Land of the Firebird

RUSSIA/June 19 – July 9 2008

(Advance warning — this is a long long account of our wonderful trip. Brew yourself a cup of chai , settle in and share our journey.)

The spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral rose at the far end of Red Square, brilliant and fanciful as if a band of mischievous children commandeered a Byzantine sweet shop to concoct ice cream cones in unheard of shades and flavors — pistachio and citron, lime and pomegranate, blueberry and vanilla. I couldn’t decide which was more unreal: the cathedral’s Disney-esque spires, the fact that I was in Russia altogether or that the infamous square teemed with families, tourists and bridal couples. My mental newsreel was still unspooling black and white images of goose-stepping soldiers, guns at their shoulders, bayonets itching. Real and unreal is the best way I can sum up our three-week journey from Moscow, cruising the Volga River to St. Petersburg, and then exploring Tallinn and Helsinki.

So much has changed and yet Russia’s Soviet history is ever-present. Women dressed in high heels and miniskirts, cigarette in one hand cell phone in the other strut past the kerchiefed babushkas dressed in black sweeping the streets the old fashioned way — twig broom in one hand, dust pan in the other. Yesterday’s assumptions and preconceptions were regularly confronted by the reality of today’s Russia. No grey and shackled country this. (At least not obviously.) Jeans were as common as in the States. So were i-Pods. It doesn’t get more dissonant than to see a troupe of Ukrainian folk dancers in full costume performing on one street corner and a grungy musician singing slightly off-key Bob Dylan on the next.

The GUM department store, once state run, now boasts every designer you’ve ever heard of from Paris, New York, Hong Kong and beyond beneath its domed glass roof. And if citizens queue up for food, it’s for Big Macs not milk, bread and eggs. But there is nonetheless big-city poverty — panhandling, homelessness, an underclass situation begging for resolution. The only time we felt unsafe was when Martin and I were walking a couple blocks from the Kremlin. Two twenty somethings pegged us as easy marks and followed us for a block or two then peeled off to do their mayhem elsewhere. Martin and I looked up the block to see Lubyanka prison. Or what had been Lubyanka, site of 100, 000 state sanctioned murders. It’s still a government building. Now, there’s a Mazeratti dealership across the street and Tiffany’s around the corner.

Another sign of the economic times was a pen I found outside an administrative building parking lot in St. Petersburg. Black lacquer, Mont Blanc’s signature white star on its tail. (Tail is the actual term for the end opposite the nib.) Even it if were a knock-off, who doesn’t need an extra pen? But nyet! It was the real McKruschev. I twisted open the barrel. The ink refill was Mont Blanc, too. According to our in-flight magazine this nifty writing instrument nets a cool $300. My new Russian capitalist writing tool.

If there is one metaphor I would use it is the image of brick wall visible through the peeling pastel plaster of a building’s facade. Many structures have been restored. Scores of others are in dire need of work; beautiful palaces await TLC; Kruschev’s idea of architecture was Early Shoebox. Capitalist alert: invest in scaffolding.

The other past/present dissonance was how familiar the country felt. Everywhere I looked I saw faces whose features I recognized. The young woman making blinis at a restaurant on Arbat Street had the sloped nose of a writer friend of mine. A man standing next to me on the subway me had my Russian grandfather’s lips and chin. Words and the tempo of folk dance music that I thought were Israeli I now realize had their genesis in the land of the samovar. The lullaby I sang to my kids and my mother sang to me was the same one our guide taught us during one of the learning seminars on the boat. It was very much a “this is where I came from” kind of feeling.

So many foods tasted as if they came out of Martin’s Survivor cousins’ kitchen — a cookie, a soup, certain spice in the vegetables. During a home hospitality visit with an elderly Russian woman, Martin and I both noticed how she arranged her tchockes in the breakfront the way some of his family members did. Everything about her was familiar — face, house dress, apricot thumbprint cookies. She offered us something like a kichel but not as dry. “I want to stay healthy so I can see my grandchildren,” she said through a translator. Her wishes were as familiar as the pierogis she kept urging us to eat.

