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Commentary: Weighing in on Russia

When I planned a visit to Russia -five days in St. Petersburg and three in Moscow - I had specific objectives. Red Square. The Hermitage. The Kremlin. A ballet performance. Catherine's Palace. Borscht - yes, really. People, too. Lots and lots of interactions with people.

There would be surprises, too.

The world is made up of human beings just like myself, and it is politicians that keep countries poles apart. That's what I told myself when I crossed the border into Russia with my visa and passport for a one-time stay. It was a serious - glum, I might add - entry into the country from the Estonian side on a damp afternoon at an old cement building devoid of any color other than hospital green and gray. The bathroom facilities were pitiful and there was only a couple benches to wait while our bus was checked from inside out. I've seen worse in Africa and South America, and I remained optimistic.

The surprise was in my initial stop at St. Catherine's Palace where the opulence of an era of czars and czarinas ruled the countryside. I had no idea of the magnitude of the palace. Late in the afternoon while the sun was dimming the gold shimmered from every angle. I was transfixed for this was the old Russia out of the pages of War and Peace and Dr. Zhivago.

On another day further into my trip at a gift shop in St/ Petersburg, the young sales clerks approached in a cluster around my friend and I and said that they wanted to visit the United States - the Big Apple, of course - but they couldn't get visas due to the sanctions put in place. I got the sense that it was one of those pipe dreams, too, since the average income in Russia is low - $300 a month . They inquired for my opinion on the 2020 election - I gave it - and they didn't offer much in return, other than a chronology of the the last several United States Presidents, and the famous lady who lost. At this point their answers got a little vague, and they invited us to try free samples of vodka instead. So goes American- Russian relations I figured.

Another surprise was the European architectural beauty of St. Petersburg, yet at the same time, the mutiude of Russian Orthodox churches with their icons and mosaic walls spread throughout the city landscape. It was more amazing than I had anticipated.

I grew up in the "duck and cover under your wooden schoolroom desk" decade, during the time when the Soviets beat the world in space and suddenly we Americans had to ramp up our science studies or else The Cold War would mushroom into WWIII. A lot of fear and uncertainty about the motives of The Soviet Union were part of my education, and that is difficult to shake.

Along the way I was certain that I would get a taste for modern Russia so completely different than what I have remembered for a greater part of my lifetime. It would be up to me to keep an open mind if I was to be able to make an honest assessment of the country.

When the wall came tumbling down and The Soviet Union dissolved, for the next thirty years I remained rather ignorant of the motives of the leaders and heard way too little about how the people were readjusting their lives to a capitalistic economy. Furthermore, I never paid any attention to the freedom struggles of the Baltic countries - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Those are epic events. Probably, I heard more about Poland and Hungary since their conflicts were publicized in our press and Lech Walesa was a Polish Nobel Peace Prize Winner.

My tour guide told me of the heroic action of her father and other men in Vilnius who guarded the communications tower keeping the approaching Soviet army away. Monika, her grandmother and mother stayed on the living room couch huddled together throughout the long night listening to the Lithuanian woman broadcaster on televsion. They knew that if the tv went dark, then the Russian army had won the tower. They didn't, and there were deaths of several Lithuanians to add to the martyrdom.

Also, I so have a better feel for the uneasiness and ever vigilance of neighboring countries geographically so close to Russia today. When I looked out the high-rise hotel window facing the Baltic Sea in Tallinn, Estonia, I got it.

Russia keeps its cards close to its chest. For all the people that I met, there was not a complete sharing of the state of the country today by anyone. Nikoli, my local tour guide in Moscow, remarked that in his history book he learned that the U.S.S.R. single-handedly saved the world from Hilter and the Nazis. Okay. That's what a good Russian boy was told by his schoolmaster. He never went on to explain how he feels today other than what he has "heard" about the rampant consumerism in the United States. There was something missing in my opinion. Russia is more like the United States in that respect than the Scandanavian countries, which champion socialism.

Walking into a former Soviet apartment complex with its industrial strength sense to it, I met a woman about my age who had lived the years of waiting in lines daily and lacking choices. Today rather than looking back on the hardships, she has moved forward. Not all that WWII generation is as optimistic as her, though. Many miss the security of the former Soviet government, which provided jobs and housing. With limited pensions and very basic health care, the older folks barely get by unless their grown children assist them. The life expectancy is low - 75 for women and 69 for men.

I met a Lithuanian woman, Irene, who forceably was taken by the Soviets along with her mother and brother by train during WWII and deported to Siberia, where they existed for thirteen years. She shares her story with others readily and hasn't lost a sparkle in her eye either. Between Shades of Gray by Ruth Sepetys is a novel based loosely on Irene's life.

Visiting a communal apartment in St. Petersburg - five families share a kitchen and bathroom - was a highlight for me since I had read so many novels about people crowding together in old mansions split up into small spaces with thick velvet drapes separating them. Today it is an option, and this particular family chose to live close to work and schools in the city. Both have multiple jobs which is not uncommon in Russia. The young mom has no remembrance of life under the Soviets, and her concerns are like any other parent in the world - getting her daughter into ballet school, visiting relatives in the country over the weekend.

Moscow is an international city, and puts out its glitz for tourists and world travelers. It is more for show than anything I presume. Go take a look at the pictures on Travel With Kay Blog to see for yourself. High-end stores and upscale restaurants which are staples all over the world from Paris to Los Angeles appear on every street near Red Square. The GUM department store, once the only option for Soviets, is now loaded with merchandise. I stayed in the famous Metropol Hotel, a classic 1920s one, and frankly, I could be sipping a Spanish Rioja anywhere in the world while seated on the upholstered couch in the bar.

Digging down deeper, the people were polite- distantly. They were scrutizing me just like I was watching them I presume. The older people might appear rude and brusque, and that was leftover from the old days. I wasn't scared or felt threatened in any way - sure, Red Square had its share of pickpockets like every other large city - and the majority of people understood English, although they spoke to me in Russian first. Younger folks were on their devices, listened to American music and dressed pretty much like their generation around the world - those cut jeans are a fashion staple. People were rushing in the famed Moscow Subway in the usual manner of hectic workers anywhere.

When I was getting out of the taxi at the Moscow airport, I offered my driver the box breakfast from the hotel - it was 3 am after all and I had no appetite yet - and he listened intently to understand before giving me a big smile. He nodded over and over when he took the box like I had made his day. As I walked in the door and paused desperately seeking a sign in English to locate the KLM desk, a young Russian woman in a furry coat came up to me and asked if I needed help. She pointed me to the right place and told me she hoped I had liked Moscow. Put people together, and that's what you get the world over.

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