Growing up in the USA even after the dissipation of most Cold War tension I was still subconsciously influenced to view Russia (and its citizens) as 'scary communists' and certainly not a place to explore as USA citizen. While conversely I observed an embrace of capitalism and too many uses of the USA flag in fashion to count, it is true that Russia still has tight border control in and out of the country for most citizens outside the former Soviet Union making it challenging (ie inconvenient and expensive) to visit!
There are a few ways to see the country within 72 hours- either getting a pretty painless transit visa at a consulate that doesn't require sponsorship- or without a visa entirely through some cruises that may pass in St Petersburg. But to stay longer than that, as I did visiting my partner's family in inland Moscow, it takes a proper visa requiring planning exact days and accommodation months in advance and a hefty (over $200 if mailing) price tag for a single entry.
This is why I wanted to share my 2 week experience in Moscow, because it's a place not many people would necessarily get an inside perspective on, and some of it may be surprising.
WHY I was there:
To visit my partner's sister and family (husband + 2 daughters). After only actually 'dating' for a collective month, it was decided I'd a) return to Rome to move in with him and b) come with to his annual family visits to Moscow and Azerbaijan. It sounds crazy I know, but sometimes you just listen to your gut and go with it. We spent 2 weeks in Moscow (these dates could not be changed after getting the visa) then one month in AZ.
HOW we got there:
Cost (one way): $160 with Air Serbia
Route: Rome > Belgrade, Serbia (w/ day long stopover- see below) > Moscow
WHAT surprised me the most:
First of all there were not just malls, but really NICE malls everywhere. I had a completely embarrassingly misguided assumption that Russia was, and is currently, communist— and furthermore that most its citizens were content with this and they despised western capitalist culture. (I know I'm an ID10T, send me the judgement and snark...) This couldn't have been further from the truth. While the government might hold on to some ideals from socialism, they clearly are using capitalism (in the business sense) as part of their economy. I saw many Western brands but also Russian brands too. I can't tell you how many H&M's, english words, and USA flags I saw. Of course keep in mind I was in the capital Moscow and can only share from that perspective. The downfall- I couldn't find ONE shirt with cyrillic on it. Mostly everything was written in the Latin alphabet, in English. A bummer since I really wanted to take home a shirt with Russian on it. (I was learning Russian on Duolingo before the visit and was in love with the aesthetics their alphabet)
Second, I was surprised with all the images of Putin holding cute baby animals. In a bookstore I saw a calendar with the cover being Putin holding a baby leopard cub, and countless magnets made of the image of him holding his Caucasian Mountain puppy. Putin couldn't hurt anyone I mean look at him momentarily father that adorable furry creature!
And third, I was amazed at how beautiful the metro stations were. I had heard this ahead of time, but I wasn't prepared for every little detail of every station to be so emaculate and intentionally designed. I wish I had a better camera to capture them at low lighting, and I regret being shy about rushing to take these, but you can get the idea:
WHAT we did:
The purpose of the trip was for visiting family, so much of our time was spent relaxing, conversing, and eating the most delicious home cooked Russian-inspired Azerbaijani food. We also were able to treat the little ones by taking them to museums and parks, which Moscow has a ton of being in the middle of the boreal forest. We were happy to explore different parts of the city and we could also help out Onar's sister by giving her a break from watching them.
You can't visit Moscow without experiencing VDNH. It's an insanely large park with beautiful fountains, gardens, food, and cosmonaut themed attractions. It used to have amusement rides but they've since been taken down. The bottom two photos are from opposite ends of the park. Space exploration is definitely a huge sense of pride in Russia, rightfully so. Even though the US was the first to land on the moon, the Russians were first with basically everything else. (And let's not forget how their socialism set high standards for gender equality leagues before the US- the first woman in space was Soviet Valentina Tereshkova in 1963, 20 years before Sally Kristen Ride who was the 3rd woman in space after another Soviet female cosmonaut in 1982.)
Orlov Museum of Paleontology: Because of the extreme conditions in Siberia, dinosaur fossils were preserved significantly better here than other parts of the world. This is the reason why this museum is unique and super impressive. I unfortunately didn't take many photos, but here are a couple of the entrance and inside:
Parks! Like mentioned above, Moscow is situated within the boreal forest (same as northern MN) and it is integrated into the city with many large and impressive parks. We walked around Tsaritsyno Palace, which was the palace of empress Cathrine the Great. I don't know if 'park' is really the right word because while there were several units of the palace with beautifully landscaped terrain, much of this place was a straight up forest of pine trees. We stumbled on an open area that was a free dance class for anyone that wanted to join. We also went to Gorky Park which is more of a place young people hang out- there was a ton of art and interesting activities going on.
Moscow Planetarium: The first half was spoken and all in Russian (so Onar understood but not I) but the second half I had headphones of Neil deGrasse Tyson narrating the film so it was all worth it.
And of course.....
The Red Square!
A few last extras:
Moscow was a wonderful city to visit for the parks and museums, and most importantly the family we spent our time with. I would never want to try to summarize an entire place from one small experience, and I recognize that visiting a city for a few weeks in no way means I understand what it's like to live there or how their citizens feel, but I did enjoy how much nature was in the city in the form of free and quality public parks. We spent way more time in malls than I ever expected to with my wildly wrong assumptions about Russia's political stances, and left with a respect for the culture and the people particularly about their early adoption of gender equality that came from socialist belief systems.
When I was younger and felt a indistinct sense of fear about visiting Russia, I was doing what is unfortunate human instinct to mistakenly group the governmental relations of a country with the citizen relations, when in reality they are often separate. We're all people with the same desires and fears who happened to be born somewhere in the world. Despite what happens to be our ruling government's opinion about how best to serve their citizens, if any of us sat down for tea with a stranger from anywhere in the world we would find infinite more similarities than differences.
Hope you enjoyed a little peak into some time in Moscow, Russia!
Thanks for reading,