Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Top Ten Things to Miss about Moscow

#10 - Moscow Metro. This is one of the last, best bargains in Moscow. You can go practically anywhere in the city for 19 rubles (about 80 cents). Trains come at intervals of three minutes or less, and they take you where you want to go. Plus, the metro stations are mini museums, decked out with marble, mosaics, stained glass windows and more. I happened to live near Mayakovskaya metro, which is definitely one of the coolest stations. The ceiling is adorned with idyllic sky-themed mosaics -- branches, birds, B2 bombers...
So, yes, we have the T in Boston. But the trains don't run every three minutes. And there are certainly no murals or mosaics touting the glorious socialist revolution. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe in Davis Square there are...
#9 - Speaking Russian. It's not quite as much fun as speaking Italian, but it's still pretty fun.
Sadly, I feel like I have reached a plateau with my Russian skills. I can have brilliant conversations about the price of hotel rooms or how to get to Tver; I can even trick the ticket ladies and get the lower resident price at the museums; but when it gets any deeper than that, I find myself tuning out. If I pay attention, I can follow the conversation just fine, but I am too shy to participate.
There is really only one way to remedy this situation, short of moving back to Moscow on a permanent basis (and even that is not guaranteed to help, since all of my friends there speak English!). The only answer is to sign up for Russian conversation classes back home.
I would do it, I really would. The problem is that I don't think I will have time, since I will be busy with my Italian classes!
I told you it's not quite as much fun as speaking Italian.
#8 - Fashion. I admit it, I appreciate the effort that Russian women put into their look. I don't always approve of the outcome, but at least it's usually something interesting to see.
That said, the people on the streets of Moscow are looking more Western than ever before. Gone are the days when you see devki strutting about in their underwear. I even read that some clubs are discouraging women from revealing too too much. Apparently one popular club has a so-called "no-ho" policy and the bouncer will refuse to admit women who not appropriately dressed. Let me clarify: many clubs have strict "face control" - that is, bouncers who refuse to admit women who are not appropriately dressed. But a shortage of clothing never used to be considered inappropriate... it's only recently that clubs are starting to realize that they might class-up their act by encouraging women to dress more, well, to dress more.
Of course, there is much less pressure on men to be looking good, so they are not subject to such extremes. But on any given day, you are bound to see at least one woman who looks absolutely spectacular and at least one woman who looks like a walking disaster. Neither of which you are likely to see on the streets of Somerville.
#7 - Azbuka Vkusa. Literally translated, this means "The ABCs of Taste". It is the name of the very well-stocked, very expensive, 24-hour supermarket near my flat. You can find anything here, including Italian coffee and American cereal. Azbuka Vkusa has a long glass case filled with prepared foods like soups, salads, grilled salmon, roasted chicken - anything you want, all if it delicious. They make the best seld pod shuboy I have had since my days in Yekaterinburg. This salad - which translates as "Herring in a fur coat" - is herring topped with layers of potatoes and beets with a mayonaise dressing. Best Russian salad ever.
Azbuka Vkusa
Never mind that shopping at Azbuka Vkusa costs as much as going out to a restaurant, if not more. Seriously, remember the Salvatore, the fruit guy in Venice, who charged me 5 euros no matter what I bought? At Azbuka Vkusa I experienced a similar phenomenon, where my bill came to just under 1000 rubles (US$40), no matter what I bought. Cereal, milk and seld pod shuboy. That will be 1000 rubles, please.
I guess I won't miss that part. But it sure was nice to know that I could pop downstairs for herring and beet salad, any time of day or night. You just can't do that in Somerville.
#6 - Svekolnik. Cold beet soup. Like borscht, but cold. Delicious, refreshing and oh-so-good for you.
I have often said that soups are the pinnacle of Russian cuisine, and summer soups are no exception. Sure, we have gazpacho and creamy cucumber and many other tasty cold soups here, but I have yet to see svekolnik on a menu outside of Russia. Fortunately, I know how to make it myself. Maybe I'll have to learn to the same for my seld pod shuboy.
#5 - White Nights. I know that Moscow is not St Petersburg, and they don't call it White Nights. But it's still pretty far north. The entire time I was in Moscow, the sky stayed light until after 11pm. I'm not sure what time it got light in the morning, but certainly before 5am. I had the pleasure of watching two sunrises in Moscow - not because I was an early-riser but because I was finishing off a really good night-out. That doesn't happen in Somerville.
#4 - Summer Cafes. Summer doesn't last very long in Moscow, so locals know they need to take advantage of the warm weather. That's why every restaurant worth going to opens a letnoe kafe, or "summer cafe". They take over the courtyard, or the sidewalk, or the rooftop - because they know that people want to be outside.
I remember the days when letnoe kafe  refered to a tent in the park with a few tables and a lot of beer. If you were lucky you could buy some peanuts, but there was no guarantee. I suppose these still are the crucial parts of the definition of letnoe kafe - tent, tables, beer - but Muscovites have really refined the concept. At an Uzbek place called Chaikhona, you can sit on comfy couches and listen to cool music and smoke hookah pipes. At Swan Lake, you can sit overlooking a little pond (yes, with swans), sunbathe next to the swimming pool, or even visit the massage hut for a Thai massage.
So, we do have our own cool summer cafe near my house in Somerville. Technically, it's called The Biscuit, although we still call it by its old name, Panini. Since it has become The Biscuit, they have added a sweet, outdoor seating area, that is quietly concealed from the street and bursting with blooming flowers. In the past week, I have taken to popping in for an iced coffee. It's very nice... but nobody is offering to rub my feet while I'm there.
