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  • Writer's picturePeter Antonucci

Moscow, Russia

Tuesday | June 14, 2016

Today was one of the most memorable and sensational days of sight-seeing and education I've ever experienced. Moscow was the venue and spectacular was the experience.

We woke up early, 4:45 AM, and prepared for our high-speed train ride to Moscow. As so often happens on the World, we were surprised and delighted with an early lavish breakfast the ship had prepared for us in Quantum.


They even had wheat free egg sandwiches prepared for me, as well as a dazzling array of fruits and pastries.


We took a short ride to the train station, which was exactly what one might imagine when closing one’s eyes and thinking of a Soviet style train station, very utilitarian and rather square.

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The map on the wall certainly did not look anything like the New Haven line, with which we are so familiar from Grand Central Terminal.

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We boarded the train, were personally escorted to our Business class seats, and settled in for our four-hour journey to Moscow with our friends.

The trip itself was relatively nondescript because the land is so flat. Moreover, there are tall trees along the tracks for most of the journey.

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But one thing I noticed was that the cemeteries in Russia are similar to Latvia, in that they are not just mowed plains of grass with headstones, but they are more like forests, with headstones randomly scattered among the trees.

We stopped in a few small towns along the way.


When we arrived in Moscow, our guide, Olga, actually walked onto the train and greeted us at our seats with a sign with my name on it. The World comes through again!

She introduced us to our driver and we got into a big beautiful 2017 Mercedes-Benz van for our today’s tour of Moscow. One comment that must be made here is that our driver was horrible! It was his first day with this hundred thousand dollar vehicle, and he was clearly afraid of making a mistake. He was unable to merge into any left lane, or to make a left-hand turn. He was totally paralyzed for much of the day. And not only that, he was often late picking us up at the appointed time and location. However, the day was spectacular and Olga was better than any tour guide we’ve had so far in Russia– and we have had some amazing ones.

One of our first observations was the width of the streets. Surprisingly, almost all main arteries– the circles around the crown – are 10 lane avenues. They are surrounded by constellations of buildings constructed in classical, medieval, and neoclassical styles.

Traffic is uniquely horrible, partly because the city center is undergoing extensive re-construction, and partly because the majority of this city was constructed in the 1930s and at that time, under Soviet domination, very few people, other than the aristocrats, owned automobiles. This was one of the poorest countries in the world, yet it was home to such a great number of people. So the city was constructed without much regard for heavy vehicular traffic. On the other hand, Olga told us that these days, many people in the city do own cars, something that is unusual in many major cities in the world, including our own New York.

Moscow, a city of almost 18 million souls, was founded in 1147, hundreds of years before St. Petersburg. The greater Moscow area, referred to as Moscowland, is two times the size of Switzerland and contains an extremely dense population.

Also interesting on the streets is the fact that traffic lights count down the seconds until they’re going to change. That is not necessarily unique, except that some of the countdowns can last for a long 120 seconds. As a result, if one gets stuck for two or three lights, it can mean many minutes of sitting in the same spot.

I asked about the taxes in Russia and Olga told us that the income tax is only 13%. She added, however, that there are a series of other taxes. Yet, as a result of such a low income tax rate, many French people are giving up their French citizenship and moving to Russia.

All Russian citizens pay some form of insurance and get a certain amount of free medical care. However, Olga informed us the quality of care received is very poor and virtually everybody goes to a private doctor should they need medical care. On the other hand, poor people, the “babushkas” of Russia, do go to the public clinics where they sometimes wait for hours see a doctor for no more than two minutes. She also told us that preventive health care really doesn’t exist in Russia. As a matter of fact, Stalin died young because he had a major illness he was not aware of due to the fact he had not been to a doctor in almost 20 years.

We drove by the home of what used to be known as the KGB, but is now referred to as the FSB.

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After a few minutes, we got out of our car outside Red Square and we stood before the amazing church built by Ivan the Terrible.

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This gorgeous multi colored, but predominantly green, church was constructed in 1555.

It is locally referred to as the church of St. Basil because there used to be an old man named Basil who would panhandle and sleep outside the church every day. Finally, when he died, the townspeople wanted him buried behind the church, which is what happened.

So there we were – in Red Square.

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We were standing and laughing on the very ground where we had watched years of Soviet parades, featuring the latest and greatest in Soviet military hardware, throughout our childhood.

