Getting to know russia.. books to read ?

I just got my Russian visa today and i’am super excited about it. For a long time it was not very sure if i’d get to travel to Moscow or not. But I’m not going to bore you with details and i cant tell you how excited I’m about going to this unexpected place.

Growing up, i had a strong connection to Russia. I remember all the book fairs in my school where most of the books would be from Russia. Stories about Tzars, valiant peasants, princes and princesses they were similar to any other fairy tales i guess, but i loved reading them and all the illustrations that came with the books. My grandfather in chennai also had a strong bond with Russia, he knew a little Russian and kept lots of Russian novels and magazines.

So that was then, long back before we got MTV and Discovery channel. Russia slowly faded away and replaced by a new found obsession with everything american. Not that anything is wrong with that, just that i know very little about russia now.

So before i travel, i’am planning to pick up a few books to read about the country, its history and its people. Ideally i prefer to read a story (either fictional or non-fictional) set it some particular time/place. And any background information can be usually found on wikipedia. Books like Wolf Totem, Kite Runner and Seven Years in Tibet come readily to mind.

So, here’s my short list of books on russia.. suggestions are welcome and the list is likely to grow a bit bigger over the course of the next few days.

My friend also talks highly about “Inside the KGB” but the review’s i’ve read on the net are not so great. Anyway, i think i’ll borrow it from him in Beijing, if he still has it.


28 Aug 2009

Top 5 Christmas ice rinks

Classic cities. Christmas. What a cocktail!

Our London office have been talking Christmas cities, and just couldn’t stop thinking about ice rinks.

Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere just wouldn’t be the same without wrapping up warm, pulling on those ice skates and, dependent on ability, either sailing glamorously across the ice or gripping tightly to the railings before falling flat on your face.

Whatever your skills, you’re spoilt for choice come December. These are our favourites:

Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower Ice Rink

Falling over aside, ice skating conjures an air of romance and the Eiffel Tower is perhaps the most romantic setting imaginable. Open until mid-February this is the place to come with a partner for classic views and a smooch on the ice.

New York’s Rockefeller Center

Rockefeller Center Ice Rink

Synonymous with Christmas, New York knows how to put on a show and the Rockefeller Centre is no different. Probably the most famous ice rink of them all, this is a fantastic place to come and soak up the New York holiday vibe (though take US editor Robert Reid’s word of advice: save the skating for January if you don’t want to pay a premium and are keen to avoid queues).

London’s Natural History Museum

The Ice Rink at London’s Natural History Museum

Set outside one of London’s most iconic buildings, the Natural History Museum’s ice rink is one for the family. Visit in the daytime, head into the museum and visit the dinosaurs, then join the Christmas crowds out on the rink.

Narvisen, Oslo

The ice rink at Karl Johans gate, Narvisen, Oslo

Oslo’s Narvisen outdoor ice rink sits at Karl Johans gate.  It’s a natural rink and you can skate for free here whenever it’s cold enough to freeze over. Due to the cooler weather conditions, this rink is usually open for a longer time so if you miss out in December and January, you’ll have until the end of March to skate here most years.

Gorky Park, Moscow

Ice Rink at Red Square, Moscow

As you might imagine, Moscow has plenty of ice skating spaces available in winter. Gorky Park almost becomes one big ice rink with frozen over ponds and icy tracks running across the park. Make the most of it by hiring not only skates but some cross-country skis too.

16 Dec 2010

Remnants of Russia’s past

In front of the Central Pavilion of Moscow’s All-Russia Exhibition Centre sits a statue of Lenin.

It’s a blazing hot August day in Moscow. At street-level, Muscovites are strolling around in shorts, linen slacks and minimal summer frocks. Yet in a gloomy netherworld beneath their sandals and stiletto heels, the temperature is a constant 18°C and the subterranean silence is punctuated by the drip of water. ‘Mind your feet,’ says Olga Arkharova, as she steps over an underground stream.

Here, some 65 metres below the sundrenched streets of Moscow, lies a disused communications bunker. Like some Cold War bat cave, it was accessible only by a reinforced lift shaft concealed within the false front of a seemingly ordinary building. Its workers, who were sworn to secrecy, could have survived down here for three months in the event of a nuclear attack. Since 2007, the 7,000-sq-metre site has been a museum. ‘This isn’t just part of Russian history,’ says Olga, the museum’s director. ‘It’s part of world history. It shows how close we came to nuclear war.’ The sound of a passing Metro train rumbles through the bunker’s walls.

Above ground, Moscow has changed almost beyond recognition, but in Bunker 42, there is still the fleeting scent of another era. The rotary phones are clunky, the lifts and stencilled warning signs have a slipshod look. Here it is: the militarism, the sturdiness, the kitsch, the strangely uniform aesthetic that shaped a continent. Here, at least, remnants of the USSR are intact.

A generation is coming of age that has no recollection of the Soviet Union: its menace, its inefficiencies, its idealism. And yet the USSR was, inarguably, one of the defining entities of the 20th century.

The strange red empire that slipped away 20 years ago this Christmas had, among other things, its own smell. Cheap, cardboard-tipped Soviet cigarettes called ‘papirosa’ perfumed the arrivals halls of Moscow’s airports and were ubiquitous throughout the city. Now, like much else about the USSR, they have disappeared.

