Smolenskaya Ploshad in Moscow.

Warming up

Artistically and culturally, Moscow is gradually taking its place among the great cities of the world, becoming increasingly vibrant and exciting. It’s probably true that more people want to visit New York and America than Moscow and Russia, and the latter are definitely a difficult and expensive journey, but a little investigating can demonstrate just how rewarding it can be.

Moscow was just a warm-up, as it were, for my trip to the North Pole. I have been to the city five times, all but once in the winter. It’s easy to visit the city then, because winter lasts so long. The snow comes early and heavy, and stays late: On one trip, it began snowing as soon as I stepped off the plane, and continued on and off until I left 10 days later. While the snow is picturesque when it first falls, it usually leaves only a dusting of white over the semi-permafrost of ice, which is quickly blackened by oil and exhaust into a hard, bumpy, slippery, ugly mess that lasts from October to April. And Moscow in winter is dark and gray. It is much farther north than most major cities, which means the days are short. The sun rises late and sets early, and seldom breaks through the clouds and pollution to shine brightly. My wife, Dina, used to own an apartment in the southwest part of the city. In the morning we would peer from behind the curtains at the park behind our building, in search of some semblance of daylight, which never came fully till about 10 a.m. By 2 p.m., the light was already beginning to fade. And there is, of course, the cold. On my first visit, as I walked outside the Kremlin, I realized I was the only person not wearing a hat, and I quickly went into the adjacent Manezh underground mall to buy one and warm my aching head.

There is something about the cold,

so pure it feels as though

it purges your soul. A frigid climate,

offset by the warmest of people.

But there is something about the cold, so pure it feels as though it purges your soul. I’m a warm weather person – anyone who knows me can tell you of my affinity for summer and the beach – so Moscow would hardly be likely to make my list of favorite places. But it has become my adopted city, and I an adopted son of Mother (in-law) Russia.

On our trips, Dina and I would meet, first and foremost, with her mother, Larissa, and the numerous friends they have made over the years. Dina first came to the United States in 1992 and became a citizen in 2010, but a part of her has never left Russia. It is the part that her many friends hold so dear, the warmth and loving embrace that they have, in turn, extended to me. After spending late evenings in their lively company, we would head home to our apartment. Most of the traffic and bustle would be gone, the snow would be falling softly, and the city would take on the gentle air of a Christmas snow globe. That’s part of the dual, sometimes contradictory nature of Moscow and Russia: a great and terrible past, yet a future with tremendous potential; a frigid climate, offset by the warmest of people.

And our latest trip, in March, was no different, the setting our staging of Larissa’s 70th birthday party, at an excellent Georgian restaurant. The guests struggled in through the snow and ice, and made merry long into the night, singing and dancing and flirting. Our relatives Irina and Sergei were kind enough to give over their apartment to me, and I used it as my base to explore the city, largely on my own for the first time. My limited Russian would have to carry me along while Dina tended to Lara and pampered her like the queen of hearts that she was.

Smolenskaya station of the Moscow Metro.

On our last day in the city, I ventured out alone on the long walk to the Metro, bound for Smolenskaya Ploshad, the bustling boulevard that houses the offices of Poseidon Arctic Voyages/Expedition Cruises. The Metro is famous for the elegance of its stations and efficient service but its underpasses are seldom noted. They are long underground passageways that enable pedestrians to cross the wide intersections and avoid the city’s deadly, speeding traffic. Most of them also house rows of tiny shops and kiosks selling numerous items: cosmetics, lingerie, tobacco, flowers, periodicals, household supplies, foodstuffs. The great thing is the smell. People used to the foul, unidentifiable odors that clog subways like New York’s would be amazed at the smell of freshly baked bread that wafts through these passageways, as babushkas serve up snacks for business people on the go.