I would like to say that Moscow was far more than I’d imagined. The trouble is, I hardly have expectations of anything or anyone. But I did really enjoy my time there.
1. Everything was in the vernacular. No one spoke anything but Russian, all the signs were in Cyrillic (except for a few places right in the touristy bit of Moscow). Amazed myself by learning to read Cyrillic in a day or two out of sheer necessity (also, it’s a little like Greek). Love a challenge.
2. Everyone assumed I was native and were physically taken aback when I replied in English. And I did, in fact, meet many Chinese-looking people. “ру́сская?” they’d ask. “нет,”I’d reply,”Singapore.” But few had heard of it.
3. No one smiled much, so I didn’t feel I had to. Since I’m generally lazy on the facial expression front, what’d been interpreted as unfriendliness in London was the norm in Moscow. Cosy.
4. I stayed in a cheap Russian dormitory for almost a week and got to know other dorm-mates pretty well. They were guarded at first, but whether it was the passage of time or the fact that I wasn’t China-Chinese or Mongolian (it’s confusing since I’ve relatively light hair and eye colour), they started to enjoy talking to me, asking me about my day, wanting to see my photos, even though my Russian wasn’t quite up to chit-chat standard (I could barely follow the news on Ukraine). There was lots of maternal nagging and clucking, and sometimes there was dancing. One woman was from Azerbaijan (she smelled familiar, though by no means in a bad way, like an Indian friend), another was from a small town outside of Moscow, and the third was a singer who slept all day so she could perform in clubs at night.
5. I loved the show-of-power architecture of the Soviet state: the Kremlin, the State Historical Museum, the Seven Sisters. Stalin wasn’t at all shy about it.
6. I loved the show-of-power architecture of the Russian Orthrodox Church: the Cathedral of St. Basil, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
7. Oh, and the magnificent metro stations – the “Palaces of the People”.
8. The borscht I had here was thinner than probably inauthentic interpretations abroad, but happily much of the other food was stodgy enough for the cold weather (hovering around -3°C). In stolovayas (canteens, a good cheap holdover from the Communist…err…oh wait…), we had herrings in fur coats, and dumplings (Georgian, pelmeni), and kvas, and frilly table covers.
10. Pine stuff! Pine-nut milk. Pine syrup.
12. Sea buckthorn cakes, sea buckthorn juice, sea buckthorn everywhere. I liked it immediately, and was disappointed later to read that it was one of those “miracle berries”. I liked it for itself and not what it could offer in health benefits.
13. Yuka the baby mammoth. SRSLY.
14. Does the security industry have the largest share of the Russian service sector? Uniformed security guards, or soldiers, or policemen everywhere.
15. Oh, and this gem: the dorm-mates, upon hearing that I’d lived in London for years exclaimed: a single woman, all alone, living in London?! How dangerous! England is so dangerous! You must be very brave!. I did not at any point admit that the English were similarly wary of Moscow. Ah, the suspicion of other lands and peoples.
Yet, there was the nagging sense that all these imposing buildings and severe men in uniforms were at best temporal and fragile. Not even Putin riding a bear or those nuclear bunker underground stations would not be able to protect the Russians from He who came the first time to save his people, and will come a second time to judge the whole world.