by Alexandra for The Saker Blog

My son and I spent three weeks of July in Moscow and St-Petersburg and one week in Paris. We left Montreal in the evening of July 1 and arrived in Moscow in the evening of July 2 after a stop-over in Paris of a few hours. Our initial impression was that of a sprawling, bustling and fast-paced city.

When we stepped out of our accommodations the next day to visit the number one destination of foreign visitors – Red Square (a more accurate translation would be the Beautiful Square) – our initial impression was confirmed. Moscow is a locomotive – an engine running twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, a city that does not sleep. We found these open 24 hours a day: clothing stores, electronics stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, flower shops, nail salons (yes, that’s correct – nail salons!). It is very much a city developed by the Communists – many metro stations, monuments, streets and parks are named after Communist or Bolshevik “heroes”. The presence of this ideology is very palpable in many of the buildings around the city. There are also quite a few Imperial Russia buildings, but they are dwarfed by the sheer size of the Communist-era buildings (even if these old aristocratic palaces are quite large). Many of these palaces were converted to museums, foundation offices, government offices, or simply tourist attractions of a by-gone era. As is known, during the rapid industrialisation of the country, many people were housed in apartment buildings and this trend continues to this day – there are no individual houses within the city of Moscow, only apartment blocks of five or more floors.

To get around Moscow, we mostly took the metro and bus. A three-day pass which gives access to the metro, bus, tramways and elektrichka (commuter train) costs 438 rubles (about $9). The stations are clean (even the tracks) although the more central ones are a bit on the tired side, many steps quite used by the innumerable passengers; in some connecting tunnels between lines the pavement is uneven. All stations are announced in Russian and English. Wi-fi is available throughout the system, which is easy to access with your mobile phone. We purchased Russian SIM cards for less than 500 rubles (about $10) for 15 Gb for one month and it was not limited to the Moscow region only (no roaming charges). The metro trains are on time and so are the buses. Yandex metro maps are quite easy to use (free download). There are new stations opening up every year, but they are mostly on the periphery of the network and we did not see them, so no comments on those. Streets and sidewalks are washed every night (even if it rained that day) so in the morning, all is clean and fresh smelling. In the centre of town, the sidewalks are very wide and most of them are in excellent shape. Sidewalks outside the downtown area were decent, and little by little, they are repaired or completely redone. The streets have no potholes or cracks, so car and bus rides are quite smooth. The few times we took taxis, we ordered them through YandexTaxi (free app) – the app gives you the itinerary, price and choice of car. Drivers do not expect any tips.

Reaching the metro on our first day, we had to walk about a kilometre on the side of a very busy boulevard/5-lane highway with one lane reserved for buses. Traffic is fast and busy. Moscow (and St-Petersburg) has underground passages for crossing these numerous thoroughfares, which are well lit and clean. Cannot stop the flow of the traffic every 2 minutes when cars are speeding at over 100 km/h! A lot of luxury cars on the roads! Their equivalent of North American highways circle the city and have numerous wide Prospekts bringing traffic towards the centre.

Food was excellent. Prices were very reasonable. Grocery stores were always well stocked with local produce (all non-GMO), meats, and everything else one needs to prepare good meals. Restaurants also are affordable, and many cafés and fast-food joints had quite surprising quality fare.

Throughout our excursions we never felt threatened or unsafe. There were no homeless people with carts of their meager belongings roaming the city. There were no tent cities within Moscow or St-Petersburg. We saw only one drunk on a Saturday night when coming back to the apartment in Moscow and he was taken care of by his buddies.

We visited many parks, museums, historical buildings and churches, not only the tourist traps but also off the beaten path. Many fountains and monuments are dedicated to the Great Patriotic War and at least one that I saw to the 1905 Revolution. Restoration works on many historical buildings are ongoing. There are very long lines to visit museums and the entry prices are quite affordable for citizens of the Russian Federation (for example, a Russian citizen pays 100 rubles to visit St-Basil’s Cathedral whereas we paid 1000 rubles each, others were 700 rubles each).

Poklonnaya Gora or Park Pobeda (Victory Park) is dedicated to the Great Patriotic War, with one monument dedicated to the First World War (it is the only monument that I found in Moscow dedicated to this war) and one to the Afghan War. The Eternal Flame is at the back of the building. It is a massive park with the St. George and Dragon monument at the top of the walkway with the museum behind it. The building itself looks unimpressive, rather square and of a 1950s design (I’m not an architect so I wouldn’t know what that design is called, however it is not the Stalinist or Brutalist style, more like a copy of Art Deco). Once inside, one sees the massive expanse of the building. It is a tribute to the Red Army – its bloody setbacks to the final victory over the Nazi invaders. There are very well-done panoramas of the major battles (Dniepr, Kursk, Leningrad Siege, Berlin and others), complete with real tanks, machinery, guns and recreated sound. They have a reproduction of the base of the Reichstag with all the graffiti left by the Red Army soldiers of May 1945. The museum houses the books with all the names of the soldiers and civilians that died during the war. The museum had a few rooms dedicated to the Second Front for the 75th anniversary. I found it very soul-wrenching when one compares the numbers of the losses of the allied forces compared to the Soviet losses. It is difficult to fathom the suffering and sacrifices that the Russian people have endured but endure and prevail they did. What is most disgusting are the western allies who do not acknowledge these losses and prefer ignoring it – I guess 27,600,000 dead Russians are not worth much to them. The monument titled “Tragedy of Peoples” by the sculptor Z. Tsereteli, behind the main building was breathtaking in its conveyance of the suffering that was brought on the peoples of the Soviet Union.

