Posts Tagged ‘russia’

Russia: Under Construction

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Dr. Pamela Kachurin is an art historian specializing in Russian and Soviet art and architecture. Having first traveled to the Soviet Union before 1991, Dr. Kachurin has been able to witness the remarkable metamorphosis since then. She has traveled and worked in Uzbekistan, Belarus, and the major cities of Russia. Here, she shares her reflections on how Russia has changed since her first visit, based on her most recent travel to Russia as Study Leader with Smithsonian Journeys.

Smithsonian Travelers at the Yaroslavl Chapel of St. Alexander Nevsky. Photo: Pamela Kachurin.

Smithsonian Travelers at the Yaroslavl Chapel of St. Alexander Nevsky. Photo: Pamela Kachurin.

I made my first trip to Russia in the 1980s, and have returned multiple times over the last four decades. I have been able to witness the dramatic changes that have taken place, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

One need not look any further than simple transactions to track the changes since the end of the Soviet Union. In summer of 1994, barely three years after the Soviet Union collapsed, I wanted to buy a cake to bring to a party I was attending. The bakery door was open, but when I went inside and asked for a particular cake, the woman behind the counter refused to sell it to me. The reason? She was on her break. So she sat there, refusing to sell the cake to me, and explained to me that I would have to wait the 15 minutes until her break was over. Neither of us budged. I waited, and she waited. Finally, 15 minutes later, she sold me the cake.

But in summer 2011, I decided to purchase a watch in St. Petersburg. I found a lovely watch shop in St. Petersburg’s oldest mall, and the saleswoman was cheerfully helpful. “I need a watch, but something less expensive than what is on display” I said in Russian. She shooed away her friends that were blocking the case, and showed me several options, explained their pros and cons, and even gave me a discount. Then she wrapped up the watch, told me about the year guarantee (!) and sent me on my way. The whole transaction took 10 minutes. Progress…

Change in the countryside is harder to notice. Young people still search for mushrooms with their grandmothers; kitchen gardens still grow outside dachas, most of which have no electricity. Poverty is the norm, and human services are practically non-existent.

However, village children will learn English in secondary school, and carry cell phones by the time they reach 14. Churches, once abandoned or destroyed have been reclaimed and restored, and cater to young and old alike.

Traditional Russian homes, with their brightly painted yellow, red, and blue wooden trim, contrast with monochromatic newer homes. Cranes and bulldozers are as common as cars in this country that is most definitely “under construction.”

Russia is a nation on the move, a fact that becomes clear even after one visit. This massive country is dynamic, and its resilient population constantly strives to improve its own lives and the lives of others. Although most Russians hold their country’s history closely, their eyes are not on the past, but decidedly on the future.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Kachurin and here for our Russian adventures.

The Red Army, Chorus that is…

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

The Red Army Chorus, the official performing group of the Russian Armed Forces, includes a mens choir, orchestra, and dance ensemble. While famous for their performances of classic Russian folk songs, they also sing a variety of operatic and popular material. The ensemble began touring Russia in the late 1920′s under the direction of Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov, who also wrote the National Anthem of the Soviet Union. During WWII, the Red Army Chorus gave more than 1,500 performances for troops at the front. The group also runs a choir school and ensemble for boys, which tours with the mens group.

Today, enjoy a video of the Chorus performing “Kalinka,” a classic Russian folk song, where the singer attempts to woo a woman by comparing her to a snowberry, a raspberry, and a pine tree. And they say romance is dead!

Like what you hear? Join Smithsonian Journeys and travel to Russia for a private performance of the Red Army Chorus in St. Petersburg, one of many special elements of our Imperial Russian Waterways tour.

Who’s your favorite musical group? Please share!

We’re One Year Old!

Thursday, January 28th, 2010


A baby mountain gorilla celebrates his birthday in his own way.

It’s the 1st birthday of our Smithsonian Journeys blog! In honor of our big day, here’s an anthropological look at birthday traditions in the United States and around the world.

  • In Russia, children receive a birthday pie instead of an what we know as a birthday cake.
  • In Canada, the birthday kid’s nose is greased with butter. As a result, the child is too slippery for bad luck to catch him.
  • In Vietnam, everyone celebrates at the dawn of the New Year, but the actual day of birth is not celebrated. Each child receives a red envelope with “Lucky Money” to celebrate their aging, and when they are asked their age they respond by using the appropriate symbol to the lunar birth year.

Then there is the United States, where we have parties where the birthday girl or boy receive a cake with candles, gifts, and there is the traditional singing of “Happy Birthday.” This tradition actually started in Europe many centuries ago, when people believed that evil spirits were particularly attracted to people on their birthday.  To protect the person, friends and family would visit to bring good wishes, which evolved into today’s birthday party. Giving gifts chased off evil spirits even more effectively.

We want to thank you for reading our blog and commenting this past year! There’s always something to write about when you travel as much as we do.

What cultures do you want to see us write about on the blog? Share below.

Don’t know where to start? Take a look at our Around the World by Private Jet tour.

An Interview with a Group Travel Expert

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

MaryBeth Mullen is Deputy Director for Smithsonian Journeys. Here, she interviews David Parry about why he loves to travel and his favorite destinations.

David T. Parry is Chairman of Academic Travel Abroad, Inc., an international tour company and study abroad provider. David and his staff have worked with the non-profit community to create cultural travel programs throughout the world, pioneering travel programs to Russia in the 1970′s and to China in the 1980’s. Click here to learn more about David and traveling with him.

MaryBeth Mullen: How many group tours have you accompanied?

A group of Journeys Alpine hikers on a David Parry tour. Photo: David Parry

A group of Journeys Alpine hikers on a David Parry tour. Photo: David Parry

David Parry: I have been leading the Smithsonian Alpine hiking group each summer for the past 20+ years. But other than that I have left the leadership to our team of talented tour managers; they have the patience and energy one needs!

MBM: What is your favorite destination?
DP: There are too many to have just one. From the 1970′s up until 2000 I visited the Soviet Union, now Russia, as well as Eastern Europe, several times a year. Certainly Central Asia, and especially Uzbekistan with its historic caravan cities, is a fond memory. But I also treasure out-of-the way places in Central Europemost recently Eastern Slovakia and the Baroque towns of Kezmarok and Levoca. And Susan (my wife) and I have always treasured our travels in North America and are currently planning to go back to the shores of Lake Superior where we visited two years ago. The Wind River Mountains of Wyoming aren’t bad either! But of course, year after year I end up somewhere in the Alps where there is always just one more mountain or trail.

MBM: What is one key benefit of group travel that you value?
DP: Access. A well designed tour gets one into places that you can’t do on your own or takes you to out-of-way parts of the world. The fellowship of the other travelers often adds to the pleasure.

MBM: Where are you going next?
DP: After the Smithsonian hike in the Dolomites (incidentally, some of the most stunning mountain peaks in the world), Susan and I are going to the Apostle Islands on the south shore of Lake Superior followed by the annual meeting of the National Railroad Historical Society, where we will ride steam trains all over the Mesabi Range.

Whether you are interested in hiking, biking, or adventure cruising, we have plenty of active tours with space still available this summer. Click above for more info.

What’s your favorite outdoor travel experience? Why do you like to travel with a group? Comment below or click here to share your story.