A Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip to Russia

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip to Russia

You know you will return to Paris. There will be another trip to London. Russia, your heart tells you, you will see only once.

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."


"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.

As Car No. 1 rolls to a stop in St. Petersburg, there is a young woman in a billowing navy overcoat and another Hermès scarf who seems to know just where to stand to greet us. There is not even a moment to feel lost.

"Hello, hello," she purrs, averting her eyes. "My name is Marina."

Already I adore Marina. Just as Natasha personifies Moscow, Marina is St. Petersburg. She is no street fighter; she is reserved, decorous, with that aloof eastern European manner. She has long straw-colored hair, which she wears up like a Russian fur hat, and speaks in a mellifluous voice that comes to life over the microphone on our bus. Her passion is Bulgarian culture.

Marina's reserve camouflages her considerable energy. A couple of hours after arriving, our group is at the Hermitage, the former Winter Palace, for a two-hour tour of its highlights. I can now say I have seen the most famous da Vinci (the Benois Madonna) and Rembrandt (Flora, as modeled by his wife, Saskia) and van Gogh (Cottages) and Cézanne (Mont Saint-Victoire) and Picasso (The Absinthe Drinker) and Matisse (Dance) that the Hermitage has to offer, in the same detached way I vaguely recall once cruising past the Pietà as if on a conveyor belt.

But what do I really remember?The malachite urns that I could have hidden in. The eerie surgical-gown green that the Hermitage is painted, against the flat gray light of this northern city. The balcony overlooking Palace Square on which I have seen Nicholas and Alexandra greet their subjects in countless foxed photographs. This is the square where the October Revolution played out its final act in this very century.

City tours lay ahead, afternoons in which all I had to do was sit back and be taken to the various pieces of the St. Petersburg puzzle: to St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Fortress of Peter and Paul, the Admiralty, the Summer Garden. We shook hands with many an icon, but I often preferred the bus ride, listening to Marina narrate as we wound past the canals through Neoclassical streets painted in pastels.

For those of us who were inconsolable, Marina arranged a quick walk around the Summer Palace, too gold and too blue and absolutely shut tight, and then moved us on to a building that was open. She could not quite tell us with a straight face that Pavlovsk is an equally palatial palace, but it is an important one nonetheless. We visited many a ballroom and picture gallery and oohed and aahed on cue. And I forgot it all even before I was back on the bus.

A walk on Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main thoroughfare, isn't so easily forgotten. On this one street you come face-to-face with all the players in modern Russia: pensioners who haven't had a good day since perestroika, New Russians barking at cell phones in their Mercedes 600's, young people carrying shopping bags printed with pictures of the stars of the soap opera Santa Barbara, and foreign businessmen hungry for the Deal. Here, in a few short blocks, you can review current Russian fashions (bring your sense of irony) in the arcade called Passazh; walk through Dom Knigi, a bookshop where all the books are under glass; find a store selling very red posters of Lenin wagging his finger; and see tins of osetra caviar stacked like Bumble Bee in the Art Nouveau halls of the Yeliseev food shop.

Also on Nevsky Prospekt is the Grand Hotel Europe, where I stayed. It is the match of any of the world's great hotels and, for Russia, a miracle, really. It too is a theme park of New Russia, with metal detectors at its doors, and the Caviar Bar, and a disco where men pass out drunk on the tables, and maids who make themselves at home in your room while you are out, and ravishingly beautiful young women who sit for hours in the lobby, staring at any and all available men with impunity.

Marina rescued us from all this decadence with a "folkloric evening," that standard building block of the package tour. Such events invariably include attractive young singers, costumes suitable for photographing, a hearty meal served family-style, and a great deal of dancing and hand-clapping and mating ritual, all of which culminates in getting a few members of the loosened-up audience onstage and embarrassing them. This particular evening took place in a dacha reconstructed in a St. Petersburg basement, and as hard as I resisted, going so far as to refuse to perform a peasant courtship dance, I enjoyed it thoroughly. The vodka helped.

By our last day in Russia I only wanted to be escorted. Marina agreed to lead a tour of the Yusupov Palace, one of many owned by the richest family in Russia, and not usually on the short list. It was all ours, every ghostly bombastic room in it, from the marble staircase to the private theater to the basement where Rasputin, the mystic who virtually controlled Nicholas and Alexandra, was shot and clubbed before finally being tied up and thrown into the Neva River. For those who lack imagination, Rasputin is there, in wax.

The trip deserved to end on a higher plane. We attended a concert at the Philharmonic Hall, and this being late April, when the sun sets around 11 p.m., sunlight streamed in through the clerestories during the whole performance. I don't remember the program, but I do remember the face of the 20-year-old pianist as he attacked the keys, as well as the young woman who moved herself down from the balcony to the empty sixth-row seat next to me. Everything about her was achingly shabby. She borrowed a program, which cost pennies. But she clearly understood that music far better than I ever would. It was nice to have company.

We were tired, we were overstimulated, but on the ride to the airport Marina proved herself incapable of passing the new public library, or the old city hall, or the monument to those who died in the Great Patriotic War (World War II), without telling us all about them. And we were incapable of not listening.