If the elevators in our Moscow hotel moved as slow as a Soviet bread line (honestly you had to plan an extra ten minutes into the morning just to get to breakfast; most times we walked the nineteen floors and beat the lift!) the subways arrived and left at breakneck speed. Martin and I spent an afternoon riding the rails, getting off and on at various stations, staring agog at the gorgeous mosaics and murals. Many of the industrial-themed ones reminded me of the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts celebrating the automobile industry and the life of the workers at the Ford River Rouge plant. Others were beautiful evocations of mothers and children, farm scenes, images of plenty. The gilt-capped pedestals and pilasters glowed in the light of the chandeliers (some crystal, others brass) that spanned the long hallways leading to the subway cars.

The subways are deep (300 feet in some stations, if I remember correctly, but it could have been 300 meters) giving rise to a curious visual distortion: riding the up escalator it appeared that those riding the down were leaning backward as if in an attempt not to be thrown forward by the steep decline. In fact the subways were used as air raid shelters during the Second World War and stations built during the 50’s were dug deep enough to be used as shelters from nuclear bombs. The subway was fast, easy to use, inexpensive (19 rubles or just under a dollar) and crowded! And another New York touch, alas — graffiti. Everywhere. We learned quickly how to listen for the next stop and thanks to the fact that I’d familiarized myself with the Cyrillic alphabet prior to the trip, we could decipher most of the signs without help. When we were stumped gestures and finger pointing at our map did the trick with passersby.

I’m convinced that St. Cryil, the originator of the Russian alphabet, was dyslexic. Backward R’s and N’s, inverted L’s, numerals and math symbols standing in for letters, the alphabet is a crazy borscht of English, Greek and Hebrew characters. But once we had the alphabet down decoding signs was fairly easy — many words were simply transliterations of English words. In fact it was easier to read the signs in Russia than in Tallinn or Helsinki even though the latter languages use the Latin alphabet. (Those languages however are strangely tempoed, punctuated by hard-to-form back-of-the-throat vowels and words that run the length of my forearm.)

But in Russia it was surprisingly easy to pick out libraries (bibliotekas) and a planetarium on sight. Pharmacies were “apoteks” (think apothecary) and grocery stores were “produktos.” Although the little grocery next to our hotel could have used a visit from an efficiency expert to sell its produktos. Within a space the size of a two-car garage were four different vendors. If you wanted ice cream, water, veggies and then some bread you had to make quadruple visits — one each to the four different “shop” owners.

Thinking of that grocery shop brings to mind the worst traffic jam I’ve ever been in. (The jam began in front of the grocery store.) It took us thirty minutes to go around the corner during which time we saw two (minor) fender benders, a car chucking it all to drive on the sidewalk, a police officer pulling over a driver (no mean feat when there wasn’t a kopek’s worth of space), lane changes and merges right out of a bumper car ride at the fair. Capitalist alert — driver’s ed schools.

And now a word from our trip sponsors — Grand Circle Travel. They were in a word superlative. The organization was terrific, the accommodations were great (any hotel offering free 24-hour e-mail is tops in my PDA, actually Martin’s, I don’t have one) and the excursions were educational and enjoyable. Our guide, Natalya, was so very helpful and wanted nothing more than for each of us to bring back to the States a fuller more realistic picture of today’s Russia. Mission accomplished.

In Moscow we had the choice of a number of tours and opted for a visit to Star City (the cosmonaut training station), the circus, a folklore dance show. Borrowing a page from Martin’s rating’s book I would give the latter a B- but the other two excursions an A++.

We spent an entire morning in Star City. We saw the chambers where the cosmonauts learn to deal with the ups, downs and all arounds of space flight; the meals and disposal what becomes of same; and a full mock up of the Mir Space Station which orbited the earth 15 years before plunging into the ocean in 2001 and giving rise to another memorable NY Post headline Oy Veyez Mir.

The highlight of this visit was meeting Sergei Zalyotin a cosmonaut who has trained both at Star City and the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The frequent back to back stints — five days in the former USSR/five days in Houston sounded exhausting. He was so engaging and spent a good half hour with our group answering questions and talking about his experiences. “Up there,” Serge said, “my life is in American hands and his is in mine. It doesn’t matter what country issues our passports. We depend on each other for everything.” He’s been up twice (once to repair air leaks in the Mir) and is training for a third mission right now.

