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" There was a young man, in Russia long ago..."

-Boney M, Rasputin

Ok, so I'm not really a young man, but I'm not an old one either! Ever since we got to Moscow, I can't get that song out of my head. You know the one; it's from the late 80's, right in the middle of the disco era. It's the one that tells the story of Rasputin, the lover of the Russian Czarina, and how he was killed, etc. The thing is, Moscow is everything you'd expect it to be and more. It finds the historical context of the above song, but it also fulfills all of the stereotypes you have about what a capital this rich in history ought to be like, and goes beyond. From architecture to fashion, Moscow is undoubtedly one of the coolest cities on the planet. The images you have of some backward, disoriented, crumbling place are all wrong. Moscow is urban chic, Channel, Rolex, Dior, furs without the seal huggers, 6 dollar cappuccinos, and Madonna concerts just down the street.

Not joking on that last one - the place we had dinner on the night of our arrival was just down the street from a very swanky hotel, and as we were leaving after dinner, we just caught a glimpse of her leaving for dinner as a handful of screaming teenage girls gathered around the hotel's main doors. We really felt like we were hanging out in the best possible spot at the best possible time. Moscow has a way of making you feel that way I guess. We actually tried to figure out how to get tickets to her show the next night, but everywhere we went we were laughed at because the show had been sold out for weeks. Would have been cool though, eh? Madonna in Moscow...

But she's not the Moscow chick I'm talking about. I don't know what the hell has happened, but the women here are so hot! It's unbelievable. I don't want to sound cranky or anything, but I think it might have something to do with having been in Asia for so long, and there just have not been many tall blond women around (which is my obvious persuasion). I am suffering from severe rubber neck disease, as I can't even focus for long enough to feed myself (and that's saying a lot - ask my parents!). I know it's not just me being weird, because Kristine is noticing it too! Funnily enough, we have the same taste in women, and every time I'm walking into a lamp post, she's doing the same! This is how I'm getting away with this, by the way...

There is a combination of mystique and sultriness that makes the Russian women so appealing. Aside from the fact that they dress very well, many Russian women have high cheek bones, and they carry themselves with an air of confidence that compliments their ice princess auras. When they speak, their deep voices coupled with an almost complete lack of even the smallest smile is intoxicating. Man, I'm in trouble, just like our guide Cameron told me I was going to be... I guess I should have expected no less from a cosmopolitan city, now the world's most expensive I was reading just the other day. Oh well, good thing I have a good looking wife! ;P

Moscow reminds me of Montreal in a lot of ways. The culture is decidedly city focused. The food is pretty good. They hosted the Olympics, and have an oval stadium they don't like. Fashion is paramount. And there is an ever present knowledge that winter is coming - sometime. The streets have that slightly European feeling, dotted with maples and birch trees, and there are many grand historical buildings. Red Square is superb; maybe the best square in the world, with St. Basel's magnificent and colourful cathedral at the southern end. Today we toured the Kremlin where many churches and palaces have been rescued from soviet deconstruction, and viewed the fantastic collection of Russian artefacts in the armoury. It really was one of the best collections I have ever seen, especially the royal carriages which are all in fantastic condition. The Russians certainly spared no expense when it came to the royalties of the past. I also went to look at Lenin's embalmed body, along with the burial plots for Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov, and countless other Soviet icons.

Yet the history is tumultuous, with many different phases, ranging from the developmental medieval times before the conquest by the Mongols, to the many years of feuding princedoms, to the two Czarist dynasties, To Napoleonic invasion, to revolution in 1917, to two world wars (incidentally, the Russians call WW2 the Great Patriotic War, almost nullifying the presence of the rest of the allies in the battle against Nazi Germany - history here is decidedly positioned to say that the Russians alone beat the Germans), and finally to the rise and fall of soviet communism. Yesterday, I heard that the Russians paid off their national debt. How have they rolled so convincingly with all of these punches?

It's amazing that the culture has remained relatively intact through all of this. Perhaps all of these bloody events provide the justification for the Russian psyche. No one smiles, and it is considered bad form to be too happy. If someone asks you "How are you"? The answer is never "fine" or "good", but almost always "normali". Normal. Ah yes, great soviet style emotions. "My emotional state is normal, thank you." It's also a very bad thing to whistle indoors - bad luck or something. One can never be too glum you know. The weather is pretty grey too, which probably doesn't help. Yet, the modern Russian culture is so very attractive, almost dignified in its posture towards the rest of the world. Today, they are once again their very own people, not trying to rule the world, but just trying to be the best they can, like the rest of us. I heard a great one from the G8 summit earlier this summer in St Petersburg. Apparently George Bush was commenting on the overall progress of democratic reform in Russia, and that some things could be going better. Putin responded that he did not want to develop a democracy like America has developed in Iraq. It is this wry sense of humour, but at the same time, great sense of independence and purpose, that I admire so much about the Russians. Reminds me a bit of the Canadian approach actually. And oh yeah, they can also pronounce nuclear properly, even with that thick accent and all...

Night train to St. Petersburg tonight, after exploring the subway system. The subways here are like art museums unto themselves. Many times voted the best system in the world, a ride anywhere in the system costs just 15 roubles (60 cents), and trains arrive continuously in less than 3 minutes, usually under 2. It moves over 9 million people a day, and is by far the most efficient system I have ever seen. Again, shades of Montreal. It makes the sky train in Vancouver look like one of the Matchbox car kits I had when I was a kid. When the Russians do something, they seem to do it right the first time. Let's hope they keep it up.



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