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Eye-opening week in Moscow lends new perspectives on Russia

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It's Saturday, Aug. 3—the day of my best friend's wedding—and I am standing in the center of the Moscow Kremlin. In every direction around me, I can see magnificent, centuries-old cathedrals adorned with golden domes. Seas of tourists maneuver in and out of each building. Somewhere around here, President Vladimir Putin is hanging out (if he's home). I bask in the history and grandeur of this square.

HISTORY The Moscow State Historical Museum, located at the edge of Red Square, is one of countless striking landmarks in the city. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PETER JOHNSON
  • Photo Courtesy Of Peter Johnson
  • HISTORY The Moscow State Historical Museum, located at the edge of Red Square, is one of countless striking landmarks in the city.

Here with me are about 10 of my friend's family members, who invited me to take part in this special wedding-day Kremlin tour. I'm in Moscow because, well, my friend lives here. He's a foreign correspondent for a major international news magazine. Believe it or not, his mom and dad were too, back in the day. While touring the Kremlin, his parents—pretty adorably, I will add—point out places where they used to cover government meetings. This was around the time the Soviet Union Communist Party collapsed in '91, so it was high drama here all the time, they say.

My friend/their son, Noah, was born in Moscow. He spent the first three years of his life here. The family would later relocate to California to raise their kids—and I practically grew up at their house. About six years ago, Noah's journalistic path after college led him back to the country where it all began. It also led him to his Muscovite fiancee. Theirs is a beautiful love story, one we've been celebrating all week at delicious dinners, a river boat party, and other gatherings.

At the Kremlin, it suddenly starts to rain. One of our tour guides, not older than 22, graciously lends me his umbrella and throws his sweatshirt hood over his head. For a tour guide, he's been pretty quiet, but it's understandable. He's had friends arrested this week for attending the recent protests that have rocked the capital city. The government's refusal to allow opposition party members to run in city elections has enraged Moscow residents—and they're taking to the streets by the thousands. Young people, especially, are fed up with the corruption of Putin's Russia. But they're paying a price for their resistance: Thousands were detained, many were beaten by police, and a handful of opposition leaders now face dubious charges related to the protests. It's definitely not lost on me that on the day of our tour, locals would later hit the streets to protest the government that operates within these walls.

EXPLORING Here I am on Arbat Street, a long cobblestone pedestrian alley, home to shops, artists, and cafes. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PETER JOHNSON
  • Photo Courtesy Of Peter Johnson
  • EXPLORING Here I am on Arbat Street, a long cobblestone pedestrian alley, home to shops, artists, and cafes.

Despite that tension in the air, the city feels quite safe to be in as a tourist. Streets are clean; people behave; transportation systems work; and the sites are beautiful. Moscow is an extremely well-functioning city—at least the parts I saw. In the week we were here, my friend Steven (another childhood bud) and I attempt to see as much as possible of the city, from Red Square, to museums, to Gorky Park. Moscow cityscapes and architecture are stunning. Every new block offers a different feast for the eyes, which conjures all kinds of historical feelings. The Moskva River that cuts through the heart of the city is another lovely feature, its bridges and walking paths making great outings.

We return to our hotel after the Kremlin to get ready for the wedding. The rain clears up just in time for the ceremony. In a hotel courtyard, I get to witness one of my best friends get married. The reception afterward unites friends and family from across the world in celebration. In a swirl of joy and spritzers, I jump from interesting conversation to interesting conversation, appreciating that I may never attend a wedding quite like this again.

The thought of going to Russia triggers knee-jerk paranoia in Americans. I'll admit, I was nervous going in. We are fed a steady stream of fear by our politicians and media that paints it as a bad place, a foreign adversary, an enemy. While the geopolitical issues here are real, like any place in the world, Moscow is complex. Its people aren't their government. And if I learned anything from my week there, it's don't judge any place until you've seen it yourself. Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson is encouraging Americans to visit Russia. Send comments to pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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