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TRIP REPORT --- RUSSIA 1998

Jim Drummond

I have been asked by several people to give them a synopsis of my trip to Russia during June and July of this year (1998). This report is intended to do that. First and right-off-the-bat, I must tell anyone who bothers to read this, that it was a grand experience and an opportunity I am glad I didn't pass up. John Sloan who first brought the opportunity to my attention, arranged the trip through the International Arts Institute which allowed us to piggy pack on the travel of two Columbus, Ohio choral groups, the Columbus Childrens' Choir and the Ohio Village Singers, an adult group which sings Civil War era music in an Ohio theme park. Our arrangement meant that we moved on the same river cruise boat but had our own separate transportation, guides and interpreters at each stop along the way thus allowing us to see the things that were most appealing to us.

" The Sloan Group" consisted of four of us: myself; John, my West Point classmate who taught Russian History at the Military Academy on two different assignments, and whose military career focused on work in the field of Soviet intelligence; Richard Aria, a software engineer/marketer from Cupertino, CA; and Micha Jelisavcic, an American of Serbian ancestry who had lived and traveled in the USSR where his father had been a diplomat. Micha also speaks passable Russian which was a great help. I found both Richard and Micha to be muy simpatico and splendid traveling companions. They added immensely to the trip. Because of John's background and interests/inclinations, we became known among the other passengers as "Professor Sloan's Military Historians".

Some General Observations:

First, a trip like this is unlike the usual commercially available cruise with plush accommodations and fancy ground transportation at each stop. Therefore, you want to go with someone who knows the country. We were really blessed in this regard. John has made six or seven previous trips and has traveled extensively in Russia, both before and after the breakup of the former Socialist Soviet Republics. He has numerous professional and personal contacts within the country. He is held in the highest esteem by all our Russian contacts, both for his scholarship and for his knowledge of Russian History. While on the cruise, he gave interested passengers an absolutely fascinating and learned lecture on the ethnic and cultural roots of the various Volga basin population groups which illustrated a remarkable knowledge of 1200 years of historical migrations and conflicts. Additionally, he provided each of us in our small group a detailed read-ahead package which provided information on the cities we would visit to include the priority things we should see while there. John is simply one smart dude, a patient "explainer", and his preparation and guidance throughout, truly made the trip for our group.

Second, a. I didn't realize fully before making this trip, the degree to which the history of Russia is inextricably interwoven with the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. The two are inseparable; the Tsars drew great moral authority from their relationship with the Church and the Church derived great political authority in return. Moscow was the city of Church and State where the state and religious authorities à the Tsars and the Metropolitans à should theoretically rule together in perfect symmetry. No doubt, however, the Tsar carried the great klaut.

b. The Tsars were the patrons of the church; their money gained from taxing the peasants went to build many of the churches and monasteries and to furnish armies to protect them during times of outside stresses. Many of the Tsars, from my reading, were also religious aesthetics, some even zealots, a fact which served to promote the authority of the church throughout all phases of civil life. The feudal princes, the "Boyards", (who had no family relationship to the Tsars), also served as patrons of the churches on their various estates. Subsequently, any monies the churches collected or any profit the monks of the monasteries made, was paid to the aristocracy. Therefore, whenever you set off on a "historical tour of Russia", you are going to be spending an inordinate amount of time looking at churches and monasteries.

Third, we were fortunate that our trip was based on the Volga River. The Volga River is the life-line of Russia. 60 million inhabitants live within the Volga River Basin and it is the center of national industrial development. The Russians have a saying that the "Volga River flows in the veins of every Russian." Clearly, while political action is centered in Moscow and cities to its south and west, just as obviously the sinew and muscle of Russia is along the Volga with its vast hydroelectric plants, steel industries, automobile plants and heavy manufacturing. Realizing this, I think that it was enlightening for us to be able to spend most of our time along the Volga à certainly, it was the best way to get a feel for the country.

Fourth, many of the preconceptions which I had about the country and its people were simply wrong.
a. My mental image of most Russian women, for example, was of sturdy, grim, heavy legged and broad-faced women, wrapped in heavy coats with a scarf on their heads. Not so! Many, many of the women were lithe, long legged, attractive young ladies in mini-skirts with a smile on their faces. Almost universally, people were friendly and good-humored.

b. The open air markets were well stocked with an abundance of meat (lots of sausage and chicken) and cheeses, bread and fresh vegetables. And don't forget Vodka and American colas à Orange Fanta seems a special favorite! I suspect that the new market economy has induced many farmers to bring their produce to market to earn cash rather than secretly hoarding it for their families as they did in a state run economy. These open-air markets also had a number of kiosks devoted to clothing, jackets, coats, knitwear, etc., and a number had blue denims jeans with the brand-name "Texas". In the Volga region, Saturday seems to be market-day.

c. In Moscow, in the residential areas there was an abundance of street corner "entrepreneurs" selling auto parts and motor oil. I also saw a growing availability of consumer items, e.g.: cameras (and Kodak film which was a cheap as in the US), televisions, computers, mixers, crock pots, hair dryers, cosmetics, US-owned fast food establishments (Pizza Hut, Pepsi Cola, McDonalds, KFC) etc., etc.. In the larger towns, boutique-like stores (in Moscow with neon and glitz) seem to be a growing thing.

