I had preconceptions. Of course I did. I thought it would be drab. Gray. Godless. Brutal.
And it’s been that way, sometimes. Many times.
But not now.
Moscow, today, is physically, amazingly beautiful.
Red Square — huge, spectacular, famous, and infamous (and actually a rectangle) — is “beautiful” squared. Who knew that “red” in old Russian means beautiful? Who knew that Red Square was not named because of bloodshed or communism but because it is wide and spacious, three times the size of the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square, full of palaces and cathedrals, a real life fairy-tale city?
It was the Muscovites who were the biggest surprise. They work hard. They struggle to make ends meet. They commute too many hours a day. They love their families.
Churches are back in business and tourists are walking where they never thought they would walk. The roads are packed with new cars, Audis and Toyotas. The Metro stations gleam like museums and there is construction everywhere, new buildings going up, old ones being restored.
In Red Square last week, there was a display of old photos showing how it used to be. Packed with soldiers. Host to military parades. Bleak.
I took a picture of one photo, black and white and drab and gray, and I thought, “This is what I expected.” Not a city of blue and green and golden domes and wide-open sky. Not a city full of tourists in walking shoes and brides in white gowns and vendors selling nesting dolls and workers hosing down the streets and putting up bleachers for next week’s International Military Music Festival.
I went to Catholic school for seventh and eighth grade, St. Mark’s in Dorchester. It was the middle of the Cold War, right after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. Every morning I knelt on my desk chair and prayed along with the rest of the class for the conversion of Russia.
Russians were the enemy. They persecuted Christians. They rounded up priests and nuns and burned churches, and if Russians came to the United States, they would round us up and shoot us, too. Russian children were made to spy on their parents. If they overheard their parents praying or saying something bad about the government, they were obligated to tell and their parents would be taken to prison.
Children believe what they are told. I believed all these things.
In Russia, I spent time with historian Andrey Tchuzhakin. I sat with him at a table leading a discussion about life in Russia today and I thought, “This is who I prayed for.” This little boy, now a 63-year-old man, who at the Communists’ beck and call would have turned his parents in to the state.
But he told me, no, this was not true. He had a happy childhood, unaware, as are most children, of politics. He lived with his mother and grandmother and aunt and nanny, because his father left when he was 5. His apartment in Moscow was small, but big enough, he said. He had food and heat and family and friends. And he loved school. What more does a child want, he asked.
He was never afraid of us, of Americans, he said, though he was afraid of war. He sat white-knuckled through the Cuban missile crisis, as did I.
Now the Cold War is over, but politics still separate us. Snowden. Putin’s jihad against gays. The impending Olympics.
I had preconceptions about this, too. I expected anti-American sentiment. I expected a huge military presence. And I expected to meet people who, at least publicly, support Putin’s every move.
But I saw no military, just police officers and security guards, no different from what I see here. And I met people, young and old, who showed no disdain for America and who, like Americans, criticized their government and Putin, openly, and seemingly without fear.
Andrey Tchuzhakin’s childhood was as happy as mine. And Moscow is beautiful.
But it was the Muscovites who were the biggest surprise. They work hard. They struggle to make ends meet. They commute too many hours a day. They love their families. And they don’t always agree with their government.
We are more alike than we are different, in so many ways.