"If I were you, I would not go to Russia," was the advice my accompanist Mikhail gave me concerning our upcoming trip to his former country. Having escaped from the Ukraine shortly after the Chernobyl incident he was understandably wary of the former Soviet Union and felt he was doing me a favor cautioning me not to go, but the Russia we entered in June of 1996 was a fascinating place filled with history and beauty and well worth the few trials (mostly culinary) that we encountered as tourists.
Of course, there was the morning we needed to leave Russia for Armenia where Paul would rehearse the world premiere of his second piano concerto. I had worked out the tour so that we could stop in Paris and Stockholm and fly safely on Air France, but the only route from Moscow to Yerevan, Armenia was, sadly, on Aeroflot. I had heard whisperings of the mess Aeroflot was in and believed every word of it. But since there wasn't a choice, we left Moscow early one bright sunny morning and were taken to the wrong Sheremetovo airport. Because we looked like tourists, we were taken to the airport that flies to Europe, the States and Asia but when we realized that we needed to get to the other airport (with the same name) that flies to internal locations in the former Soviet Union, a five mile distance from where we were, there was a cab driver ready to scoop thirty dollars out of our pockets although we'd paid in advance to be taken to the correct location.
To our great horror, as we pulled closer to the correct airport there was an Aeroflot jet burning up in flames on the runway in direct view of anyone approaching the airport! I looked at Paul in shock with the idea that this definitely counted as a bad omen and that we should have stayed in bed that morning, but he announced that the bad luck had already happened and we'd be perfectly safe flying. Which we were.
And there was that other morning we returned from Yerevan and needed to be in transit from Moscow to Stockholm and discovered that there isn't a concept of " in transit" in Russia for tourists trying to travel on their own. Granted, I had organized an insane day of traveling from Armenia to Moscow to Paris for a three hour stopover on our way to Stockholm, because I always try to make the most out of any traveling and see everything there is to see. We were told at the airport gate that we'd have to wait for the American consulate to open in five hours (after our flight had departed) and that we'd have to spend four more days in Moscow while a visa was processed since we'd entered Russia illegally. I tried to calmly explain that we'd tried to get a visa valid through the date we needed to set foot briefly on Russian soil in transit but were refused because we would not have a hotel and thus no address to fill in a blank on the Russian form. I was assured at home by our travel agency that this would present no problems ( a travel truth: if anyone says "no problem" you can be sure the opposite is true) but there we were at the Russian Air France counter being told that we were to be imprisoned, well, detained, another four days in Moscow.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) the ugly American in me swept up through my body in a ball of rage and seething with anger at the stupidity of bureaucratic nonsense I set forth on a noisy and vicious tirade at the top of my lungs. The poor workers at the counter looked at me as if I'd lost my mind and cautioned me to put my luggage on the standby counter and to take my chances on getting through passport control. Clearly, they did not think I'd get through without a valid visa and did not look forward to my return. My heart sank as I approached the passport control counter and spied a woman at the desk. I tend to count on feminine charms to get me out of bitter messes such as this but I'd have to rely on old fashioned good luck this time. Handing over every little piece of Armenian paperwork in my possession along with a copy of my reservation at a hotel waiting for me in Stockholm I tried to explain to the passport woman that we were in transit and so on. She took a good look at me, shook her head, and to my great joy stamped our passports and we were out of Moscow within the hour.
Anyone who says that times are not changing in Russia should take note of this true story. A dozen years ago we might still be waiting in the Moscow KGB office where they say one has an excellent view of Siberia.