While I was at a yoga resort in July, my friend Regis Tremblay, a peace activist and documentary filmmaker sent me an email. He’d visited Manita and Yuri, whose hostel I’d stayed at in 2015, in Sevastopol, the famous seaport and naval base, which has been part of Russia since 1783.
Manita sent a video message, “We miss you…and remember the garden you promised?”.
While there in 2015, I’d seen a patch of land that was unused, and strewn with weeds. So I’d suggested planting fruit trees there. I’d planned to go back in 2020, but Covid prevented it.
Plus, travel is far more difficult, since Aeroflot, which I booked a flight with in 2020 does not fly between Bangkok and Moscow. And US based ticket agencies don’t show any flights either.
At the resort, a Russian yoga teacher, Kira, was planning to go to Moscow in August, and her boyfriend told me how to get a ticket. So I booked a ticket during the hot season in Russia. The flight went through Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The flight was more than 50% more expensive but what the hell?
So on August 11, I got a flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. My plan was to arrive in Bangkok about 5 PM, to catch the 8 pm flight to Dubai. When the airplane didn’t show up in Chiang Mai, I got antsy and called the ticket agency. “What do I do if the flight is late, and I miss my flight from Bangkok to Dubai?”
The ticket agent said I was likely to miss my flight and that I needed to pay an extra $1000 to get the next day’s flight. I took the chance that he was lying, and fortunately, my flight to Bangkok arrived about 5:30 pm, and I checked in in plenty of time. What’s more, the flight from Bangkok to Dubai was over 2 hours late, too.
So, I left Bangkok at about 11 pm. Taking into account time zone difference and the 6 hour flight, I arrived in Dubai at 2 am. And the flight to Moscow was at 10 am. I just walked around or sat. No sleep. The cost of food in airports is notoriously overpriced, but in Dubai, even a lousy tunafish sandwich cost $15! I had brought some dry snacks with me, so that tided me over.
The Flight from Dubai to Moscow
Several times, guardian angels appeared on this trip. Sitting next to me was a woman named Tonya, short for Antonia. She had quit her job at the Russian Central Bank as a computer person, and had done one or two Vipassana retreats in the Goenka style. I’d done some retreats with that, too. So we had a great connection.
Visiting Three Hero Cities
As it turned out, (not realizing it) I planned to visit 3 socalled “Hero Cities” of the Soviet Union’s “Great Patriotic War”. Russians call the invasion, which was only a part of WWII, the Great Patriotic War. It was an existential struggle of the Soviet people against the planned destruction of the country, and the enslavement or death of the people. The Soviet Union lost 27 million people, and one third of the country –the equivalent of from the East Coast of the USA to Chicago levelled.
By contrast, the USA lost about 400,000 people and the UK lost 550,000. They faced 11 worn out German divisions vs the Soviet Union facing 220 divisions. As you read below, both President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill knew all too well what the Soviet Union did to win WWII.
On June 22, 1941, the following countries invaded the USSR without warning, in violation of the 1939 Nonaggression Pact, which the Soviet Union and Germany signed. Other countries such as Poland, England and France had also signed nonaggression pacts with Hitler. He broke all of them. These countries allied with Germany, or sent volunteers:
- Italy (under Mussolini)
- Sweden (which officially was neutral but supplied significant minerals as well as volunteer units)
- Croatia (a part of Yugoslavia, which had already been occupied by Germany, and which had a substantial fascist population)
- Spain, which was officially neutral, but sent 50-70,000 volunteers. The dictator Franco withdrew them in 1943.
- Vichy France, controlled by Germany, sent 7,000 troops. Most French did not support them, and many French, the Free French, fought against Hitler
Thirteen cities of the former USSR played a significant role in the war. Of the 13 Hero Cities, 7 are in present day Russia, 4 lie within Ukraine, while the remaining 2 are in Belarus.
I think it is significant in light of the current conflict that 4 cities were Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic cities. One, Odessa, saw the massacre of at least 42 people by fascists mobs in May 2014.
The three Hero Cities that I visited were:
- Volgograd (the successor name to Stalingrad)
Arrival in Moscow
When we arrived in Moscow, Tonya helped me get a Russian SIM card, so that I could use my mobile phone and access internet. She then booked a taxi to take me to my hotel, actually a popular hostel which, I discovered, is just a couple of minutes from the very center of Moscow…Red Square and the Kremlin, the nerve center of the Russian government.
I called the Kremlin and booked my appointment with Putin….just kidding. I have NOTHING to do with the Russian government. This trip was on my dollar, and not cheap since airplane costs have doubled since 2020. Since we’re bombarded 24/7 with the Western narrative, I wanted to go to Russia to see for myself what’s going on there.
