The buying power of the crumbling ruble

by Sonja Stark on December 18, 2014

Red Square

When we visited Russia earlier this month, we didn’t think the exchange rate could get any better. It floated between 48-53 rubles to the dollar. We were able to visit museums, restaurants and theater performances in several cities, on a dime. We benefited from the volatility with cheaper hotel rooms, emptier flights and short museum lines. It felt like a win-win for all. We spent less and the retailers sold more.

But there’s a fine line between savvy travel and taking advantage of a country’s crumbling currency. It’s obnoxious to flaunt dollars in an economy that (arguably) suffers as a result of the government that issues that dollar. I’m not an economist but I have traveled in several countries saddled with US or EU sanctions: Myanmar (Burma), Tunisia, China and Israel. Friends of mine have visited Greece, Cuba and Iran. We all agree that trade sanctions fail to change the behavior of the affluent but, rather, hurt the poor.

Case in point, we didn’t see any suffering in St. Petersburg, Moscow or Tula. Instead, we saw a lot of discretionary spending.

In St. Petersburg, we watched fancy, expensive cars like Lamborghini, Ferrari and Bentley parade up and down Nevsky Prospect. In Moscow, we watched consumers line up at high-end shops like Leica, Manolo Blahnik, Mont Blanc and Hermes at the famous GUM shopping mall. In Tula, we were surprised at the proliferation of food chains and franchises, like Burger King, Subway, Sbarro and Domino’s. In grocery stores, consumer goods and frozen foods made by American companies Proctor and Gamble and Mars lined the shelves.

At a quick glance, it didn’t appear that anything was amiss. American investors were still exporting, anti-western sentiments were low and inflation was flat. Despite the Central Bank raising interest rates, people remained positive and many even espoused the benefits of ruling with an ‘iron fist.’

So, should any of these issues hold travelers back from visiting Russia? As long as the Russian Consulate is still issuing entry visas and maintaining low fees, I repeat a resounding “NO!”

Visit and you too will be amazed by the country’s rich history, strong traditions and important contributions to science, technology and arts. Sip tea from a samovar, attend the ballet, savor a classic bowl of borscht, bathe in a Banya and learn to follow some of the Russian superstitions. You’ll save money and decide for yourself if Russia’s darkest days are ahead or far, far behind. Hopefully the latter.

Bentley Dealership

Leica Shop at GUM

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Sharing space with the Russians

by Sonja Stark on December 11, 2014

Memorial Rocket MonumentA Russian face is easily misunderstood. The frozen expression, the indifferent grimace, the deadpan look: it’s easy to conclude that Russians are as frigid as the wind that blows across Siberia.

But, only the stars could be further from the truth.

My last days with friends of the Federation strengthened my appreciation for their kindness, cooperation and good will. Combine that with a trip to the Museum of Astronautics and it’s clear that good relations are critical for science.

As soon as I step away from the Metro, I stand awestruck peering up at a majestic spire called the Monument to the Conquerors of Space. A silver rocket soars into the heavens at a height of 330 feet. The monument was built in 1964 to commemorate the launch of Sputnik, the Earth’s first artificial satellite. The rocket rests on a stream of titanium and a foundation of granite. A statue of one of rocketry’s founding fathers, Russian-born Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, watches proudly from below. I circle around the entire sculpture and then finally find the door to a museum that is (pun intended), out of this world!

Our curator meets us in the foyer. We begin our tour with a brief history of canine space exploration. During the 1950s, the USSR used dogs for sub-orbital flights to test the rigors of missions. Don’t be alarmed, most of the dogs survived and besides, America’s Project Mercury used chimpanzees and monkeys as test subjects.

Special attention is given to the first human to journey into outer space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The date was April 12, 1961 aboard the Vostok spacecraft and the capsule completed one complete orbit of Earth. Original capsules, rockets, space probes and instruments, they’re all on display but in limited English. For a few extra rubles you can take photos of everything.

Other milestones of the Space Age are described through films, exhibits and reproductions: the first spacewalk, the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova), the first multinational manned mission between Russia and the US (July 1975), the list goes on.

Our guide also emphasizes the rewarding joint project of the International Space Station (ISS), a habitable sky lab in low orbit since 1998. Crew members include Russians, Americans, and people from a number of other countries, all conducting laboratory research in biology, physics, astronomy and meteorology. The ISS completes 15 orbits a day. The ISS is an excellent example of advances in science made possible by international partnerships.

Museum of Astonautics, Russia

Museum of Astronautics

Museum of Astronautics

Museum of Astronautics

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Russian rejuvenation at the banya

by Sonja Stark on December 6, 2014

Verik twigsLong before there was a Russia, there was a steam bathing phenomenon called banya. Ancient Slavic people learned that pouring cold water over hot stones produces steam that warms and cleanses the body. Today, we know the ritual has countless health benefits for blood circulation, the immunity system and weight loss. This essential custom is as popular a national pastime in Russia as baseball is in America.

While in Tula, Russia, our hosts treat us to a conventional banya with the three basic tenets: the sauna, which includes both a dry and wet sauna experience, a cold pool and a room for drinking tea. Men and women always bathe separately in public. However, the one we went to in Tula also bore a suggestive vertical brass pole and a studio piano in the men’s part. Hmmm.

