From Russia with Love

My actual trip to Russia was only half the journey.  


Getting a Russian visa was an adventure in and of itself.  Consistent with their hostile and suspicious stereotype reminiscent of the Cold War, Russians do not make it easy to enter their country.  It is as if they are taunting you, challenging you to come to the Motherland.  I can see Putin, standing erect like the Terminator, squinting his slavic eyes into steel blue slits, “So you want to come to Russia?  Let’s see if you have what it takes.

What it takes is patience and persistence.  I dutifully filled out the visa application, moving with good progress until I got mid-way and came upon the request to list every country I have been to in the last 10 years with corresponding dates.  Painstakingly wading through my passports, old and new, I read every faded stamp and tried to re-create the tapestry of trips we have taken in the last decade. I was told to be very precise because even diplomats get refused entry if they miss a place and forget a date.

It was suggested that I walk the application into the Russian Consulate in NY.  And so, I found myself in a dingy corner of lower Manhattan staring at a decrepit nondescript building.  I was worried the ancient elevator might not make it as it lurched and crawled to the 7th floor.  The hair on my neck rose as I exited into a dim corridor where it looked like a crime scene could occur at any moment.  I saw a lone door at the end of the hall with a brass plate: Russian National Group.


I entered a small outdated work space adorned with oversize posters of ruddy women in colorful babushkas looking down at grinning blond 1950s families. “Visit Russia!” they proclaimed.  This propaganda was unusually cheerful amidst gray walls that seemed to sag, sad plants that drooped spindly leaves, and utilitarian formica-topped desks perched atop cold metal legs.

Imagine my surprise when I was greeted by a gorgeous, young Russian woman who looked like she belonged among the glamour of the catwalk not the grudge of this office.  Her name was Yulitsa, but I felt she deserved a more Bond-worthy name since she looked like the type that 007 always bedded by the end of the movie.  She was as efficient as she was beautiful, and seven days later the visas arrived.

Two months later, we put the visas to use and visited St. Petersburg and Moscow.  Four days is just enough to scratch the surface and quickly see the highlights of both cities.  I expected Russia to feel very foreign and to be literally and figuratively gray and cold, seeped in remnants of Soviet Communism and oppression.  I could not have been more wrong in every sense.

The weather was surprisingly mild and sunny, with temperatures topping 66 degrees in Moscow!  The only babushka I encountered was at a touristy Fall festival.


Though there were military trainees in uniform throughout the city and the Kremlin.  Military service is still mandatory in Russia. I have to admit that the sight of Russian soldiers marching did send a shiver of discomfort up my spine.


Given the dismal state of relations between our countries at the moment, I expected to feel potentially unsafe or unwanted.  Neither was true.  The people were gracious and welcoming in both cities, though unlike in Europe, English was rarely spoken and we did find ourselves lost in translation frequently.

St. Petersburg is called the Venice of the North because of its network of canals that link the city.  It reminded me of Amsterdam with its tree lined streets along the canals.canals

Upon arrival in the late afternoon, we boarded a boat and traveled by canal to get our first glimpse of the city with its gleaming gold church domes and Easter-egg colored palaces.


St. Petersburg is truly a modern European city, filled with beautiful Baroque and neoclassical architecture.  St. Isaac’s Cathedral has a gilded dome reminisceint of the U.S. Capital building.


The church interiors are extraordinary, with gleaming mosaics, resplendent frescoes, malachite columns, gem encrusted gilded doors, exquisite brass chandeliers.  It is a true delight for the eyes that rivals the churches found in the great European cities.


A climb to the top of the dome provided beautiful views of the city with the gleaming spires of the Admiralty and St. Peter and Paul cathedral as well as the vast colorful Hermitage.

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The Hermitage boasts a museum of treasures that was started by Catherine the Great.  It is a massive assembly of buildings, including the Winter Palace, once the home to Tasarina Elizabeth in 1754-62.


wonterThe interiors of the Winter Palace are excessively opulent and gilded beyond compare.

