Visit to Moscow can short circuit the mind

Posted on September 5, 2012
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(2002 update of 1972 article)

The Russian language looks very tough to learn but it is easier to speak than to read. Most of the Canadians on the recent tour picked up a rudimentary vocabulary in a couple of days. For English speaking Canadians the words are easier to pronounce than many French words since the phonetics of Russian are similar to English.

The alphabet really rattles a novice at first though. Many of the letters are pronounced entirely differently than in English. Pectopah, for example is the Russian word for restaurant. Since P’s are pronounced like R’s and C’s like S’s and H’s like N’s, Pectopah is pronounced, restorawn.

The subway system in Moscow is amazing. Three levels deep, it runs all over the city at very high speeds. The ventilation system is remarkable and the air is fresher 100 feet under ground than at street level in Montreal.

Each station is an art gallery with dozens of statues, frescoes, mosaics and huge chandeliers. Like everywhere in Moscow, the subways are very clean with no litter, vandalism or graffitti.

The Moscow circus is something to behold. It takes place in a permanent circular building featuring a permanent orchestra, rings that raise and lower and stages that move in and out from the walls as well as an incredibly complicated system of lights and movie projectors that supplement the acts in the ring.

The most spectacular performance was a trapeze act carried out under ultra violet light. The entire building was in darkness. The performers glowed in the dark in shades of orange, yellow, mauve and white. Myriad pinpoints of light swirled across the dome ceiling while the performers flew through the darkness in arcs of ghostly colour.

Many of the other acts were also spectacular and were familiar to us. We’d seen them on the Ed Sullivan television show.

The opera

Our guides took us to the Palace of Congress, a truly spectacular theatre, for a performance of the opera, Rigoletto. The Soviet Congress meets and was meeting in the same building, in the Kremlin, during the tour.

The opera was performed in Russian. It was a triumph of staging although the singing was not outstanding. A strange facet of the production was that the ending, when Rigoletto kills the prince who has seduced his daughter, was left out. Apparently Russian stage productions do not show people killing state leaders. They may be afraid to give people the idea.

We were told that the Soviet Congress meets for 10 to 14 days once or twice a year. Asked how often a bill is defeated in the Congress, our guide said that she did not know but that she did not remember it happening.

When the congress is not in session, the business of the country is conducted by the real power structure in the Soviet Union, the Presidium.

Women’s lib

Women in Russia certainly have job opportunities they don’t have here as yet. When our plane landed, a woman refueled it. The swimming pool being built in the courtyard of our hotel was being built by female masons. Women made up the crews working on the railroads and were seen doing almost any job in the city.

Women also get in on the more popular jobs and professions. Most of the doctors in the country are women and there don’t seem to be many occupations which are closed to them. We were told that many women prefer the construction jobs because they pay more than teaching or even being a doctor.

The women complain, however, that in Russia, just like here, they are expected to take care of the household when they get home even after a hard day laying concrete blocks. Children are in day care centers during the day,  but shopping is a big job and this may account for some extent to the general slow pace of work in the country.

Lenin’s tomb

One of he most amazing tours was to Lenin’s tomb. The leader of the revolution is embalmed and encased in a hermetically sealed glass coffin for display. Thousands and thousands of Russians line up to see him every day. The day we were there a wedding party came out of the tomb led by the bride in her wedding gown.

The trip through the tomb is a very morbid experience for Westerners and my wife was sickened by the whole thing. Lenin looks like fiber glass and she was put off by the idea that he is almost a god to the Russians.

Trading

One the most interesting experiences for Canadians was trading souvenirs. The Russians are pin happy and pins are issued to commemorate almost anything from the 50th anniversary of the revolution to eating in a good restaurant.

The adults collect pins just as the children do and it was not unusual to meet a Russian with a whole brief case full of hundreds of different pins mounted on sheets of cardboard. The adults wanted our pins most but some of them preferred ball point pens which are very expensive and scarce there.

The children preferred chewing gum which is virtually nonexistent in Russia.

Shopping in Russia is a real obstacle course. For one thing there aren’t nearly the number of stores there would be in North America for a population of over seven million in one city. For another, many items are mainly carried in specialty stores so that a shopper can do quite a lot of traveling to find what he wants.

The worst part, though, is the lining up. Consider grocery shopping as an example. To buy baked goods, you line up. You work your way to the head of the line and quickly place your order. You are given a bill and take that to another line where you work your way to the cash register and pay for the goods. You are given a receipt and go to another line where you work your way back to the counter and trade the receipt for your purchase. Now you have’ your bread and rolls. You can start all over again at the meat counter. We were told that there is no unemployment in Russia. One reason may be that, at any given moment in the year, 18 percent of the people are lined up somewhere.

It is hard to establish comparisons on prices between Russia and Canada. Some things like cars and clothing are very expensive and not very stylish. A car that looks like a Volvo Canadian costs about $12,000 and a good knit sweater runs about $60. A dress a Canadian lady would. ware to an afternoon tea would cost over $100.

On the other hand, rent and subway rides and restaurant meals are very cheap. A party of four can wine and dine well for about $12 and you can go for miles on the subway for about five cents.

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