"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Russian Journals, Part Seven, Busted at the GUM

Here’s another lesson in Russian for you. The name of that big department store in Moscow is not pronounced “gum.” It’s “goom,” rhymes with “boom.”

I had no idea what to expect when told we would be going to GUM. I never would have guessed, either, because what I found was beyond anything I could imagine. For years I’d heard about the poor working people of Russia, how their grocery shelves were bare, how they lined up for hours to get one loaf of bread or one potato.

I know glasnost (openness) and perestroika(relaxation of regulations) changed a lot of things, and even more changed when the Soviet Union fell in 1991. I’d heard that times were really tough, that lawlessness and the Russian mafia made life even worse than before the fall. I’d heard that things were getting better for the average Russian working person in the past few years

Nevertheless, I did not expect the reality of the GUM. I’m going to show you a picture you’ve seen before, as it’s the best way to orient you, and I have no idea why I think it’s important to orient you. Perhaps it’s because I finally figured out the orientation myself.

Behind the tourist is St. Basil’s cathedral. To the left is one of the red brick towers of the Kremlin wall. Behind the cathedral is Red Square. On the right is a fa├žade masking a construction site, and behind the site, facing Red Square, is the Gum Store.

I have another picture, but to get there we have to walk around the construction site.

Watch your step. That middle board is broken.

Watch your head.

C’mon, c’mon. Don’t have time to stop at the sidewalk vendor, even if the brands are familiar.

Follow Natasha. She’s walked us around the construction site and is approaching Red Square from behind St. Basil’s cathedral. That’s the GUM department store on the right, but it isn’t open yet, so we’ll go look at a piece of Red Square for a few minutes.

Okay. I mentioned before that Red Square was off limits to tourists today because it’s set up with reviewing stands for a big celebration, all for Moscow’s 850th anniversary. This is all of it we were able to see. There’s St. Basil’s on the left (we’re on the opposite side of it now) and the red tower of the Kremlin in the middle. Beside us, and out of the picture, is the GUM.

Doors are opening. Let’s go in. Follow Natasha.

Uh oh. High fashion. Not my kind of store.

Official Olympic team apparel.

One of our group dropped around $300 on a jacket and a couple hats.

Central fountain. This is our meeting place. Now scatter and try not to get lost.

This is a huge store. Seven hundred and ninety feet long with an arched glass roof, this mall contains around 200 stores on three levels. It was one of the very few stores that did not have shortages during even the worst years of Soviet rule. It did, however, have Stalins’ second wife’s body on display after her “suicide” in 1932.

While many stores feature high fashion brands familiar in the West, the joke is that these are “exhibitions of prices,” because no one could afford to actually buy those items on display.

Oh, dear.

Oh, my.

This could get ugly.


Ah, a sidewalk cafe.

Then a cage full of melons led me to a supermarket. A supermarket like I’ve never seen before.

I walked along window after window of elaborate food displays, talking pictures through the glass. The store was endless. In the spaces that could have been a number of stores, each area was dedicated to a certain type of product—meat, fish, fancy baked goods, liquor, preserved vegetables, chocolates and candies, and one and on.

Olives and another huge sausage of some kind.

Cured meats

I walked along window after window of elaborate food displays, talking pictures through the glass. The store was endless. In the spaces that could have been a number of stores, each area was dedicated to a certain type of product—meat, fish, fancy baked goods, liquor, preserved vegetables, chocolates and candies, and one and on.

Through the windows I could see produce, fresh meats, liquor, aisle after aisle of cans and jars and containers of specialty gourmet items. Finally I found an entrance door, and the fish counter was before me. This is the only picture I got inside the store.

Why? Because right then a security guard came over, pointed at my camera, and waggled his finger in the universal no-no gesture. Busted. I put the camera in my pocket, and ambled off through the store.

Clear at the other end, I tried it again. Another guard with the finger waggle, only this one added in English, “No pictures.” Busted again.

I strolled through a huge confectionary section, Those guys in business suits with the earpieces were everywhere! Just to spite them, I went back outside the store and took more photos of window displays.

Then I began to wonder what they would do if they saw me doing that? Take my camera? Ship me to Siberia? Heck, I could walk home from Siberia.

Well, it was time to meet back at the central fountain, so I hung onto my little camera and made my way back. Every store, every outlet had a security guy in a business suit. There are lots of security jobs in Russia.

