Earlier this month, my best friend AJ and I spent a week backpacking Russia. We started in Moscow and ended in Saint Petersburg. We served multiple combat tours together as infantrymen in the U.S. Marine Corps. Russia marked the tenth country we have visited together, and it would be one of our most memorable adventures yet.
As the day of departure grew nearer, we began to grow uneasy at the rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Sanctions, consulate closings and election scandals had increased the strain on relations between the former Cold War rivals. Some of our family and friends expressed reservations about us going. However, we were steadfast in our resolve to explore the former Soviet Union, and to see Mother Russia for ourselves before the ability to do so might be taken from us.
We arrived in Moscow airport carrying only small backpacks with essentials, and two changes of clothes. We always traveled light as a way to be more expeditious and to draw less attention to ourselves. We bought sim cards for our phones and noted how inexpensive most things seemed to be. The train from the airport to the downtown area of Moscow was very clean and modern. As we traveled to the capital, the outlining area seemed like a dystopian shadow of industrial communism. The factories and housing stood in stoic disrepair, seemingly oblivious to the ravages of time and weather they bore on the exterior. Then we arrived in what has been called the Third Rome – the capital city of Moscow.
It was almost surreal walking down the streets. All the men look like 007 Bond villains, or henchmen, and all the women look like models, or henchwomen. To see Russian letters, statues of Joseph Stalin, stone emblems of the hammer and sickle humbled me. There I was walking in the same city Napoleon had arrived to find empty, but the city I found was vibrant, proud and full of life. Monuments to the many wars they fought were frequent. As we made our way to the heart of the city, we came across an eternal flame monument, flanked by soldiers in dress uniform, that was dedicated to the nearly seven million military casualties Russia suffered in World War II. Although I fought under a different flag in my day, I drew parallel to my own experience with loss and death in war, and the preconception that 80s Hollywood movies had given me of the Russian people began to fade. They paid tribute to their honored dead the same way we did ours. All of our differences aside, I could respect that.
On the other side we came to a security checkpoint at the entrance to the Red Square. It was the last day of the International Military Tattoo, a festival of military music, marching and display of uniforms and customs. The plaza directly next to the seat of power, the Kremlin, was filled with colorful displays of uniforms and drum corps of many different nations. I didn’t expect to see any American military, but during the closing ceremonies I saw something I don’t think many American would have ever dreamed of seeing.
A detachment of Russian soldiers on motorcycles made a fast lap around the perimeter of the plaza. They had flags of various countries attached to the motorcycles to symbolize cooperation among nations. Towards the back of the formation, I saw the American flag. In disbelief I stared at the stars and bars waving in the wind, and thought to myself how fortunate I was to see this, and how easily they could have excluded our flag with all the tension. I was in kindergarten when the Soviet Union dissolved, and I remembered the way people spoke about their fears of the USSR; 30 years ago this would not have been possible.
Another example of this perceived respect for America was at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow. The majority of the museum was dedicated to the many accomplishments the Soviet Union achieved in the space race. However, in the very back there was a section dedicated to Russian-American cooperation and the Apollo 11 mission.
The space suit of the third American astronaut on that mission, Steve Collins, was on display. There I learned the design for the suits was of Russian design. There was also a small Soviet flag that the Apollo 11 crew took to the moon, and a moon rock presented to the Russians as a goodwill gift, and an American flag next to the Russian flag in the grand hall.
As encouraging as those instances were, I found a clear display of American contempt. The Russian Telegraph, a state-sponsored news organization, openly mocked former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in multiple Russian airports. They boast about here. Their President is something of a folk hero there, where T-shirts and posters of him riding a bear, or generally just looking super cool, are widespread in gift stores.
There is something to be said for the education system in our host country, as all of our linguistic preparations were rendered no more than polite fumblings. From the teenager working the counter at Starbucks (working an American-made machine) to the citizens in the higher-end areas conducting business, everyone had at least a functional understanding of English. Before the trip, AJ considered his “functional Russian” to be adequate to most tasks, but after more than a few consultations with our translator app, he realized that their poorest understanding of my language was leaps and bounds above our best of theirs. Nevertheless, after some mild frustration (and more than a few choice Russian curses at a Saint Petersburg Metro machine) we started getting into the swing of things.
Their alphabet, Cyrillic, can be a bit daunting. While in the last few years, the Russian government and businesses have made a valiant effort in providing multi-language signage, my best advice is not to go without at least a list of the characters and their Latin equivalents in your pocket. This will save you the headache of looking, and being, lost in the Metro.
On the subject of the Metro: this is one area in which the win goes solidly into the Russian column. During the time we were in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, never was a train more than two minutes away. The station and the cars were clean, well-maintained and, in some cases, works of art in and of themselves. A word of caution: the doors on the steel Metro carts are unforgiving when they shut. Learn from my mistake, and don’t get caught in the doors when they close. Lest someone having to drag you out before the train begins moving.
The capital city and Saint Petersburg, often called the Venice of the North, offered a diverse assortment of options for food and various drinks. Most restaurants, regardless of the genre, had pasta, salmon and rye bread. Be it the spread of information from the internet or their proximity to some of the better culinary regions of Europe, Russian cooks have figured out how to escape the stereotypes of the prison-style goulash. Even more importantly, everything was reasonably cheap. The most expensive dinner bill we received – for a four course meal – was 3800 Rubles ($65 U.S.) and a decent food coma followed close behind.
One idiosyncrasy to be aware of is that waitstaff are significantly less chatty than their western counterparts. Not to say that they are unfriendly, as we were never treated with poor service, but the interaction was more often than not as no nonsense as possible. The most striking example of this is when ordering something that turns out to be unavailable: no explanation is given, no alternative offered. Only a Vanna White hand gesture and a stern “NYET”.
After 7 days in the Russian Federation, I can say this: we were well-treated, the Russians are extremely patriotic and I hope tensions subside so more Americans can experience the rich culture. I felt privileged to walk the streets where so many events shaped the world.
Any time you travel, you are an ambassador for your countrymen. The way they interact with the next American they meet will be shaped by their opinion of you. I feel confident many of people we met carried on with their day thinking, “Those Americans aren’t so bad after all.”
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