The Many Sides of Russia

September 25 - October 5, 2018

By Terry McCarthy

Photos by David Kaye and Joseph Russo

Peterhof Palace

Russia, by far the biggest country in the world by land mass, has long captivated Americans. Our mortal enemies during the Cold War, they possessed enough weapons to destroy our whole planet and appeared irreconcilably hostile to our way of life. But this was the same country that produced Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky – a vast land populated by people with big emotions, covered in trees and lakes that are full of wildlife, and steeped in its violent history.

St. Petersburg

The LAWAC team of 20 intrepid travelers assembled in the Belmond Grand Hotel in St. Petersburg on the evening of September 26th to meet each other and take stock of what lay ahead, with a briefing by our principal guide Natasha. The following morning we started out by visiting the Peter and Paul Fortress, which is where the city was founded and where most of the Romanov Tsars are buried including the last Tsar and his family who were shot in the cellar of a house in Yekaterinburg in 1918.

One of the many beautiful Faberge Eggs.

And then it was on to the fabulous Fabergé Museum, which contains nine of the famous Fabergé eggs that the Tsar commissioned for Easter. The museum was founded by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, who bought the nine eggs from the Forbes family in 2004 for a reported $100 million. Along with the eggs were rooms full of exquisitely-made and stunningly-colored Fabergé jewelry, tobacco cases and other baubles that were as beautiful as they were excessive, a sign of a self-obsessed ruling class that had lost all connection with the lives of their compatriots. The Russian revolution happened for a reason.

The next day we started early to get into the Hermitage Museum with a special early-entry ticket that gave us about an hour and a half of privileged calm and quiet before the crowds of tourists, many of them getting off the huge cruise ships that routinely dock at St Petersburg, arrived. . This museum, formerly the Winter Palace of the Tsars, was built by Catherine the Great in the 1760’s. It has since grown to a collection of four more buildings with some two million exhibits. To spend even a minute in front of each one would take someone an enormous number of years, we were told, but our very well-informed guides ensured we saw the highlights, including two Leonardo da Vinci canvases, a room full of Rembrandts, finely-fashioned 18th century jewelry from Germany, and Greek vases. By lunch time many of us had aesthetic overload, although some of the more keen art lovers had arrived a few days early in St Petersburg, and were already on their second or third visit.

That evening we had a vodka and caviar tasting in the charming Kupets Eliseevs Food Hall, which is like a smaller version of the famous Harrod’s food halls, with fine wines, meats, pastries, chocolates, teas and other delicacies presented in showcases in a high-ceilinged hall that harked right back to the nineteenth century. It would not be the last time we saw vodka during our Russian trip….

Those who were still in active form went to Cinderella, the ballet, in the Mikhailovsky Theater that night – others would wait for the opera or the ballet at the Bolshoi in Moscow the following week.

The following morning we headed out of St. Petersburg to visit the Peterhof, built by Peter the Great as his answer to Versailles. The rooms were opulent and endless, the gilt doors gave way to Chinese-furnitured parlors to dining rooms set for enough people to populate a small country. All the laborers and servants employed were drawn from Russia’s serf class – basically another word for slaves. As we discovered at every step on our trip, Russia has a very harsh history coupled with a truly fine sense of and appreciation for artistic beauty, a contradiction that we struggled to reconcile.

We drove back to St. Petersburg that afternoon to visit the “other” Hermitage – a building called the General Staff Building that displays the Museum’s extraordinary collection of 19th and 20th century art, including a huge inventory of Impressionists. Room after room was filled with paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Gauguin, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Degas. Again the aesthetic overload descended on many of us, and we made our way back to the hotel to prepare for our last dinner in the Imperial Capital that is also the hometown of President Putin

The LAWAC travel group at the Hermitage Museum.


To get to Moscow we boarded the very modern and comfortable Sapsan bullet train, which zipped through the countryside and got us to Moscow in just four hours. After a lunch of Uzbek delicacies, we visited the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (which is how Russia refers to the Second World War). We were reminded of the enormous debt that we all have to the 27 million Russians who died in the fight against Hitler. By comparison the US lost 419,000 and the UK 450,000 during the entire war. Exhibits show the enormous number of Russian soldiers who were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, their highest decoration, for their bravery as well as for specific battles.

