New Tretyekovskaya Gallery and Tula

Near New Tretyekovskaya Gallery. The Peter the Great statue was originally Christopher Columbus and meant to be a gift to America.

Last weekend I visited the New Tretyekovskaya Gallery, one half of Moscow’s main art museum that features art from the 20th century on. Like a lot of people I know, abstract and modern art is not really my thing, so I was a bit skeptical going in.  However, it was amazing! Maybe I’m just super smart and mature… or I finally have a general knowledge of Russian history and took a basic art history class at Holy Cross. I didn’t even get annoyed at the abstract art.

An example of Soviet Socialist Realism. A portrait of cosmonauts.

The government demand for art at the beginning of the Soviet Union meant that the artists had funding, but they also had  to stick to a given message and an approved style. Because of that there are a lot of visually stunning and historically interesting pieces, as well as fewer but equally interesting subversive pieces. Socialist Realism is the most famous artistic style from this period, and was meant to idealize the socialist system.

One artist’s interpretation of a communal kitchen
“The Fraternal Kiss”
Inside the Tula kremlin
The restored kremlin walls

This weekend was a quick overnight trip to Tula, a town of half a million people about 100 miles south of Moscow. In Tula, we toured their beautifully restored kremlin, walked around the town, and ate some pryaniki, the jelly-filled spice cakes they are famous for. The highlight of  the trip was probably touring the incredibly grounds of Yasnaya Polyana, home of Lev Tolstoy. There could not be a more quintessential Russian moment than walking around the estate of the great Russian writer while the snow fell… in sheets… in April. I joke! It truly was fascinating.

The long walk at Yasnaya Polyana

But overall, my favorite aspect of the weekend was the time spent with the friends that came with me, one Russian and one American. We spoke half in Russian and half in English, whichever was more convenient or comfortable for the conversation. It was so exciting to feel so relaxed with a language that I sometimes feel that I am in a battle with. Even though I’m always wishing that my Russian was better, it helped me realize that I am proud of the progress that I have made, and grateful for the friends who have helped me get there.

Russian word: искусство (ee-skoo-stva) art

Georgia! (the other one)

View of Tbilisi from the Narikala fortress
Garden of the St. Trinity Cathedral

When you think about “Georgia”, you probably start thinking of peaches and ice tea, not hachapuri and wine. But if you love yourself, you will try Georgian cuisine the first chance you get! From Georgia the country, that is. Before I came to Russia, like most Americans, after the end of the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, I sort of forgot it even existed (sorry Georgia!). But this tiny country of less than 4 million people is worth knowing about.

A futuristic bridge in an ancient city
Georgia is very proud of its unique language which has its own alphabet

I spent 4 days in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, in early March. Not only was the weather significantly nicer than March in Moscow (sunny and in the 50s every day!), but prices are also much cheaper in Tbilisi. Both factors make it a popular holiday spot for Russians. Indeed, because I’m pale and look more like an ethnic Russian than an ethnic Georgian, most people just started speaking to me in Russian! Like other former Soviet countries, Russian is the most common second language among older Georgians, and English is the most common among younger people. Between the two languages, I had no trouble navigating the city. Being able to use two languages in that way was so empowering! Between my two languages, I was able to have great conversations with Georgians, Russians, European travelers, and even several very kind American Peace Corps volunteers (thanks Jacob, and the HC network!:)

Tbilisi’s own leaning tower is part of the world renowned Rezo Marionette Theater, where I saw an amazing show
Grits (sort of) with sulguni cheese in a mint sauce. Delicious! And vegetarian!

One of my favorite parts of Tbilisi was the architecture and buildings. While technically part of Asia, Georgia is much more European in culture. Unlike some of the other European capitals I’ve seen, it’s buildings weren’t destroyed in World War II. And either because it flew under the radar, being far away from Moscow, or  because Georgian-born Stalin held a soft spot for Tbilisi, the decorative details of its buildings were left intact under Soviet rule. It was amazing for me to see pre-war, Soviet, and modern buildings in the city, all with unique Georgian designs. The homes of wealthy merchants were split between many families in the Soviet period, who build a network of rickety stairs and public balconies, giving the many courtyards of the city a Hogwartsian quality (and not just because I think it must be magic keeping those things up!). Tbilisi is a city undergoing rapid change. It is developing a vibrant tourism industry and buildings are being restored all over the city. I felt lucky to be able to see the city when I did, because I think within 5 years it will look really different!

Stairs in one of Tbilisi’s many courtyards. Hopefully structures such as this can be restored to be safe and beautiful
Though sometimes a bit worse for wear, beautiful features are everywhere
A former merchant house made into an “apartment complex” in Soviet times

Georgia is definitely a place I want to return to, and not just for the sun! For the wine and iced coffee too!

