Grand Strategy in Moscow

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Traffic outside of the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski

We’re sitting in a conference room at the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, a 5-star luxury hotel beside the Moskva River. Bottles of sparkling water, notepads, and pencils are all neatly laid out on the table in front of us. To our left is a woman in a sharp, perfectly-cut black pantsuit, vice president of a subsidiary of Gazprom. To our right is a man in a navy jacket with a scarlet silk tie, owner of half the skyscraper properties in downtown Moscow. Stoytcho and I glance at each other. Earlier today, we ate at the cheapest Stolabaya we could find and it cost USD $6.00. Each person’s suit in this room has about the same price as a month in almost any country we’ve visited. How did we get here?

The connection

Ok, let’s back up. Before going on this whole round-the-world trip, I was getting my PhD at Yale University where I met Steve Blum, a Yale alumnus who visited Russia and loved it. Steve, who’s the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Association of Yale Alumni, was excited that we would be visiting Russia and put us in touch with someone he knew in Moscow. “This guy can show you around,” he told me cheerfully. We’ll call him “Guy” because I never know if what I write will get someone into trouble. So we exchange a couple emails with Guy as we’re traveling around the world, and a few days before we hit Moscow we make some final arrangements. He’s hosting a professor as well as us, so we’ll meet Guy and the professor at the State Tetryakov Gallery the day after we arrive. Reluctant to meet a Yale affiliate in stained zip-off hiking pants, we shop for some slightly nicer clothes the day before.

The art gallery

We meet Guy the next day in front of the gallery and he introduces us to John Mearshimer, professor at the University of Chicago. If you’ve ever studied political science, you probably know this name; John’s work is widely taught in international relations and conflict between nation-states. He’s published half a dozen books on the subject. He’s a big deal. Coming from biology, though, I had no idea who he was and took his hand with a blank polite smile.

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A bronze statue in the museum

After introductions, Guy leads us past the line at the museum entrance to a side door. A dour security guard stops us just inside and has an exchange with Guy, whose ID card and explanation placate him. We’re let through. “Do you work here and get to bring guests?” I ask, trying to find out more about our host. Guy responds, “No. I have special status because I paid for the restoration of several works here.” Oh, ok.

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Two visitors read the plaque in front of a painting at the gallery.

Our group wanders through the gallery, trailing Guy who stops frequently to explain the history or meaning of various works. Here is a painting depicting a famous battle, there is a painting showing the great schism in the Eastern Orthodox Church (pictured here), over there is a painting depicting a wedding of serfs. He stops at a painting of two men sitting at a desk with a woman in front of them, “In Russia, we say ‘buying and selling souls’ for the sale of serfs. Nobles would talk about how many souls they owned.”

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This painting depicts serf wedding arrangements being made between families.

Somewhere during the tour, we get invited to the Grand Strategy talks that Mearshimer is giving at the Hotel Kempinski every night this week. “Sure,” I reply, “That sounds fun.” Maybe this is where all my fellow academic nerds will be.

The Grand Strategy

Stoytcho and I show up to the Hotel Kempinski and it very quickly becomes clear this isn’t an academic gathering. For one, everyone is in nicer suits than most academics probably own. These are businessmen and businesswomen, Russian oligarchs here to learn Grand Strategy for nation-states that they can apply to their businesses. They jot notes as John speaks about Grand Strategy in World War II, in the Cold War, and in the Middle East today. Between rounds of talks, they chat with each other over hors d’oeuvres and check their phones busily. They all also speak English, and we’re able to find some to conversations.

We come back almost every night that week for Grand Strategy talks. It’s interesting stuff and John’s a good speaker. Neither Stoytcho nor I have a political science background, but what John says about Grand Strategy and a nation-state’s desire for regional hegemony, to have certainty and control over resources, makes a certain amount of sense. The nation-state simply behaves like a living organism, maximizing its own success in the world, sometimes at a benefit to but often at a cost to other nation-states. In the end, I ask and answer a few questions at the seminar, and feel like I’ve got it. When I tell John, he recommends I read some of his books. I haven’t got the heart to tell him that one his books is the same price as an average day’s worth of food for the two of us.

Maybe when I start my career back in the States I’ll have some pocket change again for a book.

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For some photographic context, here’s the building we’re staying in tonight.

Moscow, the capital

Photos from the the capital of Russia, celebrating the space race, architectural grace, and its ever-growing consumer base.

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A relief of Yuri Gagarin and the scientists who made spaceflight possible at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
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A larger-than-life statue of Yuri Gagarin, first man in space, beside a model of Sputnik, first man-made object sent into space.
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A twist on the traditional Matryoshka at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
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The top of the monument at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
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Spasskaya Tower on the Red Square, one of the ceremonial entrances to the Kremlin.
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Workers assemble scaffolding to prepare for an event in the Red Square.
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The State Historical Museum on the Red Square
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A waxing moon over Moscow’s downtown and the Kremlin.
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Men construct a new bridge across the Moskva River, causing traffic delays.
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A man jogs through a construction zone while on his cell phone.
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A view down the escalators of the Metro.
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GUM, the historic shopping mall on the Red Square, is conveniently located across the way from Lenin’s mausoleum.
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Odd Matryoshkas for sale at a souvenir shop on the promenade.
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A man sweeps the promenade in front of a summer display, part of a month-long festival celebrating artisinal jam and honey.
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Tourists take photos of their ice cream in front a fountain in GUM.
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The Moskva and Cathedral of Christ the Savior at dusk.

Tales from the Trans-Siberian (Krasnoyarsk->Moscow)

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Oil cars at sunset along the Trans-Siberian.

