Moscow River

Playing Tom Sawyer, Ruskie Style!

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Here's the boat, on which you float!
Okay, here's a bit of advice: if you ever do make it to Moscow, make sure you take a ride down the Moscow River. It will be one of the most enjoyable and relaxing experiences of your trip, take my word for it. And you'll need something relaxing after a while in Moscow.

I had been anticipating this ride since my arrival, after someone had told me it was a great experience. So two days before my departure we headed down to the river for the boat ride. It had been a whirlwind journey so far, exploring Moscow, hopping a train to beautiful St. Petersburg and back again, and then more of Moscow and surrounding areas. I was ready for something slow and leisurely.

We arrived at the dock and only had to wait a couple of minutes for a boat to come by and pick us up. It wasn't very crowded, so we found a couple of spots on the back, open to the sun and the air and with a great view of the city as we floated along. The weather was perfect for a boat ride; the sky was blue and clear and a slight breeze cooled us as the sun reflected off the water.

The ride starts out in familiar territory, places and buildings I had seen many times in my travels around the city, but it would soon take me to new sights I had yet to see during my stay in Moscow.

Christ the Savior Cathedral. Remodeling has now been completed.
Very soon we passed the church you see to the left, Christ the Savior Cathedral, one of the most famous structures in all of Moscow. Stalin actually had the original church blown up with explosives in 1939 and had plans to build a large party office in its place, with a large statue of Lenin on top. When the second world war broke out, the project was cancelled, and instead the world's largest public pool was built on the site. The pool began leaking and having problems in the eighties and was closed in 1990. The Moscow government and the Russian church then decided to rebuild the cathedral. Special thanks to Igor Pavlovsky for information about the cathederal's history.

With the aniversary of Moscow, 850 years to be exact, coming up very soon, reconstruction continued day and night. One night while strolling down the river after dinner we paused to watch the work continue on in the night. Flashes from torches burst like fireworks, lighting up the sky, and roving lights and machinery shifted and moved around like shadows. A very impressive sight, indeed.

The construction finished just in time for the big celebration, and in fact, you can read an excellent account of the event by Andre Sebrant; just don't forget to come back here!

I was very surprised to find out that you get free Cokes on the boat ride; Russians have obviously not yet adapted the American tradition of gouging captive audiences for money on these kind of things yet. In the states, anyplace you go where they know you can't get refreshments from anyone else, they stiff you quite severely; it's a tradition. We even purchased a bottle of wine, priced very moderately at about six dollars. It was Moldovian wine, and while not as good as the Georgian Cognac I had become accustomed to, it was nice to sip while floating down the river.

It was here, along the river, that for the first time thoughts of returning home began to creep into my mind. I began to finally feel like my trip was coming to a close, and as I realized this I looked at Moscow differently. As I was beginning to feel I was getting my last looks at this amazing city, and amazing country, I surveyed the river banks as if forcing myself to notice every detail, to lock away every image in memory as my departure drew nearer.

This monument to Peter the Great survived an attempted bombing by radical communists.
On the right you see the relatively new monument to Peter the Great. I had heard of this structure before my trip, and the fact that many Muscovites found it rather tacky and a bit overdone. I have to confess I agree with this view; I don't particularly care for this big thing. I found the sights along the shore of the Moscow river, Moscow itself, quite enough to provide a fascinating view, without something like this behomoth to gawk at. If you want a real monument to Peter the Great, I'd suggest a trip to St. Petersburg; here you will the see the city he built and feel more admiration for the man and his accomplishments than any statue could possibly instill.

Apparently, the detestablility of this statue proved to almost be its destruction. It seems, just a couple of days before I left, a group of radical communists were going to blow the monument up. They planned the action as a protest to a proposition made in the Duma to bury the remains of Lenin.

From news accounts I saw on television, they had planted explosives at the base of the statue, but were caught and the bombs defused before they could be ignited. What a sight that would be if the thing had blown up just as we were passing by in the boat! Now there's a story I could have brought back to the states with me! "So, Skip, was Moscow as dangerous as they say?"

"Heck no,"
I'd have responded, "But I did get to see a monument explode in front of me while floating down the Moscow river."

