THE BLOG
11/01/2012 08:25 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Journey Across Russia, From Moscow To Novosibirsk: A Personal Search For Family History & Good Vodka

I can hardly believe that I am back already from this amazing adventure through Russia, my family's homeland. To say that it was incredible would be an understatement, which is not a typical Russian trait!

The wonderful journey began with an Imperial Class flight on Transaero Airlines, a not-too-well-known Russian airline that has been around for over 20 years. I was treated to escorted service to the lounge at JFK Airport, which was decorated like a Romanov castle. Then, then came for me at boarding time to personally escort me through a private security screening area ahead of a long line of people who did not smile at my being pushed ahead of them.

On board, flight attendants dressed in Soviet-style uniforms treated me to superb Russian vodka and caviar which they kept bringing until I told them to stop. I was also given an amenities case which contained the usual hygiene items, plus a velvety hooded jacket and slippers. The entertainment equipment did not work very well, so it was time for more vodka and sleep!

Upon arrival at Moscow's Domodedevo Airport, I was met at the plane door by Russian authorities who whisked me away through a private VIP immigration station. I was out of the airport within 3 minutes of docking at the gate. Quite nice service. However, after meeting my Russian friend and guide, it tool over 2 hours to drive from the airport to my hotel in Moscow. With over 12 million inhabitants, Moscow traffic rivals anything you can muster in New Delhi, NYC or Rome. It is almost at a standstill most of the time.

The sites and sounds of Moscow are huge. Everywhere you look, you will still see statues of Lenin and references to the old Soviet regime. There is a great nostalgia, both pro and con, related to that difficult and restrictive time period. Besides Red Square and the Kremlin, the subway system is gorgeous. Chandeliers and art work adorn all stations. The floors are kept clean and there is no graffiti on any walls. Despite the intense crowds on the subway system, there is no pushing, fighting or disorderly conduct. The escalators in and out of the platforms are the longest and steepest I have ever seen.

It was interesting to visit an old Soviet nuclear bunker located 18 stories underneath the downtown area. This bunker turned museum, has relics from the Cold War days. There is a propaganda film you can watch on the tour that discusses the need the Russians had to develop nuclear weapons only because the Americans did so first and were threatening them. The movie also talks about the "invincible Soviet army" and the ability to produce the largest atomic weapons on Earth. Next, visitors are treated to a simulated nuclear attack on the US. Hmmmm... not exactly politically correct these days.

The 7-hour train ride to Nizhney Novgorod, hometown to my family and my great-uncle, Yakov Sverdlov, first president of the Soviet Union, was not too bad, given the old style of the train. We were in a First Class compartment next to the Dining Car. It was a bit primitive, but tolerable for a short period of time. At least they had some good vodka!

In Nizhney Novgorod, I visited my family's home and workshop, now a museum. The curators were excited that I was there and took my picture, saying it will soon be on the museum wall, next to my great-uncle's info and the old Sverdlov Street sign. They gave me copies of my old family pictures which was quite thrilling.

Onward to Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains with a 20-hour train ride. This train was a bit nicer, but was extraordinarily heated to the point of being a sauna. Russians like heat, believe it or not! Here is where my great-uncle ordered the assassination of the Czar and his family. The building where that occurred is no longer there. In its place is a huge cathedral of the Russian orthodox church which is dedicated to the memory of the royals. The Romanov family pictures are displayed outside in huge iconic forms. During Soviet times, the city was named after my family, Sverdlovsk. The oblast, or region, still bears that name.

After another 21-hour-long train ride on an even nicer train, we arrived in Novosibirsk, in the heart of Siberia. The scenery along the way was of the vast Russian taiga. Forests of gorgeous white birch trees and grassy steppes filled our view. We passed numerous tiny villages of wooden houses and barns where it was hard to imagine anyone could eke out a life or even survive in the harsh winters.

Novosibirsk is a huge, bustling city with skyscrapers and wonderful cafes. They have a zoo filled with creatures from all over the world, including polar bears and reptiles.

Siberia is mostly uninhabited except for a few small cities and towns. People seem to gravitate to Novosibirsk for work, housing and cultural experiences. There are good native museums here, huge music theaters and good restaurants. The residents of Siberia do not care for the way they are treated by the main government in Moscow. They feel neglected and detached from the mainstream of Russia. There is even a separation movement here.

Hotels in Russia are very different from Western standards. Amenities in the rooms are less than expected, yet, laundry is done for free and delivered back within hours. Elevators are very tiny. It is difficult to get your luggage on with you, especially if there are more than 2 people riding. Staff is friendly, most of the time, but many do not speak English. Often, German comes in handy.

Russia is an experience not to be missed. The Russian people want peace and friendship with foreigners. No one really cared about politics or religion. I learned more about my history and family than I could have ever imagined. I will discuss some of this on podcasts and on the membership side.

It is good to be back -- even for the 2 weeks I will be home. Then it is on to LA and Bangkok. My special thanks and gratitude to all my friends in Russia who made the trip easier than it could have been and who made our stay so comfortable and educational. My heart is still in Russia. I now know why I am who I am. Balshoyes spacibo y dasvidanya.

Sign up for our email.
Find out how much you really know about the state of the nation.