#3 - Post-industrial art galleries. The art scene in Moscow is booming (beyond anything anybody imagined, according to one artist I talked to). One cool trend is the conversion of factories and other industrial space into exhibit space. Once a wine factory, Winzavod now contains the city's most prestegious galleries, as well as an avant-garde clothing boutique and a cool cafe. On the river bank opposite the Kremlin, the Red October chocolate factory was forced to close. But they are preserving the building and converting it into living space and retail. The first step was to allow local artists to use the garages as studio space. Known as Art Strelka, they open up to the public on weekends and in the evenings.
Although "post-industrial art galleries" is on my list of things to miss about Moscow, we do have this in Somerville. We have it at Brickbottom which is cool. And if I had my way we would have it up the street at Dewire's Garage. I'm not sure how the good folk at Dewire's about my vision to turn their garage into galleries...
#2 - Minor celebrity status. Expats have definitely dropped several notches on Moscow's social ladder. There are a lot of us in Moscow, so we are not as exotic as we used to be. And more importantly, we don't have as much money as used to. In fact, we don't have as much money as many Muscovites.
That said, there is still a certain status associated with being an expat. People still want to know where you are from when they hear your accent. And more often than not, when you answer, they arch their eyebrows in surprise. "America! That's pretty far away!"
Back in the USA, I can't really impress anybody by saying I'm from Somerville. Maybe if I go to the South Shore.
#1 - Skydiving. Just kidding. But skydiving is representative of something...
The number one thing that I will miss about Moscow is being in a place where "anything can happen and it usually does." It's trying new things - unexpected things - sometimes pretty crazy things. It's watching history happen at lightning speed, and coming home with a notebook full of stories. It's not knowing how the stories will end.
Back in Somerville, it doesn't seem like anything happens at lightning speed. And although I have some great stories, I have a pretty good idea how they are going to end. Life takes on a very pleasant - if predictable - routine. We cook. We eat. We write. We pet the cat. We weed the garden.
Come to think of it, those are all the things I would put on my list of Top Ten Things to Miss about Home.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Moscow, Russia - My last day in Russia. Thank God I remembered to pay my shtraf - the fine that I got for making an illegal turn while driving in Vladimir. (If you missed that story, click here.) The officer promised me that I would not be allowed to leave the country if I tried to go through passport control without paying.
To pay a traffic ticket (or a gas bill, or a tax fine, or just about any official payment), you must go to an outlet of Sberbank, the largest bank in Russia, still owned and operated by the government. Frankly, it's nice that a few places like Sberbank still exist, to remind us of what Russia used to be (other places that can serve the same purpose include the train station and the post office). Here is what I mean.
I show up at the Sberbank on a Tuesday afternoon at about 2:50pm. The bank is closed for pereriv. The pereriv is the infamous "break" that the entire service sector used to take for an hour - usually from 1pm to 2pm, but maybe earlier, maybe later. Back in the day, all stores, banks, museums and offices would close for an hour (or two) so the staff could eat lunch. These days, the pereriv is rare indeed. Most places have figured out that the lunch hour is actually when people want to run errands and go shopping, so it's convenient for them to stay open. But not Sberbank.
Since the bank will re-open in ten minutes, I decide to wait. Of course, everybody else has the same idea, and slowly a crowd gathers on the sidewalk in front of Sberbank. Finally, when they unlock the doors, thirty people mob the door and push their way inside. I am right up there in the thick of it... There is no way I am going to get stuck behind thirty people filing their taxes.
Inside, there are six different windows, each doing some different function, spelled out very specifically on a sign above the window. I have no idea what these signs mean. I'm sure this is partly due to a shortcoming in my Russian language skills. But in my defense, I notice many people - Russians - wandering from window to window, asking the tellers if they can perform this function or that function, and being directed to one place or another. So it's not just me.
Anyway, I have no idea where to go, so I go immediately to the window where there are no people. This is a risky move - perhaps nobody is standing in line there because that window irrelevent or useless; perhaps I would be better off following the masses into a longer but more functional queue. But I decide to go for it - at the very least I can ask the teller where I need to go.
"Devushka, can I pay a traffic ticket here?" I ask her, showing her my ticket through the window. She very kindly informs me that I have to fill out a kvitantsia (receipt). When my reaction is confused, she even gives me the form I need. Clearly I made the right decision.
Filling out the form is excrutiating. There are about a hundred different bank codes, account numbers and addresses, all of which are abbreviated in a variety of different ways, all of which must be copied from my traffic ticket to the kvitantsia form. It takes me at least 20 minutes of painstaking examination of one piece of paper, then the other, and copying strings of numbers in careful succession. I make a few mistakes, so I have to cross things out, which I'm sure will invalidate this particular kvitantsia, but I try not to think about that.
In the meantime, a big line has formed at this window. The teller continues to serve other customers, but I refuse to the budge from my spot at the window, knowing that I will later need to reclaim her attention.
Finally, I have filled in almost every form on the blank. But there is one request that I just don't understand, and I can't find it anywhere on the traffic ticket I am copying. I expertly cut back into line. "Can you help me please? I don't understand what I am supposed to write here."
She looks at the documents for one second and then answers "I can fill this all for you but it will cost you 10 rubles. Do you want it?" This is clearly one of the best bargains in Russia. Of course I want it, devushka! Why didn't you tell me that 20 minutes ago? Unfortunately, all the people behind me then have to wait while she fills out my form on her computer. But honestly, that has happened to me thousands of times - what goes around comes around!
Finally, the nice teller completes all of my forms and gives me several very official looking documents to prove that I have paid. So now I can feel confident that they will let me leave the country. That's the last thing you want... to get thrown into jail for trying to skip out on a 100-ruble traffic fine.