I asked him what it was like to be outside the earth and he said that both times he went up it struck him how small we are and that he is convinced that “Darwin got it partly wrong” in that there are other worlds out there “there have to be” and that “God is out there somewhere, too.” A surprising comment given the Soviet purge of all things religious (more on that soon.)

They have to be ready for any contingency — landing in water, desert, icy climes and thus have supplies to maneuver in all situations, right down to having on hand a tiny saw that was basically a wire strung between two rings. The chairs were fascinating — a cross between a cradle and a recliner, they looked impossibly small to get in to and none too comfortable to stay in for long stretches of time. Each astronaut’s chair is molded to fit his/her own body. The facility, like so much we saw, was a little dilapidated and dated. This is 60’s and 70’s architecture we’re talking about.

The physical demands of these flights are high. We were told that recovery time equals flight time and bone loss is a big issue upon re-entry. Capitalist alert to drug companies — adapt space technology for rebuilding bone mass to the general population and cure osteoporosis already.

The other stand out evening was the Moscow Circus. I’m not a big circus buff and we likely only took the kids once in their sweet lives. But this one I’d take them to twice if they wanted. I can’t even remember how many acts there were — ice skating, water ballet, a rodeo complete with bronco riders, Chinese acrobats and tumblers from Africa, a sound and light show. Other than the lion show, which was a bit creepy, we were agog for nearly the entire two and a half hour show. It was so exciting! Can’t believe I’m writing this but it was way better than Cirque du Soleil.

During a walk around Moscow we stumbled upon the Tretyakov Gallery in Zamoskvorechye which is a Molotov cocktail’s throw from the Kremlin. The gallery dates from 1856 when wealthy Moscow merchant, Pavel Tretyakov purchased his first painting (Nikolai Schilder’s The Temptation.) The painting’s title was predictive. Tretyakov gave into the siren call of art acquisition. The Museum’s collection consists of over 130,000 paintings, sculptures and graphics from Russian artists (11th – 20th centuries.)

The painting that most stunned me was Ilya Repin’s recreation of Ivan the Terrible killing his son. (There were many beautiful ones, Kandinsky’s I’d never seen, too many works to mention.) What still haunts me about Repin’s rendering was not simply the utter madness in Ivan’s eyes as he cradled his murdered son, but the guilt, the very moment of shock when he realizes, “My God what have I done!” All there in his bloodshot blue eyes. It was truly remarkable.

Now’s as good a time as any to talk about the Russian churches. We saw so many that I lost count after five or six. They were beautiful, ornate and breathtaking in all their Byzantium-ness. One St. Petersburg highlight was the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral where the remains of the last Romanov family now rest. Another was the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood which was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was killed when a terrorist threw a bomb at his feet. It was closed the day we went. Martin returned the next day to see the inside which is covered top to bottom with over seventy five thousand square feet of mosaics.

We saw Moscow’s New Maiden Convent which not only accepted comely maidens whose families wanted them far from the appetites of kings and princes but also took in wives unwanted by their husbands and widows.

St. Isaacs had the most beautiful 18th century mosaics of Mary and Jesus. In this same church was a painting of Jesus facing a crowd of disciples. His hands were raised in a familiar gesture — left arm bent at elbow, palm raised and facing outward; right hand waist height, palm turned upwards and forward. I was struck by the similarity between the positioning of Jesus’ hands and classic Buddhist mudras (hand positions that express and channel energy within mind and body). The first is evocative of the Gesture of Fearlessness, the second the Gesture Beyond Misery. Both are also known as gestures of renunciation, the latter being an ascetic’s gesture of renunciation.

I mentioned it to an Indian woman who was part of our group and she agreed that it was something she’d never thought of before but that the Jesus’ hands in the painting could definitely be seen as being portrayed in these ancient mudras. Makes you wonder. Art history student alert: it would make an interesting thesis to examine the hand gestures of religious figures in art down through the centuries.

