Sunday, April 12, 2015

Spotted in Canada: A Yuri Gagarin

On this day in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Still in his 20's, Gagarin (pronounced YOUR-ee Guh-GAR-in) shot up from being a household name across Russia to being an international celebrity. His smile lit up the Cold War noted his boss, Sergey Korolev, chief engineer of the Soviet space program.
Gagarin's premature death seven years later was a national tragedy. A seasoned test pilot, Gagarin crashed during a routine training flight. In recent years, conspiracy theories having been ruled out and all fingers point to human error.
Across Russia, numerous memorials honor Gagarin, including a statue here in Rostov-on-Don. According to Wikipedia, Gagarin's body was cremated and his ashes, along with those of his co-pilot, were buried in the Kremlin Wall.

On a decidedly happier note, in perhaps the ultimate tribute to Yuri Gagarin,  his namesake was born summer of 2014 in Canada. Like the Soviet hero, this little fellow is diminutive, likable and bonds quickly with others. But unlike the cosmonaut, young Yuri is 4-footed, barks when excited and eats dog food. Yes, the Canadian Yuri Gagarin is a pure-bred Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta with his owner, Janelle. No word yet as to how lofty his career aspirations.
Janelle and I crossed paths in February 2014 when she came to Russia and volunteered at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Janelle in Sochi at the Olympic Games. A correspondent by profession, Janelle coordinated the press conference for the Canadian Hockey Team after they won the Gold Medal. (Photo courtesy of Paul Griffin, Facebook).

After the Olympics Games wrapped and before the Special Olympic Games began, Janelle had a weekend planned here in Rostov-on-Don to visit a mutual friend. He asked me to consider hosting Janelle. I remembered my trip abroad scheduled shortly thereafter and said Absolutely not! But that notion changed moments into watching a interview of Janelle for Canadian television, I said, We will make this work! We have Got to be available for this young lady!

And what a delight! Definitely her own person and yet so personable. Janelle has Russian roots several generations back and wanted to honor her great-grandparents who emigrated from Russia to Canada shortly after the Russian Revolution in 1917.

It is what it is. . . a living leg-acy. ;)

Regarding souvenirs, Janelle had but one wish ~ to leave Rostov with a very special tattoo. Prior to her visit, Janelle connected with a Rostov tattoo artist who gave her a permanent tribute to her Russian heritage ~ and to her own Yuri Gagarin, yet unborn.
And so on this anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic achievement, we imagine that in Edmonton, Alberta is a frisky little spaniel who wants to celebrate the day playing fetch, his feet firmly planted on planet earth.

Monday, February 02, 2015

McDonald's Celebrates 25 years in Russia

McDonald's of Russia celebrated its 25th anniversary in recent days. Oh sure, we remember that red letter day in 1999 when the biggest-ever Mickey D's opened in Moscow. Folks waited in an hours-long queue for a taste of the west. These days, the wait's so much shorter. And since then, even bigger McDonald's restaurants have opened elsewhere. . .

Best of all, McDonald's eventually came to Rostov-on-Don, some 600 miles south of Moscow. That might have been 2003 or so and I stood in line for 15 minutes, all smiles. Rostov now boasts at least four McDonald's and across this vast land, more than 400 sites crank out burgers, fries, the works.

Here's the nearby McDonald's: See you're reading Russian!

Another view, another day: Saturday morning and headed over there for breakfast.

Rostov International Airport welcomed travelers with McDonald's Big Tasty RIO burger, celebrating the 2014 World Cup games.
Back to the anniversary. . .
Even the tray mats announce the anniversary: #25 together: Your History.

Another look, snapped in my photo studio, haha, with translation below. Such clever marketing, using social media.
Here's the translation ~ January 31, 1990, 25 years ago, on Pushkin Square, opened the first McDonald's in Russia. Since then, McDonald's has received more visitors than the entire population of Russia - and each of them left at McDonald's part of his soul. We have grown and changed together. On the eve of our twenty-fifth anniversary, we would like to invite you to remember and revive the brightest moments of our common history.

Share your story on our website or on our social networks, celebrate their friends using the hashtag # 25vmeste, and note our page in the living history of McDonald's in Russia.

Sure enough, visit the McDonald's Russia website and check out the Big Mac memories. Visiting McDonald's here in Russia is an event ~ it's a place to see and be seen, worthy of your favorite mink coat.

The taste of the season, the Beef a-la-Rus, pictured top, only.  My favorite, on a rye bun, with a country Russian feel.

Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet gazes hungrily at the McDonald's adjacent, across Voroshilovski Street. Sir, just tell us what you'd like: We'll handle your order, you can stay your pedestal and wax poetic. 