Friday, July 18, 2008

100 Rubles

Moscow, Russia - Last week I dedicated one day to doing research in the Khamovniki district of Moscow. I wandered around all day, popping into hotels, restaurants and galleries, and by early evening, I finally made it to the outer edge of the district, which is the location of Novodevichy Convent.

The convent's tall tower stood in majestic contrast tot he still light sky. Though all the buildings were already locked up tight, I was able to slip through the gate and wander around the quiet grounds. The gate to the cemetery was also open, but the guard shook his hed when I walked through. He crossed his two index fingers to make an X in front of his face. "Zakrit," he said. Closed.

"The cemetery is closed?" I asked. He shrugged and pointed at his watch.

I was disappointed. The Novodevichy Cemetery is one of Moscow's most prestigious resting places - a veritable "who's who" of Russian politics and culture. Here are the tombs of Khrushchev, Chekhov, Gogol, Mayakovsky, Prokofiev, Stanislavsky and Eisenstein, among many other Russian and Soviet notables. Of course, I have been to Novodevichy many times before. But last year former president Boris Yeltsin died and was buried here, and I wanted to see the new gravesite.

I pleaded with the guard. "Can't I just enter for five minutes to pay my respects to Boris Nikolaevich?"

The guard looked at me skeptically. "Well you can, but after hours you have to pay for admission."

I didn't get it. "During the day it's free but after the place is closed it's not free?" He nodded. "How much?"

"100 rubles," he answered.

"And who do I pay?" I asked, still confused.

"Me," he smiled.

So much for my participation in Medvedev's campaign against corruption.


A few days later, I was doing research around Paveletskaya Square. Behind the train station, there used to be a big hall that displayed Lenin's funeral train, the old steam engine that brought Lenin's body to Moscow from Gorki Leninskie, where in died in 1924. 

I remember that the place was hard to find - hidden away in an overgrown park, the entrance to which is obscured by a row of kiosks. But this time, the park was also enclosed by an iron gate. Once again, it was early evening, and  group of dirty disheveled drunks sat on a bench outside the gate, watching me suspiciously as I approached.

