You Choose: The Kirov or the Bolshoi?

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Giving talks in seven cities in seven days this week, I’ve met countless travelers with fun stories to tell. At a Chicago bookstore, I was ambushed by a man who asked me, “So which is considered the better ballet company — the Kirov or the Bolshoi?”

I vaguely remembered that, while Moscow’s Bolshoi was most famous, many contend that the St. Petersburg-based Kirov is better. The man pressed me for as assessment of the Kirov Ballet. I was starting to wonder what was with him.

Then he asked me, “Good as the Kirov is, is it still enjoyable when sitting behind a big pillar?” Then I put it together and laughed. The only person who would know that is Kurt — the guy I palled around with on my Russia trip back in 1993. We bought tickets from a scalper on the street, which got us seats behind a pillar in the nosebleed section of the St. Petersburg concert hall. Even with a seriously obstructed view, we were blown away by the Kirov Ballet.

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Kurt and I chatted, dredging up fun memories of traveling through Russia in those fitful years just after the break-up of the USSR. At the ballet, the big, heavy, red curtains still had their faint hammer-and-sickle embroidery. I remember thinking that while the communists were out of power, the entire society seemed to be keeping its hammers and sickles handy, as if communism might just rekindle.

We met at the St. Petersburg youth hostel which was (and is) run by a great guy, American expat Steve Carron. Back then, Steve was paying bribes to be left alone by the mafia and doing his banking an overnight train ride away in Tallinn (Estonia).

In 1993, expats in Russia were more into the Internet than we in the West were because, given the lousy communication infrastructure in Russia, it was the best way to keep in touch. The book I was working on that year (covering Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the three Baltic capitals) was the first manuscript I ever emailed home.

The St. Petersburg hostel was a refuge for Western travelers — a humble “Green Zone” where we could meet, eat food that was both affordable and palatable, and be unthreatened by thugs and thieves that seemed to be everywhere.

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Kurt was like a mountain man, vagabonding around the world for six months — really tough and really hairy. He had just rendezvoused with his power-dressing girlfriend who flew, it seemed, right out of a corporate board meeting in Chicago to join up with him. It was like Green Acres, Russki-style.

Together we took the night train to Moscow — booking four berths for the three of us to have the compartment all to ourselves. The buzz was that train personnel were working with thieves to gas travelers and then steal them blind while they slept — taking even the rings off their fingers.

On the train, we nervously jammed the door latch with a film canister, put a towel along the bottom of the door, left the window open for ventilation, and even put out a photo I took at a St. Petersburg amusement-park fun booth that made me look grotesquely muscular.

A conductor knocked on the door. We let him poke his head in, and he lifted up the lower bunk revealing a tin box the size of a small coffin under the mattress. He said, “You must put all of your valuables in this box for safety. And then you must sleep on it. All of your valuables.” When he was gone, we all thought, “Yeah, right…we’ll wake up with nothing.” And we searched for a hidden door in the tin coffin.

Apparently the thieves picked on some other tourists that night, and we made it safely to Moscow…just in time to see flames coming from the windows of the Russian parliament building. Communist hardliners where holed up in there, in a thrilling standoff with Boris Yeltsin and the Russian army.

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Pathetic and impoverished senior citizens were demonstrating against democracy and free enterprise, knowing that they would be the ones who suffered most in the transition period. (As it turned out, they — later nicknamed “the Lost Generation” — were right.) When people ask me about the scariest situation I’ve ever been in, I think of the taxi ride out to the Moscow airport. A no-neck guy who looked like a classic Russian mafia thug picked me up in a beat-up old car, and we drove down puddle-filled alleys for an hour past derelict apartments buildings…and all I could think about was movie scenes where the good guy is taken down to the river bank in the tough side of town to be shot.

This guy knew I had a passport, lots of money, and credit cards. And he knew I was completely alone. No one knew me, where I was, or where I was going. It would have been easy for him to just finish me off.

