Finding Nemo

Friday, November 29, 2013


The dream: Marx
Moscow!! The seat of tsars, the nexus of the Soviet Empire, the still beating heart of a new paradoxical Russia. What wonders awaited in this enigmatic capital?

I spilled out of the train station into the evening air, and looked up. Above me was a bright shining neon sign: MOCKVA. Through the back gate, I had snuck into the continent of Europe.

It is so odd to stand here. The city that was the sworn enemy of the West for a good part of the last century, the backdrop for Clancy spy novels, home of Russian-accented Bond villains, and the occasional Xenia Onatopp. Who can forget the old news footage of Stalin looking proudly over a goose-stepping Red Army escorting sickle-adorned ICBMs? Weapons that would be targeted at New York City, Washington DC, and Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The reality: Stalin
But the wall had crumbled. In that heady time, Russia had experienced a brief glasnost of hope, their own version of the Arab Spring. Yet, just as it is unfolding in the Middle East now, the country had fallen back to autocracy. Why had Germany become a flourishing democracy yet Russia embraced a new-age strongman? Were the people not yet ready? Was it the lack of alternative institutions? Was it the collapse of the economy? Maybe it was all of these thing that led a man like Putin back to power.

Was this was a vision of things to come for places like Egypt?

Red World: The extent of the Soviet world at its height in 1980, with orange countries targeted by the USSR for "socialism"

Face it: we miss our Xenia Onatopps
Most tourists I had met on my travels seemed to parachute into Moscow's Red Square, snap some pics, and then head straight back to the airport. And then in the hostel or in the bar they tell me they think Moscow is just an average city, nothing special. Russians are rude. It doesn't feel safe.

I'm not the greatest traveler in the world. But I have to been to quite a few international cities. And in my humble opinion, Moscow is kickass.

But why?

It took me a few days after I'd left to puzzle out my feelings. As one wanders through a garden of decapitated Stalin busts, or walks up and lays their hands on the peeling paint of the knock-off Soviet Space Shuttle Buran, or gazes up at the glittering gold domes of the Kremlin, one cannot help but feel a complicated, powerful emotion. Part of it is the simple thrill of being here, of strolling free through the land of a former blood enemy. One of my first memories as a very young child was my Dad telling me in absolute seriousness, as Reagan's image flickered on an old wooden TV, that we could all die any day. This was due to the fact that our house was located less than 12 miles from one of the largest military installations in the Midwest: Wright Patterson Air Force Base. It was a simple fact that when nuclear war rained down upon the Earth (and in those days it seemed quite possible), there would be an enormous wall of fire obliterating everything I had ever known. Who needs ghost stories as a child when you thought you might wake up to a mushroom cloud outside your door?

Da Comrade! Beard worthy of good Russian soldier!
But it is more than just that. Part of it is the voyeuristic schadenfreude of walking among the crumbling remains of Empire. When I climbed through the glorious over-grown temples of Angkor Wat or Tikal, I could not help but feel a certain thrill that at one point in time, this very place had been one of Earth's great Centers of Power. In in every sense of that word, Moscow for the better part of a century was the Rome of a red world.

Symbolism nyet?: Russian children atop the fallen dictator
Like Rome, the USSR had collapsed. But unlike Angkor Wat or Tikal or Rome, it had all happened within my own lifetime! The ruins were fresher than the paint on an '85 Mustang.

Finally, and this cannot be emphasized enough, what has emerged from the Communist ashes is as fascinating as any other place on the planet. Moscow is a city pulsing with energy, brimming with thumping clubs and flower-filled parks and beautiful ballerinas and mind-bending churches and astoundingly good street musicians.

There is simply no other place like it.
Clubbing at Pacha next to Red Square (from


  1. Your whole blog reminds me when I was in my 20's eager to experience new worlds,- now, I am in my 50's seeking comfort of my home and family and driving a cab in St Petersburg, FL, USA
    I really do enjoy your writing about China, Mongolia, Moscow .......and