“Everything had changed suddenly-the tone, the moral climate; you didn’t know what to think, whom to listen to. As if all your life you had been led by the hand like a small child and suddenly you were on your own, you had to learn to walk by yourself.”
~Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago
All of my early thoughts and imaginings of Russia were formed from the movie Doctor Zhivago. The endless snow-covered landscape, the haunting melody of Lara’s Theme, that train – they were all called up in an instant, an association forever linked to a place I had never been. And in the early 1970s when I first saw that film, the idea of actually visiting Russia seemed about as likely as time traveling to the days of tsars and Bolsheviks.
Those images from Doctor Zhivago came flooding back while doing research for our Baltic cruise on the Crystal Symphony. Our ship would be docking in St. Petersburg for two nights and three days. Visas were not required for that period of time as long as we were on a guided tour, arranged either through the cruise line or privately on our own. Crystal was also offering a one-day excursion to Moscow, leaving before dawn by high-speed train and returning around midnight. It was an exhausting itinerary and would mean giving up a day in St. Petersburg, but for me it was an easy decision. When would I ever have another chance to see Moscow? And as an added serendipity, the excursion fell on my birthday. I would get to turn 60 in Moscow.
Riding the Sapsan Train
Herb and I left the ship at 5:30 that morning, riding through a rainy, empty St. Petersburg to Moskovsky Station. We were booked on Russian Rail’s high-speed “Sapsan” train – a four-hour journey to the Russian capital. We sped through the outskirts of St. Petersburg and in what seemed like an instant, we were in the Russian countryside. Endless forests dotted the landscape. This was summer, and there was no snow “covering the hope of spring.” It was vast and green and except for the occasional rail platform from a small town, our view was mostly of woods. Despite the monotony of the scenery, I rarely looked away from the window.
A Moscow Metro Station
After arriving at Leningradsky Station, our group of 52 was divided into two tour groups and assigned a guide from Moscow. A firecracker of a woman named Ludmila was in charge of our group. Ludmila was one of those people you immediately take to – sincerely sweet, sarcastically funny and completely in charge. A whirlwind of information, she talked non-stop throughout the tour, making sure to toss in a few views of her own along with her bounty of historical knowledge. She was what I imagined Betty White would be like if she were a Russian tour guide.
Our Moscow introduction began with a bus tour. With the sun shining and Ludmila’s commentary going strong, we were off to a great start. After a snack and coffee break, we were dropped off at our first stop: A Moscow Metro Station. Once inside, it became clear why a subway station was on the itinerary. Decorated ceilings, lavish lighting, and marble, bronze and mosaics filled the hallways. It was an impressive site as we made our way down – and down – the steepest of escalators. A quick one-stop ride later, we had arrived at the Kremlin.
The Kremlin complex of palaces, museums, towers and cathedrals was beyond anything I had imagined. I think we walked a marathon of miles that day. We saw the gold-topped domes and 15th century frescoes in the Church of the Assumption at Cathedral Square. We toured the Armory, a beautiful museum of crowns, jewels, historic clothing, chariots, old weapons and Faberge eggs. And then, at a specified time, we arrived at our next site: A “special access” tour of the Grand Kremlin Palace. Ludmila told us that if we were late we wouldn’t get in. After going through a special security point, we quickly realized how lucky we were.
The Grand Kremlin Palace
The 700-room palace was built in the 1800s as the residence of Russia’s tsars. When the Soviets took control, it was turned into a meeting hall. Today it has been restored to its original glory and is used for official state functions and hosting foreign diplomats. It isn’t impossible to get a tour, but it isn’t easy.
A guard was assigned to our small group – we seemed to be the only tour there – and we were initially told we could not take photos. Ludmila guided us through a magnificent, gilded room called the Faceted Chamber and then took us upstairs to the tsars’ private chambers.
An Embarrassing Moment
As we were admiring the centuries’ old décor, a woman in our group suddenly interrupted. “I want to take a vote!” she said. “How many of you are as bored with all this history as I am? I vote we move on.” You could hear the gasps of embarrassment and astonishment from the rest of our group. Here we were in the bedroom of Russia’s tsars – a place very few people get to see – and you want to leave? Ludmila kept her cool and would have nothing to do with the ridiculous and rude request. “This is my tour and we will follow the itinerary as planned,” she firmly declared. And that was that.
Back downstairs, we were told that the guards had changed their minds and we now could take photos. There was an air of excitement as we all grabbed our cameras, attempting to capture the massive, golden splendor of St. George’s Hall. The ship’s photographer happened to be in our group and quickly set up his camera at the entrance to the ornate throne room, designed by Tsar Nicholas I. A professional photo of my husband and me at the Grand Kremlin Palace. The whole experience was surreal and fabulous and about as memorable as it gets.
Red Square & St. Basil’s Cathedral
It would have been a perfect movie-ending moment to our day in Moscow, except that our day was far from over. Back on the bus, we headed to our next stop: Red Square and the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral. Ludmila gave us a brief overview and then said we would have some free time to explore on our own.
Red Square is anchored by St. Basil’s at one end and an almost equally enchanting-looking building called the State Historical Museum at the other. The eastern side of the square houses Russia’s most famous shopping mall, the State Department Store GUM, and directly opposite on the western side is Lenin’s Tomb. Except for a brief peek inside the stunning GUM building, we spent our time wandering around the square, just taking in the experience of being there. Like being up close to a painting that you’ve only seen in pictures, I couldn’t get enough of St. Basil’s wildly-colored, whimsical domes.
Our last stop in Moscow was a dinner at Café Pushkin, a Baroque mansion elegantly restored to look like a Russian aristocrat’s home circa 1825. With its decorated ceilings, detailed carvings and period antiques, it was sophisticated and cozy at the same time. We were served Russian vodka, French champagne, stroganoff and cake and toasted my birthday with “Nastrovia!”
The Train to St. Petersburg
After dinner, we drove through a traffic-filled Moscow to catch the high speed train back to St. Petersburg. I had thought our train car would be very quiet after the long day, but it was buzzing with energy. We arrived at Moskovsky Station after midnight and hopped on the awaiting shuttle for the drive back to the ship. The rain had stopped many hours earlier, and the city lights along the Neva glowed in the night sky. As I fell asleep that night, I was back on the Sapsan, replaying our incredible day on the fast train to Moscow.
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After our trip, I looked up the filming locations for Doctor Zhivago and discovered places in Canada, Spain and Finland. Nothing in Russia. It made sense, of course, for the time it was made, but it had never occurred to me. The fact that the movie wasn’t actually filmed there didn’t change my view. That was the Russia in my mind’s eye, and after walking through those historical streets, I was sticking with it as truth.