My imagination went wild. I even thought that if I were in his shoes, I’d be seriously considering doing the dirty deed. It would be so easy.

Then the no-neck finally pulled up to the airport, shook my hand, and said, “Have a good fly.”


16 Replies to “You Choose: The Kirov or the Bolshoi?”

  1. Rick, I’m glad that you survived Russia! Is Russia a safe country to visit these days? I love ballet and Russian classical music and have wanted to visit St. Petersburg for a long time. I’ve heard conflicting reports about how safe the country is, including reports that you don’t recommend a visit. If I went, it would be with a tour group. Thanks, Laurette

  2. The last bit of your blog, the story about the cabbie, made me laugh out loud. Thanks for getting my morning off to a good start!

  3. Is there a more difficult language barrier in Russia than in Europe (where it’s really not bad)? How hard is travel if you don’t know Cyrillic?

  4. In the 1980s we planned to visit Russia. I wrote a letter to the Embassy in Wash DC. On the phone call we received, the voice, the accent, and the attitude was exactly as expected in a movie. “Why do you think you can visit our country anytime you wish?”

    At the border we would have to give them our passports, wait 6 weeks to get them back. The end of that travel idea.

    In Warsaw, Poland, in 1985, a group of college students, traveling in a large bus, arrived in the campground. They were just returning from 10 days in the Soviet Union, and are they ever glad to get out of that country. They said the people in the small Soviet towns really have a low standard of living.

    In Warsaw, Poland, in 1991, a group of European college students, traveling in a large bus, arrived in the campground. They had enjoyed their visit to Russia, said the Soviet people are suffering, but they are hopeful, helpful, and hospitable.

    What a difference after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

  5. Rick- The way your trip to Russia ended sounds like the way mine began about a year and half ago. My arranged transport picked me up at the St. Petersburg airport. He whisked me away in a smog-churning van, through back alleys, through puddles, by derelict buildings that looked like the Germans invaded two days ago, before finally reaching the squalid little office where… hmm, I’m still not sure why I had to stop off at that office, or why I had to surrender my passport for 24 hours. But the whole trip was a hoot, if VERY different, and slightly more sinister than the rest of Europe. One question- I can see why it might not be economical to write a Russia guidebook, but why have you never filmed a TV show there? Too much red-tape?

  6. I first visited Moscow for a week in ’94, and came back in 2005 to teach English here. Moscow is totally unrecognizable from then – now, it’s a city of flash and glitter, dripping with money. Very up and coming, lots of energy. I’m glad to be here. There *are* grandmothers out begging, but even in the last two years things have really improved. Not many people speak English (huge demand for teachers, btw), but you can get by with very minimal Russian. Most of the city is quite safe – were I, as a 30 year old woman, to walk from the Kremlin to my place at 3 a.m. alone (a 50 minute walk), I’d be cautious but only feel unsafe near the train station. The red tape for long term visas is a pain, but tourist visas are fairly easy. I’d recommend getting the visa in Estonia; Tallinn is absolutely lovely, and you can catch a train, bus, or plane into Russia after you get your visa. I like the train, personally. I think processing takes 3 days, but visa rules are constantly changing.

  7. Rick, I thank you for sending your blogs to your internet website. For my entertainment I read your blogs, and see video tapes and DVDs of your PBS television travelogues (I borrow the video tapes and DVDs from my public Library). If I want to see a screwball comedy I see Samantha Brown’s travelogue on the Travel Channel (on my friend’s Television set). Many people, for their entertainment, spend a total of 50 Dollars each month to see movies in movie theatres. Some of us prefer to save the 50 Dollars each month, to pay for a future vacation trip to Europe. I own several of the Travel guide books that you wrote. … Buon viaggio !