In St-Petersburg, we did not take the bus or metro as the historic city offers so much to see on each corner and walking is the best way to enjoy the city. Streets and sidewalks were top notch! No litter on the sidewalks. The city itself is not as fast-paced as Moscow but has a nice lively feel to it. Of the three cities that we visited, St-Petersburg is by far our favourite.

The Hermitage Museum is a must-see National Treasure! Stunning would be a good descriptive. The building is History, is a museum piece itself. Long lines and long wait under pouring rain but well worth it. There is so much to see that one visit is not enough as I was talking with a gentleman in line and he told me it was his third visit. Palace Square is a lively meeting place and it serves as an outdoor music venue (we heard Pelageya giving her concert there), whether classical or popular. After one of our daily excursions, on our way back to the apartment, we passed, in front of the old Stock Exchange Building (being renovated), people of all ages, either dressed to the nines or casual, dancing Salsa to a DJ, celebrating the weekend. Russians are not the morose people that western cinema makes them out to be!

At the Peter and Paul Fortress on Rabbit Island (there is a story that is quite amusing and you will have to visit the city and take a tour to find out!) we visited the church were the Romanovs, starting with Peter the Great (excluding two monarchs that are buried in Moscow) and ending with the Nicolas II and his family (except Alexis and Anastasia) are buried.

The only other building open at the Fortress was the Prison. It was quite interesting to see the different members of the revolutionary movements in Imperial Russia mentioned – starting with the Narodnaya Volya and ending with the anarchist, Bolshevik and Menshevik parties and their revolutionaries and the cells that they have occupied in that prison up to the revolution. After the October Revolution, it was the opposite. The jailers became the prisoners and the prisoners the jailers. Many clergy, politicians, aristocrats, intellectuals occupied the same cells as those that overthrew their government before being executed. The State Museum on Red Square also covered the revolution of 1917 as this museum covers up to the fall of the Russian Empire.

We also visited the Artillery Museum in St-Petersburg. This museum is dedicated to the artillery developments of the Russian Imperial Army as well as the Red Army from the founding of the city to the present day and has many artefacts dating back to the 18th century and earlier (Swedish, Saxon, Polish, Turkish, British cannons and many others are on display outside the main building).

Something must be said about Russian museums. They are more than just collections of artefacts. They are a vivid and living reminder of sacrifices made by the Russian people and the difficulties that the country faced throughout the ages. It was very interesting and quite moving to see at the museum dedicated to the Great Patriotic War a young mother telling about the war to her 4 or 5-year-old daughter, about the horrors of that war and at the Artillery Museum a young father with his two young sons teaching them about the different guns, explaining the calibers and ranges of the different types of canons but also about what war means. This knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next and there is no doubt that the next generation will respect the sacrifice that their ancestors made. These museum lessons are much more genuine in their teachings than a once-a-year show of appreciation of the sacrifices made by the long dead soldiers (November 11 comes to mind and the dwindling numbers of people knowing what the true meaning of that day is and even less showing up at the ceremonies).

Taxis drivers were interesting people to talk to since they see and meet a lot of people and one can have a very interesting conversation on different levels. A few of them know that the West is not what it pretends to be, so they prefer to stay in the country to built it, but some were seriously contemplating leaving, preferably to Europe or Canada. Here are a few contrasts: a saleslady in a clothing store has friends that moved to Spain and are very happy to be there and wished she could leave but had obligations so was not able to do so; a young attendant at the Federation Tower, desperate to leave to anywhere; a young man, working as a taxi driver between jobs, having traveled to a few places outside of Russia, seeing that the West is not what it’s cracked up to be, prefers to stay in Russia; an old taxi driver that lived in the US and came back to Russia because he found it too hard and dangerous to live in the US; a grand-mother concerned that her daughter, having moved to Paris, does not teach her young daughter any Russian but only French and the child cannot communicate with her grand-parents.

Tourism is not a very big industry in Russia. Most of the tourism industry is oriented towards its own population. Attendants in any public venue, be it the metro, restaurants, shops, clothing stores, grocery stores, museums, have very limited English, never mind any other language. The fact that the metro stations are announced in Russian and English is due to the World Cup 2018. Peterhof, an absolute gem, does not have any audio guides in English or French or German or Spanish and yet, there are quite a few tourists from these countries visiting. They do not have bilingual museum tour guides either. There are a few professional tour guides in both Moscow and St-Petersburg that offer services in other languages, naturally for a price and they must be privately booked in advance. Most museums will have audio-guides in different languages but not official museum tour guides. The famous babushka attendants in museums are quite present and they do have eagle eyes!

