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PostRussia Report (Michael Sullivan, USA, 06/29/08 9:08 am)
Michael Sullivan writes:
We're back home in North Carolina after 17 days touring Russia and
have adjusted our biological clocks back to EDST.
Our initial venture in Russia after being in the country only six
hours was meeting Cameron Sawyer and sharing a wonderful, classic
Russian dinner together at one of Moscow's finest restaurants, the
Pushkin Cafe. Our meeting set the bar extremely high for the rest of
the visit and started us off with our new found awakening with Russia
and its people. The Vantage tour was a remarkable success for us and
The Pushkin Cafe was obviously the best Russian food we had on our
trip but we did have several Russian meals aboard ship, in small
villages and at a Russian family's home that were quite good, too. I
found the borscht and other soups to be fabulous every place we ate.
Pastries were excellent, as was the caviar and rye crisp crackers. We
ended up drinking so much vodka in toasts and with our meals that we
both have acquired a taste for it! I found Russian beer to be as good
as any beer I've ever had any place in the world and it's the only
item that I found that was inexpensive!
The tour was a real eye opener and we got an excellent feel for
Russia's long and troubled history. We saw places that we'd only read
about and learned that it's a myth to believe that Russia offensively
threatens the US militarily. In St. Petersburg we were told that the
Russians have a true appreciation and love for Americans as we
supported and fought with them against the Germans in WWII and that's
the most significant event in Russian history. Russia lost over 22
million citizens and 2 million in St. Petersburg alone, while 75% of
the city was destroyed.
We started off touring in Moscow the morning after our hosted dinner
by Cameron. We went to the Kremlin and saw all the sights from the Armory,
the churches and the President's house to Red Square, St. Basil's and Lenin's
tomb. The next day we visited churches, monasteries and a cemetery for
Russian heroes. We visited Moscow State University and took a cruise down
the river in Moscow. I was amazed that there are no pews in Russian
churches and that people stand for the entire service. No wonder nobody
attends church in Russia! In one small town a guide told us that Russian
people only go to church to pray when they want something!
We attended a three-hour circus in Moscow that consisted of animal,
acrobatic, ice skating and aquatic acts. It was the best and fastest
moving circus I'd seen, and the choreography was magnificent. We
spent several stops riding the metro and viewing all the magnificent
art which adorns each station. What a tremendous, efficient, fast and
fun way to get around Moscow.
The last day we visited the Marine Embassy Guards at the Marine House
in the American Embassy compound and shared a BBQ with the entire Embassy
contingent of State Department folks and military attaches who were having
a "Hail and Farewell" party.
Our friend who is a LtCol in the Army and filling an Intel billet in
the Embassy is the sharpest individual we met and totally understands how
Russia thinks and behaves. It's his second tour and he is fluent in
Russian and even could pass for a Russian as he looks, speaks and acts
so much like them. He believes there is too much hype over Russia as
an enemy and actually we have so much in common that we should be allies.
He took us to an local Russian night club that had lots of single
folks looking for a grand time eating, drinking and dancing. We could
have been in any nice night club in the US as the people were dressed
well and were exuding happiness and confidence. We noticed all over
Russia the younger folks seem to smile, act interested and show great
hope for the future. Most of the older folks of WWII and the Cold War
vintage seem to be almost expressionless, very quiet and behave
similar to the way they did prior to 1990. It must have been so very
hard to grow up in Russia during those times unless you were a
Communist leader of some sort.
We then departed Moscow on the fifth day for our river cruise up to
St. Petersburg we passed through some very beautiful country and interesting
port calls. Our first stop was Uglich along the Volga. Other than the old
churches to see, the highlight was a dinner in a Russian family home.
What an experience this was and it might have been the highlight of
the cruise as far as appreciating what Russian lives are all about.
First of all it wasn't a "set up" to impress us, as it was just an
average family in Uglich which is pretty humble by our standards.
The tour broke us down into groups of eight and we went with the
family sponsor who could speak a little English. Our family lived in a six
apartment complex, concrete building that was as drab and basic as most
multiple dwellings you see all over in the cities in Russia from small to
huge 200-unit buildings. We had to walk on wooden planks to enter the
foyer as there was too much mud and water covering the entrance to the
building. It was the only rain we encountered on the entire cruise.
The sponsor was a 35 year-old woman who was divorced and had a little
girl about 8 years old. However, it was her mother who took over and
dominated the visit but in a wonderful way. Her mother couldn't speak
English but was fluent in French, so she and Nicole did all the
The grandmother was about 65-70 years old, was built like a fire plug
but was a very handsome woman with well combed, short and wavy gray hair.
She had a very distinguished look to her. She had a PhD and was drawing
$100 a month as a pension. She had us toasting both countries and the true
bonds that bind us together. She was such a grand lady with so much spirit
and heart. She loved her country and the fact they were now able to dine
with American visitors. She kept saying over and over with tears in her
eyes that she was free now and how wonderful it was...The dinner was
cabbage soup, some fish, carrots, some bread and lots of vodka! I don't even
remember the dessert!
We all had a buzz on, but the camaraderie could haven't have been
better. Gramma kept getting up and proposing toasts which Nicole would
translate and then hook arms with me (as I was sitting next to her) and
kiss me lightly on the lips...This truly can melt anyone who is trying to keep
from getting involved. When we departed everyone gave the family at least
a 1,000 rubles in great appreciation for what we had observed and our new
found love for the basic Russian people and all they had been through.
