I Love Russia in the Springtime

Winston Churchill once described Russia as ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.’ Even though this description might have been aimed almost exclusively at the country’s foreign policies at the time, a present day visit to the Eastern European giant will still most likely leave the overseas visitor with more questions than answers.

As two South Africans travelling through St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia presented a harsh, beautiful puzzle that my mother and I were eager to explore. We came, as we saw it, prepared. After diligently watching RT in the weeks leading up to our departure, we knew we had to pack every item of warm clothing we had in order to survive the early spring temperatures that waltzed around, and often dipped below, the zero mark.

We couldn’t know then how many precious cubic centimetres of suitcase space, which would have been put to better use transporting bottles of cheap, potent vodka or brightly lacquered souvenirs, had been sacrificed to the unnecessary bulk of our thermal underwear. The weather, of course, changed. And it did so dramatically, violently and utterly without warning. How very Russian.

Complaints about our inappropriate travel-wear aside, travelling through the streets of St. Petersburg was like travelling back in time. The beautifully preserved 19th century buildings boasted ornate cornices and intricate marble carvings on their pastel coloured facades. Their grandiose beauty, outshining the gaudy modern advertising on every street corner, has been preserved by order of law since the 1800’s. Despite the consequentially narrow old streets and inevitable maintenance required, the effect is nothing short of stepping into a modern day fairytale. A fairytale where all of the princesses wear very shorter dresses and balance effortlessly on long legs made lengthier by seriously spiked stilettos.

Massive, thick ice floats, a frightening reminder of what had been a long, hard winter, had just started to melt, crack apart and quickly float down the River Neva, which bisects the sprawling capital. We watched as a small crowd of locals, perhaps so excited by the warmer weather that they couldn’t contain themselves, dived into the still-frigid water, wading out a brave meter or so before retreating back to the concrete river bank, an expression of pride, courage and possibly drunken hypothermia reflected on their joyless, Slavic features.

Despite having been warned about how drastically our meager Russian vocabulary would be tested, the locals were surprisingly welcoming, defaulting to English before we’d even made an attempt at chewing through their unforgivingly nuanced language. This however, ended as soon as we left the hotel.

Not that we needed to worry, as long as we kept quiet, so did everyone else. Russians to not do small talk. Their ability, or inclination, to smile at strangers is also lacking and any stranger attempting to initiate a smile is viewed with suspicion or outright contempt. This stony demeanor is, according the English language newspaper we picked up, a throwback to soviet days, where stoic Russians made an effort to avoid the superfluous chatter and the disingenuous grinning associated with devious, greedy, American capitalists. While one can respect the intention, the effect- especially when coming from a country where smiling is as common as sneezing- is a tad unnerving.

St. Petersburg contains a wealth of well-preserved history behind its antique walls. From the sprawling centuries of artwork housed within Hermitage museum, Catherine the Great’s old winter pad, to the haunting marble interiors of Peter and Paul’s cathedral- the final resting place of the ill-fated last Tsar and his family, every corner of the city speaks of those who passed through it and made their mark- whether in words, stone or blood.

In many places, the architecture and interior decoration, such as in Catherine the Great’s summer palace (apparently old Kate had more palaces than you could shake a bejeweled scepter at) is so ridiculously ornate and so richly layered with detail in so much gold, marble, jasper and amber that it stills the mind to imagine the cost to the crown, the country and it’s people. A modern-day equivalent would be like watching Trump Towers get dipped in solid gold and sprinkled with diamonds. Like a 500 tonne magnum made out of metal.

When you look at it, it’s hardly surprising that after two or three hundred years of having to indirectly pay for this extreme opulence, the common people, properly peeved, kicked the Mensheviks to the streets and transformed the palaces and churches into museums, colleges and arcades. Just kidding, there were no arcades. Russians don’t really do fun either.

