International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Memories ofRussia '91
-Being Russian Part Two
Part One starts here
Russian Part II MOSCOW
Visiting Moscow, where we lived with our oldest daughter, who was
then working for CARE.
for the St. Petersburg airport we werent expecting an adventure.
But an hour after we checked in, Aeroflot Moscow passengers were
directed to board a bus that would deliver us to the plane. It did,
unfortunately no crew had yet arrived to open the doors. There we
stood alongside a tanker gassing our 747, while planes of all sizes
taxied around us as we stood huddled under the wings.
When the crew did
arrive the doors opened to a stampede. Claryce and I managed to find
our assigned seats, but no one else cared about seat numbers. Further,
the cabin had no overhead bins, just racks like on a bus.
Cases, boxes and crates went up; we hoped they wouldnt fall down.
Further, the aisle carpeting was so loose passengers kept tripping.
on it. The crew couldnt care less. We were still in Russia.
With passengers finally seated and some even belted in, our scheduled
10 am flight finally hit the clouds at 3:30PM. I mentioned to my wife,
no one had checked our tickets nor announced the flight number. I hoped
we were on our way to Moscow. We were, and daughter Mara had our exact
ETA so she and Sasha, her driver, were waiting.
By Russian standards Maras apartment was luxurious. A big bedroom,
large living room with a full-sized pull-out where we would sleep, a
kitchen, plus dining room, a bath and shower with a hot water control.
While Claryce napped, Mara and I shopped a nearby farmers market
for veggies and fruits which became a dinner salad, a bottle of Wine
and fresh grapes for dessert. With Mara we were going to eat healthy.
Next morning, while she headed for a half day in her office, Claryce
and I scouted our neighborhood, walking past the Peking Hotel, The Tchaikovsky
Theatre and many government run shops. Lunch time and a McDonalds
arrived simultaneously. In the newspaper, wed seen a picture showing
lines of families waiting to eat there. But, prices had just risen so
we were almost alone. A Big Mac in Rubles was 190, Fries 14 and
a coke 60. Total 290. With Rubles, at 210 to the dollar
that was almost a $1.50 U.S. For a Russian earning 2000 Rubles a month
feeding a family of four would eat a good portion of their income. In
the hard currency section were a few others and us. On the Ruble side,
At the time things were becoming worse daily. On streets, people sold
whatever they could. We saw women, almost shoulder to shoulder, holding
up pairs of boots, matched button, belts new and used. It was so sad
because their need showed on their faces. It also proved evident in
the reduction of services layoffs caused. At In-Tourist, arranging two
hotel nights in the city of Suzdal took us three hours.
Dinner at the hard-currency Slaviansky Bazaar showed the strength of
the dollar vs. the Ruble. For starters, dabs of Black and Orange Caviar
with dollops of sour cream and Blinis, followed by Hard Salami, Chicken
Wings, Pork Slices, Smoked and Baked Fish with Potato Salad. Plus, glasses
of "Russian Champagne". Outside France, I dont think
youre supposed to use the word Champagne. But, who was to know;
we wouldnt tell.
So no one left hungry, they also served us a plate stacked with Fried
Onions and Fried Potatoes. Then, to be certain wed waddle out
the door, ice cream and beverage. Cost? $15.00 each, including entertainment:
a tenor, 3 dancing "girls", a magician and juggler, backed
by a Balalaika, Accordion and two Guitars.
An after dinner stroll took us through Red Square. In dim light and
shadows, St. Basels had all the characteristics of a Childs
drawing. The fortress styled Kremlin became a Scottish Castle, but Lenins
Museum and Tomb remained just somber memorials.
On the way, we made one additional stop, getting Bolshoi tickets for
the next nights performance of "Swan Lake".
The following morning, walking along the Moscow River, boats were selling
rides, but had no takers. In front of us, one, looking like it could
handle a 100 passengers, sat empty. I suggested Mara ask the Captain
in Russian, if hed give us a ride for $10.00 US. After a bit of
bargaining, for $15.00 we owned the entire boat, with the Captain supplying
beer and cokes. Sipping, we circled the inner Moscow waterways for an
Lunch, at the Peking Hotel wre dollar based so we paid a bill equal
to an L.A. Chinese Restaurant. The menu was familiar, but many dishes
werent. Mara attributed it to Russian spices. I, to the Chef.
A short nap, a sandwich and primp dressed we headed for the Bolshoi.
Unfortunately, our expensive 2nd Tier Stage Box tickets turned out to
be what they sold last minute or to tourists; an obstructed view revealing
1/2 the stage and 2/3 of the Orchestra Pit. Our review over a night-cap
was: Of what we could see "She was much better than He".
Next day, waiting to exchange dollars for Rubles at a local bank, I
stood behind a man wanting his stacks of coins machine-counted. While
we both waited and waited, the lady teller tried to make the counter
operate. No go.
