The Soviet Union came to an end in August of 1991 with a Coup d’Etat in Moscow. My husband, Nicholas, was working there at the time as a freelance journalist. He was living with his relatives who he had first met on a trip in 1989. I was living in Washington DC but planned to join him when things settled down. In October I went for a visit.
In October 1991, I arrived in Moscow for my first visit. Five planes landed at once so the airport was a zoo. It took me almost two hours to get through customs. I spent about an hour standing in line behind a large group of Vietnamese. The line was not moving at all. Next to me was a woman who was traveling with a group and finally, her group leader came over and got her because everybody else was already through and waiting for her. I followed them. They went all the way through to the other side of the room, to the first line around back in a corner. Since I wasn’t with the group, I didn’t know if I should follow them all the way in so I got behind some other people and as I turned the corner everything opened up. They told me to go around and they pushed the people in front of me out of the way. They told me to go right through and the guy stamped me in and didn’t even ask me one question. I had no idea why, but I wasn’t complaining.
When we got to Nicholas’ cousin’s apartment all the relatives were there. There was Valery, Vasya, and Raisa, three of Nicholas’ cousins with their spouses and children. Also Nicholas’ uncle, Alexander, and his wife, Lena, were there. We had a feast of cucumber, tomato salad, wild mushrooms with onions, salami, cheese, bread, pickles squash, sprats, two bottles of champagne and a bottle of cognac. We sat and talked for a while and then came potatoes and meat with carrots. It was all very good. Then more cognac and dessert — chocolates and éclairs stuffed with whipped cream and tea. Right after dinner the guests left.
After meat and potatoes and coffee for breakfast the next morning, Nicholas and I walked down to Red Square and saw Lenin’s tomb. Once inside, the guards made sure you did not have your hands in your pocket, and you were forced to move through the building quickly. No dallying allowed. Lenin was in a glass case and all you saw was a head and two small hands poking out of a large suit. He looked waxy. The light was dim. It was weird.
Moscow was a drab city. There was color, but faded. The city was dusty, worn down, with bad car fumes and everybody smoked. The tarmac sidewalks were falling apart. Pedestrians did not have the right of way.
At the Kremlin, just off Red Square, we went by the Tsar’s cannon — a huge cannon that was never shot, and past a bell that fell and broke when they were trying to raise it. From there, we saw a small church that was wall to wall, ceiling to floor frescoes. The icon-covered screen that separated the nave from the sanctuary was covered with gold.
Back at Valery’s (Nicholas’ male cousin) apartment, everyone sat around a small table in the kitchen drinking tea. Russians drank more tea than the British. They paid a flat fee for gas and water so they didn’t care how much they used. Often the stove’s gas burners were just left on so they wouldn’t have to be re-lit or to keep the kitchen warm.
Laundry was a major ordeal. Valya, Valery’s wife, boiled the whites on the stove and did some by hand in the bathtub. She had a small appliance that looked like a safe for doing underwear and such. She was up till two in the morning doing housework.
On a typical night, Valya would be out hitting different stores looking for whatever she could find. One night she called to say she had found some cognac, but needed to give in an empty bottle in order to get any. We collected the empties and headed to the store to meet her. We even got lucky, and found some herring and a sturgeon’s head (frozen solid), which they said would make good soup.
After the coup, production fell almost 25 percent. Everyone predicted a real depression in the future that would be like 1917 all over again. Nicholas’ cousins said they thought a breakdown in civilization was coming to Russia. People got nasty in lines after the coup, and even were mean to the elderly who had always been revered in Russia.
We took a day trip to Zagorsk, about 70 km. to the northeast of Moscow. Zagorsk, originally known as Segeiyev Posad, was home to The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, the most important Russian monastery and the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church. The monastery was originally built in the 1200’s. It started as a church and a walled city and evolved into a seminary and monastery church complex with a thick wall around it. They fought the Tartars there. There was also a holy spring within the walls where people came from all over on pilgrimages to get the water. This monastery was the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church all through the communist years.