Until next time!

St. Trinity Cathedral, 3rd largest Orthodox cathedral in the world

Russian words: Грузия (groo-ziya), the country; Джорджия, the state, say “Georgia” with a Russian accent 😉

A Weekend in Kazan

The new semester has finally started at RGGU. We have only had one full week of classes, while students at Holy Cross are already dealing with midterms! It can be difficult to keep a sense of time without the regular rhythm of the American education calendar. This semester I am joined by Frank, another Holy Cross student, and Sofia, a student from Dickinson College.

Walls of the Kazan Kremlin, in the tower the bell only tolls twice a day

The first trip of the semester was a weekend in Kazan, the capital of the autonomous region of Tatarstan. Kazan is 11 hours south of Moscow by train, but you wouldn’t know it from the weather! As the largest country in the world, cultural blending comes with the territory in Russia (see what I did there?). Kazan is a curious mixture of Orthodox Christians and Muslims, Russians and Tatars and many other people.

The Kul Sharif mosque inside the Kazan Kremlin

The Kazan Kremlin is the only kremlin (fortress) in Russia that has a mosque inside it. The Kul Sharif mosque was destroyed by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, then rebuilt and reopened in 2005 to mark the millennium of Kazan. Our excursion guide also showed us the Orthodox church just outside the kremlin walls, and explained that the bell in the tower of the fortress only tolls twice a day in order to avoid disrupting the Muslim call to prayer.

The beautiful interior of the Kul Sharif Mosque

We also visited the archaeological site of the medieval city of Bolgar. It was once the most powerful city on the mighty Volga River, a significant part of the Mongols’ Golden Hoarde, and the northernmost ancient Muslim city. Now it is a carefully restored museum site which brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to this out of the way part of the Russian steppe.

The ruins of a mosque of the ancient city of Bolgar next to an Orthodox church
The snowy Volga River

Back in the city, we visited the Temple of All Religions, which is more like a giant art project than a place of worship. This building is a labyrinth of halls/chapels devoted to the world’s main religions. It’s a bit of a mess inside, feeling more like an art workshop than a museum, or even a proper building. Significant portions are sill under construction, and there was no apparent floor plan from what I could tell. However, this was one of my favorite parts of the visit. As a metaphor for our struggle to respect one another as a human family is was perfect: messy and beautiful.

One of the tower complexes of the Temple of All Religions

Russian words of the day: церковь (tser-kov) church; мечеть (me-chet) mosque


Inside the Belly of the Beast

The entrance to the Russian State Duma, decorated for New Year’s.

This semester I took an elective course in English about Russian Political Parties. As a sort of grand finale, our professor took us on a private tour of the Russian Duma, the national legislative body. She is an adviser to the Just Russia Party (“just” as in “fair”). It was surreal being at the heart of the might Russian government… which like governments everywhere turned out to be just a lot of offices!

Nevertheless, I’m so glad I went, as it is yet another thing I have done this year which I never thought I would do!

The most interesting part was the displays that the different political parties put up near their office headquarters. I noticed that many of the photos focused on the man who founded the particular party, and that there was usually a picture of the leader shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even for opposition parties, it is best to associate themselves with the president because of his continued popularity.

A display for United Russia, Putin’s party.
A display for Just Russia, a Democratic Socialist party
Literature from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. It says, “Russia-USA; The Russian state as the target of global capital”
Leader of the LDPR in a poster near their offices

United Russia, i.e. Putin’s party, i.e. the party of power, holds the vast majority of seats in the Duma. They thus control laws around campaigning, elections, press coverage of politics, and funding. Because of this silent control, my professor is pessimistic about her own party, or any others for that matter, ever mounting a legitimate challenged to United Russia in the foreseeable future. Her glum attitude and the hollow political displays added to the surrealism of being in a political center that doesn’t have a lot of politics happening in it, at least, not in the way I’m used to.  However, I hope for the best for my welcoming host country, and I feel extremely grateful for the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look. Even if it will probably make the background check for any government jobs I apply for really complicated!

Russian word of the day: голосовать (guh-luh-sah-vat) to vote, from the word golos, meaning “voice”

The Brown Girls Take Moscow!


In front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in red square with my mom


Last week my mom came to visit me! We hadn’t seen each other since August and I was so excited to show her around. Unfortunately, I got a nasty cold almost as soon as she got here. But we tried not to let that put a damper on our time together. We ticked off almost everything on her to-do list (including 3 ballets!), and we were both exhausted after our week-long “vacation”.

About to try Adjarian khachapuri for the first time, which she said was the best thing she’d ever had!