After 20-minutes with help from two comrades, the transaction was completed.
The machine hadnt been plugged in. My turn was also a clock watcher,
as she fiddled with her money drawer, then took an obviously personal
After hanging up, she began a conversation with the woman in the next
booth all the time eyeing my $100.00 bill. Finally, taking the bill,
she held it to the light, actually stared at it, front and back, then
asked me, "Cisenta?". I nodded "yes", and in exchange
received an overly high 2300 Rubles; a veritable bargain, the official
rate that day being 2150. I doubt shed ever done that transaction
before. It only took her a half hour.
All the while, Claryce sat thumbing magazines while the episode played
out. We left shaking our heads. Stopping at a bakery, again, we were
First you paid, then you got your bread. But, what if, like us, you
didnt know the cost of bread? How much did you pay? Eventually,
a woman speaking perfect British English saved us. We got our large
Rye Bread. Cost? 7 cents U.S. Leaving the loaf at the apartment, we
continued to the Kremlin to visit the Churches of the Tsars. On display
were wooden sculptures from the 13th & 14th centuries plus paintings
from the 16th, all mounted in a Church with its walls covered with Icons
Ivan The Terribles Church displayed Ivans coffin with his
re-buried body. In the l960s, it had been exhumed when a medical
team attempted to learn the cause of his madness. No findings info was
provided. The final exhibit featured Silver, Cut Glass and a collection
of Faberge Eggs enclosing unbelievably intricate miniatures of Ships,
Portraits and Gems. The exhibition was to celebrate the 150th anniversary
of the first Faberge Egg in Russia.
Orbat Street, our next stop, was packed with vendors, vending stack
dolls, toys, books, phonograph records and like in St. Pete, cold, hard
boiled eggs. Also caged birds, dogs, cats and rabbits. Behind the stalls
were real retail shops with antiques, lamps, chandeliers, furniture,
cups, mugs and dishes with so much sameness they blurred.
Needing a pause, we stopped at Baskin-Robbins where a single-dip cone
cost 23 rubles, $1.00. Not many nibblers, but lots of kids wishing.
While waiting for a bus, a diplomats limousine pulled over and
the driver asked in English if we wanted a ride. Thinking an outrageous
fare, we nodded "No" till he named a price which came to about
75 cents, less than the ice cream. We took the fancy ride "home".
St. Petersburg Hermitage holds half of Russias French Impressionist
collection. Moscows Pushkin Museum, the other. But Pushkins
showing was superbly mounted compared to the Hermitages. Exact
replicas of "The Discus Thrower" and Michelangelos
"David", awed us, as did the Greco/Roman statuary, 17th
Century Flemish Tapestries and early French and Dutch art.
The Pushkins natural flow carried us past wonderfully lit
artwork by Sisley, Utrillo, Gaughan, a Van Gogh "Self-Portrait"
and his "Hay Stacks".
Turning a corner, Cezannes "Portrait of a Smoker".
Then, Monets "Water Lilies", Rodins "The
Kiss". Another turn and works by Degas, Passeau, Manet and
from Picasso "Clowns" and "The Jew & The Boy".
Among modernists, canvases from Dufy, Kandinsky, Leger, and Miro.
Such an amazing collection, we took a second go-round.
Meeting Mara at
her office, we headed for dinner at "Tres Mon". "Tres
Mon" was actually its New Jersey born owners joke. To him
"Tres Mon" meant Me, Myself and I. Waiters and waitresses
all spoke English but minus the Jersey accent. The food had us thinking
typical American Pizzeria, including American dollar prices. But the
Linguine was al dente, the Veal tender and all served with Italian Wine
and Polish Beer. Such a wonderfully-different for Russia dinner, who
could complain about price.
Almost Museum-ed out, we had room for one more, the "Arts Museum",
showing Folk and Russian Eskimo artifacts, plus Toys, Clothing. Jewelry
and Trays, Prices were good, so we bought more Stack Dolls and painted
Bread Cutting Boards. As noted, we love to shop Museums.
Our signaling for a Cab stopped a private car. Hed take us wherever
we wanted to go so long as it was in his direction, but would accept
no money. So we took his offer, with thanks in English and Russian.
That nights entertainment was the Moscow Circus. Front seats cost
22 cents. A top notch performance filled two-and-a-half hours with Cirque
Du Sole precision. Death-defying animal acts and clowns wowed that Moscow
audience and us. The circus was one ring, with circular seating. One
talented clown kept us laughing between acts, "mugging", "juggling"
and doing a High Wire Walk. We noted no nets were used. A captivating
trapeze act drew gasps, then circus youngsters filled the ring with
a wildly applauded Tumbling turn; all for 22 cents.
