The text message buzzed me upright at four-something AM, the last kind of wakeup call one needs on a travel day:
“Aeroflot Flight 112: CANCELLED.” The message glowered at me in the dark, as if just wrecking three months’ anticipation wasn’t enough. I looked outside, the night a blanket over the Washington, DC streets, the weather confirming forecasts that had worsened over the previous two days. A band of snow had already gathered on parked cars under mustard streetlight. A snowstorm would pummel the entire US mid-Atlantic that day, dashing travel plans and the hopes of those trying to keep them. The scene looked archetypically seasonal, hivernal, almost Russian – which about doubled my frustration, since it was precisely Russia where I was trying to go.
I had earned a spot in a program that brings American and European young professionals on a study tour of Moscow. The program’s guests would be taken around the capital, meeting with officials from Russian government, private sector, and non-profits. The tour offered a chance to visit Russia all but free of charge and generally explore Moscow with civic-minded peers. I had never been to Russia, but global events had stoked my desire for years.
I entered a masters program at Georgetown University in Washington in 2014. My program focused on the international relations of Europe, whose physical and conceptual borders are being defined, now as in the past, by Russian pushback. The Ukraine crisis had flooded the Russian history and language classes of Washington’s universities. What was Russia doing? We wanted to know. More expansively, I remember thinking, What was Russia? How true were the tales of post-Soviet gangsterism, journalist killings, and autocratic slide under Vladimir Putin? What country holds an election in 2018, reports a stupendous three-quarters vote for Putin, then holds it out for the world to believe it? Accusations of election-meddling piqued my curiosity further.
But a snowstorm in Washington, descending at a time of year when flowers sometimes budded from the ground, thwarted my long-laid plans. Calls to the airline yielded no alternatives – the entire US northeast suffered the same weather. The conference only went for four days, and the next flight didn’t leave for three. Most US attendees had gotten out the previous day, when work detained me in my home city.
The opportunity seemed lost, and with it, a subsidized trip to see Moscow for the first time.
Yet somehow, the following week looked like an easier time to get away. A few vacation days expired soon. I checked flights, and my bank account. The trip would cost me. Not going would cost me more. I booked the flight, and the trip, abandoning any effort to catch up to the group.
I would visit Russia after all, just alone.
Sheremetyevo Airport looked depressingly like any other. Advertisements in the duty-free, with the not-Russian faces of Julia Roberts, Lilly James, and Nicole Kidman, welcomed me to the country. It might have been New York, or New Mexico. But those airports don’t have signs for Dunkin’ Donuts and Burger King in Cyrillic.
A half-hour’s express train from the airport to the Belorusskaya train station brought my first on-the-ground observations. The window-seat view returned dirty snow. Low-slung buildings nestled by apartment blocks. It was Sunday. Sporty types cross-country-skied on paths parallel to the train tracks.
Belorusskaya station at 1 pm was cold and thriving. Families reunited with kisses and parka-padded hugs. The sun glared but no one seemed to wear sunglasses, an impression that would confirm itself throughout the trip.
I spotted the taxi rank, flagged a graying driver with dandruff but whose cab had a meter, and set off.
“Where to?” he asked, his Russian clipped but not unfriendly.
I had practiced this. “Tchaikovsky Hotel, pozhaluysta,” I said. I showed him the address I’d written in a notebook. He confirmed the nearest main road – Bolshaya Nikitskaya? – Da. – and we pulled onto the waiting avenue.
He said something I didn’t catch.
“Ya amerikanyetz,” I offered. “Tooriste.” He didn’t respond, perhaps wanting to make it easier on both of us. Later he complimented my Russian, which I thanked him for without believing.
A couple of miles down Tverskaya Boulevard, between luxury cars and wide sidewalks lined with designer boutiques, we crested a slope. A high red wall lay in the distance.
I felt my pulse accelerate. “Is that Red Square?”
“Up there?” he gestured, squinting in the sun. “Da, Red Square.”
I resolved to get there as soon as I’d checked in to the hotel, where the affable driver dropped me off a minute later.
I found my room, rinsed my face and hands, then retraced the taxi’s path from Tverskaya and onward to the scarlet nucleus of Russian history.
Red Square is very red but it is hardly square. Nor especially flat. Instead the space rises and extends like a huge rectangular parade ground, bending at one end before dipping toward the Moscow River. The Kremlin sat hulking behind red brick walls, the backdrop of myriad Socialist parades. The GUM department store, a palace of capitalism, faced it like a prosecutor.