It was good for me to see Moscow and my time here through the eyes of someone taking it all in for the first time. Obviously, as my mom, she and I are going to think similarly about things. But it was also nice to have some things I was thinking validated and confirmed. My mom also thought it was weird that each escalator in the metro has someone employed to watch it…

By the Moscow river, Kremlin in the background

Because my mom doesn’t speak Russian, I did almost all the planning and navigating around the city. Being here with someone who has the same knowledge of Russian that I did two and a half years ago made me realize that I really have made a lot of progress. Sometimes in a city full of native speakers it is easy to be overwhelmed by the mountain of Russian I still don’t know. Seeing how far I have come was encouraging.

Thanksgiving in Moscow

My mom was also kind enough to help me cook a Thanksgiving dinner for some Russian and international friends. We couldn’t find a whole turkey, so we stuffed a big chicken and got a huge turkey leg! Everyone really enjoyed the food, and my host mom made the most beautiful pecan and apple pies that I have seen in any country. We even introduced some new foods; in this land of root vegetables, some of my Russian friends had never tried sweet potatoes! Although it wasn’t an exact recreation, I feel that we captured the spirit of the holiday. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it calls on us all to be grateful for what we have. If I counted my blessings, it would take all day, so I’ll just say thank you to my mom and all my friends, new and old.

Love, Emily

Russian word: Спасибо огромное (spa-see-ba oh-grohm-no-eh) Thank you so much

Buildings of Moscow

Привет все!

I’m sorry for the lateness of this post! I will try to be more consistent in the future.

The Radisson Hotel — one of the 7 Sisters, skyscrapers built under Stalin

Many people are interested in the architecture of Moscow and Russia in general, picture St. Basil’s soaring spires on one hand, and bleak Soviet cinder blocks on the other. Instead of monuments like those found in other European cities, for centuries Russian czars built churches to commemorate victories and other events. Even though many were destroyed during the USSR, Moscow still has over 600 Orthodox churches. The survivors rode out the Soviet period as museums, libraries, and even office buildings.


Destroyed under the USSR, Christ the Savior Cathedral was rebuilt in the 1990s.
A church built by the Romanov family that survived the Soviet era

Last weekend I saw the cathedrals inside the Kremlin complex, where Russian czars were crowned, even while the capital was St. Petersburg. Photos were not permitted inside, but I cheated once 😉

A covert picture inside the Kremlin – Love your favorite Russian spy 😉

In Moscow you will find juxtapositions like no other, with incredible and varied architecture next to just plain ugly Soviet buildings. There is a distinctive style of building from the 1960s called Khrushchyovkas, 5 story panel buildings of tiny apartments. They were Nikita Khruschev’s response to Russia’s housing crisis. At the time, they significantly improved the everyday lives of many Russians by allowing them to move out of communal apartments into their own family homes. Cheaply constructed, most are now falling apart and there have been several proposals in the last decade to tear them down and resettle residents.

A residential building from the 70s or 80s.
A khrushchevka. I stole this from the Internet because I forgot to take a picture, but many of the buildings around me look just like this.

Because it is so expensive to live in the center of the city, there has been a building boom in the “suburbs” of Moscow. I tutor two kids in English who live in one of these bedroom communities, about 30 minutes by metro from my apartment near the center. They live in a modern building on the 25th floor, next to two identical buildings. The complex also has a movie theater, American fast food restaurants, retail shops and more. As someone who grew up in a traditional suburb of single family homes outside Detroit, seeing such a huge building in the middle of nowhere seems just plain… weird. However, the advantage is that everyone has access to a much larger outside area, rather than each home having a small yard to themselves.

A view of the Moscow suburbs from the 26th floor.

Russian word: квартира (kvar-tee-ruh) apartment

Moscow City Day and Sergiev Posad

Привет друзья!

These past almost two weeks I got the opportunity to adjust a bit more to life in Moscow and begin classes. Everything here is on “Russian time”, meaning things like classes and schedules are often not decided until a day or two before, and can take a couple weeks to iron out. This is in stark contrast to Holy Cross’s system of scheduling every student in a whirlwind online enrollment day many months before the semester begins. Other American students that I have met here agree that we don’t know which process is more stressful! But I have appreciated the extra time I get to take in Moscow while the weather is still nice.

For example, last weekend was Moscow’s 871st День Города or City Day. Every Russian city has a tradition where they celebrate the anniversary of their town’s founding. Moscow celebrates by closing off one of the main roads near the center of the city and holding a sort of parade in reverse. Different performances and activities were set up along the street and the crowds walked by at their own pace. My favorite stations were the dance and music performances. Listening to Tchaikovsky in the middle of Moscow was a thrill for my inner geek!

