Alongside an article in The St. Petersburg Times describing the death and destruction of a fire at a local nightclub ignited due to negligence of fire safety rules during a pyrotechnics show, I read about a movement started by a former St. Petersburg cop to expose corruption in the Russian police force.  Alexei Dymovsky release a You Tube video in which he speaks out against police quotas for prosecutions, and low wages, which he says ultimately leads to evidence fabrication and police abusing their power instead of protecting citizens’ interests. 

“You’ll need to carry you passport with you at all times in case you are stopped by police and asked to produce identification and your visa,” a member of our security team tells us at the company safety briefing.     

“However, be aware that you may be asked to pay a fee or fine, despite the validity of your visa.  The police are very badly paid here, and unfortunately, sometimes that happens.”  

I don’t think I’ve ever been advised to travel with my passport on my body, and as my friends and I Christian the freshly fallen snow on our way to the metro station, I constantly feel my hand wander out of my warm pockets to make sure, that yes, my passport is safely zipped away inside the confines of my shoulder bag. 

There’s really no way it could be anywhere else, as even the slickest of pickpockets would find difficulty in penetrating the multiple layers of clothing barricading my bag from the hands of passers by.  That thing is tightly packed beneath a vest, fleece and a double lined Columbia ski jacket, which I paid about the equivalent of about $30 US, after incessant haggling at the Beijing black market.  That baby’s not going anywhere!

And although this does create an excellent line of defense against street thieves, it’s also causing me to sweat uncontrollably, something I was not expecting to do while in Russia in December.  Thankfully, my high-tech jacket comes equipped with handy “pit-zips,” as my ski bum brother calls them.  “Pit-zips” are long vertical zippers located underneath the armpits of jackets, which when unzipped act as a ventilation system for your underarms.  Genius, pure genius. 

With fresh pits, I walk alongside my buddies towards the Nevsky Prospekt Gostiny Dvor metro stop.  I love this language.  Its harsh sexiness kind of mirrors the majority of the people who live here.  As we pass tall blonde bombshells marching in stiletto boots and men with spectacularly sculpted hair and bodies, I secretly wondered if somewhere nearby a supermodel convention had just let out.  Except none of these people sported the infamous Tyra Banks "smile with your eyes."  Smiles were nowhere in sight.  Just that harsh sexiness.  Ouch, I think one of them just burned me with their stare!    

It's even worse in the subway.  It's like walking through one of Hitler's surreal daydreams.  I'm practically carried by the crowd towards the world's longest escalator with the world's smallest entrance.  Like a really forceful amount of water, akin to Niagra Falls, being pushed through a small funnel, the models encroach upon me, toppling me in their height.  I start to get a little nervous.  Ever since that time when I was five and I caught my shoe lace in the mall escalator, I've been hesitant about any kind of soaring stair case.  

Thankfully, I make it to the top, and our little group heads to the platform traveling to the city center.  Unlike the boisterous amount of noise one encounters when riding the subway in Shanghai, silence prevails in this nearly-empty Russian metro car.  Pretty much everyone is sporting the same harsh, sexy look, and knowing I can't replicate it if any of them happened to glance my way, I decide to focus on the metro line map, whose stops looked like they were written in a kindergartner's made up language, a.k.a the Russian alphabet.  

The silence is starting to get to me, but not wanting to be the obnoxious American, I lean over to Dennis and whisper that I feel awkward.  

"Don't worry, it's only two stops," he says.   

Once we are out again in the snowy wilderness, we wander for a moment before deciding to head in the direction of the onion domes looming in the nearly dark (it's about 2:00 p.m.) sky.  Before we make it all the way there, our mouths drop as we stumble upon rows of doric columns leading to the entrance to the Kazansky Cathedral. 

Wide-eyed, we float inside the vaulted cathedral and take a look around.  At every gold framed depiction of Christ, of which there are dozens, there is a veiled lady with a hanky devotionally polishing and kissing the painting.  There is also a line, championing the line for the Millennium Force roller coaster at Cedar Point on a sunny, summer day, formed in front of one particular painting hanging at the alter.  One by one the devotees approach the painting, whisper their prayers, clean the jewels and gold that surround the frame, and bow three times while drawing a cross across their bodies.  

My friend, Chris, joins the line as a monk begins to chant, the scripture he sings reverberating against the vaulted ceilings.  I explore a bit more and find a sculpture of Christ nailed to the cross, with a crown of thorns and a piece of the a cross in bullet-proof display cases.  I watch men and women light votive candles at Christ's feet as an elderly woman wanders to each alter with a tin bucket and brush, cleaning pieces of wax from the area, and making room for more lit candles.  

I wander back to the line and watch Chris kiss the most popular painting, and then head outside.  Once Chris exits she confesses that all she could think about while she was up there was how many people could be fed if the church sold all the gold and jewels surrounding the alter.  

We decide to continue on our mission to find the bottom of those floating onion domes, which we discover once we reach the building, is actually The Church of Our Savior On Spilled Blood.  Loosely resembling an elaborate carnival tent, this church is absolutely magnificent, and we spend a good 15 minutes taking photos of its facade before reading on a sign that there is an entrance fee, and opting to visit the adjacent park instead.  


In the park we meet Alex, a Russian professor who speaks pretty good English and knows a lot about English culture.  I think I counted about seven times already when he has quoted different Bob Dylan songs.  Wanting to practice his English, he offers us a free tour of a nearby shopping area, and having nothing else to do, we happily agree.  He leads us to a door, and in a very mafiaesque style knocks on the window and waits for an employee to arrive to let us in.  Once we enter, I completely understand the motive for locking the door.  I'm staring at rows and rows of delicate amber necklaces with ridiculous euros.  

"We have to use the euro, you see," Alex explains.  "Inflation changes the ruple everyday, and it is just easier."  We walk through room after room of expensive souvenirs including hand painted nesting dolls, shot and vodka glasses, and hand-carved chess sets.  

Feeling kinda bad for not buying anything, and knocking over one of the nesting doll sets like dominos (opps!), I tell Alex we will definitely come back to shop later in the week, like maybe when we get paid!  

Chris asks if they have any nativity sets, and Alex guides us to another store with similar merchandise.  But this one has free drinks!  Coffee, tea, or for the more adventurous, vodka and berry flavored liquor.  

Alex leads us in a cheer, or should I say "Na zdorovje".   
As we drink and enjoy eachothers' company, Alex asks me if I have heard about the fire in the Perm nightclub.  I tell him I read an article about it in the Times earlier that morning.

"There is not control anymore," he says.  "Under communism there was control.  Now no control.  That's the tradeoff I guess."

After a bit more shopping we say goodbye and thank you to Alex and head to a cafe for some grub.  Although not incredibly cheap, the food is tasty, and pretty reasonable.  By now jet leg had set in, and although it's only half past five, it really fells like it's past my bedtime.  We head back to the hotel for some much needed r & r.  

After a nap, I head out in search of free WiFi with a few friends, and am now typing a blog while sitting at a bar.  Yep, I'm that nerd.  There are bras and ties hanging from a clothesline behind the bar, that I'm pretty sure at one time belonged to generous patrons.  A girl just came dangerously close to spilling a shot all over my MacBook, and this dude next to me is seriously testing my personal space barrier as he leans in to order a drink, but heck, I'm in Russia!  Bring on the vodka!

 Oh yes, and "Born in the U.S.A" dubbed in Russian is currently blaring from the speakers.