I’ve been trying to figure out a way to chronicle our recent trip to Russia in this birding and photography blog. Is it absurd for me to liken birding to strolling through the famous Tretyakov Gallery of Moscow and The Hermitage of St. Petersburg, observing the works of the masters? One does note the frequent depiction of birds in the various art forms; that, along with the typical European urban birds comprised the totality of my Russian birding. Even so, it was a trip for the ages.
You’ve heard all the cliches. Travel breaks down barriers and biases; it broadens one’s horizons, it dispels misconceptions; it makes the world smaller. All are true. My preconceptions of Russia could not have been more wrong. “You’ll find it cold and bleak” they said. The food will be barely edible and the people rude. The streets will be littered and the gardens unkept. Instead we found exactly the opposite, at least in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Warm sunshine and blue skies graced our entire 10 days in Russia. I’ve not seen more immaculate cities than these, with numerous green spaces and gardens in perfect springtime bloom. The old palaces and churches sparkled and spoke to their rich history, now more unabashedly celebrated in post-Soviet Russia. I sampled beef stroganoff to die for and feasted daily on exquisite cuisine to rival any in the West, from an intimate dinner with a friend at the Moldavian Embassy to the extensive morning brunch at our Metropol Hotel.
I’m well aware of our significant geo-political differences with Russia and vividly remember with you, hiding under our school desks in the 1950’s, drilling for the unthinkable. Winston Churchill described the country as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Today’s Russia is a definite improvement over that, but significant opportunities for progress still exist. Global politics and current events, although interesting, are thankfully beyond the scope of this post.
We hired two delightful guides, one in each city, to shepherd us around the cities and surrounding countryside. These were young, impressive, Russian women, proficient in multiple languages, and highly knowledgeable and proud of their city’s history, architecture, culture, and artwork. Both Inam Khasanova and Eugenie Cantor are highly recommended if you ever venture to these cities.
The vastness of this country, the largest on the planet, is difficult to grasp. While standing in Moscow at Red Square one is equidistant from the country’s east coast city of Vladivostok and Chicago, USA to the west. Our visit obviously sampled only the two great cities and only viewed the rural landscape between them from a train’s window. Moscow (Muscovy, MOCKBA), the ancient kremlin, dates back to 1147, while St. Petersburg (Leningrad, Petrograd) on the wide Neva was more recently founded by Peter the Great when he captured the Swedish fortress near the Gulf of Finland in 1703.
Birds figure prominently in the artwork of the countless galleries and palaces. The gilded two headed eagle is ubiquitous, supposedly symbolizing a multicultural country that geographically and politically straddles both Europe and Asia and their numerous ethnic groups and histories. My favorite picture is “The Rooks Have Come”. It depicts returning rooks heralding an early spring thaw on the frigid steppe. “Boy With A Crow” and “Hunters At Rest” were actually seen at the Finnish Gallery in Helsinki, but continue the birds-in-art theme. One depicts a budding bird watcher while the other may explain the paucity of game birds on the steppe. So, tak, I believe one can bird while in museums.
My actual outdoors birding in Russia was informal and meagre, primarily occurring while walking from church to palace, through the great formal parks and gardens. I was forewarned about wandering through the city in early morning with binoculars and telephoto lens. That advice was probably an unnecessary caution and limited me to shots of the usual urban birds with the walk-around camera and lens.
Still I did notice a flock of swifts flying among the colorful domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral at Red Square. Since the only Russian swift is the Common, I was able to claim a new life bird, the first of many eventually seen later in this trip in Finland, Estonia, and Norway. I also stole a few private moments birding the informal, tranquil gardens of Tolstoy’s modest home and in the small park just across the street from the Metropol Hotel and Bolshoy Theatre.
I asked our guides if there was a book they would recommend to a visitor to more fully understand their country and people. They recommended “And Quiet Flows the Don”, written by Mikhail Sholokhov in 1934. This Tolstoyesque novel of rural Russia depicts the lives of Cossacks in the early 20th century as they pass through relative peace, into WWI, the Russian Revolution, and finally the White vs. Red Civil War. It’s a wonderful story of mixed loyalties and torn families, struggling through the global geopolitical upheavals of their day. Add to that the later Great Depression, Stalin’s purges, and the horrors of the Eastern Front of WWII, and one gets a more complete picture of these people.
A trip like this does not just happen without considerable planning and research. We did not take the common path of joining a tour group, but actively made each hotel and dinner reservation, hired guides and drivers, and bought every train, plane, boat, museum, and concert ticket. More accurately, Fred and Mary, our intrepid travel companions did all this work, and we went along for the ride–and what a sublime ride it was.