Caviar and Champagne or Onion with Vodka?

I visited Russia twice. The first time when it was still the USSR and ten years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. From an early age on I had decided I would not like Russia or the Russian people. I didn’t need the COLD WAR or politics to tell me what to feel and what to believe. I had heard enough stories from German, Italian and Austrian soldiers when I grew up. So many had been prisoners of war in Russia during WWII, including my own father. The fact that all of them made a difference between Russia as a country, the Russian people, and their government was ignored by me on purpose. Isn’t it all the same?

I didn’t expect much from the country or the people. How did I picture Russia? Cold, dark, unfriendly, dangerous perhaps. However, I wanted to see Moskow THE HEART and St. Petersburgh, THE SOUL of Russia.

I wanted to eat real caviar, try the famous red Russian Krim Champagne, and see the Kremlin. 

In pictures, I always admired the Kremlin and wondered if I would stand in front of it myself one day. The fact that this is supposed to be a church only dawned on me years later -the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral, which we mostly see on TV when they talk about Moscow or the Kremlin.

I react weirdly when I finally see things I dreamed of for so long. I sat down in awe when I saw the pyramids, I run up and down the sandhills like a child when I visited the desert in Africa. I laughed at Big Ben like it was an old friend, and I clapped my hands when I stood in front of the Kremlin. I enthusiastically pointed my finger at it, “There, there, there,” as if the surrounding people hadn’t noticed the building at all.

I needed to see Russia, had to confirm my judgment, had to see firsthand how awful the people and the country were.

Moscow! Where to start?

The city impressed me immensely. The streets are huge, as are the buildings. I don’t think there is a building under seven floors, even the residential buildings from the beginning of the 20th century have a minimum of eight floors. They look like prototypes or models of planned buildings but are made of brick and built with style.

The typical Russian wood carvings are mimicked in stone.

Apartment buildings look like a sugar baker created them. Just bigger, much bigger.

Stalinist confectionery style. This is a residential building!

On my first trip to the USSR, we had a very strict itinerary. We had to stay in the hotel most of the time, had certain periods when we could leave, and were never left alone -of course, we managed to escape, but were always quickly found and corrected by an officer. Our trip was planned from minute to minute, we needed permission to see certain buildings and often our request was denied. We weren’t supposed to talk to the Russian people, the ones we interacted with were trained to answer as the government told them to.

On my second trip to Russia, we were working tourists, could come and go like in other countries. Some things were allowed, some forbidden. It’s always good to know the RULES, every country is different.

Moskow! While there is so much to see, I was undecided at first. Do I like Moscow? My standard is very simple, but it’s a tough one, would I want to live in this city for two or three months?

With every kilometer my colleagues and I covered, the answer in my head firmed to an undeniable YES. I like Moscow.

I haven’t seen a city that I found architecturally more interesting. The mixture of classicism, socialism, prefabricated buildings, old churches, Russian Baroque, spectacular metro stations, and the Stalinist confectioner’s style completely charmed me. Moscow is my personal architecture Mecca!

A ‘simple’ metro station.
A metro station
Lomonosov University in Moscow. Stalinist confectionery style again.

Moscow itself? The people are diverse, fashionable, busy, and above all infinitely hospitable. The people in this big city were just like in every other big city. How could it be?

Of course, just like in every other city, there is the contrast between luxury and poverty, between rich and poor. The metro stations -palaces for the people- were magnificent, but also somehow depressing for me. Endless corridors under the city for the working men and women.

Above there is traffic chaos and packed roads around the clock. There is EVERYTHING, but at prices that a normal citizen can hardly afford. (We were offered a menu in a restaurant for 600 euros!) I disliked the sight of the Russian McDonald’s just like I hated to see the fast-fat restaurant in Rome, Italy.

We had the chance to travel outside of Moscow with one of our native translators there. Finally, we could talk to the people away from work, away from the big city. I noticed how big Russia is. Everything is far away, endless land as far as you can see.

The Russians know there is a lot wrong with Russia. They wish for a different regime, but also know it would come with a heavy price to pay. “There wouldn’t be a peaceful revolution,” many tell us. They don’t want people to get killed but wish to live like we do.

“I would like to believe in a better future. But power only changes when blood is shed, and nobody wants that.” The experience of neighboring countries scares them. Brothers killing brothers, that’s never a good thing, so everything remains as it is.

Russia away from Moscow is harder to like, the people are easier to love.

I saw empty stores, people standing in line -only the lucky ones will get the fresh fruits, most of them will go home with potatoes. Here most people live on fatty soups and enjoy baked goods. No caviar!

Solyanka a soup with pickles and sausages. It’s one of the best soups I have ever tasted.

