Russia Keeps Calling (p. 3)

Barbie doll seller, wares strapped around his neck. (Moscow, Russia 1993)

Barbie doll seller, wares strapped around his neck. (Moscow, Russia 1993)

 SOME PRICES DROP. 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. One young man was selling Barbie dolls, his wares strapped around his neck. A cheerful blond woman welcomed me into her booth of hand-made 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 ago. Finely-crafted lacquer boxes that used to cost $100 were now less than $40.

Flower lady sells daffodils, making ends meet. (Moscow, Russia 1993)

Flower lady sells daffodils, making ends meet. (Moscow, Russia 1993)

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 . . . and having fun, too.

GETTING CULTURE. 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. Such tickets were available outside the theater from assertive English-speaking ticket scalpers the morning of the performances or within minutes of curtain time.

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 the price is higher. If you, or a friend, speaks Russian, try the box office.

Weddding party at Kolomenskoye, the Tsar's summer palace. Moscow May 1993

Cultural excursion surprise: weddding party at Kolomenskoye, the Tsar’s summer palace. (Moscow May 1993)

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.

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.

A COUPLE COPES. The most heartwarming surprises 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?

A country's hope, and future: Russian kids in Red Square. Moscow, Russia

A country’s hope, and future: Russian kids in Red Square. (Moscow, Russia–1993)

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.

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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[All text, pictures and other content ©Helen Holter 1990-2011, unless otherwise stated.]