Down the Moscow: Reflections on a Russian River Cruise, Part 3

From May 29th to June 11th, my mom, Kay Mock, and I joined Viking River Cruises on their enigmatic and incredibly special Waterways of the Tsars cruise, an experience that changed both of us in unexpected ways. Neither of us had ever been to Russia before, and what made this trip even more special was that it was my mom’s first international voyage. That, along with getting to know Russia much more deeply than I expected, are what made this trip one of the best of my life. In this special three-part series, my mom and I share our experiences as a baby boomer and a millennial—women with two very different perspectives on a country that, above all else, is full of surprises.

MOSCOW

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Kristin: Nearly two weeks after we started our journey in St. Petersburg, we woke up one morning in Moscow. We had been wondering what a Russian city of 15,000,000 people might look like—if it would resemble tiny St. Petersburg, if it would have the sprawling Communist blocs from one side of the horizon to the other, if (since we learned in one of our on-board lectures than there are more billionaires living in Moscow than anywhere else on earth) it would be peppered with first-class yachts and mansions. According to our lecture, though collective living is still common and most people now rent from private owners, real estate in Moscow is as expensive as (if not sometimes more so) than Hollywood in California, so I had a sneaking suspicion that we’d see quite an impressive mish-mash. We put on our walking shoes and boarded the bus for our “Moscow Up-Close and Personal” tour.

In fact, I was right: it was all of these things.

And that doesn’t even begin to describe Moscow’s architecture, which is characterized by a delicate artisanship I’ve never quite seen anywhere else in my travels. For one thing, Moscow is one of those places whose zoning makes absolutely no sense to me, a girl who grew up on grid systems in Western cities: it has buildings built as early as 900 A.D. (talk about longevity!) a few streets away from mansions built during Imperial Russia just a few streets away from modern apartment buildings that look like they were lifted from an American suburb and plopped down in Russia.

Kay: There are two impressions that struck me as being an important part of my realization and appreciation of this marvelous country. First, artisanship is beyond anything we can see in the US, and rivals anything in Europe or Asia, at least in my opinion.  In the cities, it becomes clear that Russia is forcefully and actively working to preserve her architecture, some dating from the 11th century and before, her art, her history, her soul.  Almost everywhere, especially in Moscow, a huge city of 15,000,000, there is refurbishment and restoration and construction wherever you look. The second impression is that there is an important contrast between the old and the new.  Moscow boasts many new skyscrapers off in the distance, reminders of the 21st century and the future.  But Moscow is, more importantly, a beautiful city, begun in 1147, that still contains over 2,500 historical and architectural monuments, 70 museums, 50 theaters,4,500 libraries, and 540 colleges and research institutes.

THE RED SQUARE

Kristin: And, of course, there is something about seeing Moscow’s Red Square, that kind of iconic mecca that draws all travelers to Russia. There was something almost ephemeral about seeing it in person, as though I couldn’t make sense of the fact that I was actually standing in the middle of it, battling tourists, feeling the sun on my shoulders, seeing the peaks of St. Basil’s onion domes peeping over the horizon line while waiting in line at the Square’s grand entryway.

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What happened next will stay with me for the rest of my life: as we crossed through the brick-red arches and touched ground on the cobblestones, it occurred to me that I had made it not only to a country that had been a mystery to me my entire life, and I was there with my mom, a woman who, too, had spent two weeks getting to know a place she’d been terrified of as a child and that continues to be constructed by the media as a place diametrically opposed to our own home. Everything—all those tangled emotions that happen in travel—culminated in that one moment, stepping through that archway.

I realized then, that I’d also been nearly brought to tears.

The Red Square is not just an architectural beauty—it is divine. The jagged walls of the Kremlin line one side (with Vladimir Lenin’s mausoleum in front of it, a sight I’ve heard is both reverent and disturbing—reverent because we’re talking about witnessing the remains of a world figure, disturbing because, well, Lenin is not the freshest-looking of corpses); Goom’s Department Store lines another, St. Basil’s Cathedral on yet another, and the magnificent archway on the other. We were literally surrounded by four kinds of Russia—she who governs, she who shops, she who worships, and she who now allows guests to enter.

“History doesn’t know the subjunctive mood. We can’t really ask ourselves ‘what if?’” – Andrey, our tour guide, on Russia’s difficult history

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Just….go. I hope you’ll see what I mean.

THE METRO

Kay: You know what we haven’t mentioned? How we got there! To be honest, a trip to Moscow would not be complete without a ride on the Metro.  While most of us have ridden or commuted on subways in various cities, there is none like this. It is more than 180 miles long with daily ridership exceeding 7,000,000.  It is also the deepest of any, one station resting at 243 feet underground, with over 190 stations overall.

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Kay: The stations are like nothing we have ever seen; they are works of art. Stalin caused this incredible monument to socialism to be begun in 1932 where it became a collective work of art, showcasing themes of communist ideology and history. It is also the fastest subway train I have ever experienced. If you want to see some of this incredible Metro, go here: http://twistedsifter.com/2014/11/beautiful-stations-of-the-moscow-metro/

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Kay: As we exited the metro stop near Red Square, were initially astonished to see a man who at first glance appeared to be Putin, outside the Resurrection Gate, the entrance to Red Square.  Perhaps a welcoming committee of one?  At closer look, however, he was an entrepreneur of sorts, an almost duplicate of the President of Russia himself. Dressed in a suit, starched white shirt and tie, he had on offer pictures of himself with unwitting tourists, all for a sum of 1000 rubles (about $20).

