Beyond Seattle / Places of My Heart / Russia & Beyond

Russia Keeps Calling

 – “A SEATTLE WOMAN KEEPS RETURNING TO, AND REDISCOVERING, THE COUNTRY” –

–By Helen Holter ©1994 and ©2011   (first published in Seattle Times, May 8, 1994)

UNESCO-listed St. Basil's Cathedral is an iconic symbol of Red Square, Moscow, and Russia Photo credit: Helen Holter

[Note in 2011: This 1994 story was one of three time-sensitive travel features I wrote, focusing intensely on startling, in-your-face changes in post-U.S.S.R., rather than a reflective, political analysis of this country’s dissolution. What strikes me most about re-reading these stories  – 17 years later – are the places, prices, and puzzlement of this time in history.  Pure vintage.]

MOSCOW, 1994:  I keep returning to Russia because my heart tells me to. I’ve visited here 10 times since 1980 – as a student, journalist, and traveler. I’ve come to know and love this place as communist, near-capitalist, and most recently as an undecided mess between the two.

Helen Holter, St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, Red Square, Russia

I’m in Moscow’s Red Square with St. Basil’s in the background, days after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Russian Beginnings

Growing up in Montana, my friends and I mimicked slogans overheard from grownups – “heathen commies!” andbetter dead than Red!” – as we scanned the skies with 10-year-old eyes, seeking out pretend Russian missiles before scrambling into our make-believe bomb shelters.

Later, in college, I annoyed my parents by taking a Russian-language class; my father was furious when I announced I was majoring in Russian and area studies.  To my surprise, its linguistic puzzles and political/economic complexities captivated me and disciplined my brain.  In 1980, I was among the first Americans allowed to live with Russian students in a Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) dormitory.  I lived as they did, standing in the same go-slow lines for items like oranges and toilet paper.  I grew to know Russian professors, writers, and artists, admiring them for their mental and physical stamina to survive under a system that made their lives so difficult.

This 1980s massive Lenin banner hanging in Moscow's Red Square goes WAY back to my student days in the U.S.S.R. Photo credit: Helen Holter

This 1980s massive Lenin banner hanging in Moscow’s Red Square goes WAY back to my student days in the U.S.S.R.
Photo credit: Helen Holter

I learned patience as I saw Russians of all walks of life deal with an inefficient economic system.  I learned respect for political and religious dissidents whose convictions were far deeper than mine.  And I learned that I would never have Russians’ grit and stamina.

Behind the Camera

A career in television news took me to Uzbekistan, Chernobyl and Moscow in 1990.  I interviewed people from high-ranking officials (including Uzbekistan’s President Karimov) to lowly villagers, all caught up, as was I, by the great changes in their nation.

Uzbekistan, Bukhara, mosque, women

Three women listen as the call to prayer ends in Bukhara, Uzbekistan in 1990
Photo credit: Helen Holter

With each subsequent visit to Russia, I grew more hopeful that the communist command system would be replaced by capitalism and democracy.  But it didn’t happen, not on my timeline. By late 1992, I was so disgusted with the corruption and crime and maze of derailed reforms that I vowed not to return until things straightened out.  (I was so naive!)

A Different Russia

Yet, as the next months passed, something kept calling.  How could I turn my back on Russians from whom I had learned so much?  A chance to return to Russia last spring came on short notice – no time to plan.  Perhaps deciding quickly was better.  I wasn’t quite sure how I would react to what might have changed: in Russia, in Russians, in me.  A year earlier, there was no such thing as spur-of-the-moment travel to Russia.  Today, travelers can get a visa on a day’s notice at Seattle’s new Russian Consulate.  And Russia won’t wait.  It’s every cliche you’ve heard: history in the making, a living laboratory of change, and so on.

Helen Holter, ABC News, Moscow, Russia, TV news

Working for ABC News in Moscow, Russia: a TV career highlight with the world’s best journalists. Downright fun folks, too. (1990s)
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Though it had been just a few months since my previous visit, Russia showed me yet another different face, this time, a consumer-friendlier face.  At Moscow’s Sheremeytevo Airport, I breezed through customs. My American friends, long-time residents of Moscow, had hired a private car and driver from their favorite Russian “car co-op” to pick me up:  $40 for three people round-trip to downtown Moscow.