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As our guide explained, the Russians love to show off what they have.  “If we have it, we flaunt it“, she reasoned.  This philosophy certainly explains the flashy sartorial choices of the Russians who populate London, teetering on sky high heels, dripping in diamonds, and covered in couture.  Our guide felt this tendency to show off was the “Asian way“.  She was referring to the symbol of the country:  a two headed eagle, one looking to the East and the other to the West.  Russia’s complex history is influenced by both.


My favorite site in St. Petersburg was The Church on Spilled Blood.  This Church was built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded in March 1881.  Prominently situated along the Griboyedov Canal, the church harks back to medieval Russian architecture with colorful onion domes that look like something from Walt Disney’s imagination.


The story goes that on March 13, 1881 as Tsar Alexander’s carriage passed along the embankment, a grenade thrown by an anarchist conspirator exploded and mortally wounded the tsar. This church is meant to be a monument to him, not a place a worship.


The interiors took my breath away.  Glittery mosaics cover every square inch of space — walls, ceilings, columns, floors — creating an overwhelming intricate kaleidoscope effect.

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After such aggressive sight seeing, we were happy to enjoy the local specialty of caviar and blinis served with the obligatory shot (or two) of vodka!  I highly recommend the experience at Tsar for formal dining in an elegant Russian atmosphere.  Cafe Idiot, named after Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, serves up traditional peasant food like borscht, blini, and pelmeni (dumplings) in a low ceilinged, cozy room filled with period antiques.


In Moscow, we focused on the Red Square and the Kremlin. The name Kremlin means “fortress inside a city”, and the irregular triangle of the Kremlin wall encloses a vast area of 68 acres.


Within the walls are museums, palaces, government buildings, and churches.  We visited the Armory which contains priceless treasures including all the imperial silver and china of the tsars, Catherine the Great’s silver wedding dress, royal carriages, massive jewels, and exquisite religious icons.  The Diamond Vaults displayed an awesome collection of pebble-sized gems in brooches, necklaces, and headpieces.  The Russian collection of diamonds is among the finest in the world, rivaled only by the British monarchy and the Shah of Iran.

Putin has offices in the Kremlin, but apparently he prefers to conduct business elsewhere.  He has an official residence in the Kremlin, but he does not like the formality of the setting.  I found it interesting that neither of our guides seemed to know exactly where Putin resides.  “If you drive down the road about 20 minutes, you come to near where he lives.” That is as specific as it gets!  It is the Russian way to have secrecy, we were told.

Red Square separates the Kremlin from a historic merchant quarter known as Kitai-gorod. It is often considered the central square of Moscow, because Moscow’s major streets—which connect to Russia’s major highways—originate from the

The highlight within the Red Square is St. Basil’s Cathedral.  Similar in Byzantine architecture to The Church on Spilled Blood, it is resplendent with fanciful onion domes.  It was built from 1555–61 on orders from Ivan the Terrible and has been described as being “shaped as a flame of a bonfire rising into the sky.”


We visited the hip Garage gallery in Gorky Park. The Garage is a contemporary art project that is the brainchild of Dasha Zhukova, oligarch Roman Abromovich’s girlfriend.  There are very avant-garde installations outside and within.


We enjoyed our best meal in Moscow at the beautiful Cafe Pushkin set in a Baroque mansion serving the historic fare of the Russian nobility.  The wood paneled Library level on the second floor is the place to see and be seen.


A long weekend is certainly not enough time to see it all, but we managed to do a lot nonetheless.  I hope I will have an opportunity to return to Russia one day and explore further.  It would be wonderful to visit the Bolshoi ballet and delve deeper into the fascinating culture.

Though the visa process is daunting,

the beluga caviar and vodka is tempting!


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Joanie Carter October 8, 2015 at 2:54 pm

Fantastic Cathy..great reading!


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