Welcome to the fourth article in the Trilogy Travelogue series, where our own Trilogy members write about their adventures near and far.  In this article Trilogy at Vistancia member Gil Vasquez shares the highlights of his amazing trip to Russia, Finland, and Estonia.

Exploring Russia
By Gil Vasquez of Trilogy at Vistancia

Last summer, I had the opportunity to go on a river cruise in Russia.  The cruise started in Moscow and ended in St. Petersburg. After the cruise, a friend and I decided to take a train to Helsinki, Finland, and then to cross the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, Estonia.  All in all, it was an amazing adventure!  Through this article, I will share some of the highlights, discoveries, and memorable moments from this trip.

Before I set out for Russia on June 18th, I contacted a friend of mine whose son, Michael, was an attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for four years.  He was a great source of information for my trip.  Michael gave me many great insights about Russia, including the “do’s and don’ts” of the country. Even after doing a good deal of research and connecting with Michael for an insider’s view of Russia, I was still not sure what to expect when I arrived.

You see, even after the break up of the old Soviet Union in 1991, Russia still remains the largest country in the world.  It stretches across 11 time zones, from the Western Pacific to the Baltic Sea. It has at least one-quarter of the world’s mineral resources, from oil, gas, gold and diamonds, to nonferrous metals and vast amounts of timber. Yet with obstacles that include a harsh climate, great distances, and a lack of human resources (Russia has only 2.5 percent of the world population), one can see how this country’s development has been hindered.

When I arrived in Moscow at Sheremetyevo International Airport, I was quickly and easily able to make my way to the ship on which I would be taking my cruise.  (I should mention, however, that I was lucky to have such a smooth transition from the plane to the boat.  Everyone else on the tour had problems at passport control, baggage pickup, or with transportation at the airport. We all arrived at different times of the day, so it seems as though I timed my arrival just right!)

Before embarking on the cruise, we took a tour of Moscow.  Three things came to my attention during this tour.  First, Moscow (with a population of over 10 million residents) has the same traffic problems that we have in the states.  We toured the city through wall-to-wall and very slow moving traffic.  One could easily pick out politicians or authorities in the traffic, as they always had an escort of a police car in front and back, with sirens and flashing lights on, and a black SUV in the middle.  I found it interesting that these SUVs were always American made Chevrolet Tahoes or Cadillac Escalades!  The second thing I noticed was the cleanliness of the entire city.  I didn’t see any papers or cigarette butts on the sidewalks or streets.  This was especially noticeable in Moscow’s Metro Subway, which is one of the cleanest, most beautiful, and most efficiently run systems in the world.  A different architect and engineer designed each station, creating a subway system that is worth seeing and experiencing (and for only about 20 rubles, or 65 cents (USD), for a ride, it is well worth the price of admission for this experience).

The third thing that stood out to me was the high cost of living (and touring) in Moscow.  Though it has the occasional bargain – like the low cost of a subway ride – for the most part, Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world to visit or to call home.  (A study published earlier this year by ECA International, a global management consulting firm, ranked Moscow as the fifth most expensive city to live in worldwide.  To put this in perspective, Manhattan, the highest priced city in the U.S., was ranked 43rd on this list.)  One small example of overpriced items that stood out to me was when I was checking out of a grocery store in Moscow and I asked for a plastic bag to carry the few items I had bought.  I was charged 5 rubles just for a disposable bag!

When we arrived at Red Square, I stood there with the Kremlin to one side and St. Basil’s Cathedral to the other side, and I couldn’t help but recall my days as a kid watching Walter Cronkite on CBS news showing the May Day parades.  The Soviet Union leaders stood atop the Lenin Mausoleum watching all the military hardware go by in parade. It was an eerie memory to have in that moment, to say the least.  Upon closer inspection I found the Kremlin to be a little disappointing, while the Armory Museum was well worth the visit.  We visited a few churches – one of which is the home to the burial sites of most of the Tsars and Tsarinas. We also stopped at the military barracks, the Kremlin Theater, and a few other legendary Russian landmarks before wrapping up our tour.

Before I tell you about my cruise on the Volga River, I would like to share some random items of interest that I learned about Russia in my travels.

1. The divorce rate among newlyweds is 70 percent after just on year of marriage.

2. The average life expectancy for men in Russia is just 59 years. Alcoholism is a huge contributor to this early age of death. We were told that on any given working day, approximately one-third of the work force is absent from work, due to alcohol related issues.

3. All Russians have a minimum of 1 percent Mongolian genes. This is because of the centuries-long Tatar invasion that locked Russia away from Europe. Led by the mighty Genghis Khan, they quickly established themselves all over Russia. “With the Russian, scratch the surface-find a Tatar” is a popular Russian saying.

