June 18, 2017.
I posted the above photo the day before after a long day of exploring. In its caption, I wrote that American schools sucked (i.e., did not adequately prepare) with teaching students about Russia. I’ll make a broader claim. The United States, so long as it remains the most powerful country in the world, has a greater obligation to learn about Russia, its neighbors, and its neighbors’ neighbors. In other words, with great power comes great responsibility and a great obligation to learning. Thankfully, there is too much to learn. That church in the photo was rebuilt following the Soviet Union’s fall. It is known as the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. With an overall height of 103 meters (338 ft), it is the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world. “The demolition was supposed to make way for a colossal Palace of the Soviets to house the country’s legislature, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Construction started in 1937 but was halted in 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union during World War II.” – Wikipedia.
When mom and I were at the church, there was a large pilgrimage taking place. The church is a significant representation of Orthodox Christianity. At one point in history, Russia was considered the “third Rome”, with the other two Romes being Rome itself and then-Constantinople.
In October 1993, Boris Yeltsin issued commands to barrage Moscow’s White House with tank-fire. It is sort of like Donald Trump commanding the military to fire tanks on the Capitol Building.
The events leading up to the storming of the White House (where Russia’s Prime Minister works) are a part of the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis. It was a political stand-off between Yeltsin and the Russian parliament. It was resolved by military force.
As always, there are the silly things that are worth learning. At a regular department store near Red Square, my mom and I browsed light jackets in preparation for the trip north to St. Petersburg. As I waited for mom to finish shopping, a store representative approached me. “Чай? (Tea)” she asked.
I responded, “да, можно мне зеленый? (Can I have green?)”
“Of course.” (in English; she already figured I did not speak Russian)
And voila! Good tea sat by my side while I waited for mom to finish browsing.
Although I did not purchase anything, I would argue that this was the most satisfying shopping experience I had ever had. Sure, there’s the grand bazaar in İstanbul. And Souk Hamadiyeh in Damascus. But those places require a lot of calories; the noise, the organized chaos, and the chit-chatter with the shopkeepers require willpower. Here, I was in a comfortable department store sipping on tea. Little noise. Less chit-chatter. And less stuff to worry about.
Then there are the fruitful things worth learning. To meet the learning goals, two people came to save my life in Moscow: Liza and Gor.
Liza and I met in Princeton, New Jersey during a high school summer camp. She and I share the same birthday; we both have Syrian blood; and we had not seen each other in years. Out of all the footsteps I wanted to follow, Liza’s were some of the most riveting ones for anyone.
There are the must-sees and learns. We went to Sparrow Hills nearby Moscow State University (home to a Stalin Tower!).
The views speak for themselves. Lush. Invigorating. Tourists. Traffic. In the Instagram post, I declared Moscow as a “capital of capitals.” What really moved me to write that was what anyone can see in Sparrow Hills: Moscow State University.
We then went to a Russian restaurant that specialized in Northern Russian cuisine. The cuisine includes tasty deer, succulent soup, and lots of black bread. It would warm anyone near the Arctic Circle in minutes.
The above picture is Pelmeni, made with minced meat filling, wrapped in thin dough (made out of flour and eggs, sometimes with milk or water added). We both talked about this dish for a few minutes. It caught our attention because: (1) we both think it is superior to ravioli, and (2) it is a different take of Shish Barak, a popular Middle Eastern dish often served in Syria.
The inevitable conversation of Russian-Syrian relations arose. Unlike in a Syrian restaurant, I spoke critically about the Assad government and how the Russians are making huge mistakes supporting it. In Syria, the conversation would never come up, for I would’ve probably been arrested. Not so in this Moscow restaurant. That was a big green check mark. Even though the walls may have ears, nothing else discouraged me from speaking about the subject. Liza was attentive, the restaurant customers and staff were doing their own things, and Liza herself had a lot to say about it. It was quite surreal for me. Syria looked up to Moscow for guidance in building a Soviet-style country. Now I was in Moscow speaking my critiques and memories of Syria. What a time to be alive.
A big shout out to Liza. She had exams coming up and family obligations to take care of all within a few days! I could not be more appreciative and will never be able to pay her back for her invaluable company and guidance.
There is a lot more to this day than I can write. I will write about Part 2 of this day tomorrow or in the near future. That piece will be dedicated to Gor and Viktor Tsoi.
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This guy, Mr. Gor, is a superstar and one of the best brothers in the world. He spent 7 hours with my mother and I showing his city – Moscow – and providing some of the best company I've ever experienced. Thanks to him, I'll remember this day for a very long time. My mother and I had smiles on our faces and minds the whole day! I'll miss this guy!