Last, as a general observation, I found that I "wasted"30 years of my professional life worrying about how we could possibly ever beat the Russians if we had to fight them. In hind -sight, I have to judge that since the mid-50s they have not posed an offensive threat to the US in Central Europe, one that we could not have handled fairly easily if the fight stayed conventional.

a. The military equipment, which I saw, is junk; and from conversations with the two active duty colonels who spent time with us, they are having a tough time logistically maintaining it today. Their logistic transport are olive drab commercial trucks, certainly not suited to cross country mobility. The road infrastructure is terrible and I do not believe they could have sustained the supply lines of communication necessary for a major land mass war against NATO. Their doctrine talks about hauling their follow-up echelon tanks to the battlefield on tank carriers; these, even if available, would have broken down quickly. And their tank engines don't have the miles in them to get to the English Channel.

b. The Army itself has inherent systemic problems in organization and internal discipline. They have no NCO Corps to speak of à Majors and Captains do the work of our Sergeants. The enlisted grades are divided into two equal groups à those conscripted last year and those from this year's draft. And the Army is badly factious, divided between these two groups with ill-feeling, abuses and physically brutal hazing of the newer people. They have no money for field training so they have an Army with no training, no internal cohesion, a fiscal inability to maintain their weapons systems, no logistics backup and no military experience. (I have no doubt that Russian soldiers were brave fighters in WWII, often fighting with an extraordinary degree of fanatical heroism and a discipline that was a product of the Communist system. We heard some great war stories about WWII battles along the canal north of Moscow and at the second Battle of Borodino. But bravery only can go so far.)

Now to the details of our trip. We flew from Dulles on Aeroflot on the 15th of June. It was fully as comfortable as any other overseas tourist class I've flown on à , KAL, BOA, Lufthansa, Delta or American. (It should have been as good à we flew on a Boeing aircraft and their meals were as good as anything you get on any US domestic flight (that's faint praise).) We got to Moscow non-stop in 10 hours à just after noon on Tuesday the 16th. We were met by two of John's friends à Oleg and Viktor à two active duty Colonels and both PhDs, who teach at the Frunze Military Academy which is roughly their equivalent of our Command and General Staff College. These two "moon-light" by running a military history association that leads conducted tours of battle sites (WWII and others) plus any other sites tourists may want to see. They did a good job for us. They had hired us a van for our touring in the city and they stayed with us closely for assistance wherever we went.

The first two days we visited a variety of places: the Russian Army Uniform Museum which holds a magnificent collection of uniforms dating back to the days of the Tatars of the Golden Horde, right through to the present (this museum required special invitation à probably a hold over from the communist days because so many of the uniforms are from the Tzarist days.); then to the Russian Army/Air Force Aviation Museum; the KGB (now FSU) Museum on infamous Lubiyankaskya; the religious icon museum at the Andronika Monastery; the Novodevich Monasteries; and more other fortified monasteries and churches than my feet care to recall.
(I ought to note here, our lodging arrangements. We stayed and ate breakfast and supper at the Izmailovo Hotel, a complex of four large hotels (total of 14,000 rooms) which were built as the 1980 Olympic Village. The hotel is in a sad state of repair. Whether its present problems are due to poor construction or to a lack of up-keep/routine maintenance dollars, I can't tell you, but floors are uneven, marble facings are sagging, the tiled mosaics are peeling off, etc., and all the elevators aren't routinely available. This hotel is located in the north west quadrant of the city, near the royal estate and park (called Izmailovo) on which Peter the Great lived as a boy. It is also near a subway station and a very large Flea Market which was placed off-limits to foreigners while we were there because of drug problems, thievery, muggings etc. and for the security of athletes in Youth Games who were to be billeted in the Hotel).