These guys are everywhere.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I Heard It on the Grapevine

Actually, I heard it on the radio news today. The Sarah (as in Palin) has completed her memoirs in only four months since the announcement of her book contract. The publisher now says he can move up the release date.

Four short months to write your complete memoirs!

Well, golly gee. Even a dummy knows it doesn't take long to raise a pail of water from a shallow well.

The Russian Journals, Part Six: Caution: Baggy Sweatshirts are the Mark of a Mark

(Reminder: Click on photo to enlarge it to full screen.)

Listen up. Your pockets are not your own. There are many pickpockets out there, and they are exceedingly talented and exceedingly sly. Those gypsies you see are not the ones that sing and dance. They steal from you. So beware. Your pockets are not your own, especially in the subway where you are in close contact with other passengers.

Such were the admonitions given by our tour guides in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the pre-trip literature and advice I’d read, severe cautions were given, including the recommendation to try to blend in with the populace, to avoid looking like a tourist. In Russia, read once piece of advice, don’t wear baggy sweatshirts. No one over the age of 14 wears baggy sweatshirts in Russia. To do so would mark you as a tourist—and thus a mark for pickpockets.

This is as close to Red Square as we would get. It was blocked off to the common folk as it was set up for a big-to in celebration of Moscow's 850th anniversary. In the background is St. Basil's cathedral with its famous onion domes.

So there we were, first day in Moscow, gaping at St. Basil’s Cathedral across a wide expanse of traffic. Nearby a number of tour coaches were parked.

Missy with St. Basil's Cathedral in the background. I think this is Missy. It could be her identical sister Katy, too, and wouldn't you know they were wearing similar raincoats?

Our group of forty-some were clustered around Natasha and Valeria, each of whom was holding a white Vantage sign. The signs were for us to follow.

Nathasha with the white Vantage sign. That's the GUM department store on her right.

Each of us was wearing a blue ribbon around our necks, with a Vantage name tag hanging at the bottom. Spelled out were our names and the state where we lived. And, each of us also was wearing earphones with a wire that led to a receiver. The receiver could be attached to us in several ways: from a cord around the neck, by a clip to a pocket, or carried in a handbag.

The guides no longer had to scream to be heard. Earphones and receivers solved that problem, and I could wander far away and still hear the guide. If I started getting static, I knew I had some catching up to do.

So as not to be marked as tourists and thereby become marks, none of us was wearing a baggy sweatshirt, as near as I could determine. So I ask you, do these people look like tourists?

Not going to identify the building right now because I don't want to spoil a surprise.

But wait. See that dude in the red shirt with the maroon vest? That’s Norman. He had his wallet stolen from the deepest pocket of his cargo shorts—the pocket that’s at knee level—while on public transportation in a city in Spain. Next to him is his wife Katy. Her wallet was stolen the same time as Norman’s, but hers was in her backpack, deep within its zippered depths. Passports, cash, IDs, ATM cards, credit cards—all gone.

What did they do? In their luggage at the hotel, they had copies of their passports. The hotel took pity and let them stay. They immediately canceled their credit cards without difficulty, because they had carefully recorded all the numbers and relevant phone numbers, and kept the list with the copies of their passports.

Then, as they still had a day or so before they flew home, and needed food in the interim, Katy approached an American couple and explained their plight. She asked them to loan her $200, and said she would understand if they chose not to, because how likely was it that both of them would have been pickpocketed on the same day?

Katy gave the couple her room number, again telling them they would understand. Five minutes later the couple showed up with $200 in cash. As soon as Norman and Katy reached home, they returned the borrowed money.

So, it is best to blend in with the populace, to avoid the appearance of being a tourist, to carefully guard your wallets, credit cards, IDs, and passports.

With all that in mind, I ask again: Does this person look like a tourist?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Russian Journals, Part Five, Herding the Sheep

(Don't forget, you can click on the photos to enlarge them to full screen.)

Meet Valeria. She was our tour guide for the 12 days of our river cruise in Russia. Vantage Travel calls her a program manager. I called her our guide. I know I have a better picture of her somewhere, but Picassa is hiding it from me right now.

Oh, wait. I know where there's a good photo of her. Hang on a minute.

Here she is. Our baby-sitter, shepherd, and all-around good gal guide.

