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Greetings from Russia — where soup constitutes an entire meal, where the mullet is still an acceptable modern haircut, and where no one laughs at or lectures you on the relative uselessness of a University degree in Literature.
Famous russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko.
It’s hard for me to put into words how weird and exceptional this place seems to be. Five weeks is an incredibly short amount of time to distill twelve hundred years of history into a single letter, but I wanted to drop you a line to tell you the things I saw, heard, and smelled; the people I met (and at whom I did not smile, I will explain it later); and the delicious (and poisonous) things I ate.
Russia, Moscow. Bolshaya Ordynka street after reconstruction.
People walk with a resolute focus and a stern look on their face. Not unlike any other major city like New York, but there seems to be a certain palpable unwillingness to notice another human being when one is walking in Moscow. That’s probably why the street cleaner ladies here are wearing fluorescent orange vests — I notice them all over the place. And not two hours go by without a street-cleaning truck passing by. Spraying water and brushing away the snot-spit and cigarette butts that litter the avenues.
Yes, people do smoke here. Smoking at the bus stop, smoking on their bicycles, smoking back-to-back singles on a park bench with their girlfriends. If you ever wonder how tobacco companies make their money now that cigarette smoking is worse than child-murder in the United States, come to Russia — you will realize this the first time you see a hot 40-year-old woman and later find out she is only 26-years-old.
As an aside, spitting seems to be some sort of national pastime among a certain subset of Russian men. Like a baseball team without the hitting, fielding, throwing, and catching. Only the Tajiks (who are the Mexicans of Russia, apparently) seem to not spit on the ground. “Because they have to clean it up,” my wife observes.
Getting back to the friendliness of the Russians, I can say that there was a recurring theme going on. I would casually dismiss all Russians as rude and inconsiderate, when some (usually rough-looking) man would do something exceptionally nice and courteous for my family (hold a door, for instance), and then I would instantly feel sorry that I had felt that way in the first place.
On our first full day in the Moscow suburbs, we — my wife, my son, his grandmother, and myself — go for a walk. Out the front door of the apartment, around the corner, down along the canal where the signs warn the civilians to not swim in the water, past heavily-cologned joggers, and old men reading newspapers on benches.
Oh look, someone is swimming in the canal. Right next to the “Do Not Swim” sign. Some old man — naked save for his incredibly inappropriate thong bikini underwear — breast-stroking through the brackish water deemed unfit by the Russian authorities. Even the ducks are appalled. At this point, I’m thinking of the Russian teens who climb outrageously high buildings for no particular reason — a nation of takers of unreasonable risk. I again think about life expectancy statistics, and look at my son in his stroller. He has somehow managed to remove his shoe and sock and now sleeps peacefully among the wildlife and illiterate senior citizens swimming in the muck, one foot naked in the somehow delicious Russian air.
We walk along a trail connected to the canal system, up the stairs with metal guides for bicycles and intrepid stroller-pushers and look out over the locking mechanism that controls the levels of water on a footbridge that connects the two sides of the canal. A bunch of Russian toughs who look like they got their fashion sense from the Jets gang in “West Side Story” smoke cigarettes and eyeball me. I do not smile and give them the best “don’t fuck with me” stare a man can give while pushing a stroller.
One of the hooligans starts to walk over towards me and I start to think of how I might have to fight the three of them all by myself.
Rat-tail haircut boy mumbles something to me in Russian without smiling. I snarl at him — see, I am not smiling — as he walks past me.
“What did he say?” I whisper quickly to my wife. What the fuck did he just say?!?
My wife knows the look in my eyes and says quickly, “He says your son has lost his sock, and wants to make sure you know that in case he is cold.”
I look down at my clenched fists, and I feel instantly ashamed.
“Please stop smiling at people; this isn’t America where everyone is fake to one another.” So said my wife on our first day in the Moscow suburbs while we were out walking our son in his stroller. Up to that point, I’d greeted every person I saw with a smile and a nod — par for the course for any polite boy raised south of the Mason-Dixon line in the U.S. To do otherwise would just be rude and uncivilized.
