A Pre-World Cup Russian Adventure
When I got the email to explore Russia with Google, I wasn’t particularly excited because Russia wasn’t on my bucket list. Just because I love to travel, I decided to Google ‘what fun things to do in Moscow,’ ‘what to wear in Moscow in May,’ ‘where to shop in Moscow,’ and so many other things a genuinely uninterested fellow searches. Frankly, none of the results made me feel differently.
From the uncertain weather to nothing worth shopping for (unless you count booze and fur), there was hardly anything excitable. Putin’s Russia and the never-ending war with the West were top of my mind and especially the ongoing devastation in Syria. Absolutely nothing prepared me for the warmth, scenery and love I would bask in for two and half days!
Lagos-Dubai-Moscow, that was my flight route. 17 hours later, my tired self and camera dragged into Moscow’s Vnukovo International Airport. I travelled with a female colleague and it was while on the passport control queue that she pointed that we were the only blacks on the plane. In the same minute, immigration officials asked us to step aside. Two hours and some questions later, we exited the airport into the waiting arms of our hosts, Google! Arriving on another flight, a black Congolese gentleman and hijab-wearing mum, toddler and ‘husband’ were also asked to step aside. Usual suspects?
Inside Moscow was warm. I quickly got rid of my sweater and socks. At Hotel Baltschug Kempinski where I stayed, the staff were polite and ready to help. My windows overlooked the lovely river of Moscow and Russia’s Central Bank. The windows were so large I couldn’t help imagining an assassin ziplining into my room surreptitiously in the middle of the night.
Somehow, I thought she’d be female like the daring Jennifer Lawrence in the movie Red Sparrow. Yet, I wasn’t afraid because I wanted my Russian adventure. You can, therefore, imagine my shock and delight when, the next afternoon at Doctor Zhivago restaurant where we had lunch, the famous 6 feet 4 Steven Seagal walked in his usual black outfit – we could all have been on a movie set at that moment.
From the beautiful GUM department store where you find over 100 popular brands including luxury brands like Burberry, Channel, Moschino, Hermes, Calvin Klein – and where I had a taste of the heavenly Russian ice cream – to the historical breath-taking space called Red Square, Moscow is teeming with history. It’s not just the National History Museum. It’s The Kremlin itself, St Basil Cathedral, Lenin’s Mausoleum and the Kremlin graveyard, where the graves of almost all past Soviet Union leaders (including Stalin) are.
I’m told hundreds of tourists from all over the world and in different tour groups are constantly at the square, learning and documenting. Each group wears transmitters and earphones, as tour guides regale guests with Russian history in Spanish, English and even Mandarin. One of our translators told me that being a translator is good business in Russia.
In the Alexander Garden of the Kremlin wall, where the tomb of the unknown soldier (site for WWII dead soldiers) sits with a lamp burning 24 hours, two young soldiers stand guard in hourly shifts from 8 am to 8 pm daily. Our arrival was well timed to witness a change of guard in typical Russian military fashion. The soldiers, I’m told, live and study behind the walls. It was here and at one more place, that I was mobbed by Asians who were excited to see a black person – suffice to say I became a tourist attraction myself.
I wasn’t open-minded when I set about the journey and was so happy with my immigration run-in at Vnukovo International, that I was waiting happily to hear, “Sorry, we’ll have to put you on the next flight back to Nigeria.” But Russians, beyond the airport walls, shocked me for good.
It was the first time I saw a large group of people who didn’t care about the English Language. They were content just being Russians and mighty proud of it. Language can be a big barrier to exploring this city as all street signs are in Russian. You will need Google Maps to point you in the way and a Google Translator app to read the signs and menu at the restaurants. Even McDonalds is spelt in Russian alphabets.
On the metro line to Luzhniki stadium (where the 2018 FIFA World Cup opening and closing ceremonies will take place) in Sportivnaya, I sat in between two Russians and they couldn’t care if I was brown or white. If there are racists in Russia, my stay was perhaps too short to find them.
I had an abundance of Russian food and experienced fine dining at Lastochka, a restaurant set up in a stationary ship about a 20-minute walk from the stadium. Their Borscht and dessert are excellent. And even though Russia is famed for spirits, you can’t buy alcohol after 10 pm, even in the clubs. Yes, I was shocked too.
There’s a lot to see in Russia, Moscow especially. The nights are really short with the sun staying up till about 8 pm and coming out brightly by 3:30 am. With electricity everywhere, you could be exploring the streets of Moscow for 24hours non-stop like I did with Google. And even though I was unnecessarily scrutinized by Immigration officials (yes, again) at the Domodedovo airport where I caught my departing flight, I’m certainly going back with the whole family. Hopefully this time around, we’ll bump into President Putin at the gas station, and in shorts. *wink*