Once I got settled at the Povordie Hostel, I started walking around. The Hostel is located just off of Nikolskaya Street, which is a very popular walking street.
One of Many Beautiful Buildings in Moscow, Including the Russian Orthodox Church
The Kremlin Wall, with the Lenin Mausoleum, where you can view the embalmed body of the ‘Founding Father’ of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. In the past, during parades, Soviet leaders would take their places on the roof to review the parade.
By Russia, Lenin’s Mausoleum or more specifically image, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48098730
There are a lot of souvenir shops in Russia, often with nostalgic memorabilia. Here are 2 T-shirts, one with Stalin, the leader of the USSR, from about 1927-1953. He is highly controversial with many criticizing him for his alleged crimes and authoritarianism, while other praise him for unifying and building the country, shattered by civil war and invasions from the West, so that the Soviet Union nearly singlehandedly defeated both the Nazi armies that invaded in 1941, as well as significantly contributing to Japan’s defeat, by defeating the 1 million man Kwantung Japanese Army that was occupying Manchuria, part of China, in August 1945.
T-Shirts, One with picture of Stalin, the other, Russian Federation Emblem
- More T-Shirts.
- Putin is generally very popular in Russia.
- The Russian Bear, the Russian equivalent of the Bald Eagle, but, in my opinion, even more iconic.
- Yuri Gagarin, still a national hero, the first man into space
- And the jocular “KGB-Still Watching You”, even though it was dissolved with the end of the USSR
A typical Soviet era style winter cap. With temperatures down to minus 40 degrees, they were pretty popular, then and even now.
The flag of the former Soviet Union. You still see vestiges of that era, on the ‘Victory Flag’ commemorating the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. And the Hammer and Sickle is still seen in various places such as the Russian national airline, Aeroflot, uniforms.
I’m a great fan of whole grain bread. And while many Russian people like white bread (though I never saw anyone eating Wonder Bread–which is sort of an oxymoron, since that might better be termed “Bread looking chemical fluffy mixture”) there was a great selection of different whole grain breads.
Heavy Russia breads, often made with rye or buckwheat flour as well as nuts or seeds.
More Russian bread and rolls
The Moscow Subways–People’s Museums
No, this is not a museum. This is one of the Moscow subway Metro stations. This iconic statue of a Soviet soldier with his guard dog is famous and it’s good luck to rub the nose of the dog. Many of the subway stations which were first built during Soviet times, as far back as the 1930’s, were loaded with sculpture, mosaics and other art, to make city commuting an enjoyable experience for the people.
Here, you see a young boy rubbing the dog’s nose for good luck. People constantly passing by did the same thing, resulting in the dog’s nose having a fine polish.
One major issue is how to pay for things in Russia. I brought US dollars from Thailand, and I needed to change to Russian Rubles to buy stuff. Also, in some cases, it’s useful to have a payment card. But foreign cards don’t work.
Fortunately, at the Hostel, a young Syrian guy appeared, named Dean (his English name). Kira helped me as well, setting up a bank account. He directed me to an ATM machine and helped me set up an ATM card. But how to change money into Rubles? There was a money exchange place but it charges a spread between ‘buy and sell price’.
Tonya saved the day. She wants to study in Portugal. So she bought my dollars for a good price in exchange for Rubles. Later, Dean would get me out of a real hot spot regarding a place to stay in Moscow. But during my first days in Moscow, Dean showed me where the local supermarket is, and we had a lot of discussions about politics and philosophy. Nice to meet such an intelligent guy. He speaks fluent English, Russian and his native Arabic.
Meeting My Lovely Friend Kira
My yoga teacher friend Kira showed up, and took me to lunch at a ‘real Russian’ Soviet style restaurant. Unfortunately, I was using a USB device that failed. So I don’t have pictures of it.
Kira was born in Uzbekistan, one of the Soviet Republics, however, when the Soviet Union broke up, she, like many ethnic Russians was stranded. Life was not easy for her and her family, but she’s come through it well. We talked a lot about each of our own spiritual journeys. Now she teaches yoga in Thailand.
Here are some pictures that she took which I am sharing.
Kira, left, Yana, Kira’s friend, Center.
We went for a nice walk on the Moscow river, and had a picnic with a favorite Russia food, which I think comes from Turkey, called a Shawarma…something like that. It’s a flat round bread, like a chapati or tortilla. It wraps vegetables and other items like falafel or typically chicken.
The Moscow River with Its Promenade. Note the tour boat coming down the river.