Just inside, a security guard sat in a little booth watching TV. I pushed open the gate. "Is it still possible to see Lenin's funeral train?"

The guard smiled and shook his head. "If the Lenin Museum is closed, why shouldn't the funeral train also be closed?"

I was curious what they did with it. "Is it still there?"

"It's still there," he confirmed. "But there are offices in that building now, so during the day it's impossible for visitors to enter." He stopped for a minute and looked at me carefully. "But if you come back after 7pm I'll take you in for 100 rubles."

"So that's how it works," I laughed. Who says you can't get anything for 100 rubles in Moscow these days?


Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Moscow, Russia - I followed the directions to a rather innocuous looking building near Tagansky Square. Pedestrians strolled through the quiet street, seemingly on their way from shopping or errands. Children were playing and workers were painting on the grounds of the school across the street. Only a few cars made their way down the peaceful lane.

I double-checked the address: 5-y Kotelnichesky pereulok, building number 11. This was definitely the place.

A few old guys sat in the courtyard and watched me suspiciously as I rang the buzzer. "What do you want, devushka?"

"I have an appointment," I answered as curtly as they asked and I waited for my contact to arrive.

It was hard to believe that during Soviet times, this nondescript, neoclassical building was a gateway to the secret "Tagansky" undergound command post. Operated by Central Telephone & Telegraph, the facility was meant to serve as the communications headquarters in the event of a nuclear attack. As such, the building was just a shell and entryway to the 7000-sq-meter space that is 60 meters underground. Now in private hands, the facility is being converted into a sort of museum dedicated to the Cold War. (Wee www.zkp42.ru for more information).

My contact arrived - a pretty young woman, dressed in jeans and a jacket. "Hi, I'm Jane," she smiled. "Welcome to Protivostoyanie." That's not who you expect to be your guide at the secret underground Cold War museum!

I followed Jane (really Zhenya) inside, through the airtight metal door, where it was possible to see that the walls of this place were no less than a meter thick. She pointed out the "detox room" where potentially contaminated persons would undergo treatment before entering the facility. Then she ushered me into the elevator, which wisked us down 22 stories to a cavernous, spooky underground world.

The place is huge. As I said it's 7000 square meters. It consists of four different "blocks", each of which had a different function and a different level of security back in the day. More than two thousand people came to work here everyday.

Unfortunately, the place is nearly empty. In the mid-1980s, Central Telephone & Telegraph intended to upgrade this facility and the first step was a near total gutting. Then the threat of nuclear attack subsided. The Cold War ended. So the communications ministry vacated the premises and they took everything with them. The underground maze of tunnels and halls was left to deteriorate, accumulating water and dirt and darkness.

In 2006, the facility was auctioned off to a private construction company. The going price: 65 million rubles (about $2.3 million at the time). Not a bad price considering the price of real estate in Moscow these days. Not that there is a lot of use for a secret underground bunker, but the company now uses the above-ground building as for their offices, in addition to operating the "museum" below.

Some work has been done to make the facility safe for visitors, but it is still little more than a maze of dark tunnels and vast halls. We are left to imagine what it was like when this place was filled with communications equipment and bustling with secret activity. Still, there is something intriguing about the lack of polish... each layer of dirt is like a layer of mystery. As they clean up the facility and make it presentable and interesting for visitors, they also uncover more information about what went on here.

When the museum first opened, the company invited all the local residents to see the place. People who lived in the neighborhood were amazed to discover that this facility was in their midst - underneath the very streets that they had been walking for half a century or more. They also invited former employees to tour the facility and offer their recollections. Documentation about the facility is scarce and inconsistent. But through personal accounts, museum personnel are slowly putting together a complete picture. They have a ways to go, but they are already inviting visitors to participate in sharing their discoveries.

At one point, Jane sent us down one tunnel to explore on our own. "Don't be afraid," she said sweetly. "I will come in a minute."

"I know this trick," I thought to myself, remembering when we were temporarily abandoned by our guide in the darkest depths of the Belizean cave Actun Tunichil Muknal. I followed the rest the group, who were naively strolling deeper into the tunnel.

Suddenly, the lights went out (I knew that was going to happen!) Then: flashing lights, a wailing siren, a very loud but completely incomprehensible announcement over a loudspeaker. Air raid! Of course we knew it was a simulation - but that doesn't stop the heart from pounding, as you stand frozen in the dark chaos.

