(The following is a guest column by noted journalist and travel writer Si Liberman)
By Si Liberman
Forty-eight years had elapsed since my wife and I spent five rainy days in Moscow as tourists. Seeing the Russian capital again with its 11.7 million residents free of communism, was the most anticipated part of a 13-day, all-inclusive St. Petersburg to Moscow Viking River Cruise.
The Ingvar, Viking’s 200-passenger, 14-year-old vessel named after a Swedish legendary hero, conveniently served that purpose. For three illuminating and at times entertaining and exhausting days in the city the ship was our hotel, restaurant, and tour and transportation source. And the riverboat line provided complementary and optional tours of city museums, churches and other landmarks.
Then and now contrasts could not have been starker.
Like mushrooms, skyscrapers have popped up in many areas, and coexist with boxy Stalin era seven- and eight-story buildings.
By cracking open the door to capitalism, perestroika (property restructuring) and glasnost (freedom of speech) clearly have had a profound effect.
The place has the look and feel now of most other major cities in Europe with horrendous traffic jams, exorbitant prices, political corruption, five-star hotels, fast food houses, and unrelenting cries for more green areas and education upgrades.
There are more parks in Moscow today than in New York and Paris -- 86 in all. And its efficient 188-station metro system with massive chandeliers and marble art works puts most other major city subway systems to shame.
Streets were immaculate and jammed in and around Red Square and the Kremlin with stylishly clad pedestrians of all ages-- many young women in mini skirts and fancy leather boots and men in designer blue jeans. Gone were those matronly old women in loose-fitting garments, using brooms to clean streets, replaced by yellow-jacketed public works employees and their street cleaning machines on duty day and night.
Never dreamed we’d be met in the historic Red Square city center by Mickey Mouse and other animal Disneyesque characters, offering to pose for a picture with us, but that‘s what happened.
Red Square also now has a line of stalls and merchants hawking souvenirs similar to ones we came across nearly five decades ago -- nesting doll sets, fancy scarves, colorful lacquer boxes, fur hats and amber jewelry.
In 1965, we were greeted in Red Square near the Lenin Mausoleum by teen-agers, begging in fractured English for “chicklets or any gum, chum.’’ Long lines of people still shuffle into the mausoleum to see the preserved body of the Russian Communist Party founder, but we opted not to join them this time.
The landmark GUM store on the Square looked like an indoor flea market in those early days with hundreds of small shopping stalls. I remember bargaining down a couple Russian-made fishing lures then that rusted after their first and only use. GUM today, owned by an oligarch, is a classy air conditioned mall with a colorful waterfall, glass rooftop and 200 shops. Cartier, Boss and Vuitton were a few that caught our eyes.
“This isn’t where many Russians shop,“ our guide said. “Prices are through the roof. It’s for tourists.”
Before an unforgettable performance of the “Boris Godunov” opera at the palatial Bolshoi Theatre one night (ticket prices $230 to nearly $500), we dashed across the street to see the hotel we stayed in in ‘65. By western standards then, the Hotel Metropol was a fly-infested, creaky fire trap. In those days a thousand dollars paid in advance to Intourist, the government tourist agency, bought us a double room for five nights just outside Red Square and the Kremlin, two meals daily and services of a personal guide and chauffeured limo for up to six hours a day.
Now $1,000 may get you one or two nights and buffet breakfast with a performing harpist in the five-star, remodeled, 365-room Metropol that boasts of having accommodated many important figures during its 112-year history, among them, Rasputin and Michael Jackson.
Forty-seven of the nation’s 110 billionaires live in Moscow, according to the Moscow News, one of two English newspapers circulating in the city. And the 110 billionaires control 35 percent of the nation’s wealth, the article noted.
In 1965, our college-educated guide resisted talking politics or about Premier Khruhschev, who had been deposed a year earlier. She insisted she knew little or nothing about him, his family or government politics. In lectures and in private, Ingvar’s three Russian guides were outspoken in their criticism of President Vladimir Putin. All said they voted against him in the 2012 presidential election.
“Even before the votes were counted, Putin declared victory,” said one of the guides. “There are more young people than old ones in Russia, and almost all the young ones were against him. The man spent a billion dollars to build a home on the Black Sea and a new road up to it with a salary of I00,000 euros. How can you do that?” Another said he’s tolerated as president because Russian people fear a successor would be worse.
The Bolshoi’s three-hour “Godunov” production, by the way, had an incredible cast of about 100 with at least 50 musicians in the orchestra pit. Each scene could have qualified as a masterpiece painting. In one, the heralded, regally attired Godunov entered the stage on a horse, and there were gasps in the audience when the dying czar collapses tumbling backward and landing with a loud thud on some steps.
Viking also offered free and optional tours while in St. Petersburg for three days -- also in five other cities along the 400-mile river route to Moscow. In St. Petersburg, we visited the famous Hermitage museum, St. Peter and Paul's Church where Russian czars are entombed, Peterhof Palace and fountains known as “the Russian Versailles” built to house monarchs. We also saw the ballet “Giselle” there. On the way to Moscow, the Ingvar stopped in places called Mandrogy, Kizhi, Goritzy, Yaroslavl and Uglich.
Yaroslavl, a city of 600,000 with an enormous market place, was the most interesting and fun. Accompanied by a guide, acting as an interpreter, we were able to meet in the modest frame home of a gracious middle-aged Russian resident and her aunt, exchange pleasantries, and enjoy their homemade vodka, pickles, bread and homegrown tomatoes. Smiling, the aunt bade goodbye in Russian, “Peace, health and safe return home.” And we returned the good wishes. Sated with their vodka, luckily, we didn’t have to drive back to the boat.
Other than one forest after another crowded with beautiful white birch trees, there was little to see as the Ingvar glided over rivers, including the Volga and Lake Ladoga, the world’s largest lake that’s said to be big enough to cover all of Switzerland. Most Ingvar passengers were American and Canadian. Life on the vessel was relaxing. Activities were limited to dining (wine and beer were complimentary at lunch and dinner), checking Email on the boat’s two computers, daily lectures about Russian history and politics and the next day’s tours. One night a vocalist performed and a pianist on another evening.
Meals were satisfying but more pedestrian than gourmet. Filet mignon. salmon and Caesar salad were available for dinner every night. For lunch you could order from the menu, help yourself to things on a buffet counter or mix and match both. The buffet usually included a soup, salad, meat or fish dish and each day a different made-to-order pasta.
What really hadn’t changed much since our last visit was the weather. It rained every day the last time. This time skies were completely overcast and drizzly for 12 out of our 13 days while October temperatures hovered between the low 30s and mid-40s.
During both visits, it seemed, the weather reflected the tortured soul of the country.
(Posted January 1, 2014.)