But neither compelled me like the candyland spectre of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
The building soared into the cold, bright sky. Its swirling onion domes seemed made from multi-colored sugar. I found it cleanly attractive, like a child feels at an ice cream shop window. The vision was innocent, wholesome. It is a church, after all.
Cold from an afternoon outside, I stopped for a coffee on Bolshaya Nikitskaya.
“Koffieh, pozhaluysta,” I said haltingly. I pointed at the pastries in the cold case and added a croissant to my order, muddling my Russian and English.
The barista looked up, a smile growing on his face.
“Excuse me – you are from U-S-A?”
The question is to American travelers what a blind curve is to student drivers. A couple of baristas and customers glanced at us.
“I have bin in Visconsin!” he proclaimed. “As student!”
He rang me up and led us aside to talk. He had toured the American Midwest: Madison, Minneapolis, Chicago. I was grateful for his warmth, and wished him well; he urged me to come for coffee again.
The rest of the evening passed unremarkably. I followed the dinner recommendation of the hotel receptionist to a hipster bistro nearby. I ate at the bar, again laboring to communicate with a tattooed and unsmiling server. With no apparent irony, he suggested I try one of their burgers.
I ordered seafood, and a couple of gins. The booze and the jetlag had me in bed before nine.
The street greeted me the next morning as a winter spectacle. Snow blanketed the sidewalks, glittering in the sun. Snow in Russia felt so... Russian. As if not seeing snowfall, winter’s action in a winter country, was to miss something of the national essence. The air felt substantially less frigid than the temperature reading of -13 degrees centigrade.
Much of my comfort owed to my boots, clunky rubber-toed LL Beans with the trademark brown-and-yellow laces. The shoes are distinctly American, and I saw absolutely no one else in similar shod. They bore me the long way to the State Historical Museum of Russia for a self-directed briefing on the country.
The ground floor offered yawn-worthy artifacts from the Dark and Middle Ages. Royal furniture, tapestries, and rusty weapons spawned a common boredom among the visiting schoolchildren and me. A gallery of “numismatics” offered some literally dull coins.
The highlight came from an upstairs room for the history and culture of the ‘Kuban Cossacks,’ so named after a region of southern Russia. My American mind conjured an odd vision of Spanish speakers in Havana shirts and fuzzy caps, riding horseback through the Caucasus, wielding rifles and maracas and shouting bearded revolution against the Yankee imperial swine.
The Kuban Cossacks’ actual past is just as dramatic. Their men distinguished themselves as fearsome soldiers with an autonomous streak. In World War II, Kuban divisions fought for the Red Army as well as against it, by an alliance with the German Wehrmacht. The group has since earned a more peaceable reputation with its folk choirs, which sing of their heroes in local dialect and wildly colorful dress.
Lunchtime brought me to Skuratov Café, a place under sooty slush in the foreign-embassy district. I had arranged to eat with Vadim, one of the organizers of the young professionals event.
After pleasantries I steered the conversation toward a key question, which missing the tour had delayed finding an answer for.
“Why, exactly, do you want to bring young Westerners to Russia?”
Vadim began slowly. “I was a student in the US,” he began. He had studied foreign affairs in a highly-regarded graduate program, in fact a rival to mine. His degree was made affordable by a US Fulbright grant, which was “like, awesome” and for which he was “super grateful.” His American patois was impressively authentic. A US education had sparked his desire to provide the same exposure in reverse, if only for a few days.
“So, has your team managed to achieve some understanding of Russia?”
“I think so,” Vadim said. “Russia is a hard place to explain. We have seen that the participants stay in touch, they debate US-Russia stuff online. I call that progress,” he said. “It’s a start.”
“What is most misunderstood about Russia, do you think?”
He demurred. “There is this idea... that Russia should be unified. That to be Russian is to be an Orthodox Christian. Do you know that saying from the time of Ivan the Terrible? ‘Moscow is the Third Rome, and a fourth Rome will never be.’ He meant that Moscow, and Russia, and the Orthodox church are one. And that the city will stand for Christianity and will never be taken, unlike Rome and Constantinople.”
“I’m not from Moscow,” he continued, unprompted. “I’m from the Urals. Things are different there, and different in many parts of the country. This is the Russia Putin speaks to. That is why his words can seem so hard to understand elsewhere. Putin is a brilliant communicator. His attitude to Chechen terrorists was to ‘off them when they’re in the outhouse,’ as he said. Putin knows what the people want, whether on fighting terrorism, or on pensions, or whatever. He has flaws, like anyone, but there is a logic to what he says and does. This is part of why we started the program, to explain these things.”