“We try to do business with Russian mom-and-pop outfits, like the new car co-op,” one friend said.  “That way, we get to know them, and it’s our small way of helping turn this economy around.”  I liked that.

Eating, Russian-Style

My friends laughed at my long-time Russian survival habits.  My suitcase was bulging with food, from peanut butter and Cheez Wiz to coffee and Top Ramen.

“You won’t go hungry this time!” they insisted as we drove straight from the airport to Rostik’s Chicken, a fast-food cafe in the renovated GUM department store next to Red Square.  The food was tasty: two pieces of fried chicken, cole slaw, a roll and two Pepsis cost $3.  Rostik’s is a popular hangout for young Russians and Westerners: plain tables and straight-backed chairs crowd together, with American top-40 music competing over the mishmash din of English and Russian conversation.  Outside, the tiny Copacabana Cafe served espresso for $1.

  • A Culinary Mission
Kombi's, Moscow, Russia, joint ventures

Making sandwiches at popular Kombi’s, a Spanish/Russian joint venture in Moscow, Russia in 1993
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Eating out is something of a mission for many Westerners in Moscow – their small way of supporting small Russian businesses.  Kombi’s Deli is one of the new cafes, with bright purple columns and doors that stand out from the surrounding gray buildings. Submarine sandwiches, salads – even Oreo milk shakes – were priced from $1.30 to $4.00.  For the next month I lunched daily in this sparkling clean cafe, sharing tables with both Russians and foreigners, eating, “supporting the Russian economy,” and gaining weight.

Moscow, Russia, fruit, bananas, fruit stand

Once hard to find, fruit is now plentiful in Moscow, Russia (1993)
Photo credit: Helen Holter

  • Food Aplenty

Food was fresh and plentiful, though a bit expensive:  $1.20 for a pound of carrots; $7 for a pound of hamburger; $4 for a can of chili con carne.  But a loaf of pungent Russian black bread was 25 cents; Russian champagne, $2, and sour cream just pennies a half pint.  Food was sold at mom-and-pop kiosks as well as in the popular rynoks (markets).  Booths were set up near metro stations and along busy streets, their owners selling everything from kiwis to canned hams.  I even stumbled across a kiosk selling guns alongside Nescafe coffee and Juicy Fruit gum.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Because I was on a business visa instead of a tourist visa, I didn’t have to pay the required two nights lodging which can run up to $400 a night.  Fortunately, I was house-sitting for some out-of-town Moscow friends, but could easily have rented an apartment for a couple weeks for $500 to $800 by checking ads in one of Moscow’s several English-language newspapers.  From my apartment phone, I dialed direct to the U.S. on nights and weekends for about 50 cents a minute.  From a hotel that call would run $3-$10 a minute.

St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, Red Square, Russia

Look hard and you’ll find inexpensive housing in Moscow, even near Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square (1993)
Photo credit: Helen Holter

More changes from my earlier visits: The recently opened Travelers’ Guest House, less than two miles from Moscow’s Red Square, had beds for only $12 a night.  Rooms were shared with two or three other travelers; a single room was $25.  In St. Petersburg, the International Hostel, a new and friendly hostel for all ages, offered shared rooms and a continental breakfast for $15.  I spent a few nights in both places; though spartan, the accommodations were clean and safe.

Dealing with Crime

On my 1992 trip I was hassled, perhaps because I was alone so often and an easy female target.  Although the crime rate has increased dramatically in the past year or two, it still wasn’t as bad as, say, New York City.  Last spring, I was more careful, but determined not to let the threat of crime scare me away.  I kept my jewelry, earrings and purse in a nondescript shopping bag and put on my jewelry when I arrived at my destination.  I also talked with locals to learn how to avoid the high-crime streets and neighborhoods.

Some recent isolated attacks on foreigners caused my Russian friends to discourage me from taking the eight-hour overnight train trip between Moscow and St. Petersburg.  I rode the train, anyway, sharing a two-bed compartment with a young Russian businesswoman.  I got a good night’s rest, first-class, for just $15 each way.  I was told it doesn’t hurt to take a belt or wire to secure the train door during the night trip.  I also promised myself to not travel alone so much next time, to help reduce my risk of becoming a crime victim.