The Kremlin walls were amazing, But they were also so beautiful and clean.

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Apparently they just completed a multiyear restoration project– just in time for our visit.

This is the Soviet Tower. It is so much larger in person than one can imagine through photography. For example, the diameter of this clock exceeds 6 meters. The short hand is greater than 3 m. That means that a subway train can go through the face of this clock, and have 2 feet to spare on either side.

This wall, one of the most famous from our childhood, aside from the Great Wall of China, was originally constructed in the 12th century. It was originally made of pine, then oak, then white stone, and converted to this red brick material in the 15th century. Nevertheless, it looks like it was just built last week.

This beautiful red brick building is the Russian Museum of Natural History.

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And directly across from the Kremlin is Gum’s, Russia’s most famous store and perhaps one of most famous in the world.

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It was originally constructed as a trading market between 1815 and 1893. It is located where it is because it was used for merchants to trade with the Russian government. It later became a state run department store until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990.

We spotted a queue and asked our guide what it was for, and learned that it was to visit the tombs of many former Soviet leaders.

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We definitely had to see this so we immediately got online. After a few moments, Olga escorted us to the front of the line, and whisked us underground where we came upon Comrade Lenin, lying in state under glass, as if he had just died this morning. His body is perfectly preserved, and every feature looks sharp and clean, which is surprising considering he has been dead since 1924! (Unfortunately, no photography, or even speaking, is allowed in Lenin’s tomb and I did not want to risk being sent to the gulag for violation of those rules.) She told us there are 10 suits for Lenin and they alternate on a regular basis.

As mentioned above, other Soviet leaders are buried there too and we saw the tomb of Leonard Brezhnev.

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And I found Joseph Stalin’s tomb.

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Also buried here is Yuri Gregarian, the first man in space. We saw a statue erected in his honor.

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We then walked across the plaza and ate a lovely lunch, alfresco, while enjoying a majestic view of Red Square.

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The experience was actually surreal; we took a few moments to reflect upon where we were and what we were witnessing – especially when juxtaposed against all the horrific stories we heard about Red Square and the communist USSR during our childhood.

As we sat having lunch, Russian police officers filed by.

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Members of the Russian paramilitary also kept an eye on us.


After lunch, we walked through the Gum mall. The enormity of this mall was breathtaking. Also shocking, however, was the presence of stores like Giorgio Armani, Lancome, Tiffany & Co., etc.

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Outside the mall, we saw a Bentley dealership.

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And later in the evening, we stumbled upon Cartier and Bulgari, not bad for Communism!

There are seven similar apartment buildings located around downtown Moscow and they are referred to as the Seven Stalin Sisters.

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At the conclusion of World War II, Kruschev wanted to give flats to everyone so they could live in Moscow and help rebuild the nation’s economy. So these building were erected in the 1950s and although they feature high ceilings, they also have very small rooms. The individual apartments are not very large, so the wealthier Muscovites are buying them today and combining them, taking advantage of the high ceilings.

Interestingly, when in Moscow, reference to “the war” means the Russian war of 1812 with Napoleon. And “post-war” construction refers to the building boom that occurred in Moscow in the 1820s.

When I asked Olga how many churches are in Moscow, she laughed. There’s no credible way to measure that number, she said, but it is estimated to be in the range of 12,000. In addition, she told us about all the restored monasteries, as well as synagogues and mosques that dot the landscape of Moscow.

During our drive around the city, our guide pointed out Gorky Park, known best for its mention in the book of that same name.

We drove to an overlook that allowed us to see three quarters of Moscow. The views were spectacular, and the fact it was a sunny day certainly contributed to the experience.

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Also, from that viewpoint, we were able to see the distinction between the old Moscow, with the Kremlin, in this photograph.

The new Moscow is the commercial part of the city that was constructed in the 1990s, upon the suggestion and incentives provided by the then mayor. It primarily consists of 12 massive office towers that are home to most of the commercial activity in Moscow.


At that spot, on the top of the city, I was surprised, and pleased, to see to ski jump hills.

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Also visible was a large stadium.

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Immediately across from that vantage point is Moscow State University, founded in 1755. It is most known for its education of mathematicians and physicists.

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This large white rectangular building, that our guide pointed out resembled a ni-cad battery, is the Russian Academy of Sciences.

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We drove by a statue of Stalin, one of the few statues of Soviet leaders left in downtown Moscow.

