”A riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma” – these are a few words that Churchill used to describe the many faces of that continent of a country called Russia. That riddle has always, always made me curious. The tickle became an itch that soon turned into an obsession to know more and experience what Russia has to offer.
I just had to pack and explore that massively huge country spanning half of the globe, encompassing hundreds of ethnicities, religions, and languages. A country that pioneered the space age and made great leaps in medicine and other fields of science, while its still-existing shamans practice their own medicine. A place that has historically believed itself as the successor to the great Byzantine Empire and eastern orthodox Christianity yet has a Muslim minority of about 20 million strong, not to mention Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, and Animists. A nation that contributed to the human civilization countless works of art, literature and music, science, the spirit of discovery and that colonial drive that put Europe in the lead for the last two centuries of human history. An empire that died and disintegrated then regenerated and reinvented itself over and over again. Who could resist? Not I.
A truncated version of the story of Russia goes something like this: some Vikings reached the Russian heartlands in Novgorod and Kiev via the mighty rivers that crisscross this part of Eastern Europe. These Vikings intermarried with Slavic Russian princesses thus creating and establishing the first Great Russian Empire and ruling Dynasty. The Kievan Rus dominated the whole area between the Baltic and the black sea to the point of even threatening the Byzantines themselves. Alas all that might and power was to be destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century. The Mongol khanates ruled over the scattered Russian cities and principalities for a few hundreds of years till Moscow rose up and conquered the Tatar dominions one by one, culminating in their conquest of Kazan in the 16th century. That core of an early Russian empire collapsed for a hundred years of The Troubles with the death of Ivan the Terrible. This guy had killed his own son and thus left the throne without an heir. Charming.
The Troubles ended when the Romanovs succeeded in consolidating power and influence and started a mightier empire that would eventually reach the pacific and dominate central Asia as well as the Caucasus and Baltic. Even though Napoleon conquered Moscow and the city was nearly all burnt to the ground in the beginning of the 19th century, the Russians were to eventually triumph and their empire rose again and kept on growing for another century only to be decimated by the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution. Like the phoenix the Russian empire rose from the ashes to build a new state prophesying the triumph of the proletariat and embracing communism. Like all the empires before, it, predictably, collapsed. Yet what I saw in my trip were not the sorry sad scenes of defeat and after-effects of destruction, bur rather than the healthy signs of revival and steady build up of strength and confidence of a new entity that no doubt will be as mighty and modern as before.
Russia’s growing power was not the only misconception that was shattered when I reached Russia in person. My circle of friends and family and even my patients had many varying stereotypes in mind. Many of course mentioned the Mafia that will rob me the moment I step into Russia!!! Of course I wouldn’t have found it even if I looked for the mafia myself… after all I’m not a lucrative object. There are many outrageously rich Russians to target rather than run around pick-pocketing random backpacking foreigners. Others mentioned lack of security or the large number of drunkards I would face. Again, I can comfortably say that I felt much more safe walking around in Moscow and St. than in many other famous international cities I have been to before including some famous American cities. There were instances when I was taking the last underground train at night and sitting beside me was a boy at most 13 years of age, alone going back to his home.
Once while I was walking near the Kremlin around 1 am two girls blocked my way and smilingly asked me to please hug them. Of course so many gangster movies and assault and robbery scenarios crossed my mind at a flash of a second yet I couldn’t resist their smiles and decided to accept the invitation. Thank God I haven’t regretted my courageous response! Especially after making sure that I wasn’t missing a wallet or a watch or mobile afterwards. Later on several others crossed my way and I didn’t hesitate again to open my arms and welcome the affection, later to discover that this was a special hug festival and I was fortunate enough to encounter it. What I did regret was that I later learnt that the hug night was followed by a kissing night!
As for Russia’s famous drunk people, well, yes I have seen a few, but it definitely wasn’t annoying nor were they more in number than other drunks I have seen in Istanbul or New York or even in downtown Amman in rare incidents.
Poverty also was one of the things I was mentally prepared to encounter: poverty materially, and poverty in lack of national pride. But what I also saw was a booming economy with young people working hard to earn their living and pay for their studies.
While many people warned me of poverty, others warned me of the total and absolute opposite. They warned me about the fact that Moscow is now the most expensive city in the world and that I may not be able to have a nice stay without selling everything I own first. To my surprise, I was able to live and eat and transport myself for a very cheap price. The cities I visited boasted a huge variety of restaurants and cafes, hotels and hostels that can cater to all the tastes and egos. Add to that the superb and efficient public transport system that is so cheap and organized that I didn’t have the need to take any taxi or tour bus or prearranged trip.
Nor have I witnessed streets full cheap pleasures of the flesh. Such things could be found if I intended seek them. In many other places around the globe I definitely came across such scenes even without actually looking for them. Thus, the last of the misconceptions was shattered and instead of baring its flesh, Russia flaunted its art, beauty and culture in the days that followed.
I started preparing for this journey by reading books about Russia’s history and geography, its extensive railway network (the possibility to go all the way to Vladivostok on the railway has always intrigued me). I tried my best to learn as much Russian as I could.
This was a new type of trip for me: my own attempt at backpacking, and a declaration of independence from tourist agencies and pre-programmed travel. There were no tours to Russia from Jordan so I made my reservation through the Internet. I chose hostels that were centrally located within walking distance from the main sites and metro stations. Besides, hostels tend to provide a lone traveler like me with a chance to mix and mingle with like minded individuals from all over the world.