Kristin: He was hilarious! And kind of a bad entrepreneur, truly, as he wouldn’t even consider bartering with us on the price. $20 for a photo with a Putin imposter? That’s a $5 purchase at most. Too bad we couldn’t fool dad with a picture of us and faux-Putin…..

Kay: A high point of this day was the classical folklore concert, played expertly on traditional Russian folk instruments such as balalaikas and bayans.

TREYTAKOV GALLERY & THEATER

Kristin: To be honest, the folklore concert at the Tretyakov Theater was actually one of my absolute favorite activities in Moscow. For one, if you’ve never been to a classical folklore concert, it’s one of the most unusual—and wonderfully bizarre—symphonic experiences you can imagine. The stage is set up in a half-moon shape, reminiscent of a classical symphonic orchestra; the musicians are dressed in long black dresses and classic black-tie attire; the maestro stands, feet together, on a pedestal in front of his orchestra, his baton delicately poised in one hand.

But….then the maestro waves his baton, the musicians pick up their instruments, and what comes out is a riotous, playful, strummed-and-plucked explosion, the likes of which you’ve probably never heard before (or at least not quite in this way!). Everyone is smiling—the young musicians clearly love what they do!—and the domras, gooselys, and balalaikas (similar to violins, harps, and guitars, respectively) take their audience into the sounds of Russia’s interiors, where her wooden folk instruments still fill the silences.

ST. BASIL’S CATHEDRAL

Kay: The next day, we had some free time and so we went back to Red Square to properly tour St Basil’s. We ate at a café in the Square, walked around, and just took in the sights. It was so nice to have a relaxing morning and then to just spend the rest of the day enjoying ourselves on the boat!

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The inside of St. Basil's is just as colorful as its outside :)

You can see how difficult it must be to restore these 17th century ceilings once they've crumbled...but oh, look how lovely it's going to look!

There are details everywhere you look :)

THE KREMLIN

Then, the next morning, we met back with our group to take our tour of the Kremlin. Kremlin means “fortress inside a city”; it is indeed, and is nothing like ever will see again. We also noted the site of Putin’s helicopter landing pad where he arrives and departs from work.  It still seems unreal that we were inside the Kremlin, a place so long surrounded with secrecy and mystery. It took me a couple of days to get my mind around this alone, especially given all the other experiences we had on this incredible trip.

“If we tried to only stick to the facts, the tour would be this: Hello, good morning, the church was built in 1714. Goodbye.” – Micha, our tour guide, on the mystery of Russia’s history

Kristin: The Kremlin tour, though crowded, was SO INTERESTING. The entire place is akin to a compound, with tall red walls surrounding it on all sides (much like what you’d expect), but the inside of it is another story. There are winding gardens, fresh flowers, exquisite medieval churches pristinely restored, Renaissance-style government office buildings, and men and women in suits, clutching their briefcases and wearing sunglasses as they walk to and from their meetings.

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As we walked around, I tried to imagine the same kind of world on our side of the globe, wondering what radically different kinds of conversations were happening inside those walls.

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Oh yes, and there are hundreds of tourists. Go early.

Kay: Our second to last evening, we enjoyed a small boat tour along the waterways to see “Moscow by Night”. The entire city, small and large buildings alike, is lit with street lights, floodlights, and fairy lights.  It is a magical sight with, for my daughter and I, a travel story attached, but that is for another time.

FAREWELL TO RUSSIA, AND A LITTLE ADDENDUM…..

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Kristin: I’d like to mention, too, how throughout our trip, and throughout this three-part series in which we wove our stories together, it’s what happened in-between those sights, those magnificent, haunting places, that will remain with me for the rest of my life. There is nothing quite like seeing St. Basil’s Cathedral, the St. Petersburg Hermitage, the Kremlin, of course; nothing quite like it in the world. But even more than that, there is nothing quite like the experience of opening my eyes to another culture, one whose world had been closed to us for so long, with my mom by my side.

Because I live in California and Kay–along with the rest of my family–lives in Georgia, I don’t get to see her all that often, a reality of my wandering roots that is sometimes very difficult for me. We Skype, of course, and when we’re missing each other, we cook dinners together over the phone, we shop for shoes by sending picture texts back and forth of our feet, and we decorate my apartments together by shopping on websites at the same time. We share our stories with each other, and I still look to her for advice on nearly everything, from what to wear on my first day of teaching to what kinds of curtains I should put in my new living room. Having recently turned 30, her involvement in my life has become ever more important to me, especially as our family has faced difficult health issues, cancer, and remissions, and cancer, and remissions (so goes the cycle), and financial worries, and I’ve begun to recognize how precious our time is together. As I write this on the heels of the news that Kay will soon have to undergo chemotherapy again, our trip seems even more precious, and I hope she holds onto it during the more difficult days.

Being able to share this with her, seeing her light up, take copious notes in her journal, stay up late and laugh with me, drink vodka with me, examine world-renowned pieces of art with me, sit on the skydeck of our Viking ship and watch the forested landscape pass by….

What a treasure it’s been.

Mom, where shall we go next?

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A very special thanks to Viking River Cruises and the team on the Viking Truvor for hosting my mom and me on our unforgettable first river cruise. If you’d like to see the full itinerary, you can see it on Viking’s site or in my previous blog post!