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Blog: Return to Russia

By CNN's Debra Kocher
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(CNN) -- I can tell you that some things in Russia may never change. No more than 10 minutes after we landed, my colleague walked through immigration only to have a male immigration officer query her single status and ask "Why no husband?"

In my day, in 1980, that was a sure invitation to marriage, and an exit strategy out of the Soviet Union. In fact, one of my fellow students, in the four months we were here, did meet and marry a Russian to get him out of the country.

While we waited for our bags, an older gentlemen barked "Ostarozhno!" and I scurried out of the way to avoid a clipped heel from a baggage cart.

But a LOT of things have changed here in the 27 years since I was a student.

There are so many cars on the road (the number has tripled in the last 8 years) that traffic has become a huge problem.

You see Mercedes vying for space with Audis, Toyotas, and Volkswagens. Indeed it is harder to find a Lada or Volga car, the traditional Soviet made vehicle from the 80s, than it is to find a foreign brand. And yet, no matter what kind of car they are driving, Russians still find great delight in challenging pedestrians to a game of chicken when they try to cross the street.

The people seem more open, lighter in some ways, happier, even perhaps a bit friendlier. There is an energy to their step, a confidence in their posture, a speed in their pace that I don't remember seeing in 1980.

Back then workers shuffled along grudgingly, in ill fitting shoes, and rarely looked up to meet a stranger's eyes. OK, I have to admit the eye contact is not a lot better today, or at least not that I've noticed. It took me more than several tries the other morning to get a smile out of a fellow walker at 6am on the banks of the Moskva River.

And the food! Where to begin? Our hotel has a buffet for breakfast each morning that has more fruit and meat on it than I saw in an entire semester at Leningrad State University's cafeteria. And Moscow's restaurant business is vibrant.

There are Japanese, Chinese, Italian, and French restaurants dotted all over the city, not to mention any number of more local cuisines like Georgian.

I ate dinner last night at a small, family owned traditional Russian restaurant -- the first private restaurant started after the fall of communism I'm told. It was charming, and homey. They display artwork for sale from local Russian artists on the walls, offer handmade linens for sale, and support stray animals. At one point, the family's dog wandered in -- slow, old and fat, and totally accepted as part of the scenery. And of course the food was exceptional.

What I also notice is all the advertising on the streets. I can't quite get used to it.

In 1980, the only kind of outdoor advertising you saw was for the Communist Party, and it tended to be red, big, in your face, and pretty stridently pro government and pro The People. Here's what I've seen on the streets this week: a George Michael concert in July, Bacardi's Mojito Lounge, Rolex, and the Miss Moscow competition happening next week.

Another constant presence on the streets - the brides and grooms, taking their wedding pictures and drinking champagne from an open bottle. We saw a young couple at an overlook by Moscow State University celebrating with their friends, walking hand in hand, smiling and happy and ready to start their new life.

Weddings were always one of the bright moments during the communist era. They were a distraction and getaway from the daily grind of Soviet life. They seem just as festive today, but much fancier. And it makes me curious to know whatever happened to my friend who married the Russian 27 years ago. I heard they got divorced within a couple of years, but don't know for sure.

I suppose so many more memories will pour in next week when we head to St. Petersburg.

Next blog: finding Dormitory #6.

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Read the first two installments of Debra's blog: The road to Russia and Life in the Soviet Union.

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Your comments

Debra,

I really enjoy reading the blog on your experiences in Russia. I'm also interested in Russian culture, specifically Russian folk music (I've been playing the double bass balalaika since 1994...well at least trying to play it). I'm curious to know if you ever went to a Russian folk music concert while you were in Leiningrad (now St. Petersburg)? It would be interesting to read what you think of this unique genre of music.

Thank you,

Tom Barnes, San Pedro, California
Tuesday June 26, 2007


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Advertising boards in Moscow: In 1980, the only kind of outdoor advertising you saw was for the Communist Party.

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