What did Jack White from the White Stripes say about moving to Nashville? He wanted a city in which to live where, should he drop to the ground from a heart attack, that strangers would come rushing to help him. Well, that same heart attack would prove deadly on the streets of Moscow. Every unsolicited smile I doled out was met with great suspicion at best (unless directed at an attractive female), and open hostility at worst (smiling at Russian men in general I found to be a quick way to get your ass kicked).
I would learn later that this lack of initial openness is not cruelty or rudeness, but a preventative measure to conserve a precious finite empathy that we all hold inside us. To the Russian, kindness and sympathy are too valuable a commodity to share with unreliable strangers. The idea that one should share this precious finite thing with every stranger on the street is inconceivable to the Russian.
“Here, strangers are strangers. Friends are friends,” explained my wife. But once you’re deemed a friend, man these people are some of the warmest folks I have ever met in my life.
The suburbs here look like any other metropolitan suburb: the avenues (with very hospitably wide sidewalks) are lined with shops and cafes, trams ride up and down the street, families stroll with their kids, old men sit on park benches and argue about old man things.
But it’s the sheer number of parks and benches that strike me. You can’t walk a hundred meters (three hundred feet for the Americans reading this) without encountering some sort of shaded park with a fountain, or swings, slides, and playgrounds for kids. And the benches — the benches! — never have I witnessed a culture so dedicated to just hanging out, sitting idly and thinking.
Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure. Moscow.
There must be some math equation that correlates the number of park benches in a given city to the number of vacation days given by the average employer in said society. [For the Russians reading this: in America, there are very few benches at all anywhere, and no one uses any vacation days. We are inexplicably proud of this, too. This is because the people who founded America were Puritan assholes who thought that God would not let you into heaven unless you put in massive amounts of overtime for your boss. Thankfully, the idea of proudly renting your life away did not catch on in almost any other country on Earth (hi, Japan!)].
What was it that Graham Greene said about travel? “The only purpose of travel is to see your home with new eyes?” Graham Greene might not have said this, but I will attribute it to him anyway. On this trip, it struck me: relaxing and savoring life are two of the most revolutionary of revolutionary ideas in the United States. American hospice workers will repeatedly tell you that no one wishes that he or she worked more on his or her deathbed, however very few Americans seem to care about what hospice workers have to say — they’re too busy working.
However here in Russia, where the life expectancy is almost a full decade shorter than in America the mental calculus seems to favor bench-sitting and life-savoring. Even if that life-savoring involves vodka and several back-to-back chain-smoked cigarettes.
What was that old joke about Communism? The people pretend to work, and the State pretends to pay them. Well, it seems like fewer and fewer people are even pretending these days.
Having failed at my first real interaction with the Russian public, it was decided that my initial time might be better spent in the relaxed country setting of our family’s dacha, or “country home.”
Luckily, thanks to Kia we were graciously provided with our own car, so I didn’t get to experience the railways stations and suburban trains. It was explained to me that I should be very happy about this.
When you finally get out of Moscow — not an easy feat considering the traffic and madmen drivers — you drive along this newly built road that is nearly totally empty and everyone drives like in Mad Max.There’s no speed limit on the road so far, so we had a chance to join the madness and make sure our Kia Cerato is doing pretty good with pretty high speeds. None of the toll booths are even built yet, so at the toll plazas you just slow down, dodge the concrete thwarts that they built, and continue on your way. A cab driver once joked that by the time they get the toll booths ready, the road will be so destroyed by all the drivers it won’t be worth paying the toll.
Then it’s miles and miles of thickets of birch trees. Flying into the city, you notice this immediately. Any major city in America — LA, Chicago, New York, DC — there are tons of suburban residential planned communities everywhere. Houses and ballparks and strip malls and Walmarts. When you fly into Moscow, there is just forest surrounding the city. Miles and miles of dense forest.
Not our dacha
The beauty of this natural atmosphere so close outside the city cannot be overstated. It looks like the rolling hills of West Virginia and smells twice as sweet. Wildflowers explode along the roadside, the skies are effortlessly blue, and birds and barking dogs are the only things you hear for miles in any direction.
I spent my first night at dacha getting drunk with my Mother-In-Law on various infused vodka rocket fuels, eating pickled tomatoes as vodka chasers, and bungling through my horrible Russian in an attempt to talk to my gracious and inviting new relatives.
