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12 Aug, 2019

Red square is a city square with a huge, tall wall that separates the Kremlin from the Kitai-gorod, which served as a big bazzar for merchants and trade back in the 16th century. Today, the old structured has become an open market with a glass roof top which closes off the shopping mall. The building has a modern design but still resembles Russian architecture. Though the building has undergone a lot of changes as it is now filled with European designer boutiques, one can still feel Russia’s communist history there: for example, Stolovaya Number 57 is a restaurant in the Red Square which was part of the old regime, however, it is now a moderate tourist attraction. I could not help but imagine what it must have been like in the days of Stalin: only communist members had access to this place and they had to line up in order to eat from a smorgasbord of food. This place is a must visit as one can enjoy traditional Russian food here.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral is an example of traditional Russian architecture. The original building was called the Trinity Cathedral. Saint Basil’s Cathedral is in the shape of a flame from a bonfire rising to the sky. The round, balloon-like rooftops were built during 1551 to 1565. Situated between the Red Square and the Kremlin, the Cathedral looks holy and divine. Today, tens of thousands of visitors come to the Cathedral to take photos and to take in the view. One can imagine what it would have been like back in the day when the royal family would take their carriage and attend various events such as Sunday Mass, coronations, and other ceremonies at Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
There is an odd building inside the Kremlin and that is the state palace of congress. According to our tour guide, the communists did not like the Kremlin as it was heavily associated with the Tsar’s memory. They tore down one church and built a huge Soviet style structure. This structure has an uncanny design and was used to host their congress meetings. It is not a music concert hall. The building is worth taking a photo of as it is comparable to the U.S. Treasury building in Washington, DC.
Riding through the streets of Moscow, we see the trail of Stalin. Our tour guide describes him as the serial killer of the century. I remembered back to my history books. Stalin killed many of his generals as he wanted to secure his power: it is all about taking control. Stalin might have not done anything good for Russia but he sure did leave many grand buildings behind. The Seven Sisters, also known as Stalinskie Vysotki, are seven skyscrapers. They are an example of Soviet Baroque architecture and were used as a symbol to show the world the power of Communism. The locals find the buildings to be unattractive, however, I think they really stand out. The buildings are huge and made of concrete, I do not think anyone would build anything like these in today’s modern world. The Seven Sisters are a landmark of Moscow and are a huge tourist attraction. You cannot miss these buildings as you travel through the city.

Moscow is not as big as I thought. Travelling within the city, we travelled about 20 kilometers. Travelling from the trade show expo centre to all the tourist attractions is a very short distance. The tour bus also took us to Lomonosov Moscow State University. Here we were given a bit of history about Mikhail Lonomosov who walked miles and miles to attend school when he was a child. Lonomosov walked to school every day by his own will and determination. Russian Poet Alexander Pushkin described him as a formidable person with willpower and a scientific mind.

Do not leave out the underground metro system while visiting Moscow: it’s a must see while experiencing Russian art and culture. Russia was one of the first to have a high speed train underground. Though the French were the first to invent such technology, Russia took the technology to the next level. There were trains that ran below the city in early 1900. America always claims to be better than Russia, however, they are not in this aspect.

After five days in Moscow, our tour guide said arranged train tickets for us go to St. Petersburg. There we would experience more history and culture.

I was already uncomfortable while sleeping in my hotel. I thought, “How can I survive an 8 hour train ride?” However, the tour guide told me not to worry as we were not in China.

The tour guide arranged for us to take the 11 pm train. We would sleep over night in the cabin and arrive the next morning at 6:30 am. I was skeptical and worried there would be no washroom. To my surprise, the cleanliness standards of the cabin is much better than North America. There was a clean bed with crisp white sheets and a white blanket and the washroom had a stainless steel toilet that was sparkling clean. I slept through the night even though I could hear loud noises from the steel rail coming in contact with the wheels on the track. The noise was especially loud with every sharp turn.

One thing I must remind you is to carry your passport or a piece of ID when travelling on the streets of Moscow as the police patrol may ask you for identification at any moment. Without any identification on you, the police can arrest you as the security is very tight in Moscow. However, is Moscow safe to walk and travel? You bet.

Do not listen to CNN and other Western media. The reporters and anchor men and women blow stories out of proportion: they fly into Russia, get their story and fly out. They did not stay in the country like you and me. I talked to the locals. I stayed and ate with locals. We hang out and shared culture. We shared our life stories and our thoughts.

Russia is a country with many different ethnicities. Many Russians look like East Asians because there were a great mix between Asians and so called White Russians. Not everyone looks like Putin. Many Russians mix with the British, Germans, Polish, but mostly Central Asians. Russia is a big, big country. I love the food in Russia because they do not have Monsanto. Their crop is natural and is not all GMOs yet unlike everything in North America which is not safe anymore.

Russia has opened its doors for North American fast food chains to invade their country because they believe Western businesses bring them with a vibrant economy. Young people want to have McDonald’s and Starbucks’s coffee. Some of these chains compliment what Russia does not have but I hope the American empire does not tell Russia to alter their crops to GMOs. Let them eat healthy.

Nowadays, North Americans are trying to bring back non GMO foods but the government is promoting GMO in other parts of the world to sell technology. I hope I do not get shot by saying this.

