By Mark J. Stoddard,Co-Founder, Heart of Russia Cruises Bits & Bizarre Pieces of Russian History, Culture & Geography PART IV
As Nazi forces came close to Moscow, Stalin regularly met with his Air Marshal Golovan at a palace on the way to the airport. The Air Marshal brought his daughter, Svetlana, with him and left her in the backseat under a bearskin rug with the engine running so if the Nazi’s broke through the city defenses Golovan could rush Stalin to an awaiting plane to whisk him off to the provisional capital of Samara or Kazan.
Today’s Moscow is a far cry from Soviet dreary architecture, with gleaming, towering skyscrapers challenging the famous cathedral cupolas and red stars adorning the Kremlin towers. In the 90’s, the lawns were rarely mowed except in official locations. Much cleaner today.
In the winter, the bluff overlooking Moscow has the impressive Moscow State University. On the edge is a favorite ski jump frequented by students and Muscovites alike.
Before 1991’s “putsch” that ended formal communism, apartments (kavartiera) were state owned. After the USSR fell, home ownership became a reality and a bustling real estate industry began. Today, beautiful homes dot the areas with flush estates as well as full fledged suburbs in the lush forests surrounding the city.
The Red Arrow once served as a prime transport between Moscow and Leningrad and took about 10 hours. Today, the Red Arrow has been replaced by hi-speed rail that completes the journey through picturesque rolling farmland and verdant forests in less than 4 hours. A dozen or more departure times per day are the norm.
Virtually all of the old Soviet airliners have been replaced by Boeing, Airbus and other planes. The old Soviet commercial airliners had rather lax standards. Stewardesses were rarely seen. Seat belts often missing or broken, passengers known to stand up and walk in the aisle while the plane was taking off. However, what they were strict about was the tradition of everyone remaining in their seats until the plane reached the gate of the terminal. All passengers sat -- never standing to retrieve luggage from the overhead bins -- until the pilot and crew made their way to the open door and exited the plane. Then they acted like the rest of the world and went nuts getting off.
One can board a ship in St. Petersburg and sail west through the Baltic Sea, turn south to the English Channel, along France and Portugal’s coasts, through Gibraltar and then the Mediterranean Sea, through the Bosphorus Straits into the Black Sea, then the Sea of Azov, up the Volga-Don Canal to the Volga, past Volgograd north to Kazan, west to Rybinsk Reservoir, north to the giant lakes to the Neva River and...St. Petersburg. The danger is river ships don’t do so well in Seas so it had better be calm.
The Siege of Leningrad by the Nazi’s lasted 832 days. The city starved. Sawdust pancakes became a delicacy...sort of. Children born to the survivors rightly admired their parents for their determination and bravery.
In the USSR, all stores had generic names. No personalization. A shoe store was “Shoe Store,” and a drug store, “Apothecary.” That led the Soviets visiting the USA to some strange discussions. One guest thought it strange that Americans all went to get their haircut on Christmas Day. She had driven by Barber Brothers car sales lot. She got a hoot out of the truth. Today, Russian stores are named with branding in mind. Real capitalists.
In August, 1991 when Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank pointing at the Russian White House in Moscow and declared the Russian Federation free from the USSR, he was preceded in drama by a tank commander demanding the protestors against the USSR stand down and disperse. One older Russian woman walked up to the barrel of the tank and called out the commander, challenging him to fire on Russian citizens. Quietly, he turned his tank turret around and joined the protestors.
The massive lock system of the Volga, has 24 locks and in some locks you can drop 20 feet...slowly of course. A dramatic event for passengers every time. Lots of pictures and videos taken.