of palaces, stunning domes of the churches, and museums are well maintained, considering the limited resources of the country. One of the biggest surprises was the Faberge museum which houses not only nine of the Imperial eggs of master Carl Faberge including a former collection of Malcolm Forbes which he sold for $100 million, but over 4000 pieces including precious objeсts of Alexander III and Nicholas II – from cigarette cases and snuff boxes, to serving pieces, and items for the boudoir.
Interesting facts …..
The Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow where Putin receives heads of state has 700 rooms.
The Kremlin receives 40,000 visitors a day (yes, you read correctly).
Gorbachev is still living. Though well thought of in the West, he is often vilified in Russia because he is seen as having overseen the fall of the Soviet Union from super power status.
A leading tourist attraction in Moscow is a visit to one of four adjacent bunkers, 60 feet below street level, which were established as a command post during the Cold War. The Bunker 42 was fully equipped with everything needed for a nuclear attack: air recycling system, diesel generators, stocks of food, fuel, artesian wells to provide clean drinking water. Up to 30000 people could live and work there for 90 days without assistance from the outside world.
There was equipment that could launch missiles. ( The USA had several bunkers including one at the Greenbrier Resort which one can visit today). One of the missiles on display, the state of the art at the time, had ten nuclear warheads that could be detonated sequentially at a predetermined timing. The missile could be mobilized within seconds and could travel at a speed of 20,000 miles in 30 minutes. And BTW, if you’re interested, you can rent the bunker for a wedding or private function.
When we asked one of our speakers what, besides natural resources, was the biggest driver in the economy he said human capital. There is no illiteracy in Russia. He also said 97% of the agricultural output is controlled by three families, not surprising one is that of former President and Prime Minister Medvedev.
If you go to Russia, a combination visit of Moscow with St. Petersburg is a must. As you may know, the latter was built by Peter the Great who wanted to bring the culture of Holland, France and Italy to Russia. It ‘s a lovely city, very user friendly, and the art and cultural treasures are among the finest in Europe.
And a parting comment for those who are interested in geopolitics, one speaker, an American lawyer who has lived and worked in Russia for 30 years said, “If you pressure a Russian, he’ll always resist”.