CNN reported on an American diplomat being drugged by the Russians. I find that hard to believe. Bars are everywhere on the street of Russia. The media frames Russia as a place that is still closed down and as a place that is only open to communists to visit. This is not true. I encourage everyone to come. My company has now decided to send 40 to 50 of our best employees of the year to team up and travel to Russia next spring.

The conductor announced that the train was approaching St. Petersburg. We all quickly freshened up and began looking forward to our full day ahead.

We met our tour guide: a tall, handsome Russian man, who looked rather English. His name was Vladimir, a common name here in Russia. He was very calm and cool as he spoke. I was shocked to hear him speak perfect Vietnamese. Our group of 17 was impressed and pleased with this. Vladimir took our group to eat Pho (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) and to drink Vietnamese coffee before we hit the road.

Our first stop was Catherine Palace, also called Summer Palace, which is located in the town of Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin) 30 km south of St. Petersburg.

Peter was the name of Peter Alexeyevich the Great, who ruled the Tsardom of Russia. Burg means city, therefore, St. Petersburg.

The palace is twice as big as a football field. When Peter the great moved his capital from Moscow to Pertersburg, he had already built a small Palace. However, it was Empress Catherine I who hired the German architect Johann-Freiedrich Braunstein to construct a Summer palace. By 1733 Empress Elizabeth commissioned Mikhail Zemtsov and Amdrei Kvasov to expand the palace by rebuilding it to what we see today: a wide 325 meter long palace. More than 100 kilograms of gold was used to build the stucco facade and the statues erected on the roof.

The Nazis came and started a fire to destroy most of the interior of the palace. The only part left was the hollow shell of the building. The restoration of the building was finally done by 2003. Each room was made to look like the original. We learned that before the Germans arrived, the workers were hiding and digging underground to store most of their goods and was able to preserve most of their treasures. They were able to put it back on display after the war. Those people did a great job protecting their national treasures.
Touring Catherine palace, we could see the ceramic heat steamers from the Netherlands. The story dates back to Peter the Great as he was educated in Netherlands and was influenced from the Dutch. He brought back the ceramic tiles to build these outstanding steam heaters in each room.

In the Chesma hall displays a painting of Russia at war. These are proud moments in Russian history as it mentioned their Naval victory. In fact, our tour guide proudly said never has Russia been defeated. They won every battle.

We visited the Peterhof Palace which is considered a UNESCO world heritage site. At first, I called it the Russian Versailles. However, this is much grander. The palace is home to a beautiful fountain. Our tour guide Vladimir proudly said the Grand Cascade fountain does not use a motor or pump. Using mathematics and careful calculations, underground water pressure is used to draw water from a higher elevation. Stretching from east to west in roughly 200 meters, jets shoot as high as 20 metres vertically from the Lions mouth. It was one of the greatest technological achievements during that century.

Every country has their own unique historical attractions. I found Catharine Palace to be an amazing place to visit. I can spend two whole days there to learn about all the details of this magnificent site. After spending four hours touring the palace, Vladimir asked if everyone was hungry yet. With a unanimous, “Yes” it was time for a Russian meal.

After a 45 minutes ride back to St. Petersburg from Summer palace, we went to tour the Winter palace.

Vladimir told us Peter the Great moved his capital to Peterhof which was just a swamp then. But with a vision in mind, the Emperor and Empress built a new city and it was redesigned by Peter the Great. After, it was reconstructed by his widow Catherine I, then Peter II (Peter the I grandson), and followed by Empress Anna. After a few decades, it is considered to be a modest Royal palace in European capital.

Both Palaces have had the involvement of Italian designer Domenico Trezzini. This is why we see how some Italian and French sculptures and architecture look alike.

We could not miss the Military gallery hall of fame in the winter palace. Yes every Russian is proud to mention the war they won with Napoleon and Hitler.

General Kutuzov defeated every invader including the wars with the Polish, The Ottoman Empire of Turkey and the most important one with Napoleon which saw the defeat of Napoleon at Borodino war. The battle killed nearly 260,000 troops on both sides. Kutuzov withdrew his army and gave up Moscow to let the French soldiers came in to the city and attacked from the back: a great strategy for which he received criticism (from even the Emperor Alexander). I am sure every one of you has learned about this if you have taken a history class.

General Kutuzov died in Poland back when it was called the Kingdom of Prussia. Six months after winning the Borodino war, he died of illness and was buried inside the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg. There are several sculptures and monuments created in his memory.

Russia is a big country as it maps from Europe to Asia. It is a very diverse country, full with different ethnics as I have mentioned. It is not like what we saw in James Bond films which seem to paint all Russians as evil spies or hitmen or that going to Russia poses great dangers to foreigners. These ideas are all created by the media. I had never travelled to Russia until last year and I took the pleasure of joining the Vietnam agriculture and food delegation in attending the annual Russia Food show. I was very much skeptical of travelling to Russia as a Canadian with my Canadian passport so instead I travelled with my Vietnamese passport. There was no need to apply for a visa since Vietnam is their little sibling due to their communist ties.

I am so happy to have been able to learn about Russian history during the course of this trip. Before coming to Russia all history I knew was in reference to Peter the Great but I now possess knowledge of who Catherine II the Empress is and her rule of Russia for nearly 34 years after the arrest of her husband Peter III with the support of the Russian troops. It was a rich and fascinating history to listen and to learn of.

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