A phone message told us that our Suzdal vouchers were ready, so Mara
arranged for Sasha and his car to pick us up in the morning. Vladimer,
our first stop, was for a pre-paid voucher lunch. The menu Borscht,
a Hard Boiled Egg, Blini with a dab of Caviar, Beef Cutlets and Potatoes.
Dessert - Apple Fritter or Baked Apples. Out the door for four
$2.75. Why we stopped in Vladimer was to see the two square block Cathedral
Saint Denis with its Religious historical art. Nice, but wed seen
better elsewhere. From there, the road took us to Suzdal, where we had
hotel vouchers for two-nights. Claryce and mine cost $30 including dinner
and breakfast. Maras $9, Sashas, less.
Suzdal is famed for its traditional wooden buildings, which we explored
next morning, after a bit of breakfast fiasco.
But, one feed at a time. Dinner was a "mystery" meal. The
one dish we thought was it, had a Boiled Egg, 2 Slices of Beef, a Boiled
Potato and Salad. To our surprise, it was only the appetizer, followed
by a generous slice of Grilled Salmon, more Potatoes, Tomato and Cucumber,
Coffee and a bottle of Water. Since hotel lights were out at 10, it
was an early night.
And an early up, with a breakfast reservation for 7:15. However, last
night, the check-in lady neglected to add our names to the breakfast
list. Though the dining room was empty and we obviously had stayed the
night, we were "Nyet!", not listed. So, going down the hall
to the "Peoples" Cafeteria we breakfasted on Porridge,
a Boiled Egg, Toast and Beverages for four - 25 cents each.
Later in the Old Town, we did see the beautiful, well preserved wooden
buildings, including a Windmill with a working Water Wheel, a Church
and a recreated period home. Picture taking cost 10 cents. After hours
of being tourists, we headed for Palekh where first, before anything,
we made a restaurant lunch reservation.
Palekh was the home of Painted Wooden Boxes. The Museum had some on
display that were more than a 100 years old. Unfortunately very little
changed in the 100 years. Matched against modern ones, they looked much
alike. Though paints and the quality of materials had changed, skills
had not. From there, we had planned to visit a box making master, but
his house was padlocked.
At the restaurant, it was Déjà Vu all over again. No admittance
until the lady whod made our reservation arrived and recognized
us. A Russian lesson: not only reserve in advance, but make sure they
know your face.
Lunch was delicious. For starters Dried Meat, a whole Tomato, a splash
of mustard dressing, a slice of Black Bread, Orange Caviar and a square
of Butter. The second plate was a Beef Sausage Patty, Kasha and Onions.
Ice Cream with Flaked Chocolate was dessert. Add Coffee and Tea, total
for each of us, 30 cents.
Looking for the box-making factory, we were told people made them in
their apartments. Invited into one, we learned the husband was on a
selling trip to the States, but, the wife made the actual boxes. Sensing
she was unsure of prices since she asked $50.00 for a beautifully made
but only a one inch by two inch mini, we politely said "No Spasibo".
A nearby shop had a display of exquisite, carved, hand-painted Wood
figures. One, a trio of girls wearing bright peasant dresses which so
reminded us of our 3 daughters, we had to have it. At a tenth of what
the apartment woman asked.
Back in Moscow, the following day we took the train to what was described
as the worlds largest Sunday flea market. It was non-ending Quilts,
Knitted Shawls, Wood Craft, Porcelain, Toys, Paintings, Metal Work,
pins from everywhere, medals from every war ever fought. Rack after
rack of Necklaces, Earrings, Broaches of every material, every stone.
Books, Cameras of every vintage, Samovars new and old, etc. etc. After
hours of looking, our purchases amounted to a couple of Blue and White
Porcelain pieces for our growing Blue-White Collection which we began
in Delft, and added to, country-by-country.
Following the long day, our dinner choice was Dragna, a restaurant Mara
had heard of and we later learned was dedicated to Al Capone. As we
entered a "sudden" 10.00 per head cover charge appeared for
their non-menu, fixed price dinner. Mutually agreed, we left, going
instead to a Mara favorite, The Bako Café, which had 2 specials:
Beef Tongue, Pirogue and Parsley/Dill Salad, or Lamb Chops with Kasha
and a Green. To drink, Georgian Brandy or water. No dessert none
needed. Our tasty dinner for three equaled Dragnas cover charge
Next day, while Mara was at her Russian lesson, Claryce and I pushed
our way into a jammed trolley-bus, riding back to Red Square to shop
the gigantic GUM department store. After an hour of up one aisle, down
the next and converting Rubles into Dollars, with what energy remained,
we we took ourselves to Detskimas, the foremost Moscow store for childrens
toys and clothes. What we wanted were the good buys on the top floor,
where we managed to get a few nice things. On the ground floor an auto
showroom listed a new Mercedes E class at $62,000 dollars, over 125,000,000
That night, CARE hosted a dinner, with people either arriving in Moscow,
or headed out. Maras boss was shortly destined for Peru, another
to Bangladesh. The meal was of much Vodka and Champagne with food platters
of Orange Caviar, Salads and Pickled Onions and a buffet of Fish Sticks,
Rice Pilaf, Veal, Kasha and a Whole Fish. It turned out to be a grand
get together with much hugging. What was apparent among those dedicated
folk was that delivering food aid World-Wide was a business without
end. And CARE would continue to be one of its leading feeders.
