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A Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip to Russia

Once is not much for a country shrouded in melodrama and mythology. Once is rather a gamble when the country is so large, its language so utterly foreign, its reputation somewhat less than reliable.

Once, on the other hand, can be unforgettable.

This was a trip I did not trust myself to plan. But who wouldn't trust the Finns?So decent, efficient, dependable, the Finns have been putting together escorted tours of Russia for 10 years. Norvista FinnWay has an entire bookful of tours, and one in particular promised eight fairly complete, reasonably priced, smoothly run days in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The day before I was to leave, I collected my envelope of tickets and vouchers from Norvista FinnWay. As I examined them I mumbled something about finally getting to see the Summer Palace.

"I am very sorry," the agent said. "The Summer Palace will be closed for the three days you are in St. Petersburg."

Silence.

"You must not let this upset you."

She'd noticed.

"There are other palaces."

I don't want to see other palaces.

"You must believe me. The palaces are not what you will remember."

Arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow is the first thing you will remember. It's the crossroads of every place you have never heard of. I had landed on the dark side of the moon. And I had worked myself up into quite a state. What if the Norvista FinnWay guide wasn't there?Where would I go?What would I do?What if . . . ?What if . . . ?

"You must be . . . ," said a woman of about 50 with Geraldine Ferraro hair and an Hermès scarf, who approached me as I stepped through passport control. How she knew who I was, I can't say. "Welcome. My name is Natasha."

Natasha. She must be kidding.

From the airport chaos Natasha continued to pick out our group of 12 travelers, through which no common thread seemed to run. We were young and we were old. We wore teal nylon track suits and we carried shopping bags from Henri Bendel.

Quickly Natasha had us on our way. There is no greater thrill than that first drive from the airport to a new city in a new country. While our shabby gray Mercedes-Benz bus passed through the shabby brown streets of Moscow, every dreary Soviet building was an occasion for a lively story, one that I was too tired to absorb but delighted to hear. Clearly Natasha was not going to waste a minute of our week.

"Tonight Swan Lake is at the Bolshoi," she said. "It is performed very rarely. You must stay awake. You must go."

Six hours after arriving in Moscow, against every impulse to collapse onto the fake-fur bedspread in my deluxe hotel room, I found myself seated in a gilded box in the first ring at the Bolshoi Theater, watching the most sentimental, the most extravagant, the most Russian of ballets. My attention wandered, as it always does in a theater, from the dancers to the music to the audience and back to myself; the theater can be better than therapy. All those strange faces and strange clothes. So many flowers. The box where the czar once sat. The dusty velvet curtain still decorated with hammers and sickles. Histrionic Russian bravas, as I have never heard bravas.

Palaces were the last thing on my mind.

A certain sort of traveler clings to the conceit that a guide gets between you and real life, but I am not one of them. A good guide, I would say, is real life. For three days and three nights, Natasha was the face of Moscow for me. She always will be. I think of her when I read the New York Times and watch Peter Jennings. How is she?Is she prospering in the New Russia?There was nothing our group could not ask to do, no aspect of her life about which we could not inquire. For someone with only a few days who doesn't speak the language, there was simply no getting closer to a real Russian.

And Natasha was not just a real Russian; she was a real Muscovite, which I quickly surmised is not unlike a real New Yorker. Here was someone who could take care of herself: quick-witted, aggressive, cynical, sardonic, proud to know everything about a city that seems strident and obnoxious to those who don't understand and love it.

Natasha showed us all the great sights: Red Square and Lenin's Tomb and St. Basil's and the various high points of the Kremlin, all of which you think you comprehend until you finally see them. There is no photograph of Red Square that can substitute for the rather chilly sensation of standing at the center of the center of this peculiar empire called Russia.

Natasha could aim high or low, touristically. You want pictures, she tells you exactly where to stand to get the best shot. You want nesting dolls, she tells you where to buy the better-quality tourist junk. You want to visit the Armory, that corner of the Kremlin with the gold-encrusted imperial carriages and the diamond-studded imperial crowns, and she escorts you past the mob being turned back at the entrance, then explains every case of treasures in such chatty detail that two hours hardly suffice for your tour.

On most days a few hours are unscheduled, and it is a little frightening to be kicked from the safety of Natasha's tour bus. Russia is macabre. Everywhere there is an air of menace. Each little exchange leads you to believe that you don't quite know the rules of the game you are playing.

Russia may be the greatest film noir ever made. It certainly does not hurt that the entire population of Moscow seems to be wearing three-quarter-length black leather jackets. But what you're picking up is more than a fashion signal. People do stare at you; you cannot disguise your Americanness. And the most unlikely and suspicious things do happen. You look down an alley and notice several grizzled men exchanging large amounts of cash. You visit Lenin's Tomb, and as you file past his embalmed body you are followed by a bride in her wedding dress and veil. You take a seat on empty bleachers in vast Red Square, where there is more than enough room for a military parade, and somebody sits down right next to you, but never says a word.

After a while you come to accept that nothing bad is going to happen to you, but that perhaps it is best to avoid eye contact, to look purposeful, and to get back to the security of the bus as soon as possible. It's a lovely luxury to be led.

Natasha led us to likely as well as unlikely places. Her Intourist script changes fairly often these days, as do Russian politics. Soviet landmarks are now considered dusty relics of a distant past, which was all of 10 years ago and could return tomorrow. In the course of an afternoon Natasha quite matter-of-factly pointed out the former headquarters of the KGB; the riverfront Art Deco apartment building favored by high-ranking comrades who had a tendency to vanish under Stalin; and the Russian parliament building, known as the White House, which Boris Yeltsin attacked with tanks just a few years ago in one of those peculiarly Russian counter-counter-putsch-coups that no outsider really understands. Perhaps you saw the flames on CNN. The speed with which things change in Russia leads you to wonder if things won't all have changed before your plane leaves.

And then Natasha, like a good parent, takes you to the Moscow Circus, where you would never take yourself. Everything is suddenly so normal; the parents and children are the same as parents and children everywhere. A dancing bear is a great equalizer.

For our last two hours in Moscow, between the 10 p.m. cossacks-on-horseback finale at the circus and the departure of the midnight train to St. Petersburg, Natasha has saved a special treat.

"One of our most beautiful metro stations is next to the railroad station," she says. "Who wants to see the metro?"

Who doesn't?

At 11 p.m. on Saturday, along with hordes of ragtag Muscovites, our group descends escalator after escalator through this great civic project begun under Stalin and adorned with chandeliers, Lenin statues, and red-and-gold mosaics of comrades gathering sheaves of wheat. Natasha announces: "We still have a few minutes. Who would like to get on a train and see some other stations?"

Who wouldn't?

Finally it is time to let go. We take a long walk in a cold drizzle to car No. 1 on the overnight St. Petersburg express, an Anna Karenina moment if ever there was one. The car is all ours, except for the dour babushka attending us. Natasha demonstrates the correct way to lock the doors, for those of us who have been terrified by American reports of robberies on such trains, and assures us that everything will be fine. She shakes our hands and says good-bye. In eight hours, after we have glided through birch forests under a full moon, someone will be waiting for us on the platform in St. Petersburg.

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