When engulfed in flames: thoughts on Russia

She liked to sit and watch the sunrise over the tower blocks in the morning. Hers was a Soviet era building that was built for functionality not beauty. However, from her kitchen she had an excellent view. You could see the trees and the duck pond, and it was beautiful.

Russian trees were the first thing I noticed upon arriving. As I looked out of the window while landing I was struck by how these trees look so much different from all the other ones I’ve seen before. They are tall and deciduous, and look like they belong in a painting.

Then there is customs. Getting a Russian tourist visa is a pain, and a very trying experience. It makes me think that very few people are going to attend the Sochi Olympics. We land and then are told we need to fill out boarding cards, but there are very few left and no English translation available. I guess and hope I have filled it out correctly. This is my general approach to Russian tourist visas and registration. I remind myself that one must not judge a country by its airport and customs. These are often strange encounters. Unfortunately the ghost of my visa experience lingers, and I resent Russian bureaucracy. I joke to myself that there is a reason the Daoist hell is modeled off the Tang Dynasty courts.

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Then there is the smell of candle wax in Russian churches. They are beautiful on the outside and St. Basil’s is one of the most striking churches I’ve ever seen. On the inside they are filled with icon upon icon. To fully understand them one would have to know the attributes of at least two hundred saints. It can be overwhelming. I usually look at little details and give up on figuring out what is going on. The way their hair is painted is beautiful. So simple, so effective. It is said that to enjoy Russian churches you don’t actually need to go in. I agree.

That and the smell of cigarette smoke. Russia is a smoker’s paradise and I find myself missing the stringent indoor smoking laws I am used to.

The metros are beautiful, crowded and confusing. I get lost when left to my own devices and am thankful to have my sister showing me around. For some reason many stations in similar areas are not joined but are separate stations. I find this out five days into my trip. There is a general lack of signage. The crowds are huge. At first I am scared of getting caught in the doors or missing a train. By the end I am shoving on to them like a native. The stations themselves are beautiful and surreal. Many were designed as Soviet show pieces and are works of art. Unlike most great works of architecture Soviet ones served the state and communism, rather than the church. It is weird to see wheat sheaves and hammers and sickles everywhere. It is weird how ornate and beautiful the stations are compared to the usual simplistic and functional transit I am used to. It is strange to think that people pass by through the stations everyday on the way to work without noting their beauty and extravagance.

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