Next stop was Yaroslavl, an 11th century city, where we visited
churches and monasteries. I was starting to get tired of old churches
about now! We visited an open market that was mainly a place for tourists to
shop and they had the standard fare items such as lacquered boxes, dolls, hats
and Russian souvenirs of all types.
The highlight was we had several Russian college girls visit the ship
and each tour group was able to be in a forum with four of them to ask
questions. These girls were bright, studying English and all wanted to be
either translators for Russian-American firms or work as program managers
for tourist groups. They behaved exactly the same as our upbeat, confident
college girls except they put studies ahead of dating as they said they
would have plenty of time for men after they complete their educations but
so much rides on how well they do in their studies now.
The next stop was Goritsy, with more churches to see and a tour of the
monastery at St. Cyril. En route aboard ship we had Russian language
lessons, Russian history lessons, a Russian cooking demonstration and
tasting for blinis, a class where we were all given a plain wooden doll to
try our luck to paint them as the Russian artists do and a lecture on types
of vodka with a sampling of all of them...Again, we're starting to acquire
a taste for vodka!
Next was Lake Onega, the largest lake in Europe, and a visit to Kizhi
Island where the 22-domed wooden cathedral is located. Aboard ship we had
a Russian tea party with all the traditional fare and the ship's wait staff
was dressed in their native costumes. Many of those stuffed, very thin,
crusted rolls were the same as we ate at the Pushkin Cafe where
Cameron had taken us for dinner. I truly can eat a plate full as they
are so tasty...
Last port call before St. Petersburg was Mandrogie where much of the
architecture was Siberian and is very similar to the same architecture and
totem poles you find in Alaska so it's obvious the Siberians went both ways
in migrating from Siberia. We enjoyed a Russian "Shashlyk" barbecue lunch
off the ship in the colorful village. Vladimir Putin has a "get away" home
there and it was very modern and not at all like the surrounding homes or
The next day we arrived at St. Petersburg and we immediately fell in
love with this city. Though it seems to have a slightly slower pace than
the vibrant and energized city of Moscow it is truly beautiful and
possesses so much charm as the Neva River winds through city. We saw the real
opulence and extreme wealth of the Romanoff family and visited the
beautiful palaces at Peteroff and of Catherine the Great. We toured
the Peter and Paul Fortress.
We spent half a day in the Hermitage Museum which houses so much
history and beauty. We saw so many treasures including the paintings
drawn by the impressionist artists. That evening they put on a
ballet, Giselle, for our tour group in the Hermitage's elegant small
theater where there isn't a bad seat in the house and all ticket
prices are the same. There is no assigned seating and you sit where
ever you want. The St. Petersburg State Philharmonic Orchestra
provided the musical accompaniment and is truly a first class,
The next night we saw a folklore musical and dance presentation at a
special performance for our tour group. The talent and costumes were as
good as it gets. The lead singer could get a job anywhere with his
booming, very pure voice. Costumes were brilliant and crisp in color
and so beautiful that they must have cost a fortune to make.
It came time to leave and return home to the USA. We arrived at the
airport in St. Petersburg at 3:20 AM for the grueling processing out and
security checks that took about two hours. We were treated well and not
harassed at all but the lines were huge and the Russian bureaucracy was at
its best harassing all Russian travelers trying to leave Russia. When we
got to Germany it was the same inefficient operation for security and
processing. The US was the only place where the customs and security went
smoothly and quickly which surprised me. Last year in Munich when we
arrived we didn't go through customs or even get our passports stamped when
we departed on our Danube cruise, however, this year we went through the
We can thank a handful of Arab jihadists for ruining international air
travel and making what was once an almost enjoyable experience now a
dreaded event. To think of all the money, equipment, technology, personnel
and security precautions now in effect across the globe being such a waste
of valuable assets all just to defend against a limited bunch of barbarian
jihadists. It's thinking the unthinkable but it's necessary and here to
This posting ended up being much longer than I intended but I wanted
WAISers to know just how much we enjoyed our trip as it was truly an
experience of a lifetime. We both changed our inaccurate views about
Russia and were awed with such a beautiful country with its friendly
people. These folks love their country and are trying so desperately
to cultivate the deserved prosperity for all its citizens.
Cameron started it all off with the fantastic introduction to Russian
food and culture. We are deeply in his debt and have invited he and his
wife, Natasha, to our home any time they're in the US and to stay as long
as they like. We will show them the best culture, the open and wide water
expanses and local food favorites that eastern North Carolina offers. We
were sorry we didn't get to meet Natasha but we're looking forward to our
next get together where ever it may be and a chance to entertain both the
I wish WAISers could experience what we did on our trip to Russia as
I think many stereotyped views like we had about Russia would crumble...
Again, it was a real pleasure meeting Cameron and sharing a great moment of
camaraderie and we thank him for his most generous hospitality...The WAIS
Moscow summit was a great success!
JE comments: A wonderful and thorough travelogue on one of my
favorite countries. Michael Sullivan's snapshots of St. Petersburg
reminded me of my three-month language study experience in Leningrad
back in 1985. Much has changed in Russia since that time, but alas, I
haven't (yet!) had the opportunity to return.
As far as geopolitics are concerned, Michael Sullivan has emphasized
something I've said for years: Russia and the US have historically
been allies, and culturally the nations are similar in many ways. I
could never understand why we cannot put the vestiges of Cold War
thinking behind us once and for all, and establish a strong, trusting,
cooperative friendship between our nations.
-- For information about the World Association of International Studies
(WAIS), and its online publication, the World Affairs Report, read its
homepage by simply double-clicking on: http://wais.stanford.edu/
John Eipper, Editor-in-Chief, Adrian College, MI 49221 USA