December 18, 2019 Travel & Leisure

I Went to Russia and Lived to Tell About It!

By Jeffrey M. Allen

For the last several years my wife and I have made it a point to spend about a month traveling outside of the United States each year. This year we travelled to our ancestral lands (Russia/Lithuania/Romania for me and Italy for Anne). We like big cities, so when we travel we tend to focus on them. We saw Florence, Milan and Genoa in Italy, Vilnius in Lithuania, Bucharest in Romania, and Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia. We had a great time on the trip and when we got back the VOE asked me to write a short piece about our trip to Russia. Because of the limits of available space, I will focus on the highlights of the trip and a few personal observations.

The first thing you need to know about traveling to Russia is that you may find it difficult to get into many of the sites if you do not use a local tour guide to set up the visits. It is possible to gain access to most of them, but it takes a lot of work, especially if you have never done it before. We normally do our own planning and then take a local tour for several hours to get oriented in a new city. This time, we did it differently; we paid for a tour guide to set up our entire visit to Russia including transportation and hotels. As it turned out, we saw a lot of things we likely would not have gotten to see, stayed at exceptional hotels, and decided that while expensive, we made the right decision. Part of what worked for us was the fact that we had a private tour, so we maintained the flexibility to make last minute time adjustments without having to worry about other tour participants. We also got final say as to what we saw and made several modifications to the stock tour structure our guide initially offered us.

If you travel to Russia on a U.S. Passport, you must get a Visa before you leave the US. While not a particularly daunting task, it works much faster if you have a travel service set it up for you. We did and got the Visas back in about 10 calendar days.

Before we left, we both thought we would like St. Petersburg more than Moscow. While St. Petersburg was beautiful, we both decided that we liked Moscow more. Moscow appeared more vital and interesting to us. Our tour of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s (the church building that you often see in pictures of the Kremlin with the onion-shaped domes) provided the highlight. Before I left for the trip I told some of my friends that I planned to discuss the whole issue of election interference with Vlad; and I was able to do that. It turned out that Vlad was our driver for the day and he and our guide gave us a fine tour of the Kremlin. Vlad and I agreed that if he stayed out of the US elections, I would stay out of the Russian elections. I believe our Vlad will honor that agreement.

You have probably heard the old joke about “who is buried in Grant’s tomb”. In Russia the question is who is buried in Lenin’s tomb. When you visit the Kremlin you can see Lenin’s tomb and check out the remains of Lenin which they display in a clear case and have taken great care to preserve all these years (they have been continuously displayed since 1924). The body shows little visible deterioration (we were advised that they take it out and clean it up every year). We also got to see living quarters for Lenin and his family both in the Kremlin and the Gorki Leninskiye Estate (note the Kremlin apartment was removed from the Kremlin and installed at the Gorki Estate).

By the way, something I learned on the trip: The St. Basil’s Cathedral building is not a single church. In fact, it serves as home to nine different churches.

When you visit the Kremlin, don’t miss GUM, the historic department store across the road from the Kremlin near Red Square. The installation has evolved to a high level shopping experience and presents itself as a modern shopping center filled with designer boutiques, restaurants and a variety of other stores.

One of the most surprising parts of our visit, the Moscow subway proved extremely interesting. Aside from serving as one of the world’s largest and most efficient public transport systems, it includes some truly spectacular subway stations. You should not miss the opportunity to see the stations first-hand. Many of them contain considerable art. As a footnote, construction started during Stalin’s rule and the government used forced labor in the construction of much of the system.

Not surprisingly, Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, the largest museum of European art in Moscow, proved well worth our time and we could have spent more time there if we had time to spend. The museum has a large collection of European works including masterpieces from ancient civilizations, the Italian Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age.

We took the high-speed train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The trip took only four hours. When we got to St. Petersburg, we discovered that our hotel was located on the Nevsky Prospect, one of the main streets of St. Petersburg, giving us lots of opportunity to walk along the street and soak in the local culture.

The reason that St. Petersburg (the Russians sometimes refer to it as the Venice of the North) is so attractive is that Peter the Great (for whom it was named) built the city as his new capital. It was designed to present as he envisioned a capital. The city has more palaces than you want to visit. It seems that everyone but the serfs got a palace there. One of the most beautiful of the lot lies about an hour outside of St. Petersburg in the nearby town of Pushkin; the Catherine’s Palace gifted by Peter the Great to his wife Catherine. The palace later became a summer house for a number of Russian rulers, who contributed to its ambience. The communists converted the palace (as with many others in Russia) to other uses during their rule. The Russians later restored it to prior glory and beauty.

You will not want to miss the Faberge Museum, but if you want to see the largest collection of work by Carl Faberge, you won’t find it at the museum. The Shuvalov Palace located on the Fontanka River (one of the most attractive palaces in St. Petersburg) claims to house the world’s largest collection of Faberge pieces including nine of the original Faberge imperial Easter eggs. The eggs alone make the trip to the palace worthwhile.

Our visit to the Hermitage Museum gave us another highlight of the visit to St. Petersburg. As you probably know, the Hermitage has a reputation as one of the world’s finest art museums. It did not disappoint, displaying masterpieces of Leonardo da Vinci, El Greco, Goya, Rembrandt and Gainsborough, among many others.

Another site you won’t want to miss, Peterhof houses the Peterhof Grand Museum, Grand Palace, Bath Cottage, and a large park containing 176 decorative fountains and a great many statues of ancient gods and heroes.

In retrospect we are delighted that we took the trip and got to see the sights of Moscow and St. Petersburg. We found the people very friendly in both places. Although everyone did not speak English, many did, and we had very little trouble communicating (even when we did not have our bilingual guide with us). To us, Russia appeared very much like many other European cities we have visited (except for the fact that many of the signs use Cyrillic script (although a surprisingly large number used the Latin alphabet). The transition from communism to capitalism seems to have taken deep roots in a relatively short time span. We also found it interesting that many Russians managed to maintain or develop a religious orientation notwithstanding the period of communist rule.

It was fascinating to us that while most Russians recite the name Stalin with contempt and most traces of monuments to Stalin have disappeared, Lenin remains honored and revered. We know that Stalin was considered somewhat crueler and is tasked with responsibility for the deaths of many millions of people (estimates vary and we have seen them from 9-20 million for Stalin and about three million for Lenin). We thought three million was quite sufficient to garner contempt. Accordingly, we found it interesting that Lenin remains revered while Stalin has fallen on hard times.

One final note of interest: The Russian royalty was known for its lavish spending on building and maintaining palatial grounds (as well as in other aspects of the royal lifestyle). While certainly not the only cause, that contributed to the Russian Revolutions that ultimately brought the Communists to power, it was a substantial part of the mix. The communists converted many palaces and other buildings to more common uses (i.e. offices, schools, warehouses, etc.). Those uses did considerable damage to many of those buildings. The Russians have restored a great many of the palaces and buildings to their former beauty and grace in a very short time and, presumably, at undoubtedly great expense.


Jeffrey M. Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California, where he has practiced since 1973. He is active in the ABA, the California State Bar Association, and the Alameda County Bar Association. He is a co-author of the ABA books Technology Tips for Seniors and Technology Tips for Seniors Volume 2.0.