The days at dacha were languid and stretched out for hours. On a background of vibrant green — of apple trees and raspberry bushes, of daisy patches and pine trees — I raked the grass and chainsawed firewood, went for walks with my wife and Son, and sat and read about Zapotec indigenous practice while my Son napped quietly in the shade. A lightening storm the likes of which I had never seen in all my life lit up the sky one night. It was a sight to behold.
If there were a Heaven, the dacha would come damn close. But maybe in Heaven there would be something more than soup for lunch.
Russians love this whole soup thing for lunch. I ate every kind of soup at lunchtime in Russia. Borsch, olive and hot dog soup, okroshka, mushroom soup, beef and barley soup. You name it. Everyday when lunch was served, I knew it would be soup.
Still from the movie “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears”
It took some getting used to.
Also, instant dessert. Russians, what is up with this whole instant dessert thing? At every meal, I was hardly done the last bite of my meal when a cake or some cookies — or cake and cookies — were put in front of me with a steaming mug of black tea.
“The neighbors have invited you over for a traditional samovar tea this afternoon.”
I’m not great with new people. What was that line that Bukowski said? “I don’t hate people. I just feel better when they’re not around?”
Well, that’s me in a nutshell. So I wasn’t instantly excited about being Jack the American spokesperson all afternoon around people with whom I didn’t know and with whom I did not share a single bloodline or common language.
This would prove how stupid I can be sometimes. Needless to say, my Russian samovar experience was perhaps the greatest day I’ve had in a long time. And the dacha neighbors were perhaps the nicest people I met in Russia the entire trip.
While the samovar heated up, I was asked inside their dacha where I was shown a “pechka” and offered the opportunity to dress up in ridiculous Russian traditional accessories and pose for pictures. Although I felt a little bit like a clown, everyone had a laugh and I figured that any opportunity to elicit Russian laughter would be like some strange rain-dance paying off in the Sahara Desert. Handshakes and backslaps all around; Hell yeah.
We were then shown the banya and I was offered a chance to sit in a hot room and whip myself with leaves whenever I wanted. Duly noted.
When the tea was ready, we all sat down and I learned something very quickly. “Tea time” in Russia is code for “let’s get the American shitfaced wasted before the Sun goes down.”
I could never have been more grateful.
Some tea, elegant toasts, vodkas — different vodkas!,more toasts, a slice of cheese here, a piece of dried salami there, another tea, another vodka, another toast. Oh, chocolate! I picked up a piece from the bowl, already woozy from the booze.
“No, no… here, try this one,” said one of my hosts as he handed me a different chocolate. He smiled a mischievous smile at the man to my left as I reached for it. My side of the table — the side with the men — got quiet.
I unwrapped the chocolate and popped it in my mouth, bit into it, and more vodka poured over my tongue, coating it in a chocolate-alcohol extravaganza. All the old guys laughed.
“Pure vodka in the middle!” one said and exploded in laughter.
Vodka-filled chocolate, I shit you not. And you know what? That shit was delicious. It was like after the Second World War the Russians decided to screw with the Germans further by culturally appropriating a delicacy that Germans hold dear, filling it with vodka, and making it even better. No lie, I could eat a box of that chocolate right now.
As the Sun set and the tea cooled, we talked about our family histories and what I thought of Russia.
I thought Russia was Heaven right then. Soup or no soup.
As I mentioned before, I had to experience driving in Russia myself, thanks to the sweet ride so graciously loaned to us by Kia. The ride was smooth, and not once did we manage to get into one of the ever-present fender-benders one sees on the roads around the city.
The traffic itself was mitigated by the comfort of a brand new responsive car, where our son slept through (almost) all the notorious Moscow traffic jams (and this, I should say, is a very important issue for every young parent who savors every single extra hour of silence). However, this silence for me was enhanced by my favorite music collection from my iPod that I could just connect directly to Kia’s stereo – that helped me a lot to disengage myself from the surrounding chaos.
The traffic in Moscow is horrible. Bumper-to-bumper, diesel-belching, cigarette-smoking, misery-inducing traffic. Six lanes merge into two here; there, a guy on some ridiculous Harley-Davidson decides he wants to split lanes (on a Harley!); a stoplight that seems to take a full thirty minutes to change to green forces cars to line up for a half-mile just to wait. Beggars on the intersection corners with signs. Women with pictures of their dying kids. Veterans without any legs. I think about Baltimore.