We went into a small chapel where the remains of the founding priest were kept and people were being blessed. There were frescoes on all the walls and candles lit all over the place by people coming to pray and be blessed. It was very dark. Valya said we should light a candle for luck so we did.
A typical Soviet sightseeing story is what followed when we went to the museum next door.
Large Woman: Why have you opened door?
Nicholas: Because we wanted to go in.
Large Woman: You have to buy ticket, there!
We went to the door she pointed to.
Large Woman Two: You must go there!
She pointed to where we had just come from.
We gave up and tried a different door.
Large Woman Three: You must go outside to window!
We went outside to window.
Large Woman Three: How many tickets?
Unfortunately the tickets she sold us were for a different museum.
We then went into another door, with ticket windows inside, and they told us to go back through a different door and we ended up in an office with two desks and more large women. They were the tour people and they did finally sell us three tickets to the correct museum.
In the museum we saw jeweled vestments and icons and gold chalices, some if it dating back to the 1400’s. The art was mostly Byzantine style and it was kind of disgusting to see how incredibly rich the church was knowing that the people were probably very poor.
There was a mass going on in the main cathedral and the priest was singing with a full choir doing the response, the nave was lit with candles only and the air was thick with incense. It was crowded. At the back there were three windows with priests selling candles. Again there were frescoes on the walls and ceiling and then icons on the iconostasis and when they opened the Tsar’s doors you could see to the other side and it looked like it went on forever with gold pillars. It was beautiful.
Back in Moscow, I saw the changing of the guard at Lenin’s tomb and then wandered around GUM (the big “department store” on Red Square). In the afternoon, we went to the Tretyakov museum. At the back, we found the dumped statues the masses had toppled after the coup. There were lots of Lenins and Stalins.
Later that night, a little after 12:30, I heard the doorbell ring. Well, nobody answered it so I got up and heard it ring again and I unlocked it and there was Valery — totally wasted and looking like he had crawled though the mud. He had been out to a party where they were drinking pure grain alcohol and he did fall down on the way home. He went to bed fully clothed and was still in bed when we left about 1 p.m. the next day.
On Sunday, we stayed around the house packing and preparing for the farewell dinner. Nicholas said I was a big hit with the relatives. We had another big feast and lots of toasts. After the first course, we had a little rest while Valya boiled up the home made pilmeni — it was a sticky, heavy noodle with ground meat inside it — similar to ravioli but kind of bland. We had a bottle of vodka and then after a while we had tea and dessert and said our farewells.
The alarm went off at 5:30 the next morning and I woke up with “Stalin’s revenge” or whatever they called it in Russia. Ugh. I was flying Aeroflot to Helsinki. The plane was a rickety old thing. As I walked up the aisle I was glad I didn’t have on spike heels because I felt like they would probably have gone through the floor. The seats were all worn and old fashioned. I was sitting by an emergency exit and there was no legroom at all. People would have had a hard time getting through. There was a choice of about four different beverages — the only thing I understood was lemonade and so I asked for that, but it turned out to be more of an apple-like frothy beverage that looked like beer — probably Kvas. When I declined a breakfast tray I got this look like I was out of my mind. I guess not too many people turned down food. I was glad when we landed in Helsinki.
Kathleen Gamble was born and raised overseas and has traveled extensively. She has a BA in Spanish and has worked in publishing, printing, desktop publishing, translating, and purchasing. She also designs and creates her own needlepoint. She started journaling at a young age and her memoir, Expat Alien, came out of those early journals. Over the years she has edited and produced an American Women’s Organization cookbook in Moscow, Russia, and several newsletters. Her first book, Expat Alien, was published in 2012 and she recently published a cookbook, 52 Food Fridays, both available on Amazon.com. You can also follow her blog at ExpatAlien.com.