  8. Great stories! I’m glad Rick is (apparently) a compulsive writer. I think every traveler has had, at one time or another, a cab driver that made them wonder. I used to always carry a note pad and have the driver write how much it was going to cost before I got into the cab. (I once witnessed an ugly shouting match in Rome between a cab driver and a Tourist who thought he was being royally over-charged.) Nowadays most cabs in Western Europe are metered, so its not so necessary. Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving! (We had our first snow in Vienna on Sunday, so I’m in the holiday spirit a bit early.) Thanks for the blog.

  9. Ah, the taxi ride from and to the Moscow airport, and the train station. Well, same old game plan – dress down and look like a common citizen from off the street. Hard to do when someone asks a question in Rusky, but I never look like I have anything of value on my person, and all of my important stuff stays home, or gets copied. Always good to have another contact person you know available (who speaks the language). But, I would take these same precautions in parts of Los Angeles and Miami and even Edmonds too. Just pays to not to look like a wandering tourist most of the time. I love Russia and the Russian people – but, hey, don’t flash your cash and 10 credit cards everytime you turn around. Someone may want to borrow them.

  10. Hi Rick,I had a similar experience back in 1995.I went to Russia with two friends of mine on the standard St. Petersburg/Moscow tour. We took the night train to Moscow on a Friday.On the train we were told to beware of thieves who would try to gas our compartment and steal our things. I shared a birth with a former Bolivian foreign minister named Bernardo.When I started to tie my belt around the door latch he just laughed at what he deemed to be absurd,rolled over and went to sleep.We arrived the next morning unscathed.At our hotel in Moscow I called a girlfriend I met in St.Peterburg to come up and meet me. One night we all stayed at our tour guides house in downtown Moscow.Later I took my friend by cab to one of the 4 train stations.We said goodbye on the platform which seemed right out of an old B&W movie.I swear I saw steam waftingthrough the night air.Afterward I took a”cab” all over Moscow in search of my tour guides address.I finally just took the metro to my hotel relieved.

  11. The first time I went to St.Petersburg was in July, 2000. From Los Angeles, it ended up taking me 4 separate flights to get there and about 20 hours. The last leg from Munich was on Air Pulkovo, recently rated the world’s most dangerous. I was happy, and shocked, to be alive. But I still had to take a long, solo taxi ride to my hotel. I had no idea where I was being taken, and after 20 hours of travel, I was so weak a little girl could have robbed me. I was sure I was going to end up in some empty field with just my sox on. But somehow I ended up at the correct hotel. I was so naive that when I got there I didn’t know that all the women waiting in the lobby, playing backgammon, were business women. In the world’s oldest business. Two followed me to the elevators and asked if I wanted some company. They were both beautiful, but I was too tired and scared to accept their offer. Later going out to dinner in St.Petersburg was surreal, it was still light out after 11 p.m

  12. Rick, your Russia remembrances brought back great memories of my 1986 bus trip from Helsinki to then-Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Having to surrender my passport while in country (terrifying!). 5 hours of daylight in the middle of winter. Prostitutes in the hotel lobbies. Small kids in the Moscow subway wanting “American cigarettes?” or any blue jeans I could part with. Long queues of people on side-streets that our Intourist guides explained were waiting to “buy opera tickets.” Yeah, right — try bread and meat lines. Waiters whispering, “Buy dollars?” as I washed down borscht and caviar on everything (pancakes and sandwiches) in the rickety Intourist hotels with the god-awfulest beer I’ve ever tasted. Absolutely out of touch with daily headlines. The long, lonely last night when all sorts of scenarios played through my head — will I ever get out of this scary country and back home to my family? Visiting Communist-era Russian was the experience of a lifetime!

  13. Hey RIck…I really enjoyed this story. I hope you’ll share more travel tales where you’re in a rough spot. I’m sure you have plenty! I took a cab alone in China and Brazil, and I must say, I felt the same fears running through my head. It’s unfortunate to think the worst in people, but like you said…. nobody knows you or where you are…at that moment, your life’s existence is in the hands of a (usually disgruntled) cabbie. Here’s to more scary cab rides!

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