The weekend before last, I visited the Trinity Lavra St. Sergius complex, the most important monastery in the Russian Orthodox church and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My cultural advisor was pretty nonchalant when he told me about the trip, so imagine how I felt when I walked into a place I had seen so many times in pictures!

Inside Assumption Cathedral in St. Sergius Monastery

And later I learned that it is the home of my favorite icon, Andrei Rublev’s The Trinity which I didn’t see! I will be face palming over that forever! Where did a Midwestern girl pick up a favorite icon you ask? From my first-year Montserrat seminar on early Christianity. Thanks, Jesuit education!

The Trinity by one of the most renowned iconographers, Andrei Rublev

I admit, I got a bit wigged out when our guide started kissing the glass over the faces of the bodies of several saints in the Monastery. But overall, I came away with a much deeper appreciation for the Russian Orthodox faith.

The intact body of St. Innocent of Alaska
Approaching the Russian Orthodox equivalent of the Vatican

And to round out the day we witnessed a reenactment of a medieval battle fought at the monastery.

Until next time!

Russian phrase of the day: Боже мой! (Bo-zhuh moi!) Oh my God!

Crash Course or Crash Landing?

Privyet from Moscow!

Don’t worry, that title is not literal. I landed safely in Moscow early Friday morning.

First steps in Russia

Stepping off that plane, I couldn’t be more excited. I was breathing Russian air! Hearing Russian words! Seeing Russian people! I was a bit surprised then, at how “normal” everything seemed. Where was that culture shock? I figured, well, maybe an airport is just an airport, and a city just a city, even in Cyrillic. So far everything does seem pretty comfortable, but every once in a while I crash into something that makes me feel, well, shocked!

A brand new playground in Novoslobodskaya Park

The first time I really felt that I was in Russia was when I was walking around a park near my apartment on my first day and I heard little kids speaking in Russian. For some reason knowing that these kids knew more of the language than I did really humbled me!

Breakfast that Alla made my first day, including traditional Russian kasha

Sometimes I feel like I crash and burn a thousand little times a day, as I try to communicate with my lovely host mother, Alla, in my broken Russian. She patiently listens and helps me spell out words I don’t know into Google translate, but I feel terrible for all the things I know she is trying to say to me that I don’t understand!

This church popped out from behind a steel skyscraper as I navigated through Moscow

However, I’m already amazed by how concepts I struggled with in the classroom make sense in real life. For example, the direction/navigation unit was one of my worst in class last year, but after Alla gave me directions and I consulted Yandex (Russia’s Google), I had an epiphany and I have found everything I needed so far! (I’m no expert though… I got lost and was late for my first class!).

The crash course is going well so far, minus a couple bumps and bruises. There is so much I can’t share in a short blog post, but some topics coming up are: the Cyrillic alphabet, food, architecture, the tourist spots, money, getting to know Alla, and much more!

Увидимся! Oo-vee-deem-sya! See ya!


From Russia With Love

Привет! (Privyet!) Hello!

I’m so excited to bring you along on my big Moscow adventure! If you haven’t checked out the about me section on the HC blog page yet:

My name is Emily and I’m a Russian and Sociology double major from Detroit, Michigan. When I’m on campus you can usually find me in ResLife or on my way to my SPUD site at the Worcester Refugee Assistance Project. I’ve been studying Russian at Holy Cross for 2 years and eventually hope to have a career promoting US and humanitarian interests abroad. My favorite food is mac and cheese and my favorite TV show is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Below is a picture of me looking very tired this morning getting ready to go to the airport!

Emily stands by her house and wears a black and white striped shirt, jeans, and a baseball cap. She is holding the leash of a black Great Dane. She has three suitcases next to her.
Getting ready to go to the airport! Feat. our dog Sadie

People keep asking me if I’m nervous or excited, and honestly I’m both! When I think about it I’m either so nervous my heart skips a beat, or so excited I have butterflies! One thing is for sure, I couldn’t feel more supported between Holy Cross and my family and friends. I spent the last couple weeks packing (and re-packing and re-re-packing) and saying goodbye to everyone I love.

A poster for From Russia with Love, 1963

This post is named after the second James Bond movie, From Russia with Love 1963Made when the Cold War was in full swing, in the movie, Russia is a blatantly evil place, home to beautiful, exotic women and bad guys. Russia still sometimes has that reputation here, especially as it continues to feature heavily in our national news cycle. I hope through sharing my experiences here I can peel back the curtain a bit on this still mysterious country!

Throughout this blog I’ll try to teach you a few Russian phrases. The first one is an important one!

Я тебя люблю. (Ya teb-ya loo-bloo.) I love you.

Talk soon! Emily