A Typical Shawarma
<a href=”https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/side-view-shawarma-with-fried-potatoes-board-cookware_7727101.htm#query=shawarma&position=2&from_view=keyword”>Image by 8photo</a> on Freepik
Kira’s friend Yana showed up. We went to a very interesting shop, perhaps I’d call it a Curio Shop with a lot of art objects, books, incense, bells. It even had Chinese teas which I knew of from my travel in China. Lots of Tibetan items, and even a vintage copy of the classic Hippy Book by Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass. Be Here Now.
Here are some instruments, such as ‘bell drums, lower left’, Didgeridoos, guitars, in the background are teas.
Be Here Now
Touring with Tonya
The next day, I spent with Tonya, who took me to several very interesting places.
First, we went to the Tretyakov Gallery https://www.travelallrussia.com/sights/tretyakov-gallery
This gallery has something like 65 exhibition halls. It’s endless! We only got to see about 40 of them because we had other places to go.
Here is a portrait of the most famous Russian poet, Pushkin. One thing that struck me was the number of visitors to the museum. Apparently, Russian people are interested in art and culture beyond pop music and what passes for art these days.
We then visited the Museum of Aviation and Space, aka The Cosmonaut Museum. I wanted to see this since as a kid, I’d been fascinated by the first Satellite shot into space, Sputnik. And then, the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, who gained great fame and love. After his trip, he travelled the world advocating peace.
Yuri Gagarin, first man in space. Photo courtesy: https://www.idcommunism.com/2016/04/yuri-gagarin-10-facts-about-legendary.html
Pictured here is a photo of the cooperative work of US Astronauts and Soviet Cosmonauts. There was a time of sanity, when the two countries cooperated in Space and achieved a lot by working together.
The Iconic Obelisk honoring the Soviet space program. Look carefully and you’ll see a rocket at the top.
A colorful globe in the museum
The first Earth Satellite, ‘The Sputnik’. Now, the Russian media station, also called Sputnik is banned in the West. When the Sputnik was launched in 1957, it caused panic…how could those Soviets be so smart as to beat us into space?
Rocket Engines. For many years, Russian rocket engines were so reliable and powerful, that the US bought Russian rocket engines to use in US Rockets. Due to sanctions, I’m not sure what the status of that is now.
All we are saying, is give peace a chance. During the 1970’s, the US got the crazy idea that cooperation is better than blowing up the planet in a nuclear war. So we got a nuclear arms reduction treaty. And the US and USSR worked together on the space program. The US broke the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 under George W. Bush, and the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2019 under Donald Trump. Cooperation in space has continued but due to tensions currently, it will end soon.
Here is a Soviet song about the space program
“An inspiring tune from the early 1960’s Soviet Union composed by Alexandra Pakhmutova, a Soviet composer responsible for multiple similar pieces within this time period. This particular version was sung by Josef Kobzon, a Ukrainian singer hailing from Donetsk Oblast. The last three art pieces within this video was by Andrey Sokolov, a Soviet stamp maker and painter, while the first one was by Alexei Leonov, a former Soviet cosmonaut.”
(As of this writing, October, 2022, the Ukrainian government in Kiev is bombing Donetsk. And in retaliation, Russia is bombing Kiev….What the hell happened to the friendship and solidarity of Ukraine and Russia? What a tragedy!
Following our trip to the Cosmonaut Museum, Tonya took me to a Soviet themed restaurant. Here is a typical poster showing Soviet “Pioneer” kids.
Here is a popular song sung by the young pioneers.
Here is an excerpt of the lyrics:
Childhood, childhood, Kindness not warmed in vain…All people on the Great Planet Should Always Be Friends. Children should always laugh and live in a peaceful world
Pavilion of Soviet Republics
After Dinner, we went to the Pavilion of Soviet Republics. It was night time, so we couldn’t go into the buildings, one for each of the former Soviet Republic, which featured information about each one, such as the culture, art, and products they produce. It is often referred to as VDNH. Here is a post that explains what it is in detail. But basically it a free and open park and museum space in Moscow. https://russiau.com/vdnkh-vdnh-park-moscow/
Since it was night, there were several fountains that were lit up. This fountain is called “Friendship of the Peoples”. What a concept. When people reminisce about Soviet times such as in Ukraine, people remark how everybody got along so well. Nobody cared what language you spoke. Now, people are killing one another over this issue. Such a pity!
This is the pavilion of Kazakhstan SSR
This pavilion was originally that of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1964, when it was called ‘Agriculture’.
The USA and Europe like to pretend that there are no ties between Ukraine and Russia, much less friendship. So buildings like this, and the many cultural and family relationships clearly show that Ukraine and Russia are family. However, unfortunately, sometimes family disputes be a problem. If one looks into this matter, one sees foreign influence to disrupt, divide and ultimately conquer.
In Part II, the journey continues to Volgograd