For St Pete’s Sake

Fireworks at Kremlin & Red Square, Moscow
Something wasn’t adding up. Catherine the Great’s coronation dress in the armoury museum at the Kremlin in Moscow had me gaping in surprise like other tourists around me. The garment’s waist was miniscule enough to make even an anorexic ramp model feel wide. Yet a few days ago, I had seen a portrait of the very same Catherine on a horse in the Hermitage at St Petersburg and there her cylinderical build definitely screamed Mrs Jaya Sawant. The handsome white horse also looked burdened. After becoming queen at 32 in 1762, the good life had taken Catherine the Great from hour glass to ‘open the double doors so that the queen can pass’. In St Petersburg, there’s ample proof that Catherine had lived large. In fact, the wealth in the Hermitage, Catherine’s private museum where she hoarded all her art and jewellery, could easily equal the GDP of a small country – twice over!
Vodka and Weddings

I had arrived in St Petersburg aboard a Globus coach on a road trip from Warsaw to Moscow to find the gilded city preening under a lovely summer day. That first day my coach co-travellers and I went for a canal cruise. St Pete’sb was often referred to the Venice of the east thanks to its canals. We floated past the Church of the Spilled Blood and the Peter and Paul Fortress. Most of my co-travellers, taken in by the festivity of the moment brought about by tambourine tapping, fair and lovely dancing girls, knocked back vodka shots like there was no tomorrow. So at disembarkation, there was much swaying even though the boat had already docked. Many could see eight gangplanks instead of the one. They, of course, crawled into their beds and called it a night. Massive hangovers were waiting to be delivered the next morning. But my five friends and I were bbuzzing with energy and started off on a leisurely walk around St Petersburg. Summer is a joyful time and there were many marriages taking place. Newlyweds gleefully ran on the streets fuelled by romance and champagne followed by tittering best men and bridesmaids. This mirthful entourage would usually be followed by a much harrowed photographer desperately trying to get that perfect shot to freeze all this gaiety for posterity. All the city’s architectural marvels were lit up. At the Victory Square behind the Hermitage, the revelry of the White Nights (as this time of the year is called) showed no signs of abating even at 2.30 am. Musicians played and fireworks went off.

On Nevsky Prospect, the city’s popular for-km-long thoroughfare, cafes spilled out onto the pavement. Laughter, music and the tinkling of glasses floated out of each. We felt fortunate to be part of this revelry during the best time of the year in this pretty city of the Tsars.

Big Macs near the Kremlin

Taking the train to Moscow was a good idea. The five-hour journey in the plush first class cabin of the Aurora Train gave me much needed blank time between sightseeing in St Pete’s and the Russian capital. Moscow’s most popular tourist site is the Kremlin – once the nerve centre of Communism. Tourists wander where Stalin once ranted. The State Armory with its collection of period garments, carriages, weapons and jewellery is open to tourists but the guards are fussy about letting cameras in. They let compacts through, but my big SLR was barred. Five hundred meters from the Kremlin is the popular Red Square. I did a double take as I saw Lenin headed towards the huge McDonalds right opposite the Kremlin. My first thought was that he had risen from his mausoleum close by and was storming to this most blatant sign of capitalism to deliver some stern ‘commie’ ideology. It was actually a look-alike going to get a Big Mac. Local look-alikes dress up and pose in costumes with tourists at the Red Square. Red Square is a crowded mela during the tourist season. There are souvenir, ice-cream and hotdog stalls, performers and visitors from the world over. At the Kremlin end, the daily changing of the guard with its high kicking and synchronised marching is a throwback to the old USSR.

A Metro Underground Train at Moscow

Moscow by Metro

But there is more to Moscow. We used the underground, whose stations with chandeliers and sculptures are an attraction by themselves, extensively to get to other less known but interesting sights in Moscow. Asking for directions involved a lot of miming and gesturing because our Russian vocabulary consisted of three words – ‘Da’, ‘Nyet’ and ‘Spaci-ba’ – ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Thank-you’ respectively. But miniscule vocabulary notwithstanding, we managed to get to the Novodevichiy Cemetery. Composer Sergey Prokofiev is buried here and it felt good to pay my respects to the man whose fantastic musical work, Peter and the Wolf, thrilled me as a child.

Noisy Last Supper

My last meal in Moscow was in a packed and boisterous sausage and beer joint that we found close to our hotel. The juke box’s waiting list rivalled that of the Tata Nano. The waitresses were frantic like headless chickens and the double doors to the kitchen constantly clapped. All this because the food was superb. Our stocking-sized sausages arrived perfectly cooked and the beer arrived in tankards equaling small bathroom buckets in volume. That groaningly delicious meal in that chaotic restaurant, after which we had to be almost helped out of our chairs because we were so stuffed, was a fitting conclusion to my summer holiday in Russia.

Info Panel

_A confirmation from a registered hotel or travel agent is required to apply for a Russian visa.

_ A coach tour is an easy and convenient way to see St Petersburg and Moscow. Try Globus ( for their tours of the two cities.

_ A good place to stay in heart of all the action in St Petersburg is Hotel Ambassador ( and they will also arrange a tour for you.

_ For a cruise combined with an indulgent meal and a special evening in St Petersburg eat at the New Island Restaurant, a floating restaurant on a luxury cruise ship.

Rishad Saam Mehta

15 Nov 2009