When Jane rejoined the group, she said that employees at the Tagansky complex suffered immeasurable side effects from the stress of working in this environment, including long shifts, lack of light and impure air. Not surprising - can you say Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The Tagansky complex is situated at the same depth as the nearby metro line. In fact, there are a few places where doors exit directly onto the platform, and others where you can see the trains whizzing by. Jane explained that they used to let visitors watch the trains and wave at passengers, but the Moscow Metro officials decided that was a security breach. So we could hear but not see.

As we left the museum, I noticed a sign that hung in the entry to the museum. It was a quote from George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Then we re-emerged at street level. The sun was still shining. People were still strolling. Children were still playing... oblivious to the darkness below.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Flying High

Moscow, Russia - I think I am a pretty adventurous person, but I have never had any desire to jump out of an airplane. Not because I was afraid, but I just didn't see the point.

Until I met Leonid and Eric. These two guys are training to be solo skydivers, which means they go every weekend to jump out of airplanes, doing flips and turns in the sky, completing seven different stages of training to get their certification. After that, they will be able to jump out of airplanes without any accompaniment at drop zones around the world.

When they talk about skydiving, they are effusive about how incredible it is, how rewarding, how it changed their lives.

"You are kind of evangelical about it," I teased them.

"It's the best feeling in the world," came the response. That certainly piqued my curiosity.

That is how - contrary to anything I ever imagined - I found myself signed up for a tandem dive at Kubinka airbase, outside of Moscow. The tandem jumpers are highly trained professionals, I was assured, members of the eight-time world-champion Russian skydiving team. (Who knew there were international skydiving competitions...?) Leonid and Eric assured me that they had done plenty of research about safety records and these guys were the best in the business.

We showed up at Kubinka around mid-day. It was about 90 degrees and the sun was blazing on the wide-open fields of the airbase. Due to the good weather, there were loads of people lining up to jump out of the airplane, so we were assigned to the seventh flight of the day. That meant we would have to wait a few hours - plenty of time to change my mind.

We passed the time by watching the other divers suit up, watching the plane take off, trying to spot the airplane as it circled high above overhead, and waiting for the humans to fall out of the heavens. It was a big blue beautiful sky, with soft, fluffy clouds. If you concentrated, you might be able to spot the tiny specks as they fell through the atmosphere. Then suddenly, bursts of color would appear in the sky - yellow, green and blue - as the jumpers opened their chutes and floated to the ground.

The airplanes climbed to 4000 meters, where skydivers exit the plane. (Just in case 4000 meters does not impress you, let me remind you that is more than two miles high!) After jumping, they freefall for 40 to 60 seconds, then open their chutes at the designated altitude and float to the ground. I would be doing a tandem jump, meaning that I am strapped at the hips and shoulders to a professional guy - Lyosha. So I don't have to do anything but look around and have fun.

Finally, Lyosha was ready for me. We talked through the jump - how to exit the airplane, how to hold my arms, how to land. Mostly the instructions were to ensure that we would get some good photos, as we would be accompanied by a photographer. (There's a job - skydiving photographer.) Then he suited me up in my super hero uniform - I definitely felt like I was ready to fight some intergalactic crime - and we were ready to go.

"Are you scared?" Lyosha asked as we walked to the plane.

"I think you do this everyday, right?" He nodded. "So I don't have anything to be scared about." I think I was not really answering his question, but trying to convince myself.

About 20 people crowded into the little airplane, which climbed steeply into the sky for 15 minutes. We cruised through the clouds and emerged out the the clear blue above, then circled back around over the airbase. The guys in the airplane were chatting and joking with me, distracting me from the craziness that I was about to jump out. Lyosha attached my harness to his - I was definitely going wherever he was going.

Suddenly, we were at 4000 meters and it was time to jump. First the sportsmen left the airplane, then the students-in-training, then it was my turn. I watched the guy in front of me, falling away from the plane so fast, but I didn't have time to react. Lyosha was behind me, guiding me through the door and into the air.

My first thought was that it was really cold. It had been HOT on the ground and I was melting in my spacesuit on the airplane. But now there was some sort of Arctic wind gushing past us. That was the other remarkable thing - the force of the air was incredible. I couldn't really control my arms and legs, they just floated up into position. I didn't really even have control over my facial muscles. Every time I tried to smile at the camera, I felt my lips peeling back like a mean dog.

The freefall was amazing. I was told later that I didn't need to look at the ground, because I am looking down in all the photos. But it was such a charge to watch the ground rushing up towards us and to feel the cold air gushing past.