Springing for Splany Wagon

We’re bound from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian, a trip of 2.5 days. We’ve got a little bit in the budget to spare, so we’re springing for splany wagon instead of kupe, so we’ve got a cabin all to ourselves this time. It’s uh, definitely a step up:

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The ticket also includes one meal. Yeah, one. For 62 hours on a train. But don’t worry, now versed in the ways of Russian train travel, we’ve come prepared. We visited a grocery store just before leaving our hostel and used the kitchen to boil potatoes and eggs. We also bought vegetables, cheese, and lukanka for salads and sandwiches, fruit, and a lot of chocolate. Bring it on, Trans-Siberian!

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Yes, those are eight chocolate bars. The best chocolate you can get in Russia (in our experience) is Alpen Gold (common, yellow wrapper) or Kazakhstan (rare, bright blue wrapper)
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Stoytcho finds a home for the bananas where they won’t be squished.

The great unbearable silence

AUGHHHHH. Death by starvation is unlikely in our cabin, but death by boredom sets in fast. The excitement over our Splanywagon cabin lasts for a few hours as we find places for things and settle in for the long ride. The silence follows. We read books, write blog posts, read more books, and organize photos. When we’re done with that, we stare out the window. Though we now pass more towns and cities, the landscape continues to be endless.

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The undeniable boon and bane of Splanywagon is its privacy. With only two in a cabin, you never have to interact with anyone you don’t know, save for the traincar attendant. With my interest in reading and writing exhausted in half a day, I find myself walking the corridor outside our door restlessly, pausing to look out the window. I rarely see anyone and the few people I do see give a half smile and nod before diving back into their cabins. They don’t want to talk.

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So there are no chance meetings, no funny stories here in Splanywagon. There is only the countryside and your mind to keep you occupied. And beyond that, there is the great unbearable silence.

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The anatomy of a stop

As we head westward, we encounter more towns and cities and find the train stopping often. While most stops only last a couple of minutes, the train will stop for anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour at certain major cities. These are the long stops everyone is waiting for.

There are two types of long stop, the short-long and the long-long, and the stop type determines what everyone will do. The short-long is hurried and frantic, as everyone rushes out of the traincar to walk around, buy snacks from kiosks on the platform, and chat frenetically. In the plazcart section, the additional goal seems to be huffing as many cigarettes as possible in five minutes. People try not to stray too far from their traincar and the attendants keep a wary eye out for anyone wandering off.

The long-long is somewhat more relaxed, though it depends on who you are. Most people take the chance to slow their pace of walking and conversation, and the frantic cigarette huffing is replaced with a slower burn. We’re free to wander around the platform, which from end to end can be more than a half a mile long. And we can stare out between the fence at the city we’ve stopped at, watch its people carry on with business in the square outside the station.

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People from our train enjoy a long stop.

Then there are the long-long runners. These are the people who take the opportunity of a long stop to actually go do something in the city. It’s usually a run to the grocery store or liquor shop (though alcohol is not allowed on the train), and you can spot them because as you’re getting off the train, they’re already running through the doors into the station. They’re gone for fifteen or twenty minutes, probably visiting a store in the main square, and return about five minutes before the train departs laden with grocery bags. I have no idea whether how they get through the security and ticket check in that time.

Mailcar

How does mail go between east and west Russia? Well, apparently one of the options is by train. These guys were unloading mail from a traincar at one of our stops, just bags and bags of letters:

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I can’t explain my joy at seeing this, although it may partly stem from the total lack of new things to see or do in the last 48 hours. But the Mailcar is just so cute. It’s labeled as the ‘Почтовый вагон’ or ‘postal car’ and they’ve got a tiny tractor out hauling little carts with packages and bags of letters and everything. I love it.

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Seriously though look at this setup with the tiny tractor and mailcarts. Is it not the best?

A change of scenery

In the last 15 hours of our trip there is a marked change in scenery. We’re no longer in Siberia, with its open plains and pine forests and emptiness. Instead, the scenery outside looks more European, frequent villages and cities separated by small patches of countryside. We’re encountering the ‘дача’, the ‘dacha’ or ‘country home’, something common throughout Eastern Europe. The dacha is the original farm or homestead of a family, kept even when everyone in the family has moved to the city. In the warmer months, it serves as a weekend getaway. It’s also a place to grow some fruit and vegetables, saving some money on the more expensive city produce.

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Cheerfully-panted dachas with gardens.

On the morning of our arrival, we awaken at 4 am and catch the sunrise over the misty countryside. In an hour, the last of the green fields disappear and dense buildings spring up in their place. This is the edge of Moscow.

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Sunrise
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Passing a station on the way into Moscow.

Our train edges in to Moscow’s Kazanskaia Station at 5:38 and we stumble off with our belongings. I have a hostel booked for us, but they’re not going to let us check in at stupid o’clock in the morning. “10 AM”, the attendant at the hostel says, “We can have a room for you then.” We drop our heavier bags and wander out into the 7 AM world, devoid of all but a few people and a handful of cars. We’re unsure of what to do until we spy a familiar landmark in the distance.

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Hey, is that…?

It turns out absurdly early in the morning is a great time to visit St. Basil’s Cathedral. Our only company is a cluster of policemen directing traffic and a handful of construction workers working on the nearby bridge. I am not a morning person, so this experience is possible only because we’ve been gaining hours as we head west. But the morning sun, the open space, and empty streets of Moscow feel good.

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St Basil’s Cathedral and the Red Square, 7 AM. And yes, that is a guy getting a ticket/talking to by a police officer in the bottom right corner.

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