Guest Post: Other Side of the Iron Curtain
Many thanks to Samir Jaluria for his guest post:
This past fall, I had the opportunity to check another travel goal off my bucket list – venturing to the other side of the Iron Curtain. My wife and I visited the Czech Republic, Finland, Estonia and Russia. Yes, we ventured onto the other side of the Iron Curtain solo with no organized tours, no cruise ships, and absolutely no idea just how challenging the language barrier would be – especially in Russia. Yet, of all the countries we visited, none was as enthralling as Russia. Given its sordid history with the United States leading up to the Cold War, we were filled with a mix of curiosity, some nerves and awe. After ten days there, we realized that, in many ways, Russia is a mirror image of the United States.
The similarities between Russia and the US ranged from political – jingoism – to artistic – stately architecture and tasty regional cuisine – to an expectation of foreigners to speak the country’s primary language.
- Russians are very proud of their country and their country’s history. Just as we Americans love to discuss the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, Mark Twain, the American West and the Statue of Liberty, the Russians are very proud of their industrial achievements, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky and their glorious buildings such as the Kremlin, the Hermitage and St. Basil’s Cathedral (and hence why they constantly tout those places as “must see attractions” to tourists).
- Russia is very nationalistic. Just as the American flag can be ubiquitous, so is the Russian flag. Just as most of us Americans love our country, so do most Russians. In our conversations with Russians, their faces lit up when discussing their country; in fact, a level of pride often emanated from their faces.
- Russians truly believe that their country is the greatest place in the world. Just as most Americans believe that their country is the center of the world and an incredible place to live, so do many Russians. The one difference is that this resurgence in Russian pride can at least partially be attributed to Putin (whose image is everywhere in Russia) and his belief in a Russia that needs to be restored to her former might.
- Russia boasts some jaw-dropping architecture. Places such as the Hermitage, Savior on Spilled Blood, Kazan Cathedral and St. Basil’s Cathedral are stunning in a way that Monticello, Mount Vernon, the Golden Gate Bridge and St. Patrick’s Cathedral are. Soaking in Russia’s glorious architecture was truly one of our trip’s highlights. While we all know how iconic San Francisco’s old Victorian builds are, the buildings in St. Petersburg are incomparable – a showcase of a time passed and beautifully preserved.
- Russia expects visitors to speak their language. Throughout Moscow and St. Petersburg, with the exception of high-end hotels and a select number of upscale restaurants (although even those were a challenge), very few Russians spoke English. At restaurants, we became accustomed to picking entrees based upon pictures with grunts and gestures – hoping for the best. We couldn’t help but empathize with non-English speaking visitors who come to the US and have difficulty navigating around, as many Americans are monoglots.
- Many immigrants from poorer, surrounding countries flock to Russia’s major cities in search of employment and often end up working in the service and hospitality industries. Through interactions with wait staff and hotel housekeeping, we discovered that most of them were from neighboring countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. This is akin to the US service and hospitality industries who employ many workers in similar functions from neighboring, poorer Latin America.
- In that same vein, immigrants from Russia’s surrounding countries have brought their tasty cuisine to the big cities. Food from the Caucasus (especially from Georgia) was found throughout St. Petersburg and Moscow (I was told that it is popular in neighboring Belarus and Ukraine, as well). The delicious khachapuri bread from Georgia was some of my favorite food on the trip. This affection for neighboring countries’ food reminds me of the popularity of Mexican food (especially tacos and burritos) in the US.
Upon reflection, one cannot doubt that Russia was an intriguing place to visit. It is a country that I would recommend to everyone at least once in their lifetime – just remember to exercise extra caution. For Americans, be prepared for a look in the mirror – which is sometimes more pleasant than others.