Backtracking to Moscow and cognitive dissonance for a bit to the day we toured the Kremlin and the Armory Museum. Kremlin. Red Square. Lenin’s tomb. Stalin. The mere words evoke any number of images, none of them spiritually uplifting shall we say. Many churches remain but so very many were destroyed.

So much beauty obliterated in the name of Stalin’s idea of progress, modernity, and socialism. And so much has been saved. The cases at the Armory were filled with such luscious items — pearl encrusted coronation gowns, Faberge eggs, emeralds the size of small eggs embedded in crowns. You say you want a revolution???

Religion is making a comeback. Churches that, during the Soviet era were turned into libraries, museums and even grocery stores, are now being restored. Indeed the largest church in Moscow — the Church of the Resurrection which Stalin turned into a swimming pool and public baths was completely rebuilt according to the original plans five years ago at a cost of zillions of rubles. Many many people wore crosses on small neck chains and daily service schedules are posted in every church.

Martin and I couldn’t help but wonder what today’s Russian church is teaching. In one way or another many of our parents and grandparents fled Russia and its environs to escape conscription in the Czar’s army, to flee the constant pogroms and virulent anti-Semitism. Religion is making a comeback in Russia. Good for the Jews, or not? Religion today. Pogroms tomorrow?

Martin, outspoken and bold as he is, asked two of our guides the 64 million ruble question: What’s the Russian Church’s 64 million ruble answer to the who killed Jesus question? The answer he was given is that Mary’s Jewishness is stressed. That Jesus was a Jew, murdered by Pontius Pilate. Is this truly what is now being taught or simply the answer our guides are instructed to give? Do I go with cynicism or awe that a church teaching that so profoundly affected hundreds of thousands has now been rewritten.

One redaction was quite startling. We were told the story of St. Moses who encountered Jesus behind a pillar of cloud and was so startled he lost his sandals. I think what was lost was something in the translation but it was an odd telling to say the least.

When we were in St. Petersburg, Martin and I ate at a kosher restaurant that was part of the Grand Choral Synagogue complex and went to minyan at the little shul adjacent to the large synagogue. The Grand Choral Synagogue was originally built from 1880-1888 and in 1999 business Edmund Safra donated five million dollars to restore it. Need I mention its bombing during the war and the consequent post-war neglect visited upon it?

Alas the day we went it was already closed and we missed the next day’s ad hoc visit the next day. It was quite moving to stand in front of the synagogue’s wrought iron gates, the Stars of David bold and unmistakable, and realize that thirty years ago all Jews could do to mark Rosh Hashanah was to stand before these gates and peer in at the locked and shuttered synagogue. Our other synagogue visit was in Helsinki but more about that one in a bit.

The restaurant had a washing station and the blessing to be recited when washing hands before the meal was posted above the sink in Hebrew and in Russian transliteration. I recited the blessing from the Russian card and thought about how Judaism is returning to Russia haltingly, one experience, one letter at a time.

I started to write that the highlight of our time in St. Petersburg was our afternoon at the Hermitage. But that would shortchange the visit to Catherine’s Palace and seeing the reconstructed Amber Room. In addition to slighting the Yusupov Palace where Prince Yusupov murdered Grigory Rasputin. And the magnificent evening at the Russian Ballet where we saw a terrific performance of Romeo and Juliet. Not to mention Peterhoff and its fountains and gardens. So I will not rank them at all except to say that each was a wonder in its own and will try to impart a smidgen of the grandeur and history.

First the Hermitage. Nancy Kaplan suggested the film The Ark to us before we left and I also read The Madonnas of Leningrad (thank you Debi Bernstein-Siegel) on the plane to Moscow. The movie, shot in one take, thousands of actors, and dozens of costume changes, is a stroll thru Russian history as seen through the Hermitage rooms and art. Madonnas is a haunting evocation of the three year siege of Leningrad (now St.Petersburg again) and the lengths museum employees went to save the treasures entrusted to them.

