To compound the cold, traveling to Russia from the U.S. had left me beyond jet-lagged, though the dazzling lights all around motivated me to stay awake. The contrast between Russia's somber history and the cheery Christmas colors left me in awe. On my left was Lenin's tomb underneath the towers of the Kremlin, but on my right, Christmas lights still shined over the ornate facade of the GUM department store.
The crowdedness of the highly seasonal market surprised me, both because of the low mercury reading and the fact that Christmas had passed three weeks earlier. Relics of the Red Square Christmas Markets remained, too, with stalls selling matroeshka dolls and chai tea still open and a carousel for children (who were even less bothered by the sub-freezing temperatures than I was) spinning with wild abandon. It made sense that sellers would want to stay in business into the new year, if only for the chance of attracting passers-by like Dasha and myself, as we neared the entrance to GUM
"This was the closest thing Moscow had to a mall during Soviet times," Dasha explained as we went inside, eventually walking up to the second floor to take it all in. "It's shocking, of course, since this is one of the most European buildings (and the least Soviet ones) in the entire city." Built in 1893, the department store is a time capsule with its Russian Revival style architecture and stalwart stores from the 1950s.
The next day, I met Dasha and our mutual friend Tanya for a morning stroll through the Kremlin and a view of the city from Lubyanka children's store. We then piled into Dasha's car for a day trip to Sergiyev Posad, one of the old towns in the aptly-named "Golden Ring" around Moscow.
"I hope you're hungry," Tanya asked as we crowded into a cafe whose walls were papered into Soviet-era kitsch, and where the earthy aroma of beets filled the air. We were having hot borscht, a soup many foreigners believe is only served cold, alongside sweet cherry-filled vareniki dumplings — and, of course, shots of vodka to wash it all down.
It was the very picture you’d expect when visiting Russia in the winter as we warmed up with hot borscht while people bundled in thick fur-lined coats bustled by, and not a word of English being spoken outside of Dasha, Tanya and myself
Over lunch, my Russian friends explained to me that we were technically in another Kremlin. "The word simply means 'citadel,'" Dasha explained. Russians find it amusing that foreigners (and especially Americans) always used the word as if it represented the Russian government. "Every Russian city and town has a Kremlin — Putin only lives in the one along the Moskva River."
Because of my obsession with impressions of Russia from literature and history, I spent a lot of my trip walking around outside, dipping in and out of shops and being wowed by the ornate buildings. Though the one rule about enjoying winter in Russia is to spend as much time indoors as possible. So, back in Moscow, after our day in the Golden Ring, this meant watching a ballet performance inside Moscow's famous Bolshoi Theatre.
I slept surprisingly well in the plush train cabin, to the extent that when I arrived in the city formerly known as Leningrad, I hit the ground running. Well, not quite running: The streets leading from the station to the iconic Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood were literally frozen. I walked like a penguin, as my mother has always said I should do on snow and ice, way back to when I was a kid.
The good news is that, due to my early arrival time, I made it to the courtyard of the Winter Palace before any footprints had been left in the deep snow (which gleamed powder blue in the first light of day) in front of its gold-accented mint facade. The bad news? I still had a few hours to kill before the world-class Hermitage Museum housed inside opened for the day.
As had been the case in Moscow with Sergiyev Posad, I spent my second day visiting St. Petersburg just outside the center, in the small city of Pushkin. My destination here was to visit Catherine Palace, which as its name suggests was the former residence of Catherine the Great — well, one of them.
Although the palace's exterior is technically blue, my snowblindness upon reaching it fooled me into thinking it was a similar shade of sea-foam as the Winter Palace itself. For some reason, I tasked myself with exploring its entire frozen grounds on foot. Horse-drawn sleighs are available for hire (and at a competitive price, due to the historically favorable USD-RUR exchange rate) for a whimsical ride around the grounds. But I wanted to take in all the details of the place, which only a slow procession allows one to do. From the evergreen forests that towered over frozen ponds on the palace's periphery, to the barren trellises ensnared with deadened ivy branches closer to the entrance, the beauty of Catherine Palace is as much about the museum inside — and maybe, the ghost of the Tsarina inside — as it is about the carefully curated landscape outside.
After warming myself up in the museum, I walked back outside and wondered whether Catherine herself ever truly noticed the details that went into the creation of her refuge from the world. Or, whether the sum of the scene spoke more loudly than any of its parts — mindfully selected as each might have been.
I'll be honest: Bathing, mostly naked, alongside naked Russian men was not high on my list when I first orchestrated my travel to Russia from U.S. However, it seemed irresponsible not to sample the traditionally Russian banya bathing experience before I left, if only to warm my body, which was utterly frozen after a week spent mostly outside in January.
Compared with the other men relaxing inside the wood-walled chamber — the interior of which seemed traditional even though we were inside a modern St. Petersburg building — I didn't have much stamina amid the intense heat. Likewise, I very quickly excused myself from the "massage" session (which, due to the masseur's strength and hand size, felt more like a beating), but my stiff and sore muscles were grateful for it.
The silver lining of the experience was the plentiful vodka on offer throughout. Again, I couldn't keep up with any of the Russian men around me on this front either. Still, it softened my perception of a ritual that I struggled to see as relaxing.
However, my first banya was definitely transformative. I was rejuvenated walking back into the frigid air, which felt not only bearable but even refreshing as it had days before in Red Square when I experienced my first Russian snow. Overall, it felt good, which is not a conclusion I ever expected to reach, at least not without a caveat.