I ate solyanka for the first time and fell in love with it. I tried the famous borscht and asked for seconds. I ate blinis -Russian pancakes- and drank vodka out of a water glass. I bit into an onion because it was offered to me. I cried, the Russian laughed so hard, his belly was shaking.

People didn’t have much, but they were welcoming and invited us into their homes everywhere we went. Their knowledge about other countries is limited. The Russian government likes it that way.

Before the fall of the USSR, only the Russians living on the borders of other countries could get radio and TV stations from their neighbors, telling them the truth about their own country. Just like the Germans during WWII were secretly listening to BBC hiding in their cupboards and basements, willingly risking their lives to get information about WWII, the Russians learned about the cold war.

Keeping the people uninformed or telling lies so often that they became the new truth, that’s how these regimes work. I have seen it all over the world. It’s fascinating how it’s done. It’s frightening!

I saw a Russian lady almost fainting when she saw pictures of European and American malls. “I thought we won the war,” she cried, wondering why they didn’t have what we all are so used to.

The Russian people are lovely. Very likable, very warm, and interested in everything. They aren’t how I wanted them to be.

They are skilled storytellers, they like to dance and sing. They love their country “Mother Russia / Россия-матушка” and how could they not? It’s beautiful and so different from what I expected. It’s moody too, just like all females are.

The Russians don’t like the invasion of Ukraine, many will never find out the truth. By now the internet is censored, the information they get is what the Russian government wants them to hear. Many soldiers haven’t been told they would have to fight their own brothers.

If anything can stop Putin now, it’s the Russian people. Many are protesting and they are risking their freedom and ultimately often their lives. Within just two days after Putin declared war on Ukraine, 750,000 Russians signed a petition against the war in Ukraine on the website change.org. At the forefront of the press is Novaya Gazeta, who dared to write the word “War” banned by Putin on its front page.

Young bloggers demonstrated in Moscow against the war at the memorial of Putin’s opponent, Boris Nemtsov. They all risked being arrested, as hundreds of Russian demonstrators and war opponents have done in recent days. Some can no longer stand it and are planning to leave Putin’s Russia. But where to go?

Again I realize how fortunate I am -we are? We can judge, speak and offend freely, we can spread lies and mock the truth, and can rest assured, there will never be consequences. I have taken risks in my life but was never forced to risk my life. I cannot imagine!

They say traveling widens your horizon and I find it to be true, it also humbles you and leaves you grateful. While all questions I have will never be answered, Mother Russia and the Russian people gave me more responses than I could have hoped for.

Yes, now I can see how the Russian people helped the POWs on their trip home. I have witnessed their kindness, generosity, and their curiosity firsthand. I like the Russian people with the same passion, as I dislike their government.

Sometimes an offered onion can make a difference!

24 thoughts on “Caviar and Champagne or Onion with Vodka?

  1. This was one of the most eye opening posts I have read in a long time. An honest account of a group of people we know little about. It puts a heart and soul with the faces we rarely see from Russia. Thank you for sharing this!

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  2. One of my favorite people in Oak Ridge who was also one of the most personally interesting to me is/was a Russian translator. I always hoped she would join in book club discussion of books written by Russian authors and/or were about or set in Russia. I wanted her perspective based on her personal experience of putting these books in both an historical and social context. She never disappointed and always enlightened me.

    Based on the little I know and/or have learned about Russia, especially historically and which you may already know, I believe there is a wide variety of “flavors” i.e. backgrounds, ethnicities, etc. represented in the Russian people and also its land. I also think, if I recall correctly from my friend the one described above who grew up in Russia and was happy she was out and in the US, they are used to being “ruled” by “authoritarians”.