It would take weeks to see the Hermitage’s three million plus works of art. I made Martin pinch me as we climbed the grand marble staircase at the museum’s entry. We only had an afternoon, a mere soupcon in the ocean that comprises the collection. Rooms of Rembrandts. Another pinch. Of Picassos. Of Matisse. Pinch. Pinch. The 1812 War Gallery showcasing portrait after portrait of heroes of the. Again too much to describe. It was amazing to see works of art that I’d only read about — Matisse’s The Red Room positively glowed. We were familiar with The Dance — five figures their hands linked dancing joyfully against a ground of blue and green, a unification of human being heaven and earth. On the wall facing the dancers was the companion panel “Music” which we had never seen. It featured featured five figures four seated, two of whom were playing flutes.

It was hard not to consider how the museum came to own these these works of Matisse, Picasso, Renoir et al, most of which were from the collection of two families. “Bequest” and “on loan” were not phrases that appeared on the brass tags beside the paintings. “Acquired” was the verb of the day. Our guide spoke about some Boticellis that went missing from the Hermitage in the 1920’s and never resurfaced. “The Bolsheviks, the Communists took them, “ he spat. “And no one will make me close my mouth.”

This is what I mean about old and new Russia, yesterday’s bricks showing through today’s plaster, as if today’s Russia is still the thinnest veneer atop decades of history lying beneath. Hard not to wonder how all the impressionist painting were acquired when tag after tag said “from the Suchovsky family”.

Walking through the great halls, the wood floors restored to their pre-war beauty, the paintings rehung and back in their frames, I couldn’t help but imagine it as it had been during the siege. The tears came unbidden as I realized how much had been destroyed, collapsed ceilings, snow and ice warping everything it touched, the museum workers wracked with hunger and desperation doing everything in their power to save this heritage. And because of some small accident in time (and my grandfather’s courage and foresight) I was blessed to enjoy it in all, returned to its former glory.

Catherine’s Palace — here we could have used much more than the two hours allotted to us. It is a long long vision of robin’s egg blue, white and gold. Room after room of art, beautiful inlaid floors that just begged to be waltzed upon, ceilings painstakingly restored after the war.

The gardens were lovely but even here there was little to sigh over. They don’t seem to know what to do with flowers. The plantings were strangely awkward — rigid lines of a single flower, mixtures that didn’t mix, no sense of combining color, texture and height. There was no soul to it. Very strange. As if Soviet rule was so pervasive that even the simple endeavor of artful gardening had been snuffed out. Even in Peterhoff, public gardens and fountains that made Versailles’ look like a tire garden still had a ways to go with their perennial beds.

Keeping up with the royal theme that night we attended the Russian Ballet. The entire building including the gilt covered red velvet and gilt accented royal boxes had been restored. The performance of Romeo & Juliet was breathtaking, the costumes spare, the set modern.

The next day we visited the Yusupov Palace, one of four of the family’s St. Petersburg homes. This 19th century palace was the site of Gregory Rasputin’s murder, his first murder anyway. Unlike the royal palaces this one seemed almost livable; grand as it was you could envision a family living there, reading in the blue room, dining in the red room, attending music recitals and dance performances in the 220 seat theater that the family built for their own performers.

In between these two cities was the river cruise part of the tour — five days floating down the Volga (and I didn’t hear one yo heave ho). Again Grand Circle was terrific. We sailed on the Rossia, a boat whose 300 rooms had been converted to 200. The rooms were compact but not cramped. We had closets and drawers. Those of you who know how unpacking is so important to me will be happy to learn that I was able to unpack everything down to all my toiletries that fit in the roomy bathroom cabinet.

Our fellow voyagers were a delightful group. Seating was not assigned so each meal we tried to sit with different people — couples, families, women traveling together. There was one man, Rip, who was 92 and spry and agile as someone much younger. He was tall and lean and had a shock of white hair and eyes as blue as a lake. He grew up near Jackson, MS and for the first few years of school went to class in a covered wagon. There was a group of seven — a mother, two grandmothers and their three twenty- something grandkids. People came fro all over although we were the only ones from Michigan.