Shopping for Russian Souvenirs

Souvenir prices were low, the quality high.  St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt and Moscow’s Izmailovo Park open-air market were fine places to buy well-made stacking dolls for $10, paintings for $40, and hand-painted wooden eggs for $5 each.

Moscow, Russia, Barbie dolls, Izmailovo

Barbie doll seller at Moscow’s Izmailovo outdoor market, with his wares strapped around his neck (1993)
Photo credit: Helen Holter

One young man was selling Barbie dolls, his wares strapped around his neck.  A cheerful blond woman welcomed me into her booth of handmade patchwork quilts; this was her first day of business and I was her first customer.  A delicate hand-knitted scarf from the Caucasus Mountains was $7 – I paid $60 for a similar one three years earlier.  Finely-crafted lacquer boxes that used to cost $100 were now less than $40.

Moscow, Russia, flower lady, daffodils

Elderly woman sells flowers outside a Moscow metro station (1992)
Photo credit: Helen Holter

An older woman sold daffodils from her garden, a penny each.  I bought five and we struck up a conversation about her grandchildren.  I was supporting this struggling Russian capitalist economy, helping her directly,  and having fun, too.

Russian Culture, From Times of Czars

In my previous travels to Russia, I could not afford the Bolshoi Theatre.  This time I had four straight nights of ballet and opera at the Bolshoi, never paying more than $15 for a fine seat.  They were available outside the theater from assertive English-speaking ticket scalpers the morning of the performances or within minutes of curtain time.

Russia, Moscow, Bolshoi, ballet

Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre is world renowned for the Bolshoi Ballet and Bolshoi Opera, founded in 1776
Photo credit: Helen Holter

At the Majinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov Ballet) in St. Petersburg, I snagged a center seat to a performance of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic for 50 cents – without having to bargain.  Tickets can be ordered through hotels, but prices are higher.  If you, or a friend, speaks Russian, try the box office.

  • Group or Solo?

I speak Russian, so I got around easily on my own. I kept running into independent travelers who don’t speak the language but still figured things out. Some hooked up with a Moscow cultural group, Patriarchi Dom (Patriarch’s House) which offers neighborhood walking tours for $8; trips to artists’ colonies or the Kremlin for $12 to $18; and all-day excursions to the towns of Vladimir and Suzdal for $40.

Russia, Moscow, Kolomenskoye, wedding

Cultural excursion surprise: wedding party at Kolomenskoye, the Tsar’s summer palace near Moscow (May 1993)
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Other travelers – through friends, travel agencies, or chance encounters – hired guides and drivers for $10 to $40 a day.  This way, they saw Russia through the eyes of the locals and weren’t frustrated by the language barrier.  Most important, (here’s that phrase again) “they are supporting the Russian economy.”  One driver-guide I met was Sasha, who participated in Seattle’s 1990 Goodwill Games.

“This is my living,” he said “I work hard, and I meet good people.  Who knows – maybe I’ll meet an American who’ll want to go into business with me!”

Such optimism seemed contagious.

Having Hope in Russia, and Russians

The most heartwarming surprise involved my dear Russian friends, Misha and Olya.  On my previous trip, these highly educated people in their early 30s were having a tough time making ends meet.  Olya had lost her job and Misha’s prestigious international institute was nearly bankrupt.  They wanted to stay in Russia with their young daughter and help rebuild the economy, but how?

This time Misha was working as an economic adviser to a large pharmaceutical company.  Olya was in America, one of 25 winners in an international competition to train at the World Bank.  When she returns, she’ll have new banking skills, a new future – and new hope for her country.

Moscow, Red Square, Russia

A country’s hope, and future: Russian kids in Moscow’s Red Square (1993)
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Hope.  That’s what I had lost on my 1992 trip to Russia.  And that’s why I had to return, why I felt called back.

As my American and Russian friends saw me off at the airport this time, I was saddened to leave.  For the first time, I sensed hope and a confidence that things will work out for this country – in its own time, not mine.

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(Top photo: UNESCO-listed St. Basil’s Cathedral is an iconic symbol of Red Square, Moscow, and Russia. Photo credit: Helen Holter)

[Note: All text, pictures and other content ©Helen Holter 1990-2018, unless otherwise stated.]