The view of Moscow from the river is perhaps one of the best. From here you pass underneath the large and beautiful bridges that span overhead connecting different parts of the city. Several are lined with red, white and blue flags on each pole only a few feet apart; they make a wonderful sight, flapping in the strong breeze that seems to always be coming off the river.

Moscow, Moscow, my beautiful Moscow!
While the architecture is certainly not the ornate and colorful style of St. Petersburg, Moscow, nonetheless, has a stately feel. Indeed, being the capitol, it exudes a sort of seriousness, in contrast to the more festive and lighthearted feel of its sister city to the north. From the river you can see many of the official buildings, most left over from Soviet times, with short flat designs.

Although one we past, a new modern looking, glass surfaced office building, was actually shocking to see amid the traditional Russian architecture. I stared at it in amazement, as if it had just launched itself from its foundation back in my hometown of Atlanta, and landed here in Moscow.

I imagine the view from the river will see more of these western style buildings cropping up. The new style of economics and ways of doing things almost always seems to operate better when done in slick, glass buildings. Don't ask me why, but it's just a feature of capitalism.

I sipped wine and ate peanuts, knowing I was taking in my last sights of Moscow and Russia. I had already begun to wonder about things back home. How was my dog? Was he missing me? Was he getting over to the park to see his doggy friends often enough? In a matter of hours I would be heading home.

Home... it was beginning to feel like a relative concept. Atlanta was home, but it had only been so since June of 1995 when I moved there from Orlando, where I had grown up. Now, after only a few weeks, Moscow was starting to feel like home. I was learning my way around the city, finding my favorite shops and restaurants; could Moscow ever truly feel like home to me?

Yes, this is the real Russian shuttle, now a ride in an amusement park.
When the sight you see to the right came into view I almost couldn't believe it. I wouldn't have believed it, in fact, had I not already known it was true. But here was the Russian space shuttle, purchased and converted into an amusement ride in Gorky Park. Oh well, at least we still have the American one servicing the Mir, and it's Russian and American residents.

Just the day, before I had read an article in The Moscow Times about how a group of former Russian space program employees had gotten together and purchased the orbiter. They had installed seats and all the hardware necessary to shake them around, like in those simulator rides. Nowadays, little kids climb into the thing clutching space food, and take short imaginary journeys into outer space.

The boat made stops along the way, to pick up more passengers or to let others off. As a matter of fact, we had planned to get off at one of these stops. However, with the beautiful blue sky overhead, the cool breeze coming off the water, we just didn't want to get off the boat; so we didn't. We decided to stay on all the way to the end, and then ride it back again to our original point of entry. We had a whole afternoon to kill, and after the hurried pace of so much of my trip this bit of lazy river riding was a very welcome reprieve.

It was also a perfect opportunity to begin to reflect on my experiences. After all, I had come halfway around the world for this trip, so wasn't I suppose to come to some all defining, and definitive, conclusions? Don't people make these trips to gain valuable pieces of wisdom? Well, where was mine?

I don't suppose I was ever foolish enough to think I'd be coming home with some great knowledge or wisdom gained. I think I knew pretty much beforehand that I was in for a wonderful and educational experience, but that such things are the stuff of fairy tales and fiction. But I felt myself, even there floating down the river, richer in ways far more intangible. And this richness came from the people and culture I had experienced on my trip. Perhaps, then, this was the true gain of such an adventure.

More classic Soviet architecture.
Nino and her family had taken me in almost as one of their own. Late nights spent up with her sister and brother in law are my fondest memories of Moscow. Alex tried to teach me some card tricks, but I couldn't even understand the explanation, let alone the trick itself. We all laughed long and hard everytime I tried to repeat the trick, only to pull out the wrong card, or even fumble them all over on the floor.

Alex also took me to an open air market, full of the freshest fruits and vegatables I had ever seen in my life. Here's a guy that can fix a car as good as any mechanic, and still thump mellons and shop for onions like the best of the babushkas. He walked suredly around the place shopping for all the fixings for a barbecue, while I woddled behind like a kid, my arms overflowing with our goods.

Ali, my new friend from Turkey, was truly an inspiration. Here was a man that had traveled virtually all over the world, and yet still became excited at my stories of Moscow. His enthusiam for travel and for Russia quickly rubbed off on me, and perhaps one day I'll get the chance to take him up on his invitation to Instanbul. Though his girlfriend Tatyana spoke no english, her hospitality when we visited their apartment was wonderful.

