(Note: I originally wrote this article in summer 2013.)
In March 2012, I had the opportunity to go to Russia for a week for work. In college, I had studied the Russian language for a couple of years and I have read a lot about Russian history and culture, so it was very exciting to finally get to go there!
I was a little nervous before I went, because one of my friends had been to Russia a few weeks before me and had accidentally overstayed his visa, so he was not allowed to leave. He didn’t discover his visa problem until he got to the airport the morning he was supposed to leave and was denied at the passport control area. In order to enter or leave Russia you must have a valid visa, and his had expired during his stay. He was basically stuck in Russia until he could get a new visa. So, he had to go to a specific bank in downtown Moscow to pay a fine and then pay to get a new visa just to leave the country. All this meant that he had to stay an additional four days in Russia while he got all this worked out. Luckily for him, his hotel allowed him to check in again, since he had just checked out, because without a valid visa they are not supposed to allow people to check-in. Otherwise, he would have been out on the streets.
My nervousness was compounded at the Atlanta airport when I went to the counter at the gate before my flight. When I checked in at the kiosk, I received a message saying that I needed to check-in again at the counter so that they could check my visa for my final destination. When I got to the counter and explained that my final destination was Russia (this particular flight was for the Atlanta to Paris leg of the trip), one of the airline employees behind the counter said, “Russia, make sure you don’t overstay your visa. They’ll throw you in prison, and not one of those fancy prisons like you see on TV.” I explained the story of my friend’s experience and he and another employee laughed. I called my wife before I boarded the plane and told her what the airline employee said; I don’t think this was helpful as it made her more nervous as well.
To get to Russia I spent a whole day traveling, spilling over into a second day due to the time change. I flew from Atlanta to Paris, and then on to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. Traveling with just my passport, visa, laptop bag, carry-on, and all-season leather jacket (that I’ve had since I was 18) it was pretty simple to get out there.
The only catch is that in Paris I had just an hour to get from the terminal in which I landed to the terminal for the flight to Moscow; this is not a lot of time in the Paris airport, because you must take a bus that drives around the tarmac in order to get to the various terminals. I also had to go through airport security again when I got to the new terminal. I was hurrying as fast as I could, and when I got to security and saw the long lines I approached one of the security agents and showed her my boarding pass. She said, “Oh, you need to hurry,” and then ushered me over to an expedited area to get through. I finally got to the gate for my new flight right as they were finishing up the boarding process.
Upon arriving in Moscow, I was a little nervous about getting through passport control and into the country. Even though I had all the required documentation, I wasn’t sure how everything would go. I also wasn’t sure if the worse case was that they’d send me home or if there was a “worser” worse case. So, I had prepared myself mentally to answer any questions I received in Russian, if needed. However, the passport control officer simply looked at my passport and visa, stamped it, and I was on my way.
My next step was to find the driver who had been sent to pick me up at the airport and take me to my hotel. As I went out into the terminal, I found a man wearing a black leather jacket and smoking like a chimney holding a sign with my name on it. As it turns out, he didn’t speak any English. So, in Russian, I introduced myself and told him the name and address of my hotel. It was about 1pm local time on Monday.
We got in his car and encountered immense traffic, especially once we arrived near central Moscow and traveled on the road that my hotel was off of. I stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel off of a street called Tverskaya. This wide city street consists of 8 lanes of traffic; four heading in either direction. Tverskaya Street is one of many that heads towards the center of town, like spokes on a wheel with outer roads looping around the city like an American beltway. Except, on these streets there are stoplights at every block. So, it took quite a while to reach the hotel.
I saw a mixture of cars; some were old Ladas seemingly from the Soviet era, others were modern luxury vehicles like BMWs, Audis, Mercedes, and others. I was told later that many of the Ladas, although they looked ancient, were actually new models. Apparently the Soviet sense of style is somewhat “timeless.”
There was snow on the ground with a sky of gray; most of the week would be this way. Since my hotel was on the opposite side of the street from our lane of traffic we had to pass it and make a u-turn to head back towards it. Traffic was so bad that this took 15 minutes just to perform the u-turn and make it back up a few blocks to my hotel.
Finally, I arrived at my hotel and went to the check-in counter. It looked like a luxury hotel that you’d find anywhere else in Europe. The front desk staff was very friendly and escorted me up to my room and showed me how to turn on the lights and the TV (I probably could have figured this out, but they were pretty insistent).
After dropping off my stuff, since it was still the early afternoon, I decided to head out and walk towards Red Square, since it was only a few blocks away. There was a light rain, and I was wearing a jacket, but it wasn’t too cold out. Armed with Google Maps on my phone I trekked south towards the Square.
