I don't like the idea of group travel and have never wished to join the bewildered souls trooping through museums behind a guide waving a little flag. But some months ago, seized by the desire to go to Russia, I followed up on an ad promising 10 days for $2,000, including air fare from New York. Only three other people, however, had signed up for the tour. If we hated each other, we'd be trapped, like the characters in Sartre's "No Exit" -- "Hell is other people."
Day 1. Dave and Judy, early retirees from civil service jobs, and Ruth, an energetic 74-year-old, find me on the plane. We discover that we all voted for the same presidential candidate. Sartrean visions of hell begin to fade.
Day 2. At the Moscow airport, Irina, an attractive young woman in jeans, meets us with minivan and driver. Our hotel, the Ukraina, has grumpy desk clerks, clean rooms, and a depressing Stalinist aura. Irina leaves and we decide to walk to Arbat, an area known for bohemian atmosphere. In search of a famous Modernist house, I lead the others down a blind alley into a group of stoned and menacing young people. After dinner at the hotel (smoked salmon followed by leathery pork cutlet), we'd like to go to Red Square, but it's a 15- to 20-minute drive. We succumb to fatigue.
Day 3. Irina takes us on a rapid tour: a glimpse of the Kremlin and St. Basil's, the Bolshoi Theater, Lyubanka prison, Gorky Park, ravishing gold-domed churches and hideous Soviet monoliths, ending at Novodevichy Convent, a bucolic enclosure with old churches, famous graves, and a cloister-prison for seditious female aristocrats. At the Pushkin Museum, in the afternoon, Irina insists on beginning with the mummies, so we all desert her. I head for the Shchukin collection (Bonnard, Cezanne, Matisse, and more), then to the Gold of Troy, the fabulous cache unearthed by the archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Later, we all meet at the exit, where Irina stands smoking and looking offended.
"It seems you didn't need me," she says sulkily. She takes us on a tour of the Metro, where there's art of the Socialist Realist variety. In one station, Ukrainians in glossy tiles rejoicing at their annexation by the Soviet Union; in another, Lenin in stained glass like a medieval saint. This is the very metro system in which Moscow takes such pride where a recent terrorist attack killed at least 40 people and injured others.
Day 4. Under a threatening sky, we walk around Red Square, Krasnaya Ploschad. "Krasnaya" means both red and beautiful, and in fact everything is red, beautiful, and rather menacing. Irina says that Ivan the Terrible, after building St. Basil's with its nine red, green, and gold domes and towers to mark nine victories over the Tatar-Mongols, had the architect's eyes put out so he could never again build anything so beautiful. The Kremlin, a vast walled area, contains palaces, government buildings, the great bell tower, and the monstrous Soviet Hall of Congresses, squatting on the site of demolished churches. Of those that remain, the most fascinating is the gold-domed white Annunciation, its cavelike interior glowing with icons and frescoes by Theophanes the Greek and Andrei Rublev.
At the Armory (czarist swords, robes, gold and silver vessels), I like best the Cap of Kazan, Ivan's little pointed golden hat bordered with sable. We miss the hours for viewing Lenin's corpse.
"Why keep it?" I ask.
"To remind us of our mistakes," replies Irina soberly.
In the afternoon, I vote for the Tretyakov icon museum, but the others prefer GUM, a glass and steel shopping arcade, where I console myself with caviar sandwiches in a snack bar. For $25, a taxi with a rigged meter takes us back to the hotel, where we're to meet Irina to go to the Moscow Circus. I beg off; later, the others complain of mistreated bears and incomprehensible jokes.
Day 5. We're driving 113 miles northeast to Vladimir and Suzdal, medieval towns of the "Golden Ring," not entirely sorry to leave Moscow's confusing mixture of beauty and ugliness, its bad food and grim faces. In the United States, I tell Irina, even strangers sometimes smile.
"If somebody I don't know smile at me, I feel insulted!" she replies indignantly. "I think maybe my clothes look funny."
In Vladimir, we see the 12th-century Golden Gates and several great churches, including the exquisite small Intercession, a white stone cube elongated upward and topped by a single black dome shaped like a teardrop. We're to be lodged for the night in Suzdal, in log cabins on the grounds of the Pokrovsky Monastery. Over fresh sturgeon in the refectory, we speculate about the relationship between Irina and Yuri, the driver, who huddle at their own table in a cloud of smoke.
Day 6. Suzdal's spires and domes rise from churches in pairs, a small "warm" church for winter, a grand "cold" one for summer. The Nativity of the Virgin has midnight-blue domes starred with gold; its stunning 13th-century Golden Doors are among the treasures of medieval Russian art. At the outdoor Museum of Peasant Life, there's a log church with billowing domes made of nut-brown shingles.
Back in Moscow that night, we get the train for St. Petersburg. The berths are clean, each with mineral water, snacks, and a little toothbrush, but Ruth is terrified of going out into the corridor to the toilet in her baby doll nightie.
Day 7. Our new guide, Galya, has a strange hairdo, with a lock falling over her left eye and glued to her face. Does she have a black eye, a birthmark, a hole in her head? She takes us to the Pulkovskaya Hotel -- comfortable but not central -- then west to Peterhof, Peter the Great's summer palace. It's Versailles by the sea, with fountains cascading down to the Gulf of Finland. With felt slippers over our shoes, we slide around the parquet floors looking at tapestries and furniture.