McDonald's: Who needs a drive-through or children's play area when there's free WiFi!

Perhaps you've been to a McDonald's in Russia or another exotic land? Please share ~ we'd love to hear about it!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Auschwitz: A Look at the Russian Exposition

Soviet troops fought their way into Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. They first learned about the death camp weeks earlier when liberating Krakow, Poland an hour east.

In the 70 years since, the Auschwitz site has been carefully preserved. The memorial and museum are a high-priority visit for travelers to central Europe. I'd been to Auschwitz, myself, in 2004, part of a large conference group and soon realized it was so emotionally intense, I'd need to make another trip: There's a limit to what one person can absorb in an afternoon.

April of 2010, happened that I was in Warsaw waiting for my Russian visa ~ the perfect opportunity to revisit Auschwitz. Dear friends in Warsaw, Lukasz and Nicole led the way. Say, care to join us and see what we saw?

We left Warsaw before dawn that Saturday and headed south on a high-speed train to Krakow. As the sun came up, we were zipping through forested areas of southern Poland.

Deep in thought, fellow traveler in our compartment.(Click to enlarge.)

Zipping through rural areas, heading south from Warsaw.

Several hours later, after a train-to-bus transfer, we arrived in Auschwitz. This time, it was The Russian Exhibition that caught my attention, a work-in-progress at the time of our visit. Since then, it has been finished and dedicated.

Liberation: From RIANOVOSTI, Russian News Service. At the RIANOVOSTI site, a slide show of the exhibition's dedication. (The site is in Russian, but photos are photos!)
But oh, mercy ~  I'm getting ahead of myself. First, at the camp entrance, we meet the orchestra that sent prisoners off to work and then welcomed them home each day.

Imagine playing in the Auschwitz Orchestra. When a trainload of new arrivals pulled in, they were welcomed with folk music from their homeland. The orchestra also performed at the most gruesome times and also on Sundays for the Auschwitz staff and their families.

Under the sign, Work Makes You Free, in German, likely the most photographed site at Auschwitz.

Once inside, fences, barbed wire and barracks.

Well, okay: We won't even think about going there. . .

Auschwitz is near a small town and has a rural feel even now. It's so quiet and peaceful. What a contrast to 70-some years ago when thousands of people were packed together and the air was rank with smoke from the crematoria.

Nowadays, the air at Auschwitz is so fresh, songbirds abound and tiny violets grow.

Insightful video from Rick Steves, Seattle-based travel expert and author.

Billed as America's leading authority on European travel, Rick Steves pretty much wrote the book.

Star of David in wrought iron.

Wall of Execution: In the early days of Auschwitz, it was here that prisoners faced firing squads. But the faces staring back at them so haunted the Nazi solders, that camp switched to mass cremation. 

Visitors to Auschwitz. The gentleman standing, far right intrigues me. Perhaps he's overcome with emotion. Perhaps he's just checking his phone.

Now, on to the Russian Exhibition which opened in 2014. Renovation was in process when we visited in 2010.
Exhibition of the Liberation of Auschwitz. Sponsored by the Russian Federation.

Soviet military leader, V. Sokolovskiy, who planned the Auschwitz liberation.

Precious innocents: Keeping warm in cast-off clothing.

Soviet soldiers visit with Auschwitz prisoners.

Soviet physician examines a prisoner.

Children of Auschwitz: Taken to an orphanage somewhere. . .

Funeral service, attended by Polish church dignitaries and Soviet military leaders.

Yours Truly

Lukasz and Nicole manage an early-morning smile.This dear couple were my hosts. Lukasz made it all happen: He's a Polish national, the ultimate resource on such trip. 

This high-speed train from Warsaw to Krakow.  

Our Auschwitz trip included a side-trip to the nearby Birkenau camp and took a full day. I need to return and take in the Russia Exhibition, completed since my last visit. I'm so grateful to those who liberated the camp. Grateful to those who brought to justice the perpetrators of these horrors. And a bow of deepest respect to those whose lives were shattered by what happened at Auschwitz. May they somehow find strength to move on. May they find peace.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Resurrection of a Moscow Cathedral

On a recent trip to Moscow, a visit to Cathedral of Christ the Savior topped my list of new experiences. Having stumbled across the drama of its construction, destruction and eventual rebuilding, I wanted to learn more. I can't endorse all its teachings, but still, there's much to admire here, including the resilience of the Russian spirit. 

At the cathedral on a recent December evening.

Close up: Golden cupolas up there somewhere. . .

