“How long have you lived here?” someone asked me on my first night in Moscow. I loved it. It meant that I had managed to get to the heart of things right away.
I ended up at the top floor bar of a fancy 19th century building on my first night in town by having posted on Facebook whether someone knows someone in Moscow. My British friend Pam, who I know from Georgia, did and I was invited along to an expat evening gathering of drinks and Asian food. Many of the people there were educators. Someone tutored rich Russian kids for admissions to US universities and took calls from them even during the evening outing. “Those kids must be very spoiled,” I said to Ellie, who had invited me. She nodded, rolling her eyes.
That day I had already visited the Kremlin. At the State Historical Museum, the 19th century maps of the old empire showed Finland a part of it. Of course I knew this was the case but being in Russia and seeing the visceral proof was chilling. I realized all my grandparents had been born as part of the Russian Empire if not exactly as its full fledged citizens. Something I had never thought about before. I doubt such maps were part of our school curriculum.
I had also taken a free walking tour that morning. Olga, our blonde and energetic tour leader, spoke to us about Ivan the Terrible, the Russian Orthodox Church, the main historical buildings and their renovations. Moscow looked big and beautiful and was in the process of becoming even more so. At the memorial for an unknown soldier, she said “Russia has never attacked anyone, it has only defended itself.” I had just taken a sip from my water bottle and involuntarily spat out the water in my mouth. Embarrassed, I glanced around to see whether anyone noticed.
Coming from Finland we have a different view about Russia’s peaceful ways. But then again from the Russian point of view, when they attacked Finland in 1939 they were just reclaiming the old empire and trying to correct Lenin’s mistake of giving Finland independence in 1917. They succeeded with a lot of the other former small republics that used to be part of the Russian Empire. The failure to do so with Finland positioned us uniquely between the East and the West: culturally a Baltic country, but politically Scandinavian.
A friend who had lived in Moscow recommended I have lunch at GUM when visiting the Red Square. It’s an abbreviation for the Russian “Main Universal Store” and during Soviet times most cities had one. But the Moscow one is the most famous and had a thriving history before the Soviet nationalization. In 1917, it had about 1,200 stores in two floors in an architecturally astonishing building, which looks like some grand British railway stations with its iron and glass structures but combines them with some Russian medieval elements. Its neo-capitalist phase felt strange: showing off the new wealth but with mostly Western brands. Luckily they have resurrected the old Soviet era ice cream, with many people queuing for it but this time not because it was rationed but because it’s so good.
I ate at a GUM cafeteria. The food reminded me of Finland: herring, stuffed cabbage and a lot of dill in everything. While virtually nobody in Finland speaks Russian, the hundred years of history together reflects in the cuisine. As it does in some vocabulary like siemen (a seed) or siisti (clean) that seem to come directly from Russian. We weren’t taught this at school either.
One thing we also share with Russian culture is the sauna, or “banya” as they call it. Of course I sought out one to compare with the Finnish sauna. The famous Sanduny didn’t disappoint though the decorative 19th century stone building is nothing like our wooden sauna huts. I read that Pushkin’s wife used to regularly bathe there, which made its bygone era grandeur appropriate.
The lobby and the dressing room reminded me more of an opera house than a place for bathing. The dressing room had a restaurant, too, with — for Russian standards — surprisingly attentive waitresses. I kept thinking I would love to go back with girlfriends and have bites and beers while going back and forth between the dressing room and the sauna. That’s the Finnish style.
I was surprised to see the Russian banya includes similar branches of birch trees to beat the body with as ours does. While it looks masochistic, the purpose is relaxation as the leaves contain therapeutic oil the beating releases. The sauna was big and the dry heat and the wooden panels seemed familiar: after a year away from Finland I was obviously getting closer.
The odd and annoying thing, however, was that every now and then an older, heavy set Russian woman with sagging breasts came to yell at us in the sauna. I was perplexed. A younger woman saw my confusion and kindly translated that the woman wanted us to leave the sauna so she could cool it off with fresh air. I was even more perplexed as this is unheard of in Finland. Unheard of. But it gave all of us an opportunity to use the many plunging pools. There was a one person barrel which had an old-fashioned wooden bucket above. I climbed to stand in the barrel and pulled the string to release a bucket full of cold water on me. I imagined Pushkin having had one in his country cabin.