Considering that St. Petersburg and Moscow are probably the two most popular destinations for foreigners in Russia, and considering that the cities are a mere day’s drive apart, the distance covering a measly 10% of the country’s full area at best, you would think that there would be a well-established roadway between these two modern, thriving cities. And you would be wrong. Apparently, Russians don’t do comfortable travel either. Fellow South Africans should take comfort in the fact that the roads in the Eastern Cape, pockmarked with potholes; goats; dogs and the occasional cow; and traditionally devoid of any signage, now have competition.

We stopped for the night in Novgorod, which, after the visual kaleidoscope of St. Petersburg, was the scenic equivalent of beans on toast. Cold beans on soggy toast. The highlights of the town include the prominent Kremlin on the Volkohv River and a pretty bronze statue of a girl next to the city’s ancient waterway. The significance of the statue, I forget, but the Novgorod river was used for thousands of years as a shipping route for ancient Russian traders. Cold, ancient Russian traders.

At over a thousand years old and housing an incredible, three tiered brass bell commemorating a millennium of history in Russia, the Novgorod Kremlin seems almost out of place with the rest of the sleepy, suburban town.

That night we went to a first for our tour group and certainly a first for us, a traditional family-hosted meal on the outskirts of town. Overheated, boozy and loud, the experience did not disappoint. A choreographed folk experience accompanied by shots of vodka and tart cranberry juice was served up alongside oily potato dumplings, borscht, some kind of meat-based thing with blinis dressed in hot apricot jam to finish. If the French and the Italians pair wine with food to enhance it’s flavour then Russians almost certainly pair vodka with their cuisine to disguise it. The music was very nice though.

Despite Novogorod’s mostly rural surroundings, our hotel served champagne by the glass at refreshingly low prices, a small taste of luxury that was sorely missed when we arrived to Moscow’s wallet- shrinkingly high prices the next day.

Although the drive to Moscow left our soft sitting tissues bumped and bruised, the view out the window offered mesmerizing scenes of tall, snow-capped spruces, rows of sloping, dark wood dachas and their inhabitants. Some of whom sat camped out on the side of the road, offering hot tea in samovars, small snacks and an array of unlikely items for sale to passing truckers. The endless forests lining the road brought to mind yet more fairytales, only of a much darker, more sinister nature.  One deviously-humoured forest dweller had even mounted a storeroom atop a pair of giant chicken legs just like the hut that Babayaga, the witch, and infamous star of so many Russian folktales, was said to have lived in.

From this almost pastoral scene, one travels through the industrial outskirts of Moscow before reaching the bustling heart of the city. Between the pace of the people and the proximity of tall, high-rise buildings, it’s oppressive, frightening, exciting and fascinating all at once. Just like New York, but in Russian. We were located just off Tverskaya Ulitsa, the major thoroughfare that crosses the Moscow River, links Moscow to St. Petersburg and leads visitors straight to the entrance of the Red Square. Not only that, but the street provides easy access to at least three of the beautifully, soviet-decorated metro stations that thousands of hard-working Muscovites filter through each day. It’s a pretty handy little six-lane street.

There’s no secret why the Red Square is a tourist Mecca. All four corners of the landmark are lined with some incredible attraction you’ve seen in a book or, more likely, a spy movie from the eighties. St. Basil’s Cathedral, the most famous and one of the most elaborate of the many domed, orthodox Christian churches in Russia, stands at the far end of the square, flanked on its left by GUM, a monument to the success of capitalism’s usurpation in Moscow. Known as State Department Store during the Soviet times, GUM now boasts brand names from around the world. And, as the shopping playground of many Moscow-based millionaires, their wives- and possibly girlfriends, it boasts the high prices to match.

The red brick-walled Museum of History, one of the oldest buildings in the busy capital, stands on the opposite end of the Red Square, a stone’s throw from the mausoleum where the preserved body of Vladimir Lenin, the father of Soviet Russia lies alongside Russia’s many famous- and now dead- sons, who found their final resting places in the walls of the imposing Kremlin.