I said just enough to keep Vadim talking. His words echoed Republican talking points in the Trump era – the narrative of a tough and straight-talking alpha, imperfect but eminently fit to lead. Trump and Putin share eerily similar behaviors amid patent national dysfunction: lambasting subordinates, blaming past leadership, vast media manipulations. The swamp was Washington; the swamp was Moscow.
We talked a while longer, trading observations. Thanking Vadim for his time and thoughts, I trudged back into the snow.
A Jewish museum on the northeast edge of town had received stellar marks in my guidebook, and it was open till late. I made my way toward it, almost giving up at one point from imprecise directions, until I finally saw the museum entrance. The introductory film was mandatory.
A 3-D theater, complete with smell effects and hydraulic seats, set the tone. The presentation started at the very beginning. As in, Creation. My armchair jolted when Cain struck Abel. After the film, display boards showed the Middle Ages, then the Pale of Settlement, then the pogroms of the last 200 years.
The museum’s World War II section haunts me still. Videos played testimonials from Jews who served in the Red Army. Those who captured Berlin in 1945 described their vertiginous feeling at defeating Nazi Germany. Seeing the city had been taken, they had screamed with jubilation. For all Soviet soldiers the victory was personal; for the Jews among them, it was perhaps a more specific triumph. I had not until then encountered the idea of a Jewish Soviet patriot, but some from World War II are still alive, their gravelly voices still bearing witness. As did the rows of service medals weighing down their shirtfronts, their tears, their trauma.
The next few days blurred time and, since then, memory. The flow of hours grew more slack the longer I spent away from work. Time stretched further, this time into the past, when I spent most of a day at the Tretyakov Gallery, taking in the thunderclap beauty of its best paintings.
One canvas arrested all my thoughts. Turning into a small, dim room, a black-and-teal masterpiece glowed in the corner. In it the Dnieper River flowed at night, a key-lime moon hanging above a break in dollops of cloud. An inky black windmill squatted in the foreground, matte against the shining river. A scattering of thatched-roof houses climbed the riverbank. The river flowed below it, sensuous and heavy. The orange light of a farmhouse window gave flickering respite from the work’s two main tones. I left the room enthralled, grateful and desirous to plan a trip to Ukraine.
It seems a shame its author, Arkhip Kuindji (“KOON-jee”), is not better known in the West. His excellence is all the more pronounced given his background: a Ukrainian street kid, orphaned by Greek immigrants, his artistic training sporadic at best. Kuindji would become one of the Wanderers, a group of 19th-century artists who valued realist but morally instructive scenes of Russian history and life. Their work educates viewers still.
The following day’s headlines brought a reminder of how broadly Russia was dominating global attention.
A New Cold War with Russia? No, It’s Worse than That
Expelling 60 Russians, US joins allies in a harsh rebuke
Russia fire: Children killed in shopping center blaze
The last one, taking place just before my Russia trip began, would put a human face on an inscrutable country.
Late that evening, my last in Moscow, I found myself walking through the square near the Okhotny Ryad metro station, the Kremlin just behind me. To one side a stream of adults, some guiding children, moved toward a kind of display table with a black curtain set up behind it. Families clutched flowers and sometimes teddy bears in the sharpening chill. They took turns laying the flowers and dolls on the table, or passed them to white-frocked volunteers. From one corner a group of TV news crews broadcast the accumulation of people and gifts.
A white-lettered banner across the black curtain read “#КемеревосТобои” – roughly, ‘Kemerevo, we’re with you.”
Three days prior, a fire at a Siberian shopping mall had claimed the lives of some 60 people, two-thirds of whom were children. The town of Kemerevo, with its “Winter Cherry” commercial center, regularly welcomed visitors to the mall’s children’s entertainment wing. Something had sparked a fire, perhaps shoddy electrical work, and the building erupted in flames. Locked fire escapes compounded the death toll before the blaze was finally subdued.
The Russian federal government declared a national day of mourning, which prompted displays of solidarity like the one in Moscow all over the country. Some accused building inspectors of taking bribes and deeming Winter Cherry up to code. The longtime regional governor resigned. His deputies at first had suggested the fire stemmed from misbehavior on the part of the children. Whatever the actual circumstances, Russians now wept nationwide.
The Kemerevo memorials changed how I saw Russia. The country assumed a human aspect. It was impossible not to respect the people as they withstood Moscow’s cold, offering tokens or simply recognition. Votive candlelight shone on their cheeks as they honored victims who had perished 2,300 miles away. The gathering flattened class lines; everyone mourned, rich and poor and Russian and foreign alike. The grief of Moscow’s mourners was not for anyone they could claim to know personally, which would be exceedingly unlikely, given the distance. Their solemnity had force because they were ordinary people who cared.
