Suzdal is frozen in time
“Winter is probably one of the best seasons to visit Russia. Let’s face it, we have winter at least half of the year and the country mainly was designed to survive in cold temperatures. As premier Putin once said to foreign guests, “You can feel comfortable in Russia in all kinds of the weather – just dress appropriately!”
The best cold months are January and February. It is frozen and the sky is clear – no clouds, bright sun flickering on the snow. Everything is pure and white.
In December it is very dark, almost 24 hours. In March it will be warmer, which means the snow turns to slush and mud. So we were travelling at the end of December, beginning of January – nice image of country and better understanding why we are such.
Last New Year’s eve I was lucky enough to be travelling in our winter wonderland with old and new Intrepid friends. Our group was small, so rather than it being work, it felt more like I was taking my good buddies on vacation.
We spent several lovely days in Moscow, where the city was decorated for the holidays with lights, fur trees, toys and statues of grandfather Frost (Russian Santa Claus). From there we took the train to Suzdal – a small town where we would celebrate New Year with a local Russian family.
In Suzdal all Intrepid groups visit the home of a lovely Russian woman named Lena. She is the epitome of hospitality, a very energetic and bright woman. For our New Year visit she had made special preparations for us and we all went to her son’s family apartment to celebrate the holiday. He lives in a tiny 2-room apartment on the 5th floor. There were 4 generations in one room: Lena’s mother, Lena, her son with his wife and their young child.
Small towns are usually more conservative, so we enjoyed a traditional Soviet-style New Year celebration that is no longer common in the big cities. For me it was like taking my Intrepid travellers on a guided tour of my childhood. For the group, they were absolutely thrilled to be spending their New Year with such friendly locals and being welcomed into a family home.
The room where we sat was approximately 15 square meters – not a lot of space for 8 people. In soviet times people often lived in communal apartments and had celebrations all together in the kitchen.
One wall was decorated with the carpet – trace of soviet way to make it warm and comfortable. At the other side there was what we called a ‘Finish wall’ – a wall unit of the furniture with different sections, cupboards and shelves. Originally from Sweden – IKEA style, it was imported from Finland and hence the nickname ‘Finish wall’. Nowadays you’ll only see this type of furniture in old apartments or in small towns.
Due to the lack of space, the TV was so close to the table that it seemed like it was one of the members of the family. And this was another soviet trait. There was not much entertainment and people liked to spend their time watching TV. We would joke that the TV could easily replace a family member, or it was better than a best friend. Now due to political situation and Internet development young people, especially in big cities, seldom watch TV. They call it ‘zombie box’ and prefer stream websites.
There were plenty of other small details that completed the image of travelling back in time and celebrating the past. A cheap reproduction of a famous painting on the wall, a small crystal chandelier that was soviet ‘luxury’, plus an old couch with the pillars to make it higher and match the table size – because there’s not enough room for dining chairs.
The food of course was another reminder of a bygone society. ‘Herring under the fur coat’ – herring covered by mix of beetroot, onion, potato and carrot. Almost a whole basin of salad Olivier – which is what many foreigners know as ‘Stoly Salad’and is a combination of vegetables and meat tossed in mayonnaise. ‘Shproti’ – cans of smoked sprat and herring. All this serves alongside hot dishes of meat, mushrooms, potato, fish. And a lot of alcohol as well. Vodka, Champagne, wine… it is Russia after all!
We started the traditional seeing off to the old year, which could best be described as an excuse to start drinking and eating before midnight. For a group of new friends there was so much discussion and merriment, as we shared our favourite New Year stories. Then at midnight we heard the President congratulating the country in his New Year speech and telling us how good we already live and how better it will be in the next year. And with the first bell of the Kremlin Spasskaya watch tower, we traditionally rose our glasses of Champagne.
Then it was time for ‘Blue light’, a soviet TV show that includes music, comedians and circus performances. My group got a real giggle out of this and thought it was more like an Italian variety show with all its glitter, bright colors, simple melodies and happy faces.
Shortly after it was time to walk off all that rich food and drink and step back into more modern times. We went to the main square of town to celebrate with locals who had gathered around a giant fur tree. There we had a last kick back to current reality – the crowd were dancing to a Lady Gaga song!”
What’s been your favourite New Year’s Eve celebration away from home?