Then suddenly - thump - Lyosha released the parachute. I didn't expect it (as you can see from the photo). But suddenly it was quiet, as there was no longer the thunder of air moving past us. And for the first time, I could feel the tug of gravity, pulling against the chute.

Turns out that Lyosha is something of an acrobat with the parachute. So as we descended, we were spinning in circles as if on the Teacups at the fun fair. I thought I was going to lose my stomach.

As we approached the ground, Lyosha instructed me to grab my knees and we floated gracefully to the ground. I was nervous about that. I had seen many parachutists landing fast and furious, but we landed so softly, on two feet. I only stumbled because I was still attached to Lyosha by the harness. And also because I was so dizzy from the descent. Actually, it took about a half an hour before I felt stable on solid ground.

Sasha - the photographer - gave me a high five. Lyosha gave me a huge kiss. "Maybe this is not acceptable in your country, but in our country it is necessary."

First question after the first time: Did you like it? Answer: Yes.

Second question: Are you going to do it again? Answer: Not today, boys. Not today.

I am having some technical difficulties embedding the video. But you can watch it on YouTube. Just click here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Pax Cultura

Moscow, Russia - One of my favorite museums in Russia is the Rerikh Museum, dedicated to the life and works of Nicholas Roerich. Nevermind the different spellings: it's a transliteration issue.

Last summer in St Petersburg, I spent a day or two at the Russian Museum, and I fell in love with the work by this artist, explorer and spiritual seeker.  His primitive style and intense colors evoke a mystical, magical past, often depicting ancient Russia and other exotic lands. This is the painting that I picked out to hang in my living room.

Image:Nicholas Roerich, Guests from Overseas.jpg 

When I describe Roerich as an explorer and spiritual seeker, those are not throw-away words. In 1920, he and his wife founded the Agni Yoga Society. And in the late 1920s, they undertook a five-year expedition to Central and Southeastern Asia, meeting with spiritual teachers and assisting archaeological excavations at sites in India, Tibet, the Altai and Mongolia. The Roerich Museum in Moscow displays hundreds of artefacts that were uncovered during this expedition, as well as dozens of writings and paintings that the author produced as a result. This guy was prolific, to say the least.


In 1927, the expedition was detained by the Tibetan government. All contact with the outside world was cut off, as the group was forced to endure the harsh winter sleeping in tents and surviving on minimal provisions. Five men died. They were eventually released, in early 1928, and they made their way to India, which was their final destination. 

One of Roerich's pet projects was cultural preservation. The idea behind his Pax Cultura movement was to preserve the crucial link between culture and peace. He advocated that creative works - art, architecture, libraries and such - should be protected from the ravages of war, so that our cultures can retain links to their past and resources for the future. Cultural institutions who participated in this movement would fly the Pax Cultura "Banner of Peace" on their premises, thus declaring themselves neutral in any conflict that might be taking place around them. Sort of like a cultural Red Cross.

In 1929, Roerich was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts (the first of three such nominations). In 1935, FDR signed the Roerich Pact, making the US one of 21 nations to participate in this initial effort.

One of Roerich's crazy dreams was to found a new country on the basis of Buddhist spiritual principals. Apparently, his idea was to unite certain regions of Russia, Mongolia, China and Tibet, with Roerich himself acting as the secular leader, ruling in conjunction with the spiritual leader Pancem Lama. Roerich never acted on this plan, but you can imagine how that idea would have gone over with Uncle Joe Stalin and Chairman Mao.

Despite the fact that this plan never came to fruition, Roerich's legacy is rich. The Agni Yoga Society, now based in New York, still publishes books and articles attempting to bridge the gap between ancient Eastern philosophies and modern belief systems. Museums in New York, Moscow and Nagar, Kullu (India) are dedictaed to exhibiting his paintings.  

And - perhaps most significantly - Pax Cultura is still touted by peacemakers around the world. As Roerich himself said, "Where there is Peace, there is Culture. Where there is Culture, there is Peace." It's not that complicated, but that's true of all the important things. 

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Rostov the Great

Rostov-Veliky, Russia - For a place called Rostov-Veliky, or Rostov "the Great", this place give the impression of a sleepy village, with little wooden houses that have flowers bursting out of their gardens and cats peeking out of their windows. And in their midst, rise the white-washed walls and the gold and silver onion domes of the Rostov Kremlin. The center is littered with galleries, as Rostov has long been known as an artistic center and artists come from all over the former Soviet Union. Spread out along the shore of the Lake Nero, there are two monasteries and countless little merchant churches, all evoking a fairytale past.