She stayed with us until the very end, when our passports were stamped and our visas were seized and there was no chance of our being turned back on Russian soil. And then came that awkward moment when there was nothing to do except shake hands with someone you don't really know at all, reflect on a somewhat new shade of the meaning of the word farewell, and hear your well-meaning self say, "Come visit us in America."

The Package
The Russian Price Break, offered by Norvista FinnWay (228 E. 45th St., New York, N.Y.; 800/526-4927 or 212/818-1198), departs weekly throughout the year. Prices range from $999 to $2,599 per person, double occupancy, depending on the season and class of hotel (premier or deluxe). Taxes and visa add about $100 to the bill.

All departures include round-trip travel on FinnAir from New York via Helsinki,two nights in Moscow and three in St. Petersburg, a private first-classcompartment on an overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, two mealsdaily, a ticket to the Moscow Circus, guided tours on most days to visitthe major sights, and all transfers. My deluxe package currently costs $2,199during the last week of April, when the weather is like New England's inOctober. The deluxe hotels were more than worth the premium. Here's whatto expect.


Hotel Ukraina (premier) — Immense Stalinist pile, tattered butthe best of the big old Soviet tourist hotels. A long ride to the city center.
Baltschug Kempinski Moskau (deluxe) — A top-notch modern hotelwith all the amenities. Right across the river from the Kremlin.

St. Petersburg
Hotel Deson Ladoga (premier) — Modern motel-like accommodationsin a dour residential area, far from the city center. Dreary but quite respectable.
Hotel Grand Europe (deluxe) — The best hotel in Russia. Total Westerncomfort, ideally situated on Nevsky Prospekt. Ask for a room facing thepark.

Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Gogol, of course, but try these newer ones as well:
Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky (Doubleday) — History that reads likeIan Fleming, from classified documents made public after the Soviet Unionunraveled.
The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra by Peter Kurth(Little Brown) — For the coffee table, a heartbreaking book of familyphotographs. It's as if the czar knew.
The Man Who Killed Rasputinby Greg King (Birch Lane) — How the whitest of the White Russians, PrinceFelix Yusopov, did away with the Big Bad Mystic. You couldn't have madethis story up.
Moscow: The Rough Guide by Dan Richardson (Rough Guides) — Smartand sophisticated. Look for the boxes with excursions and anecdotes younever knew you wanted to know.
St. Petersburg: A Lonely Planet City Guideby Nick Selby (Lonely Planet) — One of this popular series' new city books.Aimed at those of backpacking age, but excellent for one and all. More important,it's the size of a checkbook.

All worth seeing soon after you return:
Doctor Zhivago (1965) — The Russian Gone with the Wind, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. Omar on ice is moviemaking at its best.
Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) — The best rendering yet of the story of the last czar and his family.
Reds (1981) — Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton make a silly pair of Bolsheviks, but this story of John Reed, the only American buried in the Kremlin, is worth the telling.
Burnt by the Sun (1994) — Set during the Stalinist purges, thisRussian film won accolades everywhere. A slow start, but stay with it.

Moscow Guide(http://www.moscow-guide.ru) — Thiscity primer, presented by the Moscow Convention Bureau, lists local travelagencies, hotels, restaurants, and cultural attractions. There's even apicture tour of the Kremlin.
All About St. Petersburg on the Web (http://www.spbinfo.ru/web/index.html) — Thiscompendium of some 110 local Web links ranges from hotel and museum informationto news headlines and "marriage clubs."
Intourist (http://www.intourus.demon.co.uk) — Anon-line brochure that details guided and independent tours throughout Russia.
— Mark Orwoll

Dollars are widely accepted, so you don't need to exchange too many forrubles. Bring lots of small bills: tips in dollars go a long way.

don't leave moscow without...

  1. Seeing a performance at the Bolshoi Theater.
  2. Visiting Lenin in his Art Moderne mausoleum.
  3. Viewing the imperial spoils at the Armory in the Kremlin.
  4. Lining up for a Bolshoi Mac at McDonald's in Pushkin Square -- with 700 seats, it's the biggest McDonald's in the world. Great people-watching, and probably one of the better meals you'll have.
  5. Touring the palatial subways. Ride the Circle line from Park Kultury to Komsomolskaya for the grand tour; or dash down the escalator from Red Square to the most wonderful station, Ploshchad Revolyutsii (on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya line).

don't leave st. petersburg without...

  1. Stopping by the Grand Hotel Europe at cocktail hour for vodka and caviar with the New Russians in the Caviar Bar, or one morning for a breakfast of blini and caviar in the Art Nouveau-style restaurant.
  2. Visiting the Yeliseev food shop on Nevsky Prospekt.
  3. Taking in the Yusupov Palace, where you can see the infamous cellar in which Prince Felix Yusupov served Rasputin wine laced with cyanide, and shot him after the poison didn't work.
  4. Touring Peterhof palace, Peter the Great's Versailles on the Gulf of Finland: 300 acres of museums, gardens, and parks with 66 fountains, 39 gilded statues, 29 bas-reliefs, 12 miles of man-made canals.
  5. Seeing a performance, any performance, at the Mariinsky Theater.
  6. Going back to the Hermitage on your own. Stroll around Palace Square and along the Neva -- it's not the same from a bus.
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