We filled our remaining days seeing what we had not. One, was a visit
to the Kremlin where they were asking tourists $22.00 each for an English
Guided tour. To which we said "Nyet", buying tickets at the
locals preferred Alexandergate entrance for .08 cents each. Our half
hour wait was worth it. The first floor had Church related clothes,
sepulchers and crosses inlaid with Diamonds, Emeralds and Turquoise.
Another display was Jeweled Bibles covering a 300-year period, including
one with 600 faceted Diamonds. That led to the Royal Crowns with even
more Dia-monds and precious stones. On another floor dozens of elaborately
ornate Royal Coaches. The top floor was prime. Table Settings presented
by Napoleon to Alexander on an Olympic theme. All the plates had been
painted by French Masters featured Olympus Gods.
Balking at paying an additional $25.00 each to visit The Royal Jewelry
room, we left rationalizing we had our .08 worth. In the courtyard,
sat two huge bronze failures. One, the oversized Tsars cannon,
with cannon balls three times the size of basketballs. The cannon had
been built to strike fear into potential enemies, but had never been
fired; the real fear being it would collapse on detonation. Across the
yard, the other failure was the largest church bell ever cast. It sat
surrounded with broken pieces. A Princess Anna Ionavina wanted the French
to construct the Bell, but the Russian Parliament refused, hiring a
Russian and his son. The father died trying, the son also failed. What
remained was one extremely huge "cost cutting" failure.
The garden, however, was beautiful and in bloom, with circles of flowers
in shades of Red. Planted originally in the l700s, the day we
were there, it was at its glorious best which we enjoyed until hunger
Lunch was a taxi ride to Moscows 4000 Ostankinu Radio/TV
tower, with its rotating restaurant. Proving we werent Russians
got us on the elevator. The fixed menu was Apple Juice, dabs of Caviar,
a Roll and Butter, plus a Fish and Beef appetizer, with Crab ala Thermador,
the main dish containing (described in the Menu) Shallots, White Wine,
Taragon, Bechamel, Mustard, Salt, Pepper and Butter. If that werent
enough, next came Chicken Fried in a Potato Batter, followed by Ice
Cream and Beverages. A lot of food at a bargain price. The view was
Returning to Maras, we chose to test our recently learned underground
skills, arriving without incident, thanks to many helpful people. The
underground is Moscows greatest bargain, costing _ cent US. Its
nine lines cover all of Moscow, including a city circle line, with each
station a veritable museum, many with ornate chandlers and statuary.
Station names, unfortunately, are in Cyrillic, However, each line is
color coded and numbered on in-car maps. Or, if you stand with a puzzled
look, someone will ask in English, "Do you need help?".
Early on we needed a lot of help, but learning to use it was our greatest
achievement, next to telling our many guides, "Spasibo!" At
most underground stations you use 3 heights of escalators going up or
down. Unfortunately, when they stop, thats a lot of hoofing. We
were lucky, for us they always worked, so we were back in time for Claryce
make dinner, a reminder that shed be doing that regularly soon
Next day, the news was bad. The Ruble dropped again. The IMF predicted
4,000 more unemployed. Already, party conservatives were screaming for
Yeltsins head. For us, of course, the value of our dollars increased.
Evident proof was our Farewell Dinner at the popular "Arcadia".
Dinner began with the good stuff, Black Caviar and two Cheese Blintzes,
plus a bowl with Tomato, Lettuce, Radish and Cucumber. Maras dish,
Georgian Chicken permeated a heady garlic aroma coming to the table.
Claryces was a less spicy Chicken Kiev. Mine, the tamest of all,
a breaded Veal Chop, which cut with a fork. Since this was farewell
for a while, we splurged on a bottle of Spanish Cava. With Ice Cream,
our total cost $12.00 each. The new exchange rate certainly favored
Tip-toeing out at 4:30am so not to wake Mara, we met Sasha who drove
us to the airport. Entering a packed terminal our U.S. Passports whisked
us right to the boarding gate and aboard. When everyone was belted in,
the pilot announced that a passenger without a German Visa had not been
allowed to board, but his bags did so the pilot refused to take off
until they were removed. 20 minutes later, he was satisfied and we said
"Do Avidanja" to our month of adventures "Being Russian".
© David Russell Oct 2009
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