Despite all of these draws, Rostov is still off the tourist track. A few do come to visit the Kremlin, but not nearly as many as Suzdal or Sergiev Posad.

This is where I want to open a guesthouse. Not a big resort-complex catering to groups, but a small cozy place on the lake, with a Russian banya and Kremlin views.

Rostov is begging for it. There is a fast train that comes from Moscow in two hours. At the moment, there are only a few places to stay in town and it's difficult to book a room on the weekend - a sign that the demand exists. Real estate prices are extremely low compared to Suzdal. And did I mention the lake?

So, Rostov has replaced Suzdal on my Best of Russia list, mainly due to the increase of tourism in Suzdal. And here I go talking about opening guesthouse in Rostov. I told you I was part of the problem.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Driving around the Golden Ring Part 2

Uglich, Russia - Yesterday I took an inadvertent detour. As it turns out, my map of the Golden Ring roads does not include all of the towns of that I intended to visit. Up to this point, everything has been pretty well sign-posted so I ws not too worried. In most cases, there is really only one road anyway.

But Russia is changing. For example, they are building more roads, and apparently they are not all signposted yet. As I was leaving Myshkin heading to Uglich, there was no sign pointing me in one direction or another. But I knew I had to go south, so I looked at the sun, looked at my watch and headed south. (You can do that in the Russian countryside, unlike the Costa Rican rain forest.)

I was very impressed by the brand new, perfectly smooth road I was driving on, not to mention the lack of cars. It was starting to be late in the day, so I turned up the radio and went fast, speeding over the smooth surface. At this rate, I thought, I would be in Uglich in no time.

Fast forward about 20 minutes, when I did notice a big sign at the side of the road. But there were a lot of words in Russian and I sped right by before I could comprehend any of them. Still the road was smooth and straight.

And then it stopped. It just stopped. I could see it from a distance so I slowed to a halt before the asphalt ended. Ahead of me, it looked like the Gobi dessert, with mounds of sand stretching as far as I could see. 

Clearly, I should have read the sign. So I turned around and went back to do so. In my defense, it really was a lot of words, and I didn't understand many of them. But I did understand the first one: Zapreshenno. Forbidden. 

I continued to retrace my tracks. And when I came to a village, I learned that the road to Uglich is actually being built. For the timebeing, I would have to go back to Novoe Selo and pick up the old road there.

I guess I can't complain about a lack of signposting on a road that doesn't really exist yet. On the other hand, who was the eager beaver that took down the old signs that should have pointed me in the right direction to begin with?

Anyway, I made to to Uglich. For those of you who are following in your atlases, here is my complete route so far: Vladimir, Suzdal, Ivanovo, Plyos, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Myshkin, Uglich.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Best Place to Step back in Time

Suzdal, Russia - Ever since my first visit to Suzdal in 2002, this tiny town has topped my list of favorite places in Russia (in fact, it won "Best Place to Step back in Time" on my list of Best of Russia). Although it was once an ancient capital and thriving merchant center, it was bypassed by the railroad, and therefore it missed out on the industrial development and population growth of the 20th century. Even now, it is a rustic village of wooden cottages and flower-drenched meadows, with a fairy-tale dome-spotted skyline. As I wrote in an earlier article, "Judging from the spires and cupolas, Suzdal may have as many churches as people."
As you can imagine, it is a popular place for Muscovites to retreat from the city and international tourists to sample provincial Russian life. Artists and historians adore the abundance of architectural gems and its rich and storied past. But tourism to Suzdal was always limited by a lack of facilities. There was one large Soviet-style resort hotel on the outskirts of town, and a few simple guesthouses scattered around the grounds of the monasteries and other historic buildings. But there was nothing to cater to big groups, especially those with upper-class tastes.
Enter capitalism. In the last three years, Suzdal has sprouted three different top-end resorts with hundreds of rooms, big restaurants and loads of facilities. The Soviet-era lodge has been completely revamped and now calls itself a "motel", with drive-up accommodations, cinema and bowling lanes. Plus, there is a new resort on the way. This one is called Moya Strana, or "My Country", which will be organized around Disney-like villages, each with a different Russian-republic theme (eg, Tatar Village, Buryat Village, Kalmyk Village, etc).
All of these new facilities ensure that more and more tourists will continue to come - not just trickling in - but being dumped off by the busload.
Since the closure of the town's two small factories, the local economy is completely dependent on tourism, so this kind of development is undoubtedly welcomed by residents. But wouldn't it be ironic if this little village - which survived everything from the Mongols to the communists - was done in by unhampered capitalism?
Fortunately, Suzdal is protected by federal regulations that place severe restrictions on building in the central part of the village. I talked with one guy who is opening a new hostel later this summer, and he indicated that the restrictions are very explicit and - for the most part - enforced. So no buildings over eight meters high, no stylistic innovations etc. On the outskirts, however, the regulations are more lax, and there is plenty of rooms for development. In the rolling hills and pastures outside of town, there is a kind of competition between cuppolas and cranes. It's hard to say who is winnning.
In the defense of these developments, most of them do aim keep with the local style, building either faux-rustic wood buildings or stone structures that "fit in" with the historic architecture. They are fake, of course, but at least they make an attempt to preserve the atmosphere. But somehow, I believe the peace and tranquility of this rural place will dissipate pretty quickly when the parking lots are filled with cars and buses, when big groups of tourists are following around tour guides waving flags.
Of course, I am part of the problem, telling the world about places like Suzdal and encouraging people to go there. So how can I complain when these "hidden gems" start to change?
Nobody can deny that tourism and the cash flow that accompanies it are good for local residents. Even in the case of Suzdal - where there are really only two economic players who own the resorts - the money is trickling down to other smaller business owners and property holders. But how much is too much? And how can the sanctity of the place be preserved? How to keep the tourists from destroying the very same atmosphere they are coming to enjoy?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Spiritual Places