Lunch is delicious mushroom blini, served by a scowling waitress at a restaurant near the line where the Germans laid siege for 900 days while a million people died of starvation and disease. Reminders of suffering, inflicted by Tatar-Mongols, French and Germans, czars and communists, are everywhere.
No wonder people look angry.
Founded 300 years ago by Peter the Great to open Russia to the West, St. Petersburg is, according to Dostoyevsky, "the most abstract and intentional city in the world." Pastel neoclassical faades, mostly faded now, line the banks of the Neva. We see the Admiralty with its gold spire, Decembrists Square where a czarist massacre occurred, and the Bronze Horseman, the statue of Peter the Great that symbolizes the city. We admire churches: the pale-blue Smolny, the spectacular Church on Spilt Blood, and gold-domed, overdecorated St. Isaac's. Galya recounts the history of everything, including the shoe factory, until we fall back exhausted in our minivan seats. That evening, we relax in the hotel restaurant, where the waiter, looking over his shoulder, offers tins of caviar hidden under a napkin for $10.
Day 8. At the Hermitage, Galya points out the staircase where the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, then says, "Now I show you only masterpieces." She waves a wand with a pink bow, like Bo-Peep, and we troop after her through Rembrandt, Leonardo, El Greco, Van Dyck. Over sandwiches in the cafe, we vow to stay.
"You won't." Galya looks at us darkly through her hair. "You're too tired."
But we do. Stumbling through a maze of masterpieces -- Bellini's "Judith," Titian's "Repentant Magdalen," Bronzino's icy "Cosimo di Medici" -- I come upon the Hidden Treasures, 74 great French paintings taken from Germany in 1945 and concealed for 50 years.
Day 9. Beside each wretched cell in Peter and Paul fortress hangs the photo of a bearded inmate, among them Gorky and Dostoyevsky. Under the gold spire of its Baroque church lie the tombs of Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra. Later, in the Yusupov Palace, creepy wax figures depict the murder of Rasputin where it happened.
At the Russian State Museum, the others say "No icons!" and go for pizza. I'm miles from the hotel, I'm low on rubles, and I suddenly recall that I don't speak Russian. Then comes a burst of exhilaration. I'm on my own at last, it's a sunny day, I have dollars, and I've learned the Cyrillic alphabet. Fortified by a little cabbage pie, I find the icons and fall in love with the meltingly beautiful 12th-century "Angel with Golden Hair." Afterward, I shop for amber necklaces on Nevsky Prospekt, where Dostoyevsky's Underground Man raced about on his mad errands. At an exchange window, a police guard points his machine gun at me, recalling the guidebook's warning about the dangers of Russia, including the St. Petersburg police. I wander around Ostrovsky Square, where people eat, drink, play chess. Finally I negotiate a $10 taxi ride to the hotel.
Days 10-11. After visiting the reconstructed Amber Room at the Catherine Palace, we take leave of Galya at the airport, never having solved the riddle of her hairdo. An hour later in Helsinki, we're surrounded by smiling blond Finns saying, "Hey! Can I help you?" Although at times everyone could be annoying -- Judy picked through her food, muttering "What is this?", Dave considered gaudy St. Isaac's the aesthetic climax of the trip, Ruth interrupted the guides, I wandered off -- we got along. Now I want to fly back to Petersburg alone, stay near shops and cafes, go to the ballet and the Dostoyevsky museum, learn Russian. Instead, of course, I get on the plane for New York with the others, pleased with all I was able to see and do in 10 days.
Elizabeth Dalton teaches literature at Barnard College and is the author of "Unconscious Structure in 'The Idiot,' " a psychoanalytic study of the Dostoyevsky novel.
How to get there
The well-organized tour I took was run by the Russian Travel Bureau, which now does tours only for groups of at least 10. The bureau can be contacted only through its website, www.russiantravelbureau.com. My tour was $1,999 plus a $300 single supplement. That included air fare on Finnair and everything else except lunches, tips to guides, and spending money. Tours organized by the Russian National Tourist Office accept individual travelers. Its "Golden Ring" tour resembles the one I did and costs about $3,000, depending upon the dates. Hotel rooms and other arrangements also can be booked at www.russia-travel.com.
Russian National Tourist Office
130 W. 42d St.
New York, NY 10036
877-221-7120 or 212-575-3431
Where to stay
21 Kutuzovsky Pr.
Big, clean, and charmless, with two restaurants. Rooms have private baths and refrigerators. Although it's in central Moscow, it's a 15-minute taxi ride from Red Square. $164-$170.
6 Varvarka Ul.
Enormous, with more than 5,000 rooms, nine restaurants, a pool, and shops. People complain of getting lost inside, but it's next door to Red Square. $108-$318.
1 Pobedy Square
A comfortable, modern, American-style hotel with a decent restaurant. Rooms have refrigerators and well-appointed bathrooms. A 15-minute taxi ride from the center. $188-$230.
Ligovskiy Prospect 10
Centrally located. $182-$304.
Offers lodgings in comfortable "isbas," peasant-style log cabins, and is a beautiful place to stay. Its refectory is one of the best restaurants in the area. $238-$378.
What do to
Russian museum schedules and glimpses of their collections can be seen on their websites.
Take some of your travel funds in US cash, including at least 50 one-dollar bills for small purchases, tips, etc. Major credit cards are usually accepted.