Back to Russia: in comparison to St. Petersburg, Moscow felt like a completely different world. After a night spent on the midnight train, we arrived in Moscow early Thursday morning. Just moments after stepping out of the station, we were greeted by a light snow flurry, the first of the season. It wasn't much, but I'm a Colorado girl at heart and any sign of snow makes me happy. We made our way to the bus and as we drove to our hotel, the sheer size of the city came in to view. Moscow is the biggest city in Europe (assuming that you consider it to be a European capital). It's bigger than both Paris and London and the huge freeways, towering skyscrapers and constant traffic were a sharp contrast to the quaint streets of St. Petersburg.
After a delicious breakfast (I've come to judge a city based on their breakfast buffets and this one was by far my favorite) we made our way to Red Square. The square isn't actually red; the word for red in Russian also means beautiful, leading to a misinterpretation of the square's name in English. We had a blast taking pictures in front of St. Basil's Cathedral and touring the many chapels inside the iconic church.
After being sufficiently touristy all afternoon, we headed back to the hotel to spruce up for dinner. Instead of going out to a restaurant, Jon had arranged for us to meet with a group of Russian students who would be taking us to their homes for a dinner party. Four other students and I were paired up with Christina and Demetri for the evening. They took us back to their apartment in the city center and we laughed and chatted over a meal of meat and potatoes. Christina spoke better English but Demetri was an expert on the city so after we finished we went on a walking tour of Moscow by moonlight. It started snowing again and despite the cold it was incredible to see the city lit up by night.
The next day we met with the Young Guards, a political group that supports Putin and his party. We got to ask them questions about the Russian government and hear their answers in a round table discussion. Keeping with the political theme, we toured the Kremlin that afternoon before meeting with a opposition journalist. As we left the Kremlin we were yelled at by a guard to not cross the street. Being yelled at by anyone in Russian is scary enough but when someone in uniforms raises their voices, you listen. Confused, we stood on the curb and waited. A moment later a motorcade came speeding through; Putin had just driven past us. Casual.
While I had strong feelings about St. Petersburg and its relation to my perception of Russianness, I can't as easily pin point how I felt about Moscow. In many ways, it felt like any other bustling metropolis; the expansive highways and modern buildings didn't lend it the same USSR charm that St. Petersburg had. Despite the differences, Moscow presented its own set of indications that we were, in fact, still in Russia.
One thing I could not help noticing was the lack of respect on the roads. Traffic in the city is so bad that we allowed three hours to get to the airport. On our midnight tour of Moscow, we had thirty seconds to cross an eighteen (yes, 18) lane road and even though we ran the last half we were still playing chicken with cars who couldn't have cared less about pedestrians. It may sound trivial, but one of our guides pointed out that Russian road-etiquette was incredibly indicative of the mindset of the country: bigger is better, look out for yourself first, and disfunction is the norm.
We also had more opportunities to talk with locals in Moscow. Christina and Demetri were both intellectually driven and extremely well read. Sitting in their apartment and listening to them talk about their studies didn't seem all that different from talking with students back in DC. What Christina pointed out, however, was that she and Demetri were the exception. Christina's own younger sister had no interest in school and at just fourteen thought she was ready to do away with being a child. While I can certainly relate to the teenage angst, the difference in Russia was that most kids actually followed through with their intentions.
Even if some of the younger generation are busy making bad life choices, I was strangely impressed with the Young Guards. Wether or not you agree with their political affiliation, I have to commend them for being involved. One could argue that "brainwashing" youths with Putinism is bad, but one thing a representative said really struck me: Russia, as we know it today, is young. Even though they have a long history as an empire and a recent history as the USSR, Russia has undergone drastic changes in the last hundred years and to judge them now as the "former Soviet Union" doesn't do much good. Sure, it's important to keep the past in mind but many people (myself included) tend to judge Russia by a select few historical events: WWI & II, the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I don't mean to underscore the importance of these things, but as Christina pointed out, Russian students do learn about it but there isn't the same emphasis as we have in the states. Russia is more than their ancient empire, the USSR and nuclear development. The current constitution is new; there's no way to predict the future of Russia based solely on previous eras that have led to "shock therapy" of a country in limbo.
All in all, I had an incredible time in Russia. I never would have gotten to experience everything I did if I'd gone on my own. I have no doubt that it will be a trip that I talk about and think over for many years to come. Plus I did some serious Christmas shopping. Hopefully everyone is ok with Russian souvenirs!