Each day we would dock in a little Russian town — Uglich, Yaroslavl, Kizhi Island, Svir Stroi. Each had its own flavor. In both Uglich and Yaroslavl we were treated to a capella concerts. Hauntingly beautiful as the singers’ voices echoed off the walls and domes of the churches. In Yaroslavl our local guide told us about the first time (only twelve years ago) the church bells rang again. They had been silenced by Stalin and that first day the pealing went on and on for hours. There are now yearly bell competitions and she showed us the maker’s marks bells centuries old. In that little plaza where we heard a brief bell concert there were what appared to be doll houses arranged in a cul de sac. Turns out they were reproductions of beehives!

My favorite port stop was Kizhi Island on Lake Onega. Kizhis big draw is its Church of Transfiguration (22 timbered onion domes). The domes change color in the light flickering like a fish whose scales turn grey to silver to pink to green depending on the time of day and the angle of the sun’s rays. Looking at them from afar, the domes seemed to flow into one another; there was a watery sinuousness to them from angles.

Wood was harvested in the winter when the sap was most concentrated and thus impervious to the elements. The church, and all buildings, were built with axes not saws, so the edges of the timbers would never fray. There developed a system of notches, fifteen different kinds — winter notch, child notch, monkey notch. I don’t know what the meaning was but it’s interesting to speculate.

The island, situated in the middle of Lake Onega, was so peaceful. I sat on a bench in the sun and Martin walked around the island snapping photos at every step. Its the kind of isolated place still imbued with ancient pristine beauty, the kind of place whose peace beckoned Tolstoy to come and put quill to paper.

Each day on the ship we could relax, read, chat with the other passengers.
There were Russian lessons, history lectures, an afternoon of babushka painting
(we each had a set of little wooden dollies and paints!), a predinner vodka tasting party (Martin had three shots of vodka, a lifetime first), a blini making party, and a tour of the captain’s deck. We learned to sing Russian lullabies and dance the Kalinka.

We had a home visit in the remote village of Svir Stroi. It was a lovely little town. A short walk from where the ship docked we spent an hour or so with a Russian woman in her small home.

Everywhere we turned, from Svir Stroi to St. Petersburg, the colors of the buildings lent a curious fanciful air to the country’s history. Palm Beach on the Volga! Light blue, pink, yellow, pistachio green. It as if the city planners handed out paintbrushes and told everyone to go out and paint the town pale blue, yellow, green. I’m sure punsters will come up with all kind of quips about the country actually being painted red but as some of you may know the word for red — something like krasiviy — really means beautiful.

There were many beautiful parts of Russia but we never forgot where we were. Our guides were quite open with us, albeit hesitant, to criticize the Soviet system under which they lived until the recent past.

Natalya, our Program Director, told us of growing up under Soviet rule. Her parents believed in the system of the USSR. “They worshipped Stalin,” she said. “Stalin was the father to all fatherless children. Soldiers would fight and die with his name on their lips.”
Natalya recalled a happy childhood. She has an older brother and both parents were professors which gave them summers off. Each year they spent one month vacationing on the coast of the Black Sea. They lived in a two-room apartment, no running water. School was free and so was the university. Medical care was totally free, salaries were guaranteed and paid on time. Moscow was safe and she and her brother could venture out into Moscow as preteens and be safe even at midnight.

But there were shortages, apartments were cramped and waterless. They could travel only to a Socialist country and only once a year. Any tour group they were on had a KGB agent and vacationers spent their touring time playing “Guess who’s the agent?” She told us the story of an uncle who, when he learned the truth about Stalin, went blind and deaf and while he recovered his sight, his hearing never returned.

I asked her which system she preferred and after a long hesitation she said, “Now. There are more opportunities.” Given the recent aggression in Georgia, the Soviet bear seems to be coming out of its Glasnost hibernation. And given the ongoing murders of outspoken journalists, Anna Politkovskaya and others, how deeply submerged was the bear, anyway?

This travelogue might better be called a travelongue and so I will touch on our last two stops briefly. I loved, absolutely loved Tallinn, Estonia. A walled city dating back to 1154 it has been preserved (and rebuilt in the wake of WWII) it is perfectly charming with cobbled stones streets, a huge central plaza, beautiful overlooks, trendy restaurants and of course churches. There was an apothecary still in business since the 13th century; many buildings had plaques attesting to the fact that they had been renovated in the 17th century.

