Russia has the dubious distinction of being the most unfriendly country in the world. But it is also the land of Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and this year’s Football World Cup. So I set out for ‘the land of no smiles’, armed with a solemn expression and a Russian speaking friend.
The latter was most useful but the first was absolutely unnecessary.
Go to Russia with a grin and an open mind – the place is bursting with friendly people who will materialise at every metro station and street corner, and try to help. It will be a long process of wild gesticulations as they don’t speak English. But at the end, you would have had a really nice time if not the direction to your destination.
Here are some of things that compelled a change of heart in me.
The music! I had read about the healing powers of Russian nuns singing, in a book I read some time ago. We didn’t hear nuns but we heard the church choir singing twice – once at St Isaac’s Cathedral at St Petersburg and once at St Basil’s, Moscow. I daresay, at the cost of sounding plebeian, I found their singing more charming than the opera at Bolshoi! We also heard a lot of Mozart and Beethoven on the streets. The one I liked the most was the Fifth symphony at the Summer Palace grounds, played on xylophones.
Equally mesmerising were the church bells at Red Square. At around 4.30pm, the bells of a couple of churches around Red Square start a lively symphony. You could sit at the back steps of the History Museum, and drown yourself in the sound and sight of the 500 year old Kazan Cathedral.
White night at St Petersburg was yet another attraction. The cruise down Neva River is stunning as it is, with the view of the Hermitage and other palaces. The bridges opening up to let ships in, was cherry-on-the-cake. And they look particularly spectacular in the pink light of the 2 am sun.
It was the visit to the Museum of Cosmonautics that paralleled that experience. After the initial ‘lump in the throat’ moments at seeing the original vessels of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, I was beginning to find the museum a bit of an ‘overload’, right till we reached the table showing the Space prowess of countries across the world.
And India had almost all the capabilities, just a little below Russia, USA and China.
On my plate, the bright red Borscht was a favourite with its interesting mix of dill and beetroot. I loved the ubiquitous sour cream and local cheese. As expected, the eastern food is what you would get in the streets of Delhi – ranging from shawarma to kebabs. So if you walk into a café and ask for a ‘chai and samosa’, you would get exactly that, only the samosa would be meat filled and baked. Tarkhun, a tarragon spiced lemonade, from Georgia, is a great accompaniment to the spiced meat dishes.
While it was deeply satisfying to see the icons we associate with Russia – Kremlin, Red Square, St Basil’s cathedral, Bolshoi, these were not the highlights of my trip.
What I took away with me, was a Tatar lady across the counter who only knew enough English to say ‘I love India’ and add a special dollop of cream to our soup. The old men who were so eager to direct us to the right streets, the waitress who sat for hours on our table with a ‘google translator’ so that we could order the right meal, and, the girl who ran pell-mell looking for ‘tarkhun’ in the store and then made her boyfriend finally locate it for us. The innumerable people who stopped to help, every time they saw us staring at the city map, looking lost. Thankfully, this list is endless.
And that is why I will be cheering lustily for Russia, throughout the World Cup, even if it’s playing one of my South American favourites.
— Text and images by Jayati Talapatra