They are just like us

Published 4:35 pm Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The film “From Russia with Love” was made in 1963.  Sean Connery starred as Bond; James Bond.  I was in the third grade and the Cuban missile crisis scare was fresh on my mind.  There were three places I thought I would never visit in my lifetime:  Cuba, Russia and China.

I am writing this article tonight as the sun sets in St. Petersburg, Russia.  From my balcony I can see the Baltic Sea, twin cooling towers of a power plant, and the soaring new headquarters of Gasprom, the largest company in Russia.

I have now completed the trilogy of visiting the countries I thought were off limits forever.   I found China to be nothing like I expected.   In the major cities, it was more American than America.   Luxury hotels, expensive cars and ultra-stylish clothes seemed to be everywhere.  Money seemed to be in unlimited supply everywhere I went.

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Cuba remains the most dramatically different trip I have ever taken.  This was a country that seemed to have no money, and there was nothing to remind you of anything from back home.   The worldwide presence of American companies seemed largely absent in Cuba.  After visiting dozens of countries around the world, Cuba remains the place where I felt the most isolated from the United States.

Mary Lou and I joined our traveling friends, Bill and Pam Moench, in Stockholm, Sweden for a few days before traveling to Helsinki, Finland.  Bill was my college roommate and fraternity brother.  This is the fifth year in a row that the four of us have taken a trip to some part of the world we have never been.

After only one day in Russia, I find it to be more Western than I might have expected.  Though I am enjoying the comfort of a cruise ship during my stay, St. Petersburg seems much like any other city of 5 million people.

I have seen a McDonalds, Subway and a KFC.  I passed by a Coca-Cola distribution and bottling plant.  Teenagers on the street wear clothes just like Americans of the same age.  Everyone has a phone in their hand.  The cars are overwhelmingly imported.  In fact, I saw many more Russian cars in Cuba than I see here in Russia.

Today, we visited the summer palace of Empress Elizabeth and later her daughter, Catherine the Great, which was built during the 1700’s.  To say it was over the top limits the description of the sheer size and opulence of the palace.  Over 100 kilograms of gold gilded everything from the molding to the railings. 

In particular, the Amber Room was an amazing thing to see.   It was once considered the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.  When finished the room was 590 square feet and contained over six tons of Amber. 

The palace fell into Nazi Germany’s hands during the Siege of Leningrad.  During the 900 days that the city was cut off from outside supplies, over 1 million people died.   The Amber Room was looted, the palace was used for target practice and the building was set on fire as the Germans retreated.

Its restoration, painstakingly done over at least 3 decades allows people from around the world to see the astonishing wealth and power of the Russian royal family during the eighteenth century.

Our afternoon visit was to the Faberge Museum, where we saw the largest collection of Faberge eggs in the world.  These priceless jeweled eggs were made for the imperial family as well as other royalty and wealthy people around the world.   

The display of wealth spent on yearly presents for the Tsar’s wife seems at odds with a country largely populated by uneducated peasants and workers at the time.  Nevertheless, the skill and craftsmanship of the House of Faberge is something to behold in this private museum.

Although we have much more to see and do in Russia and the other countries we will visit in the Baltic Sea area, I am confident that I have already found the answer to the question I really wanted to know.  Are the Russian people different from Americans?

In the space of one day as a tourist, my initial takeaway is they are just like us.  I was comforted to see parents pushing the carriages of babies around the parks.  The old city was beautiful, the buildings built during the Soviet era were drab, and the new construction seems as sleek and modern as anywhere else.

People were friendly and helpful.   80 percent of the students study English.  I cannot understand anything I read here, but it is easy to communicate as almost everyone speaks English.  In fact, 80 percent of the students study English as their required second language in school.

Perhaps we might understand the Russian people better if more Americans studied their language.  In any case, I will sleep a bit better tonight just knowing that the Russians seem just like us.