This is a continuing narrative from Keatts’ visit to her son, Ken Keatts, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Russia in the 1990s. Earlier installments can be found at lmtribune.com by clicking the “Special Pubs” tab and viewing back issues of Golden Times.
I’ve been on several tours of the city and seen most of the historical sights. An acquaintance from the tour, Svetlana, has turned into my personal tour guide. We get a taxi and go for as long as we have daylight. I still have a hard time figuring out the streets in Moscow. Left-hand turns are hard to make and sometimes you travel for blocks in order to turn left, so it seems I am going in circles.
There are seven tall buildings with ornate Victorian spires on turrets around Moscow. These fairytalelike buildings stand out on the skyline and are called the Seven Sisters. From a viewpoint near the university, all seven are visible. Three are close to the U.S. Embassy. One is the Ukrainian Hotel, one the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and one is an apartment building. I would have guessed them to be built in the 1880s, but they were constructed in the 1950s. These buildings, plus the ruby stars of the Kremlin, give a unique distinctiveness to Moscow.
The city has three “ring” roads. The innermost, or Boulevard Ring Road, and the center, or Garden Ring Road, represent walls that ringed the outer limits of the city at a point in its development. The Outer Ring Road defines the current city limits. Between the Garden Ring and the Outer Ring is a railroad ring that marked the outer limits of the city in 1961, when the Outer Ring Road was built. The area between the railroad and Outer Ring was countryside and forests. In 30 years, the entire area has grown into city and the population of Moscow has grown five times from 2 million to 10 million.
With the exception of the palaces and grand homes in existence before 1920, which have all been taken over for government use (several are embassies of various countries), all the housing in Moscow is high-rise apartment buildings. There are hundreds of them similar in design and construction. The buildings often form a square with a parklike courtyard in the center that all the residents share.
Once you cross the Outer Ring Road, immediately there are individual houses. Mostly they are old (1920-30s), need repairs and lack indoor plumbing. Even new houses don’t have plumbing, but all have electricity and nearly every home has a TV antenna. Villages are a mixture of houses and apartment buildings.
Another feature of the landscape are dachas, or summer homes. These are built with neither electricity or plumbing, but they have a garden patch attached to them. A Soviet family is more likely to have a dacha than a car. They take pride in their gardens because they consider homemade food far superior to what they buy in the markets or what is offered in restaurants.
Saturday, Ken and I, along with Svetlana, the English-speaking Russian tour guide, and her American husband Sel, took a taxi and drove south to the town of Tula to visit the home of Leo Tolstoy, author of “War and Peace.” There was a skiff of snow in Moscow and about 3 inches in Tula. Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate, had a large birch forest that was frosted with snow. It was peaceful and idyllic. As it is traditional in Moscow for the bride and groom to put flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in Tula they put flowers on Tolstoy’s grave, a simple grass-covered mound beneath the trees. We were warmly dressed, but most of the wedding parties we saw were not.
On our return to Moscow, Ken and I went to McDonald’s prepared to stand in line for a long time. To our surprise, we didn’t have to wait more than a couple of minutes. McD’s recently raised their prices again. A Big Mac started out at 8 rubles, and is now 28. A Big Mac, fries and drink costs $1. The average Soviet earns $7 a month, so you can see it is beyond the means of most citizens. Still, the restaurant, which is large, was so full we couldn’t find a place to sit. So we carried dinner home on the Metro and the bus with us. We zapped the food in the microwave and they were great.
Keatts is a retired Clarkston businesswoman who ran an accounting office for many years. She loves to travel and shares excerpts from notes sent to loved ones detailing her adventures.