At the end of our second day, the two choral groups from Ohio arrived. The third day, all of us toured the Kremlin, to include the Kremlin Arsenal/Armory and the three magnificent cathedrals and two churches within the Kremlin walls. We then left the Kremlin walls and walked through a park to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. (We were told that an estimated 47 million people lost their lives during WWII and the years of the Bolsheviks.) Our walking tour then took us to Red Square with the beautiful St. Basils Cathedral, Gum's Department Store and to McDonalds for lunch. Lenin's Tomb was closed for repair(?) while we were in Moscow. That afternoon we shopped along Arbatskya. This street is closed to vehicular traffic and the center of the street is a one mile long, open-air market à one display stall after another. Christmas decorations, Communist hats, badges and insignia, dolls, dishes, lacquer boxes, matryoshka dolls with 8 to 10 nesting figures, one inside the other. à.and on and on. It reminded me of Etewon in Seoul or 1940's arcades in Juarez, each stall with its own enterprising (and relentless) salesman. At 4:00 P. M. we wrapped up shopping, boarded buses and moved to our cruise boat. Our boat was named the Feodor Shaliapin after the "most famous opera singer in Russian history" à maybe not a hard accolade to gain; do you know any other great Russian opera singers?.

We sailed about 6:30 P.M. heading north along the canals and locks (dug by slave labor) to the Volga. The canal cut through great groves of birch and fir and we got into prairie/steppe-like terrain only after we turned south-westerly. For the next twelve days we cruised down and then back up the Volga, 1600 kilometers each way. John tells me that we were not the first to make this trip à by some 1000 years. The Vikings, the Finns, the Swedes, the Poles and even the English, traded extensively down the Volga even as far as the Caspian Sea after making portages overland from the Gulf of Finland. (Prince Stroganoff, John told me as a piece of trivia, not only was a leading trader and patron of churches but he invented some beef dish which he served to visitors.) And while they were trading south, the Greeks, the Scythians, the Slavs, the Ottomans and the Tatars had worked the waterways heading northward for even a longer length of time..

We had great stops along the Volga à Uglich, Kostroma, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Jaraslavl, Ulyanov, (Lenin's home town formerly called Simbirsk and perhaps soon to be called that again), Gorodetz, Cheboksarai, the capital of the Chhuvash Republic, and finally Samara where we U-turned. Each city was different, each interesting and with its own unique local character. For example, Kazan had a synagog and several mosques. And Samara was the planned relocation site for the Soviet high command during WWII. We visited one of the facilities they had built for this headquarters. Onion-domed churches proliferated all along the route in varying states of repair and restoration. The wooden latticed houses we saw along the river (and in the countryside around Moscow) were invariably heavily weathered à I don't think Sherwin-Williams produces enough paint to restore them all. In the towns, we saw large numbers of huge crumbling concrete apartment buildings from two major housing initiatives, one under Stalin, the other under Khruschev. The factories we saw from the boat also looked like our mid-western "rust-belt". They were in need of paint, they were decrepit à or defunct. At our stops, we always had a number of interesting sites to visit, all because of John's prior planning. Most were churches, cathedrals, fortified monasteries à and more "earthen ramparts" than I ever want to think about, much less see again.

When we returned to Moscow, we went directly to the station and grabbed the overnight train to St. Petersburg, a beautiful city à a gorgeous city à of monuments and buildings and canals and statues and museums and fortresses. Unfortunately, because of Germans invested the city for over 900 days in WWII, many of the greatest buildings are restorations, not the originals. Peter the Great founded the city about 1700. The Hermitage is one of the world's great museums. It was started as the Winter Palace by Peter added to by Catherine II and by every other Tsar through Nicholas I. Its collections of art and artifacts are priceless. The Peterhof is unbelievably opulent and gaudy as is Catherine I's palace, in the village of Pushkin, also known as Tsarskoye selo (Tsar's Village). While Catherine I started it, this palace was later expanded by Elizabeth and Catherine II. Both Peterhof and Pushkin are restorations. We also went to Peter and Paul's Fortress à reminded me of Fort Monroe à where they re-interred the last of the Romanovs at the end of July. Our stay in St. Petersburg coincided with the "White Nights" when it is daylight throughout the night. It was also at the time that they shut down the hot water supply for 20 hours a day to repair the central steam pipes which heat all the homes in the city and provide hot water. If they don't get all repairs done in the summer, it makes for a cold winter.

After three days in St. Petersburg, we got back on the evening train and returned to Moscow on the 4th of July. We were met on a cold, rainy day by our two colonels who took us to the 1812 (and also WWII) Battlefield of Borodino where Kutusov attrited Napoleon to the point where the Russian Campaign was lost. (Many will tell you it was lost on the first day of the campaign when Jerome failed to follow his orders.) There was an interesting museum with many of the old battle flags. Incidentally, I picked up a minnie ball which was on the ground on the front slope of the great redoubt. We tried that day to visit the armor museum at Kubinka but we were late by the time we arrived. That evening we returned to Moscow after only one diversion to visit yet another monastery oops, fortified monastery.

Two days later we departed for home. It was a great trip and one I just might do again with John before we both get too old and too profoundly deaf to be able to get around. (Unless that threshold has already been passed.)