4. The last random item of interest that I’ll share is that the most popular singer in Russia at the time of my trip was non other than Julio Iglesias!  Go figure!

Getting back to my tour of Russia, after spending four days in Moscow, we set sail for St. Petersburg, the cultural center of Russia. We traveled along the mighty Volga River through beautiful forests and rural villages. We made stops each day in rural farming communities. The difference between farm-community Russians and big-city Russians was like night and day. When we stopped at the small villages, we found that the people were outgoing and friendly – and some even smiled at us!  After our initial days in the city, this change in demeanor made me feel like I was in a different country.  It was very refreshing.

We were on the river cruise a total of four days, during which time we went through numerous locks, which would raise or lower the ship onto new lakes or rivers. Finally, on a beautiful, cloudless morning, we turned onto the Neva River, the main waterway of St. Petersburg, which empties into the Gulf of Finland.  From the ship we could see that we were approaching the suburbs of St. Petersburg, at one time the Capital of Russia. These suburbs are famous for their former royal residences, boasting both luxurious palaces and picturesque gardens.

St. Petersburg is the cultural center of Russia.  It has many canals and is sometimes called the Venice of the North. The historic heart of St. Petersburg is Palace Square.  While this spot is famous for many things, Palace Square is best known as the place where the first shots rang out at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution, in November of 1917.  At first, many opposed the Bolshevik party (which later renamed itself to be known as the Community party).  Fearing that the Tsar might become a rallying point, the Bolsheviks took the entire Royal family, the Romanovs, out to the country and murdered them. A civil war ensued, and the Communist party became victorious in 1921. Soon after that, in 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formed. And we all know the rest of the story.

While in St. Petersburg, I toured the world-famous Hermitage Museum, the crown Jewel of this city. There is not a museum in the world that rivals the Hermitage in size, grandeur, and holdings.  I especially enjoyed the masterpieces of Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya and Picasso.  Later, as I explored Catherine Palace, I couldn’t help but marvel at the extravagant splendors of Imperial Russia. The other highlight of my time in St. Petersburg was attending my first ballet at the famous Mariinsky Ballet Theater.  What a treat!

It is difficult to even try to describe such a vast and complex country with so much turbulent and intriguing past. I will just repeat what Sir Winston Churchill said when someone asked him about Russia.  He said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  I say, “Amen to that!”

Below are a few of my favorite photos from my journey through Russia.  (Click on the photos below to view larger images.)

St. Basil Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

Moscow State Historical Museum, Red Square, Moscow

The Kremlin, Moscow

Bolshoi Ballet Theater, Moscow

Church of St. Dimitry on the Volga River

View of the Hermitage Museum from the Volga River

The Hermitage, Crown Jewel of St. Petersburg

Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace Gardens, St. Petersburg

Inside Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace, St. Petersburg

Our tour of Russia ended in St. Petersburg, but a friend and I continued our journey on to Helsinki, Finland. When we arrived in Helsinki, via train, we found the luscious and natural landscape to be absolutely beautiful. (Helsinki’s Central Train Station is pictured below.)  Though just a train ride away, you could feel such a difference in attitude between the Russian people and the Finns. Many say that the people of Finland are among the friendliest people on earth – and I found this to be quite true.  They are a gregarious and happy society.  English is almost universally spoken in Finland, and the Finnish people seemed to be happy to practice their English with visitors.

We arrived on July 1st and the Finns were still enjoying the Finland White Nights.  This is when the sun does not set, and there is daylight for 24 hours a day.  There were concerts and sporting events all over the city. There are 70 museums in Helsinki, so we had lots of options to explore.  One of the most interesting sights we discovered in Helsinki was Temppeliaukiokirkko.  Bet you can’t say that in one breath!  It is church that was excavated from granite bedrock and capped with a copper dome. Inside is a beautiful pipe organ, which left me wondering just how it must sound when it is played in such a unique setting.

On our next to last day, we boarded a ship and took a two-hour cruise across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, Estonia.  This land was part of the Soviet Union at one time. Today, Tallinn is a vibrant and modern city, and there is a lot of construction going on all over the city.  The people of Estonia speak what sounds like a combination of Finnish and Swedish, but I found that most Estonians could speak some English.  During our daytrip, we learned a bit about the history of Estonia under Communist rule, and about how they gained their independence in the 1990s.  (Some of the military equipment left by the Russians when they left Estonia is pictured to the right.)  We were glad to have made the trip!

As we spent our last day in Helsinki, we sat in an outdoor cafe at the Esplanade, Helsinki’s main for area shopping and dining. We enjoyed the people watching, and we both agreed that the people of Helsinki are a good-looking bunch!  It was a relaxing way to wind up a fabulous trip.