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Stories from our Travelers

Seeing Russia: Beyond Red Square

The Cheboksary blood bank van

Sergiev Posad domes

Fountains at Peterhof
by Melissa Cicci

[From Spring-Summer 2008]

East meets west. Not in the formal circles of international diplomacy or in the interests of commerce, but in the meeting of everyday people from different backgrounds.

A few years ago, our family hosted a Russian doctor visiting the United States with a delegation of medical professionals. Our guest, Liubov Yakovleva, was a trained family physician who had left clinical practice to run a blood bank in her home city of Cheboksary (HIV/AIDS is widespread in Russia and blood banks are a booming industry). In her late 40’s, Liubov had lived more than half her life in Soviet Russia. In the few days we spent together, with our non-existent Russian and Liubov’s limited English, we forged a pleasant bond. As we sat outside one evening in our very American neighborhood, Liubov whispered, “I don’t believe I am here with you, looking out on America.” I think we decided in that moment that we would one day look out on Russia.

Three years later, we would. As we began to organize our trip, we were careful to plan balancing time spent with Liubov and visiting important cultural sites. We did not want to ask her to take time away from work and family to guide us through Russia; for this, we enlisted a U.S.-based tour company specializing in Eastern Europe. More importantly, we wanted to spend personal time with Liubov and her family and friends. After much email correspondence, we agreed that Liubov and her 20-year-old son, Misha, would meet us in Moscow on our arrival. From there, Liubov had arranged for all of us to stay a few days at the dacha (country house) near Moscow of her good friends, the Alexsanyan family.

Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport is smoky and teeming with people. Happily, it is relatively easy to navigate and we collected our bags quickly, proceeded through Customs and found our way to the departure area. Within moments, Liubov’s smiling face appeared in the crowd. Jumping up and down, she waved to us and called that our car and driver were waiting outside. Indeed. The Cheboksary blood bank van – complete with a giant red cross - had come to collect us.

By mid-afternoon, we arrived at a small country village outside Moscow. The cool air was a relief from the heat and close quarters of the blood van. No one was home at the dacha and our family immediately retreated to nap. Although exhausted, I was eager to meet our host, Kourian Alexsanyan, an Armenian émigré. Like many former Soviet-bloc citizens, Kourian had left Armenia and made his way to Moscow. My paternal grandparents had fled Armenia in the early years of the last century and traveled to the United States.

After a few hours of napping, we woke to the smells and sounds of Russian cooking. Liubov had prepared a meal of butter-rich mashed potatoes, meat, and cabbage. We ate dinner and became reacquainted. Our host had still not arrived. Finally about 11p.m., an American SUV pulled in to the dacha’s drive. Kourian and his friends had returned home from the city. We exchanged hellos and followed them all into what I would call a “summer” kitchen, an enclosed gazebo-like structure with a large table and a barbecue. One of Kourian’s friends lit the fire and huge chunks of lamb, beef, chicken and pork were thrown on the smoldering ashes. Platters of the freshest tomatoes, cucumbers and cilantro filled the center of the table. Vodka was poured; gifts were exchanged; we laughed, joked and even made a midnight call to a sister living in California who would have to talk with the Americans. Wide-eyed and well past jet lag, our 12- and 14-year-old had the feast of their lives. Most of the Armenians didn’t speak English (and the few Armenian words I remembered from childhood were used in the first moments). Liubov and Misha acted as unofficial interpreters. We’d learned a few words in Russian too, enough to express that we were very happy to be there.

We were sorry to leave our friends a few days later, although I don’t know how we would have continued the midnight meals. Over the next two weeks, we would tour Moscow’s art-filled subways, Red Square, the Kremlin, Sergiev Posad and its 14th century monastery, the canals of St. Petersburg, Peter the Great’s Peterhof summer palace, and the Hermitage. We happily ate Russian, Ukrainian, Azerbaijani and Armenian food. We spent a magical evening at the Bolshoi Ballet and laughed until our sides hurt at the St. Petersburg circus, a hybrid of vaudeville and Vegas and entirely in Russian. We rode the Russian rails in style between Moscow, Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Despite some bad press we’d heard beforehand about Russian trains, we were overwhelmingly pleased with the experience. My daughter and I talked long past midnight in a petite compartment just for two as the overnight train from Moscow cut its way through the inky Russian night.


What Not to Miss in Russia:
The Bolshoi Ballet is currently in a temporary home as the legendary Bolshoi Theater undergoes a major renovation (through 2009). The dance is incomparable.

The St. Petersburg Circus is unlike any circus you’ve seen. A little bit vaudeville, a little bit Vegas, exotic animals and acrobats. All in Russian.

Peter the Great commissioned Peterhof, the summer palace of the Czars, in the early 18th century. On the Gulf of Finland, the palace is a Russian Versailles. A gravity-fed system provides water to more than 170 fountains (a marvel of 18th century engineering). A popular family outing,

Visa Requirements:
An entry visa is required for most foreign visitors. For more information, go to the Russian consulate (in the U.S.) site at Visitors must receive a formal “invitation” by a host agency, hotel or tour company. In practice this is fairly simple; there are several expeditors who, for a fee, will process the invitation and the visa application. Independent travel in Russia is best for those visiting family and friends, or on business. Otherwise, it is worth signing on with a reputable tour company or guide to manage the trip.

How to Get There and Around:
From the U.S.: Non-stop service to Moscow from Atlanta (Delta) and Chicago O’Hare (American). Aeroflot Russian Airlines offers non-stop service from JFK, Los Angeles (LAX) and Washington Dulles. Schedules may be seasonal; please check with the airlines. Service from other U.S. cities and with alternate carriers requires one or two connections.
Within Russia, Aeroflot serves most cities directly from Moscow, Alternatively, the Russian train system is a comfortable and relaxing way to see the country. For overnight travel, it is worth paying a premium for a private compartment. On most Russian trains, stewards regularly pass through the cars with hard and soft drinks, salmon on toast, sandwiches and sweets.

Photographs by Melissa Cicci

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