Moscow, Russian Federation. Traffic at Sadovoe Ring at night
Like everywhere else in Moscow, the beltway and highways are packed with both ends of the wealth spectrum. Mirror-painted Mercedes SLKs bump shoulders with four-cylinder Ladas, which run on a gas mixture that seems to be a low-octane blend of permafrost and fermented human feces. It’s a shame there aren’t more muscle cars here. Though I did see a couple of very nice examples of American classic cars.
Speaking of octane, you can’t get gas that’s less than 91 octane in Russia. Thus I was excited to find out how much it would cost to drive around here. Gas prices seemed very reasonable and the Kia was using it so conservatively, that it hardly made a noticeable dent in our travel budget.
We were headed for our apartment, but we needed supplies for the week. So my family decided to travel to what was easily the worst place in Russia. It could possibly be the worst place I’ve ever been in my entire life.
Ashan. God, I hate Ashan. Billed as “The Sam’s Club of Russia,” it should just be called “Where to shop with hundreds of jerks.”
Once parked and inside, it was a teeming mass of unhappy and oblivious people pushing carts past and into one another. This was all without making even a hint of eye contact with anyone and seemed to be some sort of passive-aggressive game to see when the first murder would happen.
Someone’s cart in your way? Push it out of the way! Why? Because fuck your cart, that’s why. Someone waiting for you to move out of the way? Well I was here first damn it, let them wait!
A seventy-year-old woman pushed her cart into me to push me out of the way so she could see the fish better. Folks brush up into you without a hint of remorse and keep walking. No isvenitye. Not a God damned word.
And you know why everyone at Ashan acts this way?
Because there are no guns in Russia. Say what you will about America’s gun culture, it at least prevents people in America from acting the way Russians do when they go shopping at Ashan.
There is little fear of being shot by your fellow Russian in Russia. In fact, there is some sort of pact, some kind of cultural agreement that all Russians will treat each other piss-poorly in public. So no one gets upset at the countless insufferable little indignities that make up your average day shopping for corn flakes in Russia.
And the sad part is, I can’t figure out which system I like more. The “has guns and is courteous and kind in public” or the “doesn’t have guns and everyone agrees to be low-level assholes to one another.” Each system has its own benefits and drawbacks.
My wife points out that urban Russians behave this way because of a psychology of scarcity.
When Americans lionize the Russians for their sturdy ability to weather hardship, we are praising their ability to withstand periods of intense scarcity.
“So if there’s just one pair of shoes for your kid on the shelf, you are going to do everything you can — everyone else be damned — to get those shoes for your kid. You’re going to act entitled and push someone out of the way with your cart to get your kids those shoes.”
And I think that’s what bothers me so much about going to Ashan. It’s scarcity behavior — it’s trying to bowl over your neighbor for a stupid pair of shoes — in a store with absolutely anything anyone in the world could possibly want or need. There are shoes for everyone’s kids at Ashan — Hell, there’s even a damned Adidas store next to the in-store Kentucky Fried Chicken!
How these people ever got together and killed a Tsar and his entire family without being able to say “Good morning” to strangers, I’ll never know.
Now this is what I’m talking about. I saw two black guys talking downtown and wanted to go up to them and say, “Hey man, what the fuck are you guys doing here in Russia?” and then I heard them speaking Russian to each other instead of English and my head almost exploded. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to hearing black folks speak Russian.
“Neither will Russians,” my wife wryly observes.
Downtown Moscow is freakin’ great. Fine-ass women in sundresses everywhere, theaters and statues of great writers, black BMWs all lined up outside the Duma. Cafes and elegant parks, Stalinist architecture, the long boulevards that I remember seeing packed with tanks and missile launchers from the parades on the news when I was a kid. Businessmen in well-tailored suits wearing snakeskin Italian shoes; gangsters, wannabe gangsters, and parking attendants. Speaking of which, finding a place to park in downtown Moscow is a serious challenge. We managed to put to good use the rear-facing camera and the “oh shit you are about to hit something” alarm, thoughtfully installed by Kia engineers.
Anyway, despite a sometimes very difficult transport situation, we would end up seeing lots of things in and around the city — we would even get a chance to tour a diesel Russian attack submarine! Here’s a wrap-up of some of the highlights.
The changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier was great. It’s remarkable how similar both of our “unknown soldier” tombs are and how seriously each country takes the responsibility of its care and upkeep. Except for the Sbarros and McDonalds restaurants directly across from the memorial. That honor distinctly belongs to the Russians.
God, and I love all the Nazi-stomping references. They are all about Nazi-stomping here. Hell, it’s even engraved into the main statue outside Red Square:
It’s hard to imagine Stateside. As they say here, “And you think you won World War Two.”
In the States, we lost fewer than a half-million people total during the second World War. The Russians lost over twenty million people. Twenty million people.
Think about that the next time you watch “Saving Private Ryan.”
A doctor, a fantastic writer, a huge fan of Cervantes — Mikhail Bulgakov was always close to my heart. The stairway leading up to his apartment is almost as impressive as the apartment itself.
I am so grateful that the Russians chose to memorialize him this way. Expansive graffiti. A bottle of booze left on the windowsill. The apartment as it was when he lived here. I thought to myself the entire time I was here, “I have to re-read The Master and Margarita as soon as I get home.”
My wife and I had one of our first dates in the US at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. So we had to come here to complete the experience. This place did not disappoint at all. What a fantastic place for a space-nerd! Or anyone, for that matter. Highly recommended.
As always when I walk through a museum like this the thought never leaves my head: What if we were never enemies during the Cold War? What if we decided that our energies could be better spent building rocket ships together so that we might travel outer-space as a human collective and not competing tribes? But also: What if the fact that we were enemies drove us to both achieve so much? Should I be grateful that we had such a competent and knowledgeable adversary so devoted to the coolest shit imaginable?
Then I see the tubes of meat — TUBES OF MEAT! — for sale at the cafe. Tubes of space meat and single-serving tubs of overpriced Pringles potato chips. This place seems more like America everyday…
My wife says, “It’s funny; I’ve lived in Moscow for years and I’ve never gone here.”
So we went. And it was pretty great. The atmosphere of the market itself is damned surreal. Paint peeling off everything that was painted, the smell of meats cooked over open flame, a giant cartoon elf watching over us. Pirate ship stairs.
Vendors selling all manner of ridiculous things. KISS matryoshka dolls. Dead stuffed animal heads. AK-47 banana clips and rifle scopes. Stacks of fake US hundred-dollar bills. Birch canes and elaborate chess sets. Vinyl LPs of all the modern classics.
With a set of anti-American soviet posters and an unexpected gift for our son from one of the vendors, we were full of sheesh-kebab, tired but happy, and headed home still thinking about the incredible paintings we should have bought.
One of the highlights of my trip. Probably the best place — along with the Metro — to people-watch in Moscow:
Yes, I am coming back to Gorky Park. When I am old and dying, I will sit on a bench with a pencil and paper and just sit on one of the benches here — smoking as many cigarettes as possible. Maybe by then someone might come up to me and say, “Jack Millston? The American writer? I scrolled through your awful ‘Russian Impressions’ blog post on my smartphone while I was on the toilet once!”
And then I’ll nod and wistfully feed the pigeons. I will not smile.
Russian guys seem to all want to be tough-walking gangsters. If we are all the roles we play, every Russian man seems to want to play some version of Steve McQueen.
No one smiles at one another here, and least of all men. But I learned the secret to greeting Russian men as neighbours on the street. I call it, “The Steve McQueen 20% Smile Rule”.
An unknown man will greet you in Russia if you — as another man — nod your head as you furrow your brow, as if to enlist him in some future fight together against a common foe. At the same time — and this is important — you smile at no more than 20% of your normal smile. Do not show your teeth. Give him your best “Steve McQueen Smile.” And almost every time, he will give you a “Steve McQueen Smile” in return. If he doesn’t, glare at him like you want to kill him. This seems to be respected here.
Also, Russian men win the world handshaking competition. I’ve traveled the world, and I’ve shaken a lot of hands, and the Russians win. The greatest place for meaningful handshakes is Russia.
The handshakes are solid, no nonsense, double-pump handshakes that convey the perfect 50-50 blend of “you can count on me” and “don’t fuck with me.”
Where Russian dudes fail is at chivalry. There needs to be some sort of air-drop of chivalry manuals or samurai codes.