Martin got in his climbing fix when we climbed Gothic St. Olaf’s Church. The views were breathtaking as were the walks up and down the spiral stone staircase. We spent a morning at an open air museum that recreates Estonia’s village life — preserved farm houses, a church and other buildings comprise the recreation. In the afternoon we had lunch at a farm house. The dairy farmer produces cheese and yogurt for much of the region. The image of the rounds of cheeses all stacked on pristine shelves was quite impressive.

In contrast to the bucolic and ancient parts of Estonia it is also a modern city with glass office buildings, chic shops and elevators that whisked us ten floors in about three seconds.

Then it was on to Helsinki which at first I wasn’t too keen on. Bustling, lots of cigarette smoke, kind of disorienting. Our hotel was across the street from the Synagogue and we were given a tour by the Cantor. There are 150 students in the school; the synagogue is Orthodox and there is kosher restaurant next door. (Closed when we were there for vacation.) The synagogue was beautiful, wooden pews, the ark was gaily painted and the Jewish community though small and plenty intermarried is strong and vibrant enough to support a day school, home for the elderly and a federation-type organization all of which comprise the synagogue complex.

We relaxed on a boat tour, went to a couple of wonderful (and weird) art exhibits. One featured huge ceramic flowers glazed in gorgeous colors. Another was a study of ways to help women pee standing up. Guess which exhibit was wonderful and which was weird. There was also a wonderful modern church built right into a mountain of granite. The ceiling nearly all glass and the morning we were there a student from the conservatory was playing the violin. The acoustics were so good that I don’t even think she was miked. Our guide said that the percentage of people who attend church is fairly low. One evening I attended a serendipitous concert of Kirtan music. Well, it was serendipitious for me and so lovely. The women’s voices blended sweet and echoing. Didn’t need to read the program to enjoy the concert. Music is truly the universal language.

The last thing to mention are the white nights. For our entire trip we never saw night. It was a novelty at first and then we quickly adjusted. The sun set at around one or two and rose around three-thirty. No seasonal affective order in this part of the world. Until winter. The sun also rises but at eleven in the morning and bids nighty night at four in the afternoon. When we got back to the states we looked outside and saw dark and it was a novelty.

We’re back five weeks now. It’s taken me this long to wrap my head around the trip well enough to write about it. Martin has just finished going through his photos and I’ll try to include some in the near future. I do not know if I’ve done our journey justice but I hope this has given you some of the flavor of our experience. So for now it’s bye bye. Or as they say in the Land of the Firebird — paka paka.

(If this travelogue has inspired you to take a voyage with Grand Circle Travel please mention my name. Might see you on a future trip!)

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22 thoughts on “Land of the Firebird

  1. Joe Gromacki

    Wonderful travelogue! And, of course, I love the title! What an experience! Thank you for sharing this marvelous glimpse into both the brick wall and the plaster! Your writing is fantastic — the visual is very potent! Thanks again!



  2. Jeff Cunix

    Debra, that was phenominal. After viewing the pictures, I was very impressed with your ability to capture so many moments and experiences of your trip and put them into prose. You have quite a remarkable talent. Have you given any thought to writing a play?

  3. Debra

    Spaseeba bolshoi, Jeff (mega thanks!)
    Glad you enjoyed the travelogue. Don’t think I have a play up my sleeve, however. Working on novel #2. Does that count?

  4. Cathy

    Debra: You must have gone thru a gazillion Dover notebooks keeping track of these beautiful sites. All the names (spelling!), locations and history. Such descriptive illustrations. Martin’s description here at work (“We had a wonderful vacation”) didn’t quite do the trick. Thank you for the beauty of it all.

  5. Sandy

    What a wonderful account of your journey! Three weeks seems like a long time, but with so much to see and experience, I’m sure it’s way too short.