Religious life in Russia is on the rise and it is the older generations, the babushki, that bring children to church. When we were in St-Basil’s, there was an a capella choir singing prayers and the acoustics of the building gave them an ephemeral quality, but the few Russians that were there did not show any reaction to it, it’s as if they did not know or understand what the singing meant. On the other hand, there was a very long line to see the relics of a saint in Christ the Saviour Cathedral (we were ushered so quickly through the line that I didn’t have time to find out who the saint was). Many people light candles in churches (even in those that are turned into museums such as St-Isaac’s Cathedral). Speaking with some restaurant attendants, many have a Lenten menu throughout the year and are quite popular.

It was with heavy hearts that we left Moscow to fly towards our last destination.

Paris is an old city, full of tourists, immigrants and refugees. Unfortunately, I found that it is no longer a city of the French. I heard more Arabic, various African dialects, Spanish, Italian, other languages that I did not recognise, British English, Australian English and mostly American English and the latter by far the loudest, the most visible tourists in the city (they behave as if the city belongs to them). French was the language that I heard the least. The shop attendants that we spoke with, didn’t seem to be very concerned about this “invasion”, on the contrary they seemed to welcome it. My son called Paris “the McDonald’s of tourist destinations”. How apt!

The streets were dirty, it smelled urine in many places (during the heatwave the smell was unbearable) especially the metro, excrement on the streets (animal), on quays (animal and human), on the steps to the Sacré-Coeur Cathedral (animal) – is there anything sacred anymore? People smoking everywhere, regardless if children were present or not, cigarette butts everywhere. The few street cleaners that we saw were doing their job in a very nonchalant manner. In the evenings, the brasseries were full of people drinking and smoking. The metro (a five-day bus and metro pass cost us 37€) on certain stops advises passengers to be careful of pickpockets. The metro is equipped at certain stations with anti-suicide gates. We saw quite a few homeless people (not necessarily immigrants, legal or otherwise) in the various arrondissements that we visited.

The parks are oases of much needed peace and tranquility and they are quite beautiful (our favourite was the Parc des Buttes-Chaumond as it gave us a nice view of the city). Tourists are quite well served with most signage in 5 languages (French, English, German, Spanish and Italian) (not the languages that I most heard on the streets). The Marais district is quite interesting as it is the area that was least touched by the Hausmann reforms of the XIXth century. It was interesting to see medieval houses and the narrow streets. Food in general was very average and quite expensive. Is it the tourism fatigue that makes it so? In the end, we were quite happy to leave the city.

I was disappointed with its general appearance – elegant and shabby at the same time, fast-paced but in a frenzy, Old World but with a complex, of wanting to be like the New World, accommodating to immigration but at the same time not really wanting the immigrants, borderline schizophrenic. La ville lumière should stay French and not try to be something else.

Russia is a world of its own. It is a country that is slowly opening to the rest of the world. I say slowly because of the bureaucratic procedures to get visas for many countries (Canadians can get a visa for only 30 days, whereas the US for 3 years); there are agreements with countries (unfortunately not with Canada because of our [insert any explicative] politicians) for simplified procedures and the implementation of electronic visas, and these changes take time to take full effect. There are many business and development opportunities. But then, it takes a special talent to see these opportunities. But for those that do, Russia is the future. Emigration should be simplified and made easier, especially for those that have Russian roots, that still speak the language, that understand that life is different and very well may be more difficult for some than in the West but are still willing to take on the challenge.

Many Russians are still enamoured with the West but what will be their reaction when their ideal is no longer? Will they wake up and realise that their country is much better than what the West has to offer? Presently, life in Canada is easier than in France (my oldest daughter spent six months as a student exchange in Paris and she found it difficult because of the noise, the cost of living and the smells), and it certainly is much better than in the US. And it is easier than in Russia but for how much longer? The economies of the West are not what the authorities claim to be. How long can nations survive on threats, wars and theft to prop up their failing economies? Time is on Russia’s side.

All in all, we traveled over 15,000 kilometres, walked close to 300 kilometres during our journey. We saw people living and celebrating, we saw splendor and decay, we saw Man’s achievements in technology, construction and art. And it was a beautiful experience! Will I go back to Moscow or St-Petersburg? In a heartbeat! To Paris? I will seriously think about it. My son only dreams of moving to Russia; luckily, he has a better chance of achieving his goal than many people because of his language skills and business acumen and I will gladly send him off to Russia to build his life and succeed.

Mini-bio: my father was born in the Soviet Union to a Cossack family in the city of Uralsk (presently in Kazakhstan) and my mother was born in Serbia to a former Russian Imperial Navy Cadet and a Serbian mother whose ship was pledged to the Serbian King after the end of the civil war. Both grandfathers fought on the White side during the civil war, but one was captured by the Red Army thugs in 1921 (the Red Army acquired its legitimacy during the Great Patriotic War, during the civil war up until the German invasion it was a bunch of thugs killing for no good reason, as per my father’s recollections) and sent to prison and threatened with execution but managed to survive and evacuated with the German retreat in 1944 with his family. Both families ended up in Argentina before emigrating to Canada and the US.

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