Life in the USSR grew darker still when Joseph Stalin looked out his Kremlin office window and was displeased by that cathedral, that Christ the Savior Cathedral which dominated the mid-distance. For one thing, he agreed with mentor Vladimir Lenin, that religion needed to be quashed. Another thing, the cathedral was a czar-era accomplishment, an era Stalin wanted erased from history.

Besides that, he had other plans for that very spot, plans bigger and bolder than had ever been imagined. And, so, December 1931, Stalin ordered the cathedral destroyed. Because he could.

Eyewitness account of videographer who captured the destruction.

Of course this wasn't the only Russian cathedral Stalin demolished. There were hundreds. But the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was exceptionally dear to the national psyche: It was built to celebrate surviving Napoleon's invasion. In fact, on Christmas day, 1812, as Napoleon's troops staggered out of Russian in defeat, Czar Alexander I, a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, ordered a cathedral built . . . to signify our gratitude to Divine Providence for saving Russia from the doom that overshadowed Her

Generations later in 1883, the cathedral was finished and for the auspicious occasion, ~ drum roll please ~ Russia's legendary composer, P.I. Tchaikovsky, was pressed into service to write the Overture of 1812. To this day, the overture is popular, even in the U.S. where it is often played during Fourth of July fireworks displays, complete with the sound of cannon fire.

During its 50 year history, the cathedral witnessed seismic political upheavals. Protests of the early 1900's, led to the the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the end of the Czarist monarchy and the Russian Civil War. Then, under Vladimir Lenin, the Russian Empire evolved into the Soviet Union during which massive military parades were staged in Red Square, just blocks from the cathedral. After Lenin's death, Stalin  had dramatic changes in mind for the structure itself.

In place of the cathedral, Stalin envisioned a massive Palace to the Soviets, planned to be the tallest building in the world, topped by Vladimir Lenin himself, his right arm extended in his favorite hail-a-taxi pose.

And so, on December 5, 1931, as per Stalin's decree, the cathedral was demolished. Only thing, after all that, Stalin's Palace to the Soviets never materialized: The spot stood empty for years while Stalin dealt more pressing concerns including Hitler's invasion in 1941. But on to Plan B for the site: After Stalin's death in the early 50's, Nikita Krushchev transformed the crater into a heated swimming pool, and in typical Soviet style, it was huge.

In the early 1990's, after perestroika and waves of political changes, the Russian Orthodox church requested permission of the Russian government and city of Moscow to rebuild the cathedral. The request was granted. First, the swimming pool was dismantled in 1994 and work begun on the cathedral. Six years later, the new cathedral was finished and dedicated.

Care to join me on a tour? Here's the backstory, reconstruction and dedication. Thrilling, indeed.

Current view from the Kremlin. The cathedral has been rebuilt.As for Stalin,
his grave is in Red Square, just yards from Lenin's Mausoleum. (Photo from book, below.)

The cathedral bookshop sells this book in several languages. Copyright in 2005, published by Ivan Fiodorov. Printed
in Russia. Photos by N Rakhmanov and V. Korniushin.

In  the closing words of the video, Maybe now, the future of the church's place is assured in the minds and hearts of the Russian peoples. History will surely tell.

We are told that God is the Rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). May this magnificent cathedral serve to point searchers to God and to His truth.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Spotting Ronald Reagan in Warsaw

In Warsaw and looking for adventure, I headed out from my hostel near the Copernicus statue into the drizzle in search of Ronald Reagan. And sure enough, at the edge of a small park across from the U.S. Embassy is a monument honoring our 40th president.

Cast in bronze, the statue of Ronald Reagan captures him in 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, when he challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Tear down this wall! The statue project was initiated by Polish business community, funded by private donations and sculpted by a national artist.

Without the support of Ronald Reagan, we wouldn't have a free Poland, said Lech Walesa, November 2011, as he unveiled the statue. Lech Walesa was co-founder of Poland's Solidarity movement in 1980 and, ten years later, the first popularly elected president of Poland.

Along with flowers and candles, an official bouquet complete with Polish flags and streamers emblazoned Solidarity grace the site.

The statue faces the U.S. Embassy, Warsaw. 

The November, 2011 dedication ceremony included a statement from U.S. President Barak Obama and a message from Nancy Reagan.

Photos of Chicago grace the fence of the U.S. Embassy, Warsaw. The security guard, a Polish fellow, gave me permission to photograph them but only from across the street. Security issues, you know. ;)

When and where did I last see this magnificent flag? Probably right here, on a previous trip to Poland.

A salute to Ronald Reagan for encouraging other countries in their quest for freedom. What a wise leader he was. President Reagan said the right words at the right time, nudging Central and Eastern Europe toward freedom. And what an impact!

How about you, dear blog reader, have you been overseas and happened upon a statue of an American leader? Please do share. . .