Chapter 3: Moscow

As we hummed ever closer to Moscow, the sun peeked through the clouds – illuminating the landscape. I don’t know what I expected but there was nothing particularly unusual about the terrain – it was primarily flat, interspersed with waterways and occasional stands of trees. Reflecting on all the historic battles that had taken place on these plains, I wondered how anyone or anything could have sought refuge from an advancing army.

Leningradskaya Hotel - Ghostbusters Redux
Leningradskaya Hotel – Ghostbusters Redux

Finally banking to land at the Domodedovo International Airport, Moscow was still not in sight (it is 26 miles north-northwest). My heart skipped a beat, anyway. The jetway was bathed in sunshine, welcoming 100 volunteers from the U.S.

In sharp contrast, the airport interior was dark, gloomy and not just a little foreboding. The fluorescent lights only added to the oppressive atmosphere – giving everyone a sickly pallor. The customs officials were surprisingly young, wearing the green uniform accented with red that we’ve all seen in the movies and on the news. Wearing over-sized wheel hats – they gave the impression of a youngster dressing up in his father’s clothes. Their attitude was one of sullen boredom and when I ventured to squeak out a “privet” (‘hi’ in English), it was met with stony indifference.

Scattered about, other uniformed soldiers casually cradled Kalishlnikovs (AK-47′s) as if they were plastic water guns. The juxtaposition of pimples and latent violence was jarring. We experienced no problems at customs – probably because there were 100 of us and CNN crews were waiting outside.

Herded into a cavernous room, everyone claimed their baggage – except me. The Peace Corps had warned us that we might be missing some luggage when we arrived so I had cleverly distributed critical items among 4 pieces, diversifying my “portmanteaux” if you will. I failed to mention earlier that I was lugging – more precisely dragging – approximately 135 pounds (I weighed 105 pounds) of clothes, electronics, boots, and anything else I might need for the next year in Siberia. Assuming that we did not quit – we were not allowed to leave until the first anniversary of our arrival.

As I waited at the carousel – hoping fervently that my bag would materialize from around the corner, I started to panic. Soldiers were already catapulting all the material possessions of the other volunteers into a gargantuan camouflaged army truck. I vacillated between joining them – sans my errant luggage – or remaining steadfast. Just when I was ready to bolt – it showed up and relief swept over me.

Dragging my suitcases (a few wheels had already fallen off two of them from the sheer weight) and carrying my hang-up bag over my shoulder, I was a pitiful sight. To make matters worse, the long flight in the dry cabin had transformed my hair into a fright wig. It looked like a thousand balloons had been buffing my head – I actually sported a halo. Just then, a CNN crew approached me and, in a sudden burst of adrenalin, I ducked my head, waved them off, and scuttled (as much as one can do this with 135 pounds in tow) towards the airport entrance. To my utter mortification – my family saw this entire scene unfold on CNN. In fact, they found it so hilarious that they contacted everyone they knew to participate in the fun.

I worried my baggage would explode as it sailed through the air and landed with a thud on a mountainous heap in the back of the canvassed truck. Perhaps I should have brought some duct tape – it would be a disaster if any one of them spilled its guts before reaching Vladivostok.

We all piled into a bus and headed for Moscow. It was about an hour and a half minute drive on a modern highway passing through forests of white birch standing at incredibly perfect, erect attention – so unlike the twisted live oaks of Texas that reminded me of Bonsai Trees. The vehicles plying the road were also foreign looking – like large versions of Tonka Toys. They were invariably old.

As we entered Moscow, an overcast descended upon us. In retrospect, it may have simply been an emotional response – every building of every block was a cheerless grey. It is extraordinarily challenging to describe a Russian urban landscape to an American. Unlike typical streets in the U.S., retail enterprises such as bakeries, department stores, etc. were not self-contained but rather integral parts of apartment buildings. Other parts of the city might have been different and I understand that a lot of developments have since taken place but this is the Moscow we surveyed in 1992.

We arrived at the Leningradskaya Hotel and its exterior was so ominous that I fully expected Igor, Dr. Frankenstein’s faithful, abject assistant, to open the massive door. I do not exaggerate – it was creepy. The building was monstrous – just what I would expect from Joseph Stalin. The hotel was one of his creations – a member of the “Seven Sisters” – skyscrapers which were built between 1947 to 1953. Actually, the first of the “Seven”, the Palace of the Soviets, was started much earlier but construction was halted with the German invasion of 1941 and the steel frame was scrapped to help fortify the Moscow defense ring. When the war ended however, Stalin returned to his obsession with the massive project.

As Nikita Khrushchev recalled Stalin’s words, “We won the war … foreigners will come to Moscow, walk around, and there’s no skyscrapers. If they compare Moscow to capitalist cities, it’s a moral blow to us.” .  .  .