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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Memories ofRussia '91 -Being Russian Part Two
Part One starts here

Being Russian – Part II – MOSCOW
Visiting Moscow, where we lived with our oldest daughter, who was then working for CARE.
David Russell

Heading for the St. Petersburg airport we weren’t 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 wouldn’t fall down. Further, the aisle carpeting was so loose passengers kept tripping. on it. The crew couldn’t 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 Mara’s 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 farmer’s 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 McDonald’s arrived simultaneously. In the newspaper, we’d 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, no one.

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 don’t think you’re supposed to use the word Champagne. But, who was to know; we wouldn’t tell.

So no one left hungry, they also served us a plate stacked with Fried Onions and Fried Potatoes. Then, to be certain we’d 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. Basel’s had all the characteristics of a Child’s drawing. The fortress styled Kremlin became a Scottish Castle, but Lenin’s Museum and Tomb remained just somber memorials.

On the way, we made one additional stop, getting Bolshoi tickets for the next night’s 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 he’d 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 hour.

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 weren’t. 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 hadn’t been plugged in. My turn was also a clock watcher, as she fiddled with her money drawer, then took an obviously personal phone call.

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 she’d 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 stumped.

First you paid, then you got your bread. But, what if, like us, you didn’t 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 and Portraits.

Ivan The Terrible’s Church displayed Ivan’s coffin with his re-buried body. In the l960’s, 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 diplomat’s 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".

The St. Petersburg Hermitage holds half of Russia’s French Impressionist collection. Moscow’s Pushkin Museum, the other. But Pushkin’s showing was superbly mounted compared to the Hermitage’s. Exact replicas of "The Discus Thrower" and Michelangelo’s "David", awed us, as did the Greco/Roman statuary, 17th Century Flemish Tapestries and early French and Dutch art.

The Pushkin’s natural flow carried us past wonderfully lit artwork by Sisley, Utrillo, Gaughan, a Van Gogh "Self-Portrait" and his "Hay Stacks".

Turning a corner, Cezanne’s "Portrait of a Smoker". Then, Monet’s "Water Lilies", Rodin’s "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 owner’s 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. He’d 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 night’s 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 we’d 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. Mara’s $9, Sasha’s, 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 "People’s" 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 who’d 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 world’s 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 Dragna’s cover charge for one.

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 children’s 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 Rubles.

That night, CARE hosted a dinner, with people either arriving in Moscow, or headed out. Mara’s 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 Tsar’s 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 l700’s, the day we were there, it was at its glorious best which we enjoyed until hunger panged.

Lunch was a taxi ride to Moscow’s 4000’ Ostankinu Radio/TV tower, with its rotating restaurant. Proving we weren’t 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 weren’t 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 free.

Returning to Mara’s, we chose to test our recently learned underground skills, arriving without incident, thanks to many helpful people. The underground is Moscow’s greatest bargain, costing _ cent US. It’s 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, that’s 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 she’d be doing that regularly soon in L.A..

Next day, the news was bad. The Ruble dropped again. The IMF predicted 4,000 more unemployed. Already, party conservatives were screaming for Yeltsin’s 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. Mara’s dish, Georgian Chicken permeated a heady garlic aroma coming to the table. Claryce’s 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 the dollar.

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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