Russian guys aren’t knights. If you see a guy serenade a girl with a song, or even just hold the door for her — it’s a safe bet he’s not a Russian guy. As the women say here, “If he beats you, he loves you.” Fellas, do you really want that to be your international advertising banner?
I’ve seen eligible guys push ridiculously hot women out of the way in the Metro. Russian guys, stop doing this! All your women keep saying, “There are no Russian men anywhere.” Of course there are! You’re just too busy pushing the hot women out of the way in the Metro instead of holding the door for them and asking them their name!
(I still blame Ashan)
I remember my first experience that lead me to believe all the propaganda of my youth to be a heaping, steaming pile of bullshit. Intro to Russian Language in college during the late nineties.
Up until that point, I was taught that all Russian women were East German swimmers. Testosterone-filled brutes who could heave a shotput like a tennis ball, who smashed beercans on their forehead and could out-drink Karen Allen’s character in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Suffice to say — and gratefully so — that this stereotype did not play out in real life.
We had this teaching assistant — a young, petite woman in her late twenties — who would wear these sundresses in the summertime with nothing but insubstantial underwear underneath. And if you sat on the west side of the classroom opposite the window with the ten o’ clock morning Sun, every so often you would catch a glimpse of her perfect naked body.
I never missed a class. And I never trusted the hearsay reports of foreign women ever again.
These types of stories are what continue to propel the global stereotype that Russia has the most beautiful women in the world. Although that’s totally true, because I married one.
But I honestly don’t think that there is this gigantic number of gorgeous Russian women in relationship to the general population — I think the rate at which exceptionally beautiful women occur in Moscow happens at the same rate as it does anywhere else in the world. However, the top five percent of beautiful Russian women are hotter than the top five percent of beautiful women anywhere else. I could easily believe that after visiting Moscow.
With all that said, I did note to one of my Russian friends that “yes you have incredibly beautiful women here, but a lot of them seem to be very high on their own farts.”
He laughed and agreed. “Like in South Park?”
Like in South Park.
One thing I love about Russian women — they stare you down. You could be married, spinning your wedding ring with your thumb, pushing a stroller, and walking down the street and a woman will still stare you down as she walks past in her half see-through sundress.
You want to know why Russian women are so great? Because you can talk to them about Chekhov on a first date and they’ll be amused that you thought it would be an inappropriate date conversation topic.
When anyone in the world asks me what the United States has given to the world, the two easiest answers are “rock n’ roll” and “the bacon cheeseburger.” And Moscow does the bacon cheeseburger justice sometimes (at the American 50’s Starlite Diner) and sometimes not (at the spray-mist hipster Strelka).
But what I truly loved here were Russian things. Most Russian food was healthy, delicious, and amazing. And some Russian things were just God damned awful. Below are a few of my favorite and not-so-favorite things I tried in Moscow.
Not my most favorite things:
D, thanks for reading. I know this letter has been the longest letter any American has received since perhaps the Civil War.
I came here to meet my family and to get to know Russia. What a place; what a baffling and interesting place. I honestly — and this is the truth, not American marketing-speak — I honestly did not want to leave the place. It is so complex and so unintentionally hilarious (Hi, 11-year-old Russian kid with the “CANADIAN GIGOLO” t-shirt on!) that I could stay here and write for a much longer time. Theirs is a culture with much to be proud of. But there is so much that I do not know and even more that I do not understand.
There are so many things that make Americans and Russians so similar: both people sit in their cars thinking they are totally invisible, and therefore pick their noses in plain view of everybody else in traffic; both types of people look like total narcissistic self-involved morons when they use selfie sticks; both types of people express the same mixed look of shame and self-hatred as they quickly walk past a homeless beggar without giving the person even a glimpse of their eyes, much less the change in their pocket.
I am definitely coming back to Russia; the place has its hooks in me now.
And it was my family and my new Russian friends who were all so gracious and open-hearted to me while I was here that made Russia such a truly exceptional place. Never have I felt so welcome in such a strange place where I have never been. Even if every person I met shot me the same incredulous look after they asked me if I liked Moscow and I replied, “I like Moscow a lot.”
I could never thank them enough for all they did.
Moscow, I will see you next Summer.
Your humble — eternal — friend,