Outside the Red Square, one can indulge in a prime tourist activity of standing on the marker for Moscow’s Zero Mile. The idea is to stand at any edge of the big bronze circle, inscribed with the flora and fauna of Russia, and throw a bit of money over one’s shoulder into the centre of the circle. This is where any similarity to any other famous wishing spot anywhere else in the world ends. The coins do not remain where they are to ‘make your wish come true’, no, here, the tradition states that you step back and make your wish as half-a-dozen inebriated and occasionally violent Moscow residents fight over your spare change. So we watched- and wished- while a hunched, red-faced babushka pulled a knife on an older, bigger red-faced man for the privilege of adding our two Rubles to her vodka fund. Like an armed, Russian equivalent of the tooth-fairy.

The sheer size of Moscow means that casual travelers will most likely never see every historically significant museum, place of interest or breathtaking Metro station. A short list of must-sees includes the Tretyakov Art Gallery, which seamlessly showcases the history of Russian and European art, and by extension the history of Russia and Europe, through a seemingly endless labyrinth of rooms. Across the road from the gallery is the infamous Gorky Park, although crime-weary South Africans will be relieved to hear that grating children’s entertainment is more prolific on the park grounds than muggers are.

Yelisleeves Deli, a perfectly preserved 18thcentury food hall which sells a range of irresistible- and in some cases unidentifiable- treats is also located on the incredibly convenient stretch of Tverskaya Ultisa. If you’re at the end of your holiday spending money and are looking for some attractively wrapped and equally attractively priced little gifty-things, Yelisleeves is a delicious option.

We arrived at the end of lent and the celebration of Easter, an incredibly significant event in the Russian calendar, and celebrated for the first time ever across all three of the country’s Christian sects. Apart from the now anticipated lack of decoration or merriment- Russians don’t do chocolate eggs, of course, and bunnies are strictly stew material- the holiday manifests itself in other, far more fascinating ways.

For instance, on Easter Sunday, as we supped at the restaurant at our hotel, our waiter presented us with a small, complimentary ‘cake’ (similar to Italian panetone) and 2 boiled eggs. Clearly concerned that we were going to dunk his Easter offerings in our fish soup, Ivan or Boris or whatever his blessed name was, insisted that it was a ‘sweet cake’ and that we were to ‘crash our eggs’ to honour Jesus. My mother and I each pinched an egg in our fingers and comically smashed them together until the pointy tips of their shells were shattered, thus effectively ‘crashing’ our eggs. This caused Ivan-Boris obvious dismay. I still wish I knew what he’d actually meant for us to do.

Another effect of this year’s prolonged period of lent, meant that all the betrothed couples intending to wed in the first days of spring had to wait for the fasting period to end before tying the knot. As a result, our tour bus was constantly surrounded by hulking, shiny black Hummer-limousines adorned with giant gold rings on their bonnets and streaming long tails of pink and white taffeta into the slow-moving traffic. If you’ve never seen a Hummer-limousine, you have not lived. Like the reverse mullet of the road, it’s all party upfront and all classic elegance in the back. A typical Muscovite wedding takes place in a courthouse, not a church. The brides, dressed in blinding white explosions of fabric then make up for this lack of exposure by leading a five car convoy around the city to have their photographs taken at significant spots through out the city. One of the more recently created of these spots are the man-made ‘Trees of Love’ on the Luzkhov Bridge. The trees are tall and mottled with bronze and steel foliage, created by married couples who inscribe padlocks with their names, and then attach them like leaves to the trees’ brass trunks before throwing the keys into the Moscow river, ensuring a long marriage- or a very damp divorce.

A wealth of history, a wealth of experience and, in Moscow at least, a wealth of, well… wealth, Russia is not a land of half-measures. First time visitors would do well to keep in mind that many popular attractions, like Tolstoy’s and Pushkin’s homes, are not open on certain days. So do your homework well before arriving if you are on a cultural crusade. And wear good shoes-you’ll never be taken seriously as an art appreciator if you have to do the sore-paw-shuffle in front of every sprawling triptych.

Most importantly, keep your mind wide open and your camera fully charged. There are so many hidden treasures in amongst all the fully exposed treasures that just to blink is to miss something unique. Russians might not do friendly old ladies, free public toilets, smiling, chatting or spicy food… but they certainly don’t do boring either.