"La Place Rouge Útait vide. Devant moi marchait Nathalie. Elle avait un joli nom, mon guide, Nathalie. Nathalie."
Everyone one day realized (s)he was singing this very nice song of Gilbert BÚcaud, imaging walking on the pavings of the Red Square, following a lovely Nathalie...
Russia is an astonishing, exciting, and in certain considerations, fascinating country.
I was lucky enough to visit it (not thoroughly, unfortunately) twice from inside, that is to say accompanied with "local" persons. Whatever the destination is, it is in every case the best way to discover new horizons, but this is particularly true when it is about Russia.
Before anything, the best piece of advice to give to those who wish to get over there is to get ready for it. The cultural shock, or rather shift, imposes to you rapidly once arrived. The point is that Russia, you have to be able to tame it. And it won't let you do easily, and anyway, won't let anyone do.
Before you even enter it, you will have a lot of administrative steps to take. You will notably have to get a passport, a visa, and an officially recognized insurance. And then, it rapidly turns out very useful to know, to learn, or at least to get used with the cyrillic alphabet. You will indeed not find over there any indication written in latin characters. Russia has not, since the end of the communism era, totally opened itself to the rest of the world yet. Moreover, with a territory and a population like it has, it could be tempted to believe that it does not need to. You will meet foreigners, but nothing has been done for them. The only advantage is that the policemen will leave you alone. More because of a lack of capacity to communicate with you rather than because of their good will. It happened to me a couple of time to be called out in the street by cops, but since I could not speak in Russian and they could not speak in English, the policement let me go, without any further investigation ("passport" is however an international word). The wrong side of such a state is of course that you'd better not be in a situation that requires their help...
It is a matter of fact that very few Russians speak one or another foreign language, whether English, German or French, and even, if not particularly, among youg people or students. It is therefore a good point for you to know there some trustworthy persons.
Russia is a country full of contrasts. The best thing neighbours the worst one, but nothing is ever either totally good, or completely bad. It only depends on each precise case and on which side of the fence you are standing. A dialectical art that the nationals perfectly master.
Everything seems at first sight allowed, but, upon looking a little bit closer, everything is under control (without mentioning whose control...). Except maybe the income taxes, from which it is apparently quite easy to escape.
Contrast, we said... Moscow is like this a huge, very modern megalopolis of more than ten millions inhabitants, where every conceivable, social class tries to verge on with the other ones, from the vagabond to the "nouveau riche", whether he is an heir of the past ruling class or he seized best the opportunities offered by the quite "wild" liberaliseralisation that followed the collapse of communism. Facing these millionaire cities is the Russian countryside, mainly poor and agricultural, that try to escape those that the glittering lights of the cities dazzle. For which future can these young coutrymen hope so, attracted by strass and spangles that the television stations and foreign shows daily make sparkle to their eyes ? They only return them the image of their own miserable situation.
There are therefore numerous abandoned houses and properties in villages, their owners having left to take their chance in hope for a better future. It is not difficult to meet them downtown, courageous and self-willed, who draw jobs and working hours against a not wonderful wage, in order to provide for the needs of their family. Russians have a very strong awareness of their familial duties. Moreover, they perfectly know what they want, and they will get it. And as far as girls are concerned, if they cannot make it, they will anyway, for the prettiest ones among them, trade their charms.
It is a fact that they are gorgeous, young girls over there. Conscious too of what their status of woman implies, in a still very machist society, hesitating between tradition and modernism. Whatever can be told, Russians remain attached to their values, even if new ones slowly appear within the society. Religion, for instance, is a living example : the people did not loose faith, even during the darkest periods of History. This same people, who just rebuilt in Moscow its grandiose cathedral of the Saviour Christ, on its original spot, very close to the Red Square. The churches are still crowded, especially for religious feasts (celebrated in accordance to the orthodox calendar, that slightly differs from our gregorian one).
It is surprising to see, on the eve of Easter, the faithful, mainly women, men being at work, go to their church, holding a basket full of various food, that the priest will bless. This food is the first one that has to be eaten on the resurrection day. And what to tell about these gatherings of people in the holy places (like for instance the monastery of Saint Sergue´ ["Zagorsk" or "Sergiev Posad" in Russian], as far as more or less 80 kilometers from Moscow) to attend these cermonies, that last several hours ! But, aside these testimonies of faith, it is not seldom, while walking the streets of Moscow on a Sunday afternoon, to see workers operate on every building site !
And there are a lot of these sites. It is as if a whole city was being constructed. It grows everywhere. It seems indeed that there is so much to do in a coutry in whole revival. Everything is to be done. The most sophicticated technology oftens borders with relics of a glorious past. Because this last one is rich. And even if it is not necessarily the imago that it gives from itself, Russia is a coutry of artists. Russians like arts, mainly music. The Ermitage in Saint Petersburg has so large collections to give envy to any art lover. One would need several months to visit it. In Moscow, one has to mention the Tetriakov gallery or the Pushkin museum. And also, let us not forget the artists too : Stravinsky, Chostakovitch, Dosto´evsky, Soljenitsyne, Pasternak, Pushkin, Boulgakov, Ma´akovski, Tchekov, Eisenstein, ... The subway itself is a masterpiece. Indeed in a more revolutionnary style, but it is also the cheapest one. Entrance fees to museums are heavily different whether you are a national or a foreigner !
And if you wish to go to the Russian, artistic city "par excellence", i.e. Saint Petersburg, be very patient. The journey from Moscow lasts a whole day (or a night by train), and the landscape is not very varied. The monotony is however often broken by police controls, that very often check the speed of vehicules, and to which it is impossible to escape. But tariffs for speeding are far from being prohibitive.
And it was worth having made all these efforts. Saint Petersburg is a young city (built in 1703 by Peter the Great), inspired a lot by western influences. You can find there Versailles, Venice, ... Except as far as neatness is concerned (totally different of Moscow, that is much cleaner than many of the western capitals). One leaves anyway with marvelous souvenirs. Not to forget either in the neighbourings Pushkin (that renamed itself after its famous citizen) and Petrodvorets (Peter's castle). Moscow offers certainly neither this cultural variety nor these treasures. Moscow rather gives a severe impression, with its huge buildings (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hotel Ukraina, Lemonossov University, ...), each of them built on one of the hills in the city. In my opinion, it is at night that it reveals itself in the most beautiful way, when the darkness hides its imperfections and it lights up with thousands of illuminations.
The candidate to a trip to Russia has to like to explore and not dread disorientations to make it a nice and unforgettable trip. And to thoroughly enjoy it, you have to dare scratching a little bit the shell with which Russians wllingly surround themselves to protect their inner heat from the harshness of their environment, whichever it is. One will then discover their kindness, their graciousness, their availability and their hospitality.