Pilgrimage to Russia: Part I–Arrival to Moscow

The long awaited journal on my recent pilgrimage to Russia is finally here. Unfortunately, I’m going to break it up into at least three parts as there’s so much here and it was so overwhelming. I hope you don’t mind.

First a little background: I can’t actually remember how it started but Taras, one of the founders of our church, had always said “George, we need to go to Russia.” I always agreed but life happens and anyway, it takes an Act of Congress for me to get more than three days in a row for vacation.

Taras of course goes regularly as he is from Moscow and has family there. It was about January if memory serves that there was a buzz in our parish about something called “Orthodox Tours” and a pilgrimage from Diyeyevo to Valaam or something or another. A brochure was passed out and my interest was peeked. The price was very reasonable all things considered. Before we knew it, about fourteen people from our parish were signing up including our priest and his oldest son. The excitement was palpable.

Dare I ask for vacation? Could I? Money’s tight and there was that consideration. I didn’t want to charge it or borrow money from the credit union like I did for my trip to Great Britain five years ago. Luckily, Fr Ilya, the tour coordinator accepted a payment plan so every paycheck I sent him a sum of money until it was all paid for.

I asked my wife if she wanted to go but neither of us like traveling anymore but she thought about it. Russia was a culture too far her she decided so then I asked my older son Constantine (Denny) if he’d like to go. He immediately said yes. Since he’s working I told him I’d pay for the tour but he’d have to buy the plane ticket (which was $1001 from Houston to Moscow). He had no problems with that.

Anyway, enough of the background.

I departed Tulsa on Southwest on Sunday morning, July 17 and landed at Houston Hobby Airport. My mother-in-law and son were waiting for me and we drove directly to George Bush Intercontinental, on the other side of Houston. Denny and I checked in and boarded KLM to Amsterdam without incident.

And then I remembered why I didn’t like trans-Atlantic flight. The flight was full and we were packed in like sardines. In an effort to increase revenue, many major carriers have squeezed additional seats into the fusilage which means that if you’re not a midget you’re going to be uncomfortable.

As if that’s not bad enough, I can’t sleep sitting up. I get sleepy, nod off and then get up when my head hits my chest. I can see why sleep deprivation is the cruelest torture. Denny (bless his heart) was a trooper and didn’t complain. He can sleep though so that makes a difference. Here’s a useful travel tip: those sleep masks they offer you on the plane? Take one. I would have had I known that daylight breaks out early in Russia in the summertime. I would have gotten two extra hours of sleep in the morning had I used one. More on that later.

We arrived in Amsterdam on time. The other group from our church however had a delay in Atlanta (another tip: try to never go through Atlanta) and they arrived about twenty minutes before the connecting flight to Moscow. More excitement for them but when all was said and done, we got to Moscow.

It was now Monday morning and the bus picked us up from Sheremeteyevo Airport. Ordinarily, when I land in a foreign land I get a different “feel” upon walking on the tarmac. Denny, Mikey (my other son) and I definitely felt that upon landing in Gatwick in London several years ago. I remember it in Istanbul and Athens as well. For some reason, I didn’t feel that in Moscow. I don’d know why but it felt like I was landing in a major American city for some reason. Maybe it was exhaustion. I had been up for at least 24 solid hours.

Anyway, I got a second wind. Sitting in the bus I got to see a side of Moscow that was a mixture of economic vitality and Soviet-era degradation. I didn’t see shantytowns but the ugly tenement-like bloc housing was still there. I also saw Ferrari dealerships, McDonald’s and KFC. It was a mixed bag. None of it seemed like the Moscow of my imagination to me.

What really got my attention was some very large revetments that were still standing at certain intervals along the way. The things I’m talking about are the large metallic pylons sticking out of the ground that were erected to stop the German tank advance in WWII. If you’ve been to Normandy or seen Saving Private Ryan, you know what I’m talking about: those contraptions that were planted in the seabed in order to rip out the bottoms of the Higgins’ Boats. Only the ones on the outskirts of Moscow were truly huge –probably 30 feet X 30 feet. It was a lot to take in.

Once we crossed the Moscow River, I got more of a sense that we were in Moscow. The same Soviet bloc apartments were everywhere but so were modern, stylish high-rise condominiums. New office buildings seemed to predominate, especially one massive, ultra-modern office park of about ten or so buildings each about fifty storeys high. I wouldn’t see any of the so-called Stalinist/Wedding