We drove through Moscow to check in at the very comfortable Ritz Carlton, which has a view of the Kremlin – or, more precisely, which is in the Kremlin’s view - and already our group was commenting how nice and modern Moscow looked, belying our outdated ideas of a grey and architecturally foreboding place. At night all the buildings in the center of the city are lit up, shop fronts are trendy, restaurants are on a par with anywhere in Europe or the US.

Red Square

On Monday morning we walked to the Kremlin, the center of power in Russia, where Putin has his office and from where decisions are made that affect this entire country that stretches over 9 time zones. Inside the Kremlin walls there are a number of churches and cathedrals and an Armory which functions as a museum, housing ten Fabergé eggs along with dresses and carriages that belonged to the Tsars.

We came out the other side of the Kremlin into Red Square, which has the tomb of Lenin and the Disney-like multi-domed and multi-colored St Basil’s Cathedral. Some of us climbed up to the top of the central dome, where we were fortunate to encounter a small group of male a capella singers, whose rendering of Kyrie Eleison was so extraordinarily beautiful that it brought tears to the eyes of some.

That afternoon we visited the US Embassy, where we spent some time with Ambassador Jon Huntsman and several of his staff, all of whom were pessimistic about the future of US-Russian relations. The embassy itself felt like a school on summer break, as it was practically deserted. Two thirds of the staff have left in the past two years in a series of cuts and retaliatory cuts by DC and Moscow on our respective diplomatic presence. The general view was that President Putin is in no mood to make up with the US, as it serves his domestic political agenda well to have an external enemy. However, the Russian economy is still struggling to develop beyond its current reliance on oil and gas, and younger Russians, while not ready to confront the current political system, are nonetheless exceedingly cynical about their leaders.

Many of the smartest graduates from Russia’s top universities seek to move overseas, including one journalist we met who said that he and every one of his colleagues knew they were producing propaganda, but just kept doing it because the pay was ok. As a young man in his twenties, he would like to find a way to leave and work in Europe or the US, he said, so that he could stop working with a bad conscience.

A woman paints matryoshka dolls.

On Tuesday our group drove outside Moscow to the monastery of Sergiev Posad, the spiritual center of Russia’s Orthodox Christian church, and an impressive collection of buildings that have been supported by Russia’s Tsars and wealthy merchants over the centuries. On the way, we visited a matryoshka doll workshop, where the group learned how linden wood is dried for two years before it can be carved into the progressively larger interlocking dolls that are ubiquitous in Russian souvenir shops.

In the afternoon the group visited the famous Gorky Park, and the neighboring Fallen Monument Park, with its array of statues of old communist leaders like Lenin and Stalin that have been removed from their prior positions of honor around the country after the breakup of the USSR.

Wednesday morning saw an interesting meeting with Dr. Nina Philippova who talked about how younger Russians can bring about change without a full scale revolution. She reminded everyone that Moscow is not Russia (no more than New York is representative of the US). And she said that migration from Central Asia has created a second class of low-wage laborers who will do jobs for less money than locals (echoes here of the immigration debate in the US).

Then the group went to the Higher School of Economics where they met Professor Alexander Lukin, head of the Department of International Relations. This was one of the most eye-opening meetings of the whole trip. Lukin was extremely anti-American and made no secret of his distaste for US policies and its way of pushing other countries around, as he saw it. Russia was a great power and needed to be respected as such, and this was a message our group should be bringing back to the US. Russia would ally itself with India and China to create a grouping that would face down the US. He claimed that Russia was militarily stronger than China, which balanced out China’s economic strength. “Conflict between Russia and the US is inevitable.”

After such haranguing, the group felt that they had at least seen something real, an attitude that is increasingly taking over official relations. At the same time we met little or no hostility as Americans on an individual level throughout the trip. But when asked about Russian interference in our elections, few in Russia apparently believe this to be the case. Russians are fed enormous amounts of propaganda on their own television stations, and while they mostly recognize this, it has the effect of making them think that all media – inside Russia and outside, including US media – is all part of the undifferentiated world of “fake news”.

