Over the summer, I had the opportunity to fly to Russia and spend 10 days immersed in the post-Communist culture. My father was born and raised in Moscow, Russia, attended Moscow State University, and moved to Pittsburgh to attend CMU. After meeting his fair maiden, my mother, he decided to stay in the States. Now, although I am not fully fluent in Russian, I am trying my best to learn it. So with my lack of linguistic skills, I adventured to Russia with my father from June 24 to July 4, 2016 for a trip expected to be full of cultural enrichment and familial visitation. On our trip we stayed with my grandmother and explored four out of the five ancient capitals of Russia.
We flew directly to Paris, which was perhaps the easiest part of travels. I worked on my summer reading and slept for the eight hours from take-off until touchdown. After a quick layover and some coffee a la Charles de Gaulle, we boarded our flight to Moscow. Upon arrival at the homeland of my father, he and I were greeted by my grandmother, who I call Gaba, at the gate of Sheremetyevo International Airport. We hopped aboard a train, which travelled through the outskirts of Moscow straight into the heart of the city. From there, Gaba negotiated a deal to get a lower rate from a cab driver, and into the backseat of a Ford Fusion we hopped.
On my first full day in Moscow, Gaba, my dad, and I ventured to the Moscow Kremlin, the capital structure of Moscow (aka where Vladimir Putin hides out). We explored the Diamond Fund and the armory while we were there—both exhibitions contain old artifacts from old Russian monarchical families. We saw Moscow State University (the tallest learning institution in the world, with the Cathedral of Learning being the second!) and visited Arbat street—a popular tourist destination which is home to the first Moscow Starbucks, a knock off Krusty Crab restaurant, and Communist propaganda remaining from the regime. That same night my dad and I left on a midnight train going anywhere—except it was about 8pm and we were heading to Veliky Novgorod.
Veliky Novgorod is one of the 5 (including Moscow) ancient capitals of Russia. Novgorod is best described as a town out of an indie film—no one comes or goes, they just pass by and never think twice about it. To me, it was absolutely mind-boggling how old-world this city was. Moscow is very cosmopolitan; everything is fast-paced, technologically up-to-date (the subways have wifi) and clearly in the process of even further modernization. Novgorod definitely had an older, mid-Cold War vibe, as opposed to Moscow’s modern feel. After 12 hours in Novgorod, we hopped aboard another train—this time to St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg is about as Western as Russia could get. Street vendors are everywhere, unlike in Moscow where the government may censor what they sell significantly more. It is known as a city of bridges—even though Pittsburgh is the best one—and as another one of Russia’s ancient capitals. St. Petersburg and Peterhof (about 30km away from St. Petersburg via River) are home to the Summer and Winter Palaces of the Romanov dynasty—both beautiful and magnificent Baroque constructions that are absolutely beyond words and only pictures do them justice.
After 2 nights, midnight boat tours, and 3AM sunrises, we took an express train back to Moscow. For our remaining time in Russia, we shopped, explored the city my dad once knew as home, visited Vladimir, the fourth and final ancient Russian capital still in Russia (the remaining being Kiev, Ukraine), another small, indie-film town, and spent time with my half-siblings. Did I mention my half-brother named Vladimir (age 28) and my half-sister Helena (age 26)?! Well, they exist. And even though they live on the other side of the globe, Facebook and Instagram keep us pretty close.
After walking anywhere from 5 to 15 miles in a day, eating a lot of root vegetables (a common food in Russia), sleeping on trains and having difficulty (but progressively more ease) in reading the alphabet, coming home was an absolute delight. Russia was a culture shock— things are very different. Our world is about as “western” as you can get and Russia is more humble and set in its eastern ways, even though cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg are beginning to separate more from that. The worlds are different and almost incomparable in that way, but in the end nothing will match up to how grateful I am to have this beautiful Russian culture running through my veins, and my trip this summer helped me realize that in a way I never have before. From here, I believe my Russian trips will become more common; I plan to travel to Russia more frequently and possibly study abroad in the future. But until then, I definitely will keep an appreciation for our Western world and Latin alphabet.