Mention Russia these days and everyone shudders, worrying what will be next. Does this mean another Cold War?
Trying to understand it becomes more complicated when actually on the ground, in the country as I am for a week. That Russians support Putin surprises us freethinking Westerners; yet several times in the course of our visit, it was reconfirmed that not everyone in the world admires the ideals of democracy and capitalism.
That said, however, it’s evident a free market is thriving. Moscow is vast, and construction is everywhere. Eyesore concrete buildings, remnants of the former Soviet Union, sit between reconstructed 18th century palaces and tiny, pastel churches. Shopping dominates culture like everywhere. Yet the infrastructure, created during Communism, trumps anything I’ve ever seen. The Moscow metro is fast and clean; chandeliers, paintings and sculptures adorn the walls and ceilings. The train to St. Petersburg is speedy and quiet. And the food, fantastic.
I joined my husband on a business trip mostly because my cousin Francesca lives in Moscow and she offered to be our tour guide. A lawyer with an American firm, she’s carved an expatriate life in a city she has loved since college. She led an inside tour that included parks and neighborhoods, cafes and bars, including one hidden beneath a Chinese take-out restaurant that isn’t named and the bouncer at the door decides who he lets in. We walked and walked and sampled as many types of ethnic Russian cuisines as she could fit in. I savored beet borscht for lunch every day.
Surely this is a nation on the cusp. If the powers that be would only let it alone, make tourism more welcome (it’s a lengthy, expensive process to obtain a visa), people would flock here as they do European cities. The cultural offerings are enormous; we took in a concert and ballet, the language isn’t that hard to figure out a few letters, and in the big cites, there’s signage and menus in English. Though we missed the snow, there’s a ski jump in the center of the city, ice skating and cross skiing everywhere in city parks.
I admit my images of Russia have been formed by “Fiddler on the Roof”- which was my grandfather’s story when he left the Motherland for the US, and by “Dr. Zhivago” and later a college Russian literature course. I’ve see movies made from Tolstoy novels and attended many performances of Chekov plays. Francesca insisted that the nation isn’t nearly as homophobic as the West maintains, and urged we learn more about the real Russia. I sure hope to.