St. Basil's Cathedral

In the afternoon we had a meeting with Pavel Palazhchenko, the former translator for Mikhail Gorbachev and now the head of the Gorbachev Foundation. He talked about his memories of Gorbachev’s attempts to set Russians free and how politics have not necessarily gone the way he might have hoped. And he said he is currently trying to find topics on which Russians and Americans can agree to at least have a discussion, since he said the current relationship was very counterproductive. Arms control is an issue the Gorbachev Foundation is pushing hard on, as it feels that is an issue that still hasn’t been resolved since the Cold War.

On Thursday we went to the Carnegie Moscow Center, which is the only US think tank that is still operating in Moscow, after many non-profits have been forced out under government pressure. We met Konstantin Gaaze, a non-resident scholar who had a pessimistic view of the future of US-Russian relations. “Putin’s message is ‘we lost the last round, we won’t lose the next round, we won’t lose the Russian state again,’” he said.

In the afternoon we visited the Novaya Gazeta, the last real opposition newspaper in Russia that tries to investigate corruption at high levels. The paper still carries out investigative journalism, but we noticed that it was not widely offered in hotels or airports, and the powerful leaders seem to have decided to simply try to ignore it.

We ended our trip in Moscow as we started it in St Petersburg – in an art museum – in this case the famous Tretyakov Gallery, which has 100,000 works of Russian art mostly from the private collection of a former rich merchant, Pavel Tretyakov, who gave his collection to the Russian nation as a gift in 1892. The icons and paintings spoke to Russia’s great artistic tradition before the Revolution, a tradition that one can hope Russia will discover again in due course, outside of its political world.

That night we had our farewell dinner at the very stylish Dr. Zhivago restaurant, a modern take on Russian cooking that made us all feel how good it would be to visit Russia again. There was some consumption of vodka reported at the dinner.

Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal

Some of our travelers stayed on for a four-day side trip to the Siberian city of Irkutsk and to the nearby Lake Baikal, the biggest freshwater lake in the world.

Our first lesson about Irkutsk was that things “don’t change as fast here as in European Russia,” as our guide Oksana put it. There is still an intact Lenin statue standing up proudly and undamaged in a square on Lenin Street, there is a Stalin bust on the railway station and a memorial to Tsar Alexander III, who helped get the Trans-Siberian line built.

On Saturday morning we went to look at the Angara River which flows through the city, having been the only river to run out of Baikal. There were also plenty of churches from a variety of faiths, as things have always been freer in Siberia. The vastness of Siberia was historically open to all, there were no serfs here and many of the internal exiles who were sent to Siberia for punishment were political prisoners, which meant they were mostly well-educated people who brought with them their culture and education. We visited the Znamensky Monastery, which has the grave of Grigory Shelekhov. A seafarer and explorer, he founded the colony of Alaska in 1784, which was subsequently sold to the US almost one hundred years later.

In the afternoon we visited the house of Count Volkonsky, one of the aristocrats exiled to Siberia after the failed Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I in 1825. Oksana arranged a private concert here with a piano player and two singers who performed Russian love songs and other works by candlelight, just as the exiles would have done two centuries ago. After dinner that evening we met Dmitri, a limnologist (lake expert) who has been studying Lake Baikal for three decades.

Sunday morning we headed south from Irkutsk towards Lake Baikal. This lake is 400 miles long and a mile deep, and contains 22 percent of the world’s freshwater. It is also the world’s oldest lake, at about 30 million years, and the clearest, with little pollution as there is almost no industry around its shores. In the winter it freezes over from January until April, and locals drive cars and trucks right across the lake.

The lake has many endemic species, including a freshwater seal, the only place such a creature exists, along with many fish and birds not found elsewhere. On Monday we took a boat ride on the lake under blessed sunshine. As we glided up past a shoreline of trees turning yellow and orange, it truly felt like another world, far divorced from the power struggles and frenetic business dealing of Moscow far to the east. We got a true sense of Russia’s enormous expanse, a country that covers 6 million square miles, which means whether we like their leaders or not, this is always going to be a country we have to reckon with. Which is why we came.

The extension group at Lake Baikal.