In any event, the detoxification begins in the bathhouse or sauna. Hats are often worn to increase sweat production, which cleanses pores. The hat is made of sheep’s wool, flax or cotton. I don’t have one, so I simply wrap my head in a hair towel. Regular banya-goers also bring felt cushions with them to sit on, but cotton sheets or long towels work just as well. Sheets are also used to wrap up in during the tea session. It’s optimal to bathe naked, but, being the proverbial puritan, I wear a bathing suit.

First, we sit in the sauna in excessively dry heat until I can feel the membranes in my nose and eyes shriveling up. At roughly 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit, this activity can be uncomfortable and dangerous for people with cardiovascular problems. 15-year-old Masha doesn’t mind and sits on a higher bench for a hotter experience.

Banya pool

Next, we dash from the sauna and cannon-ball into a refreshing pool. At 75-degrees Fahrenheit, the exhilarating dip is not the typical cold shock I was expecting. Ideally, the colder the water the better the experience. Hardier Russians have been known to endure a plunge in the snow for 60 seconds. The dunk is followed by ten minutes of gossip between the four of us over tea and peeled oranges in the tea room.

We repeat this cycle twice until the best part: the Venik massage. This time, Masha douses the rocks on the stove with water from a wooden bucket to turn the dry sauna into a wet sauna (Parilka). When steam permeates the room, Svetlana, our masseuse provides a unique massage. She lifts the Venik, a bundle of leafs and birch, oak or eucalyptus leaves and twigs and softly pelts me from head to toe. I rotate my body so she can do the same on both sides – including the face. My capillaries never had it so good!

Svetlana uses different techniques for different parts of the body. Near the neck and the toes she presses the Venik against the body in a long wavy motion. Around my face she lightly flutters the Venik allowing only the tips of leaves to touch my nose, lips and forehead. Around my knees and shoulders, she presses the Venik firmly for 2-3 seconds. The sweet torture ends in 5-10 minutes, not nearly long enough. After all, a banya a day keeps the doctor away.

IMG_6246

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Pacifist visits the new Tula Armament Museum

by Sonja Stark on December 2, 2014

Tula Armament Muse

Tula Armament Museum

I am, undisputedly, unequivocally, unmistakably against war, however, even I can appreciate a quality weapons museum when I see one. Tula, Russia – Albany’s sister-city, has such a place and it’s called the Armament Museum.

Inside the unusual-shaped building are five, exhaustive, floors of small arms history, tradition and modern exhibits, unique guns with intricate engravings, and hunting weapons. There’s also a vast display of AK-47s named after the legendary designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, a former WWII lieutenant general (Russians refer to WWII as the “Great Patriotic War”) who died at 97 years of age in 2013.

Other diverse hardware include vintage flintlocks, muskets, shells, mortars, pistols, launchers and yes, even modern-day missiles. If this proves overwhelming for a pacifist, imagine the reaction of a skilled military veteran. For more information, visit: http://www.museum-arms.ru/

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No Horsing Around at the Hermitage

by Sonja Stark on December 1, 2014

Horses in front of the Winter Palace/Hermitage in St. Petersburg

Bring your best pair of walking shoes to Russia if you plan on visiting the the State Hermitage of St. Petersburg. The complex is one of the largest and oldest museums of art and culture in the world. With over 3 million paintings and sculptures, it’s impossible to soak it all in in a day. Rather, pick a wing or a floor that best suits your artistic persuasion and appreciate the particular paintings, drawings, sculptures and antiquities until dusk.

Jack, Isaac, Tarek and myself heeded the advice of Catherine the Great, who started the art collection in 1764: “Praise loudly. Blame softly.” We praised the vast collection of post-impressionist art loudly but blamed softly a tyrannical female monitor for falsely accusing us of using our camera’s flash.

However, if I had used a flash, how does that harm a painting? A built-in camera flash from 8-10 feet away harms the pigments of a painting? I’m dubious.

Outside the Winter Palace (where the Hermitage resides), a horse-pulled troika had no fear of my flash. In fact, I think she smiled right back at me.

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Taking flight to Russia on Thanksgiving

by Sonja Stark on November 27, 2014

Tula

According to Lonely Planet, you need “a sense of humor and bucket load of patience” when visiting Russia. By the same token, both traits are equally important waiting for this stateside Nor’easter to pass. To help defuse the stress of international holiday travel, I overdosed on an early turkey dinner today. All this tryptophan should kick in around the time I board.

ATA board member Jack Aernecke and I are flying to the Russian Federation as chaperones for two Capital Region high school students who won an essay contest earlier this year. The Albany-Tula Alliance or ATA, for short, is a sister-city organization between Albany, NY and Tula, Russia. Each sister city holds a student essay contest every other year, on a topic related to the other country. The two winners of each year’s contest travel to the other city and visit a bit of that country. On this trip, we will be staying with host families in Tula and hotels and hostels in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Next spring, two Russian students will win the essay contest and come in the fall to visit the Capital Region.

For travelers brave enough to visit Russia during the coldest time of year, there’s plenty to embrace. Not only are the flights half as costly, but the Winter Wonderland evokes festive activities in the imagination: horse-drawn sleigh rides (troika), ice breaker cruisers on the Neva River, or ice skating in a Gorky Park, all the while bundled up in traditional fur hats (Ushankas).

And, while it’s cold in the streets, it’s warm in the Slavic banyas. For centuries, bathing has been a vital component to surviving harsh temperatures in Russia. The ritual includes swimming in an icy-cold swimming pool, hopping into a steam room and receiving a soft birch leaf massage. The health benefits include increased blood circulation and softer skin.

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