Back in the US, Back in the US, Back in the USSR

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Ahhh, Moscow. Surprise everyone! I went to Russia! Some of you already knew this, but in October last year I went on a whirlwind grand European tour for work. Good bread was eaten, borders were crossed, and I went the furthest east I’ve ever been- to Moscow! My office is working on a really interesting project about the future of Western policy towards Russia, and I got a front row seat to our researchers’ in-person meetings to discuss the topic. It was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever done, not least of all because Russia is an enormously fascinating place.

I was apprehensive about the trip, mostly because I didn’t know what to expect from the most politically volatile place I’ve ever actually been to. (It is apparent from that statement that I haven’t been to very politically volatile places- I hope to change that someday.) Everything ended up being so interesting that I would love to go back and see more of the country. Nine time zones worth of geography and a complicated past and present means that there’s plenty more I’d like to check out in Russia.

One thing I love about the world is that everywhere you go is steeped in history if you have the wherewithal to pursue it, learn about it, and seek to understand it. In Moscow you don’t have to go very far to dive into Russia’s past; to find a place from which you can try and clear away the grime from the proverbial windows and attempt to make out what is in Russia’s future. I don’t think anyone has a very clear view these days.

The city is absolutely sprawling; it is truly enormous. The airport train I took functioned flawlessly and the metro (although I regret to say I didn’t visit it, since it is supposed to be incredible) is decadent. Traffic is horrific. Traces of the Soviet Union are everywhere- in the architecture, in the art, in the psyche of the place. I picked up my first bits of Cyrillic, an alphabet I haven’t had the chance to learn yet, and entertained myself immensely as we went from meeting to meeting trying to decipher signs around town. The food was okay- I made it through every meal just fine except for one plate of jellied meat that I shamefully had to skip out on because I am a relatively wimpy international eater.

Red Square and Saint Basil’s Cathedral in particular were stunning. Saint Basil’s- the cupcake-like building often photographed in association with Russia- looks like something out of Disneyland. It is a surprisingly whimsical building on an otherwise imposing square, where it is flanked by the Kremlin, Lenin’s tomb, and a fancy department store, the ГУМ. Lenin is embalmed inside the building bearing his name- unfortunately (or fortunately?) for me the building was closed when we went on our early morning walk around the city. The Kremlin is a giant historic palace complex (it’s the red walls and towers you see in these photos) that plays host to the Russian presidential offices. Also in the photos above, you can see a statue of a man on a horse trampling a Nazi eagle, swastikas and all. Perhaps a merited public symbol given that the USSR lost over 20 million people during World War II. The many churches that dot the city are stunning, but have a sinister side- deeply held conservative Orthodox beliefs in Russia contribute to strong and sometimes violent anti-LGBT sentiments in the country.

There aren’t many tourists going to Russia these days, and I was shocked to see on one recent search that a ticket from Washington to Moscow at an off time will only run you about $700 round-trip. The fall of Ruble made our travel there depressingly cheap- we stayed in a 4-star hotel for about $80/night. Aside from walking around the central part of the city, I unfortunately didn’t get to visit much in the way of museums, aside from a quick stop at the State Tretyakov Gallery, where I got a crash course in Russian art history (spoiler alert- like much of European art history, it’s full of lots of depressing periods with men gazing off into the distance in anguish).

Visas take some time and planning, so before you go, make sure you have your travel permissions in order and set entry and exit dates. We got our visas at the Russian Visa office in DC and they were quite helpful in getting us set up. More photos to come of Red Square by night- an immensely impressive experience on its own.

In case you’re interested- the TV show the Americans is a great watch about Russian spies in the United States in the 1980’s, Anthony Bourdain went to Russia as part of his awesome new(ish) show Parts Unknown, and Institute of Modern Russia is one of my favorite think tank sources for all things Russia here in DC.

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