Bogolyubovo, Russia - Bog means "God" and liubov means "love". So the name of this town means "God of love". Or maybe it's "Love of God". But I guess it doesn't matter, as it was actually named after its founder, Andrei Bogolyubsky.

In the 12th century, Andrei Bogolyubsky was returning from Kyiv to his old stomping grounds further north (Earlier, his father Yury Dolgoruky had established Suzdal as the capital of ancient Rus). When he reached this place - still 35km south of Suzdal - his horse apparently refused to go any farther. So this is where Andrei Bogolyubsky stopped, building a fortified palace and stone church at this strategic spot, about 5km east of Vladimir.

As it turns out, the horse picked a fine locale. At the intersection of the Klyazma and the Nerl rivers, it is not only strategic, but also picturesque. The old fortress has been reincarnated as a monastery, dating mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries. But there is a fragment from the original structure - and a dramatic one, at that. Apparently, in this ancient tower, Andrei Bogolyubsky was assassinated by his rivals in 1174.

When I showed up, the monastery was buzzing. Babushkas and babies with kerchiefed heads, reverentially kissing icons; priests and nuns in black flowing robes, sucking down kvas (квас) from the old-fashioned cart.

I was snapping photos left and right, but the holy men did not want to be caught on film. "Don't take pictures, come drink kvas with us." This old Russian drink - made from fermented wheat - is now sold mainly by the bottle; in fact, Coca-Cola produces it. But back in the day, there was nothing better than a drink of cold, fresh kvas straight from the barrel. Like the ice cream truck, the kvas-cart would show up on the street corner and kids would come running with their plastic bags, babuskhas would find their recycled bottles, men would just grab a mug... everybody wanted to imbibe. This was the jovial atmosphere around the kvas-cart at the monastery.

Inside the church, it was a sea of scarved heads, rippling across the room as the worshippers bowed and kneeled in prayer. The melodic chants of the choir, the spiciness of the incense and the murmured prayers of devotion filled the cavernous space, penetrating my own heart and mind. I must have stood there for an hour, listening to prayers I didn't understand and feeling the spirit of this ancient place.

Then I walked through the tiny village and across a field filled with wildflowers to see the picture-perfect Church of Intercession on the Nerl, still standing from the 12th century. So simple, yet so striking, the church stands alone, on the bank of a river, surrounded by gold-green fields.

Architecturally, it is considered to be irreproachable, for its perfect proportions and delicate stone carvings. I was even more moved by the rural setting. Not to romanticize these tiny villages with big churches - I know that people are poor and life is hard. But breathing the fresh air made my heart sing; tramping across the muddy field gave me time to meditate;  and gazing across the wide open spaces caused me to marvel at the vastness and beauty of this country. 

A small gold-domed church stands alone on the horizon, surrounded by fields of golden flowers.  There is no denying the connection between nature and spirit. Indeed, many would argue that they are one and the same.