Parents cried for those who could have been their children. Children cried, for it could have been them. Old women prayed and crossed themselves – up, down, right, left, in the Orthodox way. The TV reporters spoke in low tones, straining to do their work and still respect the swell of emotion behind them. The scene looked like a painting, and would maybe one day be one, hanging in a public gallery, yet another witness of Russian tragedies past.
I had delayed my souvenir shopping until the very last day. My flight left at 2pm, and the Izmailovsky Market stood at the far eastern edge of town. Time would be tight but I set off for it anyway, leaving my bags at the hotel.
I took the metro, surfacing at Partizanskaya station. The cold and sun pinched my skin. In the distance I made out a mish-mash of building facades. Models of Bavarian and other world architectures poked into the horizon, matching my guidebook’s description. Within that fortress of kitsch was Izmailovsky Market.
One entrance was an actual elevated drawbridge-like doorway, complete with a portcullis and medieval banners. Inside were shop after shop of the worst tourist schlock: plastic keychains, tee-shirts printed on junky cotton, lawn gnomes in Russian peasant tunics. Stalls around a corner looked more appealing, with bright rows of scarves and nesting dolls.
At one stall a fiftyish Spanish couple, bundled as if at the North Pole, pattered over trinkets and decisions. The attendant, a Central Asian, answered in fluid, continental Spanish. When he turned to me his first words came in Russian; seeing my hesitation, he switched to sturdy English. He asked if I was American and I when I confirmed he declared, “Wonderful country!” He sold me on a half-dozen tchotchkes.
What a lot in life, I thought later. A young and winsome trilingual from one of the no-opportunity ‘Stans had flung himself as far as Moscow. When he found work, a luckier fate than what many migrants to Russia find, it was to stand outside in sub-zero temperatures, wheedle passersby and clear $100 of merchandise on a good day. But what could be done? Perhaps his kin back home in Central Asia saw him as something to be: a wage-earner.
I had grossly miscalculated the time needed to get back to the hotel, check out and make it to Sheremetyevo.
Jumping into a taxi, I blurted in choppy Russian, “How much to go all the way to the airport?”
The driver looked like he’d never heard of the place.
“Sheremetyevo Airport!” I repeated, the stress cracking my voice. “How much??”
“Sekundu,” he said. I agonized as he deliberated, punching numbers into his phone calculator. We hadn’t started moving yet.
He quoted me 800 rubles – less than thirteen dollars. I assented furiously and he made for the highway.
As my panic subsided, the road back to the airport yielded a fresh view of Moscow’s roadways. Brown snow and salt-crusted trucks lined the highway. Signs in Russian and English marked each exit. Tower blocks butted up against the clear sky, adding unnatural squares of orange and yellow to the translucent horizon.
I considered what a week in Moscow had borne. What had I learned? What was Russia now?
Snow in Washington had delayed but not destroyed my plans to see Russia. Snow in Moscow was redemptive, ennobling the city.
Red Square’s crooked dimensions had delighted me. Almost as much as the candy-colored splendor of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
My Russian language skills, after four diligent years, needed at least as much again.
Kuban Cossacks were actually from Russia, I had learned. Baristas educated in Wisconsin had offered me hot coffee and warmth on a cold day.
Moscow may have never been the third Rome, but that isn’t deterring efforts to secure global advantages now and into the future, whether by the Kremlin or by civil society and its many Vadims.
A Jewish museum showed me a country where Soviet Jewish patriots had existed, even as Germans and Stalinists fought their existence. Kiundji and others immortalized scenes of the Russian pastoral, edifying my notions of 19th-century life there.
And Kemerevo memorials put humanity into what had been for me an opaque country – a place whose hardships do not prevent strangers from weeping for the loss of other strangers’ children.
I had learned, in sum, how much more of Russia I have still to learn.
The driver came to a rest at my Sheremetyevo terminal. He paused a moment, then turned and asked, “Otkyda vuy?” Where are you from?
“Ya amerikanyetz,” I answered. “Tooriste.”
“Da!” the driver exclaimed, his hunch clearly validated. His gaze was a squint without sunglasses. He, too had smiled after payment, but unlike the airport’s advertisements, this looked genuine, a final Russian face to illuminate a previously faceless Russia.
“Come to Russia again soon!” he exhorted. Returning his smile, I told him that, yes, I would have to.
William Fleeson is a former journalist. He is learning to speak Russian by fits and starts, and has lived as a resident alien in Paris, France; Glasgow, Scotland; and Nashville, Tennessee.