In St. Petersburg, Nino's friend Galina turned her apartment over to us, and still took the time to show us around the city. From the time we got off the train on arrival, to the time we boarded once again for departure, she was wonderful to us. And the many people we met in Petersburg were terrific as well. The first night we were there, we had an invitation to a great little club that I'll never forget.

Some of Moscow's greenery near Gorky Park.
But the mystery of Russia persists. Almost a month, thousands of miles, and countless tiny journeys spent chasing the enigma, and this country insists on holding its secrets from me. From the gas smelling streets of Moscow, by train to the lush countryside of Abremtsevo and on to the dignity of Zagorsk, I searched. I stood in awe on Palace Square in St. Petersburg, and marvelled at the determination and dreams of Peter the Great. I surveyed all of Moscow from atop Ostankinskaya Bashnia, in every direction, and found it a completely different puzzle than on the ground. Question on top of mystery, contradiction facing challenge.

And yet, through all of this seeming lack of understanding, a very clear and lasting impression comes home with me. The charm and beauty, the elegance and centuries old wisdom, the pride and sheer determination of Russia to survive and even triumph has become firmly planted in my heart. You cannot come to this place, I am know convinced, with an open mind and not fall in love with Russia.

The prices are too high, and there are not enough ATM machines to satisfy an American, but this is the view from a tour bus; with your feet on the streets and in the homes of the people, the flesh and blood that is Russia penetrates your spirit and becomes your own flesh and blood.

One of the most striking impressions I got while in Russia was how absolutely similiar the peoples of our two different countries are. We all want so much the same things, the same things all of our citizens, and indeed the world, deserve. We want the opportunity to work for comfortable lives for our families, education for our children, and a safe and honest society. Upon realizing this, one of my first Russian lessons, I was baffled as to how our governments could have kept us at odds for so long.

Just a floatin' along dey river.
How utterly bizarre it struck me, that two governments could possibly spend decades pointing weapons of mass destruction at each others people, constantly threatening one another with complete and assured mutual destruction. What the hell were these idiots thinking? That situation has got to be, without the smallest scrap of doubt, at the very least, the history of the world's largest misunderstanding.

Had I had the ability then, armed with what I know now, I could have cleared the whole mess up in no time. I would have frozen both governments' international policy completely. Then, I would have taken one babushka from Moscow and a grandmother from Boise, Idaho. They would be flown to Switzerland, not to some fancy government building, but to some small, cozy little home on the edge of the city. There, they'd sit down at a table with buttermilk biscuits and a bottle of brandy, and be left alone. The whole process wouldn't take more than a couple of hours, or so. They'd show each other pictures of grandchildren, complain about their respective son-in-laws, and probably exchange a few recipes.

After their initial meeting each would return to their countries and be placed at the head of their respective governments. Each would have a dedicated phone line straight to the other to relay any news about the grandchildren, or complain about the son-in-laws. And any president or prime minister that didn't do exactly as they were told would be placed over grandma's or babushka's knee and get a good home style ass whipping! There, instant world peace.

Foolish and naive you say? What could be more foolish, and perhaps even criminal, than the way our two governments have behaved over the last few decades?

Two days after my reflective ride down the Moscow River I was in the back of the car on the way to the airport, beginning the final leg of my journey. I sat quietly in the car gazing out the window, my last look at Moscow. I watched the huge apartment blocks fade into the distance for the final time, laughed and shook my head as we passed a McDonald's. I watched the people walking in all directions, in and out of the subway stations, and wondered how each was faring in the new Russia.

I was sad to be leaving, but anxious to get home and back to my life in Atlanta. The two emotions made for a contrasting of feelings as I sat in the plane. As we lifted off I watched out the window as the land of Russia moved further and further away from underneath me. While it was true, perhaps, I was leaving with more questions that I had arrived with, I was also leaving with a deep admiration and respect for this amazing country.

In a moment of inspired silliness, I reached down into my carry on bag and extracted my constant traveling companion, Ivan Grozny, the gorilla. I held him up to the window so he, too, could get a last look at Russia. "Quite an adventure we had, eh Ivan?" I said, "But don't worry, we'll go back again someday." And as I said this, Ivan smiled.

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All contents and photos © 1997 by Skip Evans