Once I got to Red Square it was almost completely deserted. The square is immense and paved with stones. I’m sure in former days when the Soviets would have military parades here it was probably pretty impressive. President Putin of Russia has revived these parades, I believe, in an effort to recapture the former glory of “Mother Russia.” The side of the square with the Kremlin had stone seating areas that blended in with the square itself. I could imagine Russian dignitaries seated on these benches, watching parades come past.
Looking across the square from where I entered it, there was a large church at the opposite end (St. Basil’s Cathedral); behind me were a couple other smaller churches. Then, to my right was the Kremlin with Lenin’s tomb on the side of it, and to my left was a huge upscale shopping mall. I found the contrast humorous: on one side the embodiment of communism, lying in his grave and completely deserted; on the other side the symbol of rampant capitalism, crowded with people. Lenin’s tomb was boarded up and looked like it hadn’t seen much care; the shopping mall was huge and luxurious (I went in it later). In fact, it strikes me that the whole Square contains within it a summation of Russia (and perhaps the United States as well): churches on either end, the symbol of political power on one side, and the symbol of commercial power on the other side. The only people I saw on the square itself were a couple police cars parked in one area near Lenin’s tomb. Since I was the only person walking through the square I tried to “walk casually,” to paraphrase Han Solo.
I walked past Lenin’s tomb and headed towards St. Basil’s church at the far end. As I was taking pictures of St. Basil’s with my phone, a woman with her young daughter came up to me. The woman spoke perfect English and asked me if I wanted her to take my picture in front of the church with my phone. She asked where I was from and seemed interested in the United States. It was probably a little odd to see an American in Red Square by himself in the rain. So, I got my picture taken, said thank you, and then headed off to explore the rest of the square.
The rain had picked up, so I headed to the shopping center to dry off before I headed to dinner. The shopping mall was immense and packed with people, with multiple levels and all sorts of stores that you’d find in any mall in America. I found a restroom and dried my hair with paper towels and then headed back out into the rain to find someplace to eat.
I walked along various streets, looking for an interesting place to eat. Eventually, I came upon a place that served traditional Russian food. It was in the basement of a building from the 1600’s. So, I opened the large wooden door of the restaurant and headed down a flight of steps. At the bottom was a large stone basement with wooden tables and candles. By this time I was completely soaked with rain and dripping wet. Apparently I gave myself away as an American, because the host at the restaurant asked me, in perfect English, if he could take my coat. I got the impression that he didn’t want me dripping water all over his restaurant. So, he hung my jacket up on their coat rack and showed me to a small table.
There were only a few other people in the restaurant and it was very quiet. The menu was in Russian, but with English translations. They had choices that ranged from bear (considered a delicacy in Russia) to fish to steak. Well, you can take the American out of America, but you can’t take the America out of the American; so, I ordered steak and potato with a German beer. The waiter spoke pretty good English, and everyone was very friendly. The food was ok, nothing to write home about (but, apparently something to blog about).
After dinner, I left and headed back to my hotel in the dark and went to bed. For the rest of the week, I had to go into an office each day, which was a few metro stops away. That first morning when I went to the metro stop near my hotel, I had a brief glimmer of worry as I tried to remember how to order metro tickets in Russian. The counter to buy tickets was packed with people who just kinda pushed their way towards the front of the line, with no apparent order, just mass confusion. So, I entered into the pack and successfully ordered 10 metro tickets; 2 per day for 5 days. There were no English signs in the metro or at the stops, and I had to listen to the audio notifications (in Russian) on the train, but I managed to get to my correct destination stop on the metro train. The trains themselves were older, but nice; no worse than the Atlanta MARTA trains and with the advantage that these trains ran on time.
Once I got to my destination stop and headed back up to the surface level of the street, I had to walk across a large park and a few city blocks to get to the office. The first day, the park was covered with snow and ice. Each day, though, a little bit melted and workers were out with large brooms brushing the melted water away into the sewers. By the end of the week there was hardly any snow and ice left.
In the evenings, I took the metro back to my hotel and then headed out for dinner. Dinner was always an interesting experience.
One night, I ate at a place called “The Pyramid” that very close to my hotel. It was done up in an ancient Egyptian theme while playing 80’s American pop music. While I was outside looking at the menu posted on the wall on the side of the restaurant, a seemingly drunk man came up to me and put his hands on my shoulders and started talking to me. In Russian, I told him I didn’t speak Russian, which kinda aggravated him, but he staggered off and I went inside the restaurant. Later, when I was in the restaurant, I saw him again outside through the window. I saw him faint and fall backwards, and some passerby caught him and gently lowered him to the ground. Meanwhile I was eating steak medallions in an Egyptian-themed restaurant listening to American 80’s music. The whole scene was surreal.