However, every town we went to also had a local guide waiting for us. Meet Natasha. She led us around Moscow and filled us full of information.

And, yes, every Russian woman was tall, slender, and beautiful. Every one of them. Or, so it seemed.

Usually Natasha, and the other local guides, led the way, while Valeria followed along behind rustling up the strays, and counting noses once we were all back aboard the coach.

Our tour guides were either very, very confident, very, very brave, or very, very sick of foreign tourists, because on our first day in Moscow they shepherded us to the Moscow Metro where we were expected to survive riding the Metro and visiting three different stations. In addition, we were expected to do this as a group, ending up at the same station from which we had departed.

A ceiling in a Moscow Metro station

To make things even tougher for us and to weigh the odds more in their favor, they demanded that we finish with the same number of people as when we started, and they all had to be wearing Vantage name tags. We were not allowed to just grab anybody off the street and add him to our group. In case someone was missing, that is.

I’m thinking the latter—the very, very sick of foreign tourists—was a viable option, because this was September and they had been doing this every week since May with no time or days off. Our group traveled from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The day we were departing the boat to fly home, another group was boarding the boat to begin their tour from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

Wall decoration in subway station

So, seriously, how can they be expected to maintain a smile while answering the same dumb questions day after day, solving problems, listening to complaints, and so on, and not have just a bit of a desire to take the whole bloody herd to the Metro and lose them in the bowels of the Moscow subway system? Really. Then they could take the fast lane up the escalators, cackling with glee, and spend the rest of the day at Starbucks.

Of course then they wouldn’t get tipped and they’d probably lose their jobs, and in this economy, neither is preferable. So, with Natasha in the lead—and lecturing forcefully about staying together and following her instructions—and Valeria bringing up the rear, down into the subway system we went. And I do mean down, because many of these stations are 200 feet underground and did double duty as air raid shelters, bomb shelters, and (it’s rumored) sanctuaries in case of nuclear attack. Turns out the Russians were just as scared as we were.

Now what, you might ask, is the point in riding the Metro. We didn’t use it for transportation—to get from one attraction to another. All we did was travel three stations, get off, look around, get on, go back two stations, get off, look around, get back on another line, go to another station, get off, look around, get back on and return to where we’d started. This was not an exercise in showing us how efficient the Russian Metro is, either. This was something entirely different than what you’d expect.

This was an art tour extravaganza, and none other than Josef Stalin was responsible for it. As with many of the buildings constructed during his rule, the subway stations were extravagant with various colors of native marble, precious materials, beautiful chandeliers, sculptures, mosaics, and paintings. Famous artists were commissioned to provide works for the stations.

The subway was planned during the early part of the Soviet Empire, but actual construction was delayed while the Russians got a couple revolutions and a war (WWI) out of the way.

The first line was opened in 1935. Construction continued through WWII. When Nikita Khruschev came to power, the stations became much more Spartan, as did all construction during his time.

To get down to the subway stations, you have to ride the longest escalators I’ve ever seen. We were told to stand to the right of the steps, because the left is the fast lane. A number of people passed us, jogging up or down on the left during the escalator rides that took two minutes or more, and they run faster than US escalators.

A train comes by every 90 seconds from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. The doors open to disgorge and engorge quickly. Be on your toes and hurry because the doors close automatically. The line has 177 stations over its 189 miles. According to Natasha, you could buy a ticket, and ride the subway all day, getting off at each station to admire the art and architecture. It wouldn't be a bad way to spend a few days.

Eight to nine million people ride this system every day during the week, and if you saw the parking problem in Moscow, you would too.

We visited Smolenskaya, Kievskaya, and (of course) Revolyutsii (Revolution) Square stations.

I think the last one, named after one of Russia’s revolutions, was my favorite. Dark paneling, filled with bronze sculptures depicting every aspect of Russians’ lives, there was one little thing that caught my attention and made it special.

You probably can’t see it in this picture. Here’s another.

Sorry, but those people just wouldn’t hold still. See that hand in the center? Reaching up towards something shiny?

Here’s that something shiny. And take a look at the dude on the left, because there's something shiny on that side, too.

And here’s Kathy, her hand on the bronze muzzle of the dog sculpture. Russians think it’s good luck to rub it. Must have been, because Valeria and Natasha weren’t able to lose us that day.

(For a great site about the Moscow Metro with info and360 degree pictures, go to: