Russia '94 -- A Personal Adventure
by Richard Lynch

June 5th, 1994 -- Prologue
I like to think I love adventures in life, but until just a few years ago, overseas travel had never been one of them. It wasn't until the summer of 1990 that I made my first trans-Atlantic trip; until then, my idea of an adventuresome trip had been going north to New England, or west to the wilds of southern California. I haven't been trans-Pacific yet, but I've been back to Europe every year since then, getting as far north as central Finland and as far east as Poland. But now, now, there was a chance to take a real adventuresome trip -- 10,000 miles from here, all the way out to the Siberian cities of central Asia, with stopovers in Moscow on the way out and the way back. Was I interested in going? Of course! But circumstances didn't really allow me to savor the anticipation. I wasn't entirely sure the trip would happened at all, in fact, until the very last week before I left -- plans and schedules kept changing that much, that often. And so, even when the day of departure finally arrived, it still didn't seem quite real to me...
My flight out of Washington National Airport up to JFK was on a 34-seat Saab-Fairchild, a sort-of mini-DC-3-type airplane. I usually dislike small airplanes because they get buffeted around a lot more than jets, but the weather was nice and the ride was mostly smooth. The flight attendant (I made the mistake of referring to her as a "stewardess", which I quickly corrected) was a pleasant young woman with a Kathy Ireland-type squeaky voice who actually liked working in small airplanes, in preference to the larger jets.
Things did not get off to a good start, though. The airplane had taxied about halfway out toward the main runway, when the pilot suddenly came on the intercom and announced we had to return to the gate. Visions of delays and missing my trans-Atlantic flight swirled through my head, but it turned out that they had only forgotten the coffee. Then, halfway to New York, there was a small problem with the airplane -- an electrical blip that caused the exit lights to come on. The flight attendant unobtrusively called the pilot on the intercom phone and was told, "We know... we'll get back to you on it." Turns out it was only a circuit breaker trip, nothing worse. The whole incident was subtle enough that only I and she had noticed (I was in the first row of seating). The fix didn't take too long and the exit lighting soon went back off; there was never any changes in the sound of the engines or anything else that caused people farther back in the cabin to be aware of the problem. I wonder how many other flights that I've been on have experienced in-flight problems that I've been unaware of, simply because I've been seated in the wrong part of the airplane.
Soon after, we landed at JFK Airport, with a spectacular sunset beyond the New York skyline in the distance -- my last North American sunset for quite some time. Russia with all its wonders was still about 14 hours in my future, but the first step in getting there, at least, was behind me...
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June 6th, 1994 -- Arriving Moscow
I should mention at this point that the purpose of this trip was business, not pleasure! I was part of a fact-finding delegation, sponsored by the U.S. Government, to look into ways of finding new alternate energy sources for the populations around the Siberian cities of Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk. Presently, some of the power and heat in those regions are provided by nuclear reactors which make weapons-grade plutonium as a by-product. There has been an international agreement to shut down these reactors before the end of the decade, but the local authorities are understandably concerned that when that happens, there won't be enough heat and electricity available, especially during the cold winter months.
There were ten of us on the trip, including two translators. We were supposed to have two others besides, but they dropped out less than a week before we left. One of them was the logistics person -- he was pulled from the trip to help in the planning for a trip to India by a cabinet-level official, and as it turned out, we felt his loss almost at once. When we finally arrived at the Moscow airport, the van that we thought the U.S. Embassy had sent to pick us up never arrived. We sat and waited... and waited... and waited... and pondered what to do next. Finally, one of the translators figured out a way to hire a bus to come and get us. The total expense was only about $100 -- not bad for 10 people plus luggage for a 10-mile trip in from the airport!
We arrived Russia on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, which was being remembered most everywhere in Europe. In Moscow, however, there was no apparent celebration or remembrance. On the way in to the city from the airport, we passed a historical area on the side of the highway, where three huge steel frameworks -- each in the shape of a three-dimensional 'X', like a giant children's 'jack' toy -- stood in silent sentinel just outside the city limits. We were told this was the spot where the German advance on Moscow during World War II was repelled, which was maybe the true turning point of that war. The Russians apparently think that the D-Day invasion of France was a relatively small skirmish, in terms of significance and in lives cost, in comparison to the titanic Eastern front sieges.
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June 6th-9th, 1994 -- in Moscow
Boy, Moscow is an expensive city! The place I stayed in, the Club 27, cost me $190 per night, and that's for a slightly above-average room in a slightly above-average hotel! We got to the hotel in the early evening, so we just decided to go down to the hotel restaurant for dinner instead of trying to find someplace else to eat. The prices there were enough to cause a double-take -- a bowl of soup cost $13, fruit with whipping cream set you back $10, a salad with shrimp was $24, and a main course of beef filet with sweet/sour sauce and vegetable was $32. I finally settled on a plate of something that resembled meatballs wrapped in dough (the Russian equivalent of dim sum?) and a Perrier, for $25, including tip. Believe me, I savored every bite...