    This background, to me, is not much different from the history and almost current state of the US and its citizens. So far, we’ve only had one bloody revolution. I think Russia has had several. Again, so far, we’ve mainly been able to enact change without major bloodshed here (except the Civil War). Maybe Russia can too? I think this may have happened in the eras of Gorbachev and maybe Yeltsin. Too bad it didn’t last.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It is so fascinating to hear of your incredible opportunity to travel and experience life in USSR/Russia. Russian history really interests me, but I never actually considered visiting the country. I am sure you must wonder and think about the people you met in your travels and wondering what their lives are like today. I really enjoyed reading from your travels, Bridget. It’s truly a fascinating country very different from a life I’ve ever known. I think it must open up so much in personal introspection when you visit a country with such unique qualities.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The first time was scare. We were a group of translators and the way they were watching us, was downright frightening. The second time around I could meet people and it was wonderful. I enjoyed my trip to Russia very much and ever since, no matter where we live or where we travel to, I always look for a Russian restaurant. While TV only shows the bad guys, the cartells or the gangs, the crime lords and the criminals, the reality is so much sweeter. I feel sorry for the people in Russia. I had underestimated them and the beauty of the country.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was in Leningrad as it was known at that time on an educational cruise in 1970. It was a place where armed guards patrolled the dock, cameras were forbidden on the decks, individual ID cards were required as opposed to a blanket school passport–which was certainly fair enough on reflection, vodka and cigarettes could be purchased at tourist shops that only tourists were allowed in and four of us got marched at gunpoint along the quay after my boyfriend thought it would be funny to throw half his hand of playing cards carefully hoarded from the previous night’s unfinished card game, off the ship at us, leaving other members of the party to dig out a teacher once they were back onboard to explain why us four not only weren’t. but were now being held in some office. It was also a place–as a friend and I found out the next day when we all allowed into Leningrad on our own aged all of fourteen and decided to board the local tram and see the local shops for ourselves — with the most welcoming people, who, at every turn wanted to shake your hand and give you one of their badges–badges I still have to this day– and see you didn’t get lost. I was often asked what were the Russian people like and the very same as us, is what I said. So thank you for this wonderful post that reminds us.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. A beautiful beautiful post, thank you for writing it. I hope freedom, peace and prosperity will come to ordinary people in both Ukraine and Russia soon after this dark winter under senseless “leadership”.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thank you, Bridget, for such a well balanced account of Russia, and the Russians, according to your experience. Only today I was discussing with my wife how we are disgusted with our Government’s response, particularly in respect of refugees (not just Ukrainian refugees) and also with many people’s lack of interest or concern for the current dire situation. Then I remembered that there are far more good people around than bad ones, many willing to help others without seeking any recognition or reward. I truly believe that to be the case throughout the world. I hope it is, because the alternative does not bear thinking about!

    Liked by 3 people

    • We are so drilled to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ only the bad, that the good takes us by surprise. Would you like to have a list of countries I didn’t like or refused to travel to, and/or had a judgement about? Would you like to know how often I had to reverse everything about my judgement, after I finally could spend some time there?

      I have no idea how we ever will be able to solve the refugee crises. It looks like we are more concerned about building walls. We show solidarity with the refugees of Ukraine, but what is with all the others? What about the Russian who now have to flee their own country after protesting.

      I happen to think you are right, there are far more good people out there. I wish they all would vote, but too many are tired of the same old ‘shit’.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is such a fascinating post, you’ve experienced so much about Russia and a lot of it is good and what seems like memories worth cherishing. Its a pity how politicians sometimes take things too far. Here’s to hoping peace prevails sooner rather than later.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for this post and sharing your insight. I have wondered – don’t the Russians wonder why Facebook has been cut off? I guess they are told that it is full of lies. One of the characteristics of amateur radio is that it is harder for the government to control. I hope some of the truth is being spread by this medium. Now, I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but don’t you think the Russian people are as varied as the people here in the U.S. – with regard to their politics? I do believe many of the Russian people are against this war. And more would be if they were fully informed of the truth. But all of them? I am not so sure. I am grateful we can speak freely without risking our lives. But there is pressure here to be politically correct – is this a first step? Lastly, I hope something stops Putin, but I am not so sure it will be the Russian people. I would be most happy to be wrong about that though. Thank you for your post again, and I hope you see these comments as thoughtful questioning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lots of questions! I love it. I think Putin’s war will be stopped by either the European Union or an alliance of the USA and Europe. As for Putin as leader of Russia? I believe the Russian people will end either his dictatorship of him or the ones after him.
      The Russians are more varied than any other country I know. Mongols, Tartars, Turks, German Russians, Chechens, Ukrainians, Armenians, Russians, Slavs, Central Asian groups, Eurasians, Siberian groups and so many more I can’t come up with. I am not sure, but I believe they have over 100 ethnic groups and nationalities. Actually, Russia and the USA are very much alike in this aspect, even though they have a very different history they’re similar in the sense that it’s kind of a wide civilization rather than just a country. It’s multicultural.
      The sad truth is most Americans look at Russia as the enemy the same way I did. We take in certain information and build in our heads the picture of an enemy. It’s the government we dislike so much, not the people of the country. Just like with China. What a beautiful country, what amazing people, what a terrible regime.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I am so glad you did.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I always wanted to write this post, but never found the right motivation -also, I was a bit afraid. Most Americans only know Russia from TV or from what we are ‘fed’ just the way I had made up my mind about Russia from the stories I had heard in school or from neighbors and family.
      I have traveled a lot as a translator and interpreter and have enjoyed most of it, but some countries (like Russia) were more than just traveling, they taught me a lesson or two. Thank you, Bette for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

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