  6. Linda

    Great report of your tour! We took the Vantage Travel tour to Russia the first two weeks of August and saw most of the same things you did. We have taken several trips with Grand Circle and their subsidiary Overseas Adventure Travel and have always had a great time. We debated whether to go to Russia with Grand Circle or Vantage and selected the latter because most of the tours that were optional with GCT were included with Vantage. We did not take the pre-trip or post-trip this time–but we have been to Helsinki on a previous tour. Thanks for reviving our memories of what we saw on the trip!

  7. Anita Silberman

    Hi Cousin,
    As usual, you writing is wonderful. I enjoyed your tale of the wonders of the “Old Country”. It makes me rethink my thoughts of doing Russia by an Oceanliner Cruise and copying your path. I’ll send you some pictures of our Mediteranian Cruise – but alas – no traveloge. We loved every moment of it – Italy, Spain and France. Love, Anita

  8. Tom Morley

    Bravo Debra! And spasiba! Terse, poetic, insighful, you are an enchanting portal to an amazing Russia and its diverse people. You are a modern-day Hedrick Smith. I really enjoyed your descriptions and observations as you and Marting sprint through the beauty and enigmas. Best wishes, Tom

  9. Vicki Bandy

    Dear Debra,
    Just got back from Grand Circle’s Russian Waterways trip. Your description of the trip is wonderful! You didn’t mention one of the highlights for me – the visit to the St. Petersburg music school. Thanks for your great writing.

  10. mira

    It was great to travel along with you on this fabulous journey. Your words pulled me right into the immediacy of every step. No surprise. You’re a terrific writer! Much of it took me back to my trips through Ukraine. No coubt about it – that Soviet bear never really hibernated, just kept itself out of sight and out of mind. Now, it is not only growling but using its powerful claws to grab and destroy again.

    keep writing – the pen is mightier…..

  11. Donna Steinmetz

    Thank you for bringing your story to us. We are travelling in your path this summer on GCT to Russia and I hope the country becomes “alive” as it did for you. We have visited St. Petersburg and toured the synagogue and in the early 90’s had an opportunity to go to a choral presentation at the synagogue in Moscow.That was a long time ago and we look forward to seeing all the changes.
    Your writing is an inspiration!!

  12. Anita Silberman

    Nice writing and I love Martin’s pictures of your last few trips, When is Florida in your plans? My casa is available. I charge the same rate as Aunt Ruth. Talk soon. Love, Anita

  13. Betty Piper

    Thank you so much for sharing your trip with us. We are taking the GCT Russia Reveled:Moscow to St Petersburg River Cruise in late July 2009. I look forward to a great adventure and as I am more of an artist than writer, to capture in beautiful pictures what that you have created with your words. I especially look forward to seeing the “Palm Beach on the Volga”.
    Thank you,

  14. Corinne Bissonnette

    What a wonderful write-up Debra. We are going with AMA on July 6th-18th and after reading your experiences, I am really excited. I really enjoyed your experiences at the small villages you visited as some writers have said that they were bored. I am looking forward to the villages as much at the big cities, for their unique scenery. Thanks again.

  15. martin

    Reread the essay and you truly captured our trip. Debra and I make a great team, her writing and my pictures (4000). It is hard to believe that today basically marks one year from our return. This was a trip of a lifetime.

  16. Weight Loss

    Hi! I’ve been reading your site for some time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out! Just wanted to say keep up the excellent work!

  17. Phil Hanna

    We took the same trip in May-June 2011 and it was fabulous. Grand Circle took care to make the shipboard experience perfect, and Russia is unbelievably beautiful. I guess it helped that the weather was around 68 degree F the whole time and it only rained for one brief half hour in Moscow. I would highly recommend this trip.

  18. Bensonhurst Gary

    Wow! Again wow. After reading that I’m ready to go to Firebird in NY for a home made honey infused vodka!

  19. Kathy Foster

    Wow, I feel very lucky to have come across this travelogue in my browsing on the internet. We have booked the Grand Circle Moscow to St. Petersburg river cuise starting on Aug. 23, 2012. We’ll be on the Rossia, too. After reading all the wonderful descriptions here, I’m more anxious than ever to see for myself. Thank you, Debra!


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