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She also told us of the story of the Peter the Great statue that was erected in the city center in 1999. Apparently, the statue was originally created as a gift to the United States and was the statue of Christopher Columbus. But when United States rejected i it was redesigned to be a tribute to Peter the Great. However, in their haste, and having exceeded their budget, they left the protagonist in a Spanish suit and substituted his boat for a horse.

Our next stop was an actual Soviet bunker from the Cold War period.

“Bunker 42”, as it was known, is located in the heart of downtown Moscow. From the outside, one might not even notice it. But by special appointment, we were invited inside. We were each given special passes, designating each of us a certain rank; I was a lieutenant in the Soviet army.

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Our guide told us the bunker was located 18 floors below street level and we would have to walk down to it. Initially, we thought he was teasing us, but as we proceeded down the staircase, we counted the floors, one by one, until we had descended each of the promised 18 floors below street level!

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I’ve been to many bunkers around the world, and actually find them fascinating, but I have never seen one this far below ground.

This bunker was amazingly cavernous, the largest one I’ve ever seen. We saw the room with a cache of weapons, in case some of the 600 people there become violent.

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We saw one of the bunk rooms where they would sleep.


The First Secretary had nicer accomodations.

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We saw the commincations center.

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And we saw the massive conference room where decisions were made about how to attack the United States using nuclear bombs.

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Stalin’s office was also interesting.

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Long hallways were everywhere. (We really got our 13,000 steps in today!)

And then we saw a nuclear bomb– the shell of Russia’s first nuclear weapon that was to be used against the United States.

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Unlike many bunkers we have seen, including the one in Latvia two weeks ago, this one was not intended to house people, but was intended to make safe the communist party hierarchy while they planned an attack against the United States. And that’s what made it feel so weird– they were planning to kill us!

The building would have housed the 600 people in the event it was pressed into service. There were three entrances– one on each end, and then a serpentine, very clandestine, entrance to a subway station a quarter mile away. That entrance was designed to be able to bring supplies in and out without having to go through the streets. Moreover, that entrance was used to bring out the dirt in two railcars, rather than elevate the refuse to the street so neighborhood people would not have any indication of the project being built below. The total size of the bunker is over 1000 m²,  and construction occurred between 1950 and 1954. It was fully operable until 1986, when it became no longer necessary due to improved relations with the United States.

The walls were made of 4 foot concrete, reinforced by 3 inches of steel all around.

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One of the highlights was clearly when our guide selected Bob and Lynn to play the roles of the two people entrusted with the nuclear codes, and to simulate a launch of a nuclear weapon. They sat at desks next to each other, and were provided by the computer screen, separate codes with which to launch the nuclear attack.

They pushed the right buttons, pulled the right levers, and launched a nuclear missile that was headed directly towards Washington DC.

We drove back to the hotel where we encountered the most amazing traffic jam. I cannot understand how they have 10 lanes of roads and not a car moves. Of course, the aforementioned terrible driver did nothing to facilitate our operation. By the time we eventually got back to the hotel, we barely had time to change and check emails before we had to head out again, 20 minutes later.

We had dinner at a well known restaurant called the Bolshoi. On the way, we passed the world famous Bolshoi Ballet. When we got to that immense building, my friend asked Olga what it was. Because she had pointed it out several times earlier in the day as we drove by it, she said: “Are you kidding?” It was then he remembered what it was and responded: “It’s the Bolshoi – the place where women dance without a pole.”

And speaking of women – it must be noted that the women here are almost all blondes and almost all stunning.

As we drove down the street, we passed some Tartar-dressed characters wearing chain link armor and riding horses down the sidewalk. Only in Moscow!

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When we first got to the restaurant, we were seated into the deepest and largest restaurant chairs we have ever seen. We sunk away like children sitting in Santa Claus’s chair at Macy’s. That was just not to be, so we moved to another table, where the seating was not much better. We were laughing throughout the process, but I’m sure the wait staff was not quite as entertained.

We began the meal with shots of vodka, so that made things even better. We all ordered something uniquely Russian except Bob, who had a turkey burger with French fries. Dinner was wonderful, but by the end of it, we could barely keep our eyes open. Of course, our driver was late once again but he finally arrived and drove us back to our hotel – as we endured 25 minutes of traffic to travel a little more than four blocks. Exhausted, we barely had time to brush our teeth before our eyes fell shut.


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