We had picked the hotel because of its proximity to the U.S. Embassy. Some of our meetings and many of our work sessions were at the Embassy, and the cafeteria there was much cheaper than the hotel restaurant. The commissary there provided us with lots of essentials, not the least of which was bottled drinking water. We'd been told not to drink the local water, even in Moscow, unless you wanted a case of "Brezhnev's Revenge". This advice proved hard to follow (vegetables in restaurants, for instance, were washed with the local water), and the very first night I found myself getting up about 5:30am for an urgent trip to the commode. Somebody with marketing sense should bottle some of that Russian water and ship the stuff to the States; it would make a great medicine to relieve constipation...
OLPS Church The U.S. Embassy seemed like a walled fortress to me. It was more than just diplomatic offices -- it was an enclosed, self-contained community. Just in the small area I was able to explore, I found that there were recreation facilities (a pool and an indoor basketball court), the commissary store, the cafeteria (which doubled as an inexpensive restaurant for dinner a couple of times), and a library. There were streets inside the embassy, complete with rowhouses. It would be possible to live your entire Russia existence in there during a tour-of-duty, if you wanted, without ever having to contend with the outside world.
The U.S. Embassy is situated out on one of the perimeter ring roads that circle Moscow, about a mile or so from Red Square at the center of the city. Even that far out, however, there are other embassies and Russian government buildings. Just a short distance down the street from the Embassy, in fact, is the so-called Russian White House -- a tall, narrow white building that I remember seeing on the nightly news several months earlier. It's the building that was taken over in an attempted coup against Boris Yeltsin, and that was shelled by tanks in the ensuing melee. A bit closer, across the street actually, is a tall-steepled old church that I first noticed when someone was up in the steeple hand-ringing the bells there. From that vantage point, it's possible to look right down into the U.S. Embassy compound, which KGB observers routinely did during the years of the cold war. For that reason it was lovingly referred to by Embassy people, I was told, as 'Our Lady of Perpetual Surveillance'...
St. Basil's There were many wonderful old churches in Moscow. The one by the U.S. Embassy fades into obscurity if compared to some of the onion-domed cathedrals located near Red Square. Unlike OLPS, all of those have been lovingly preserved (though not always as functional places of worship). Many have domes finished in shiny gold leaf, which makes them spectacular to see on a sunny day; if placed in a different setting, in a different city, any of them would be rightfully hailed as an architectural wonder. But even these wonderful old cathedrals pale in comparison to the most marvelous building that I have ever seen: St. Basil's.
It'd hard to find words to adequately describe St. Basil's Cathedral. It sits like an architectural kaleidoscope, a fairy castle that's an island right in the middle of Red Square. The six multi-color candycane-striped domes are all different from each other, so the view from the west, for instance, presents an entirely different picture than the view from a different direction. It's the one image that visitors to Moscow come away with, even though the rest of Red Square and the adjacent Kremlin are picturesque in their own right.
The Kremlin The Kremlin itself is a walled fortress, the largest in the world (we were told). The Kremlin wall forms the western boundary of Red Square, and just about the midpoint of that stretch of the wall is a small, nondescript black structure -- Lenin's tomb, which no longer is a tourist attraction since Lenin's body had been removed (we had been told, erroneously as it turned out). Each place the Kremlin wall turns a corner, there is a tall conical tower topped with a five-pointed star. At night, these stars glow an eerie, surreal red, a sight most people did not see that time of year because the nights were so short.
By the way, those short nights took some getting used to! In Moscow, in June, it doesn't get dark until after 10 pm local time. In Siberia, the next week, nightfall came even later. [One late afternoon in Tomsk, we left a restaurant after a long dinner engagement with our hosts just as it was just starting to get dark; I looked at my watch and was startled to see it was nearly midnight!]
Luckily, the restaurants all seemed to be open very late at night. Quite often we didn't finish work for the day until about 8 or 9 pm, and by the time we found someplace to eat, it was 10 pm or later. But even at that hour, there were lots of people in the restaurants we went to. One of them, an out-of-the-way Italian restaurant, was obviously a popular place for a drink or dinner, but surprisingly, there didn't seem to be any other foreigners there besides us. And yet, all the various menu items were priced not in Russian rubles, but in American dollars instead. We had noticed this earlier, in the hotel restaurant, and thought it was done there just for the convenience of the business traffic, but here it was too, in a place that catered mostly to locals. Turns out that inflation in Russia is still so out-of-control that rather than re-doing the menu every day or two, it's easier just to price items in some relatively stable currency and then assume the patrons will be able to convert to rubles with whatever the exchange rate is for that day. To be able to dine out in Russia, you not only had to have an appetite but a pocket calculator too!
Our experience in that Italian restaurant showed us, as we were pleased to find out, that it was possible to get a good meal for much less than hotel restaurant prices. Lower than comparable American restaurant prices, in fact. You just had to know where to go, that's all. On the way back to the hotel, we rode the Moscow subway system, mostly just to say we had done it. Each ride on it costs the princely sum of 100 rubles -- about five cents. Who says Moscow is an expensive city??

Next: On to Siberia!

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Check out Richard's other travel adventures:
Eastern Europe (autumn 1997)
Eastern Europe (autumn 1998)
Eastern Europe (autumn 1999)
Eastern Europe (spring 2001)
Eastern Europe (spring 1998)
Eastern Europe (spring 1999)
Eastern Europe (spring 2000)
Eastern Europe (spring 2002)