I have so many thoughts about my time in Russia, I don't know where to begin. In a way, Russia was everything I expected and everything unexpected, also. We were fortunate enough to stay with Mike, a friend of Alex's from Seattle who has been working in Saint Petersburg for the past nine months. We learned so much about the history of the city and Russian Culture from Mike and had a personal translator to top everything off. 

If it weren't for Mike, the trip could have been real interesting. Virtually NO ONE in Russia speaks English, not even a word. The Cyrillic alphabet doesn't help Westerners either. Needless to say, I got really good at miming, so watch out for a game of charades when I get back to the U.S!

The one piece of advice I got before the Russia trip was to never EVER ride in a taxi. I was told that driving there is a zoo and riding in a taxi is a sure sentence to a near death experience. Needless to say, that was the first thing we did upon arrival. In order to enter the country without a visa, we were required to purchase a "city bus tour" aka "swerving in a sketchy white van through Saint Petersburg to be dropped off at the center" tour. It was a real welcoming gesture on the Russian's part.

Ironically, the Russian taxi system turned out to be one of my favorite parts about the country. If you stand on the side of the road and hold your hand out, literally the first car to pass will pull over. If they feel like giving you a lift, you settle on a price and are soon on your way, at what feels like an 80 MPH high speed chase toward your destination. We found this service to be extremely helpful en route to and from the bars each night.

Alex and I spent our first day visiting the Hermitage and seeing all the other major sites in the city. There are some truly spectacular and out of place looking buildings. For example, the church below. For some reason, I couldn't get over the fact that it looked like it belonged in a plastic amusement park, but I was seeing it as a real cathedral in real life.

As a whole, I would not consider Saint Petersburg a beautiful city. It has a very industrial feel with overcrowded streets, traffic in a constant state of disarray and practical looking cement style high rise, state-owned buildings. I couldn’t help but have communism lingering in the back of my mind, and it wasn’t hard to imagine what the city may have been like 20 years ago.

There are however, a few random and out of place gems in the city, that just make you scratch your head and ponder. For example, a subway stop with mosaic walls and chandeliers, mind blowing cathedrals built for each of the major churches (yes, I’m still wondering why a communist government would be so interested in building churches) and gorgeous women clad in fur coats, fur scarves, fur hats and high heels.

It wasn’t they type of city I would want to spend a day wandering the streets and taking it all in, but the culture and history definitely made Russia an interesting place that fascinated me. Despite their current “democratic” state, the government is still very corrupt. The police take bribes, elections are rigged and students pay teachers for grades.

It’s hard to believe that just two decades ago everyone had a closet full of the same outfits, each kitchen had the exact same appliances, there were only a few restaurants and multiple families shared a flat with each family in one bedroom. A Russian girl told me about a movie where the main character travels from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, and wakes up in a foreign flat, but cant tell if it belongs to him or someone else, because everything looks the same. Totally believable.

Today, the city is more cultural and has become infused with western staples such as McDonalds, Subway and a variety of coffee shops. The transition process is continually moving forward, but a part of the society still clings to the nostalgic past. This is evident in a giant monument for Lenin topped with the communism star in the city center and the menial jobs that still exist, such as attendants at the bottom of the escalator in the metro and waiting at the top of staircases in public places.

During our three day visit I did see a few “hardened criminals” and begging babushkas, but was also entranced by a society rich in history and culture. I cant say that Russia is at the top of my list of places to return to, but it is definitely one in which I am intrigued by and am anxious to learn more about. 
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Church of the Savior on Blood
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Inside the Hermitage
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Russian Military
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View of St. Petersburg
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Mike, me & Alex
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Communism Star statue
 
 
One of the most interesting and devastating parts of my visit to Budapest was the Museum of Terror. I was debating whether to blog about it or not, but I think it will be good to document my experience and hopefully teach you something about Hungarian history.

The House of Terror is a gorgeous ansturbingly eerie building on Budapest's famous Andrassy Street. It was the headquarters of the secret police during Soviet rule in Hungary. It has since been turned into a museum documenting Hungary's decade of communism. 

The museum takes you chronologically through Hungarian history during the 20th century. Hungary had a very high standard of living and a thriving economy until the wars hit. After WWI, Hungary was left with only one third of its original land. This breakup had tremendous economic, political and social effects, so when WWII rolled around, the Soviets promised the Hungarians the return of their land if they agreed to side with them. This led to an 11 year span of a communist government where thousands were killed, jailed or deported, food was scarce, religion was oppressed and people worked menial jobs.

The museum did an excellent job of setting the mood with music that made your skin creep and dimly lit exhibits. The control that the government had over the people was astounding, and to imagine living in such a society was devastating. 

In 1956 there was a revolution against the government and the popular Hungarian party regained control and established a democracy.

Today, Hungary remains-still  landless-and has made excellent progress moving forward
as a democratic state, but is still marked with many signs of their tragic past. Bullet holes from the wars and Revolution of 1956 lace many of the buildings, the last Soviet police didnt depart the country until the early 90's and the last Hungarian prisoner in Soviet territory wasn't released until the year 2000.

The scariest thought for me is that a society can be running perfectly well, then with the slip of a hand everything can be turned upside down; people are deported, executed, jailed, forced into labor and starving-not something any citizen wanted, but happening merely because of a few corrupt officials. That leaves me with one final question: we go about our everyday lives thinking we have so much freedom and control over what we do, but in all actuality do we, or is  our fate in the hands of the government?