Sunnyside resident Jim Galbraith spent 32 years teaching Russian history, and this past spring he was able to experience the country first-hand as he and his wife traveled on a boat tour from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
Galbraith shared his experiences and thoughts on the trip with the Sunnyside Kiwanis Club Thursday morning.
Having traveled extensively through Western Europe, Galbraith said he has seen the picture perfect sites of Europe.
"In Russia you can buy lots of postcards and none of them are picture perfect," he said.
Galbraith and his wife Barbara first became interested in the adventure early this year when family members said they would be taking a cruise along the rivers from St. Petersburg to Moscow. When the relatives had to back out at the last minute, the Galbraiths still made the journey.
Arriving at St. Petersburg airport, Galbraith said he was not very impressed with the facility. The city, he added, which was built in 1703 by Peter the Great, was drab looking.
"All I saw was high rise apartment building after high rise apartment building and lots of traffic," said Galbraith.
A city of 5 million people, St. Petersburg has no freeways. The largest road was three lanes. He added that all of the streets are in bad shape.
While in St. Petersburg, Galbraith visited the Peterhof, a palace Peter the Great commissioned the building of, beginning in 1703. The palace is currently being restored following it destruction during World War II.
The gardens are filled with fountains, all of which operate on a gravity flow system. Galbraith said there was gold leave and gilt throughout the grounds.
Leaving St. Petersburg by boat, Galbraith said the river cruise included guides and experts who provided the tourists with the history and culture of Russia.
They were also entertained with folkloric performances.
One of the speakers on the boat was a PhD professor, who shared some of his independent findings when polling the Russian people for his government.
Interestingly, Galbraith said, the Russian people like their current leader Vladimir Putin the best. Second best was Joseph Stalin.
"That should probably tell you that Russians are probably not going to embrace democracy for another generation," said Galbraith.
Navigating the Russian rivers, Galbraith said the rivers were lined with endless timber.
"Lumbering is evident," he said, "but all of the logs are very small."
He said that along the river he would see small villages, often only eight to 12 houses large with little or no access to the outside world. Galbraith said they are self-sufficient, living off the land without running water or electricity.
One common thing among Russians living in the country-side, he said, was the presence of "Victory Gardens." He said the gardens were up to half an acre in size, and make up 54 percent of all Russian agriculture.
Galbraith also visited the Russian national museum, which he said was filled with the works of great painters, but not the ones you see in the history books.
There were Picassos and Rembrandts, he said. There were also numerous works of modern art.
He also visited the Peter and Paul Fortress and attended church there.
Galbraith said that before the fall of communism there were about five churches in St. Petersburg. There are now 150. In Moscow, a city of more than 10 million people, there were 15 churches before the fall of communism, now there are about 500.
"There are no seats in Russian churches," he said. "The churches are for individual worship. You go in and stand next to whichever icon you prefer and worship."
He said that Russia is known for its icons.
In Moscow, Galbraith visited Red Square and Gum, a "glorified shopping mall."
Preparing for their independence celebration, Galbraith said that portions of Red Square were sectioned off.
Galbraith said that the most repairs he saw to the buildings was in Moscow.
"They pay close attention to anything with historical significance because that's what the tourists want to see," he said.
He said there were actually very few Russians shopping at Gum. "They can't afford to," he said, explaining that earning $10,000 to $15,000 in American dollars each year makes for a pretty good living in Russia.