Another night, I walked around and saw a place called the “Americanskiy Bar and Grill.” It had a lot of neon lights, a cowboy hat, and a sheriff’s star on the sign. Later, I checked out their website and on the front page they had a sheriff’s star with “Arizona Rangers” written on it (I guess from the standpoint of Russia, Arizona and Texas are close enough – don’t tell that to the Texans, though).
I didn’t eat at the “Americanskiy Bar and Grill,” though. Instead, I found a place called “Corner Burger” that was, appropriately enough, on a corner. On one side of the corner, the “Corner Burger” sign was written in English while on the other side it was written in Russian (i.e. phonetically spelled in Cyrillic lettering). Inside, the menus were in Russian and English. However, the paper placemats were in English and had a list of “10 ways to enjoy your burger” with a whimsical list of how to eat a hamburger. They also made a big deal out of the fact that the beef was from America. As I ate my American beef hamburger and drank my German beer in the center of Moscow, I reflected on the smallness of our world and how such a thing would not have been possible in my parents’ generation. It was another surreal experience.
Another night I ate at a place called “The Metro,” which was a small restaurant underground done up in a metro station theme, with Soviet memorabilia on the walls. The people here spoke hardly any English, but I managed to order food and something to drink.
Everywhere I went, people were extremely friendly. The metro stops had a lot of shopkeepers in the corridors and I bought a few things from them. In one shop, the Russian shopkeeper started talking to me. We carried on a short conversation in Russian, until I exhausted my vocabulary and said, “Huh?” Then she laughed and switched to English. Her and her husband asked me where I was from and we talked about the difference in weather between Georgia (the US Georgia, not the country) and Russia. Then, they showed me their stash of NFL memorabilia and US presidential bobbleheads and asked if I had a favorite football team. I bought a few small items from them. Later, I also bought some trinkets from a woman who had a small table of souvenirs outside on the sidewalk near my hotel.
When the time came for me to leave Russia to head home, I was a little nervous again, because I knew I had to get through passport control to leave the country. I took a car service from my hotel to the airport, checked in, and then headed to passport control to get to the gate area. I stood in anticipation before the passport officer as he studied my passport for what seemed like an eternity. I was imagining my fate in being trapped in the airport forever, unable to leave the country and unable to leave the airport to find lodging.
Thankfully, after many tense wordless seconds, the officer handed me back my passport and I was allowed into the gate area of the airport. I found a cafe where I was able to eat breakfast and get some coffee; it was still early in the morning. I had some sort of hazelnut crepe with chocolate sauce. It sounded good before I ordered it, and had it been later in the day it might have tasted better. But, the mix of hazelnut and chocolate so early in the morning wasn’t so great.
I also checked out some of the gifts shops in the airport, bought a few souvenirs, and conversed with a few of the shopkeepers. Then, I flew back to Paris and then to Atlanta, until finally arriving back home again.
Here’s the highlights of what I learned from my visit to Russia:
– The people there are really friendly and genuinely interested in the United States and Americans. I sensed sometimes that they didn’t know how to take Americans until they actually met one (me). They’ve probably heard things about us, just like we’ve heard things about them. But, I found that they were very jovial and my sense of humor fit in well with theirs. They were easy to get along with and willing to share their thoughts, as well as ask for my thoughts about issues.
– The food was great! Everything I ate was really good. The hamburger I ate at Corner Burger was the best hamburger I’ve ever had. This, though, fed into the caricature that the people there had about Americans. The Russians I was working with would kid me for months afterwards about how all that Americans ate were hamburgers, and they joked about how I managed to find a hamburger place in Moscow.
– I never felt unsafe. This may be due to the fact that I wasn’t familiar with which areas of the city were unsafe and I was just naive. However, I never felt in danger anywhere. I did a lot of walking around in the evenings and saw things like Gorkiy Park, the Bolshoi Theater, many churches, and a lot of other interesting landmarks.
– Sometimes I’d see Russian soldiers and policemen walking around, going about their business. There wasn’t an overly large police presence. Some of the soldiers’ uniforms were comically oversized and looked a little unkempt.
– People there haven’t gotten on the anti-smoking crusade yet. Every day going to and from, and on, the metro I must have vicariously smoked a packet of cigarettes from all the second-hand smoke.
– It was a very nice place to visit. Most people spoke English and were delighted when you spoke a little Russian with them. They have a very good sense of humor and were easy to get along with.