In Moscow I opted for a hostel oddly named Napoleon, near the Kremlin. Later on I found out that the famous Corsican stayed in the same street where my hostel was located. I would say I had a more successful sojourn in Russia than Napoleon did with his Grande Armee!
The Russians’ welcome was a warm one, but the weather was cold. Back in Amman it was about 28 degrees, and Moscow instantly cooled me off with its winds. Stoically I resigned myself to the fact that I won’t be able to take great photos in such cold windy and sometimes rainy weather and consoled myself with plans to check many of the indoor museums and art galleries that Moscow had to offer. Naturally I began with the most famous and most known: the Kremlin.
I reached the red square expecting to enjoy the magnificent views of the domes and spires of the towers and churches and the wall of the Kremlin itself I found my self facing a wall of guards instead. The square was cordoned off for a military parade planned later that evening and for a few evenings after it. I took a detour passing through a lovely building with the huge and famous name of GUM mall. Though the exterior is of late 19th century architecture the interior is modern, housing the most prestigious and most expensive and fashionable array of world famous brands. What was during Soviet times the main supermarket, department store, and outlet of copy-and-paste production of the communist regime is now the venue of Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, and so on. All that remains of the past is, ironically, the view from its windows overlooking Lenin’s memorial.
Speaking of Lenin, I have noticed that the Russians proudly and tenaciously cling to their history and traditions and do not erase the memory of all of their eras, epochs and phases, despite the stark contrast between them. Respect goes to old eastern Russia of Ivan as well as the modern westernized one of Peter. The Romanovs are loved and respected by many, and so are the communists too. It makes for an interesting mix.
Leaving GUM, I reached an open space at the end of the red square and saw the massive walls of the Kremlin in the distance. I hurried in that direction just to be distracted by a nice building here or an interesting site, statue, monument or park there.
On my left hand was a big building with guards wearing red cloaks and huge iron axes – the national history museum. Right in front of it was a big statue of the hero of Russian against Germany in WWII, Marshall Zhukov, mounted on a horse in the traditional pose of great heroes and conquerors. I entered through a simple gate into the area surrounding the walls of the Kremlin. Just behind the walls were some stone silent guards standing besides an elegant fire, the monument to the Unknown Soldiers who fell during the heroic defense in WWII. All along the wall from that side were marble slabs laid out on the ground along the walls leading to the gate. The slabs represent the main cities that were under occupation or invasion during WWII.
I had to wait for half an hour before the ticket offices opened, and was surprised to see many couples in their wedding clothes come quickly and pose for pictures amongst the flowers or in front of the fountain. I had to laugh at myself, wrapped in my winter clothes and woolen hat while the stream of brides posed under the light rain wearing strapless wedding gowns in this cold weather.
When the ticket-booths opened, I first started with the Armory. Inside the walls and in one historic building just near the wall of the Kremlin is a wonderful collection of treasures and curiosities belonging to the Russian state. The exhibits show how the Russians slowly rose from local princedoms with chiefs crowned in fur, knights with leather armor, curved swords and spiked helmets in the eastern tradition, to kings crowned in gold and precious stones, knights in full metal armor and baroque style uniforms in the European style. Besides politics and war there were other halls featuring original precious collections of clothes of famous emperors and empresses like Catherine the Great dress, or the huge boots of Peter the Great, who was said to be about 2.5m tall. Not to mention the dazzling wardrobes of priests and patriarchs and the whole hierarchy of the Russian church. Add to these a huge hall housing Cinderella-like golden carriages. And if all that wasn’t enough there is a special section dedicated to the diamonds and gold of the old czars, the famous Faberge eggs as well as jewelry and treasures of every kind.
After such an extravaganza, I needed to start my heart again and take a fresh breath of air, so I stepped outside to and found myself in the middle of an open plaza surrounded with cathedrals and churches, 800 years worth of Moscow’s Religious and political history from its inception till now. Here is the Czar’s bell, there is his cannon, in that convent this happened and in that palace that happened, icons filling the walls of churches and churches adorned with golden domes and the not so familiar orthodox cross that strangely is adorned with crescents. And every day at noon there is a solemn military parade of the guards.
I left the Kremlin to take a look at the life on the streets surrounding it. I had arranged to meet a friend. Renata was gracious enough to offer me the chance to introduce me to her own Moscow. Despite her young age she struck me as a seasoned journalist. We walked around downtown and the famous Arbat Street. So began the best part of this day, a personal tour of the nice, lesser known wonderful places rather than the tourist hot-spots.
I got my crash course in surviving the metro. Passing many elegant underground stations (marble! Where else do metro stations have marble?!?!), we reached the gardens of Kolomenskoe, a vast park on the outer rim of Moscow that was a private estate of the Romanovs. The clouds started to break and the sun slowly pierced through reflecting its golden rays on the first autumn leaves.
We visited wooden traditional huts, lodges, or “dachas” that were brought to this architectural park from all over Russia and again witnessed several brides and grooms take ceremonial pictures. We reached the peak of a hill where an elegant 16th century church is located. The view from this peak was amazing with the beautiful calm waters of the Moscow River winding around in front of us. I sat on the luscious green grass, listening to songbirds. Just before the sunset we moved towards the waterfront and from there up the hill again towards another hidden attraction: the apple gardens, hundreds of trees heavily loaded with deliciously ripe apples. After multiple failed attempts at picking an apple that didn’t want to be picked up from the branches yet, we raced to find the best freshly fallen apple on the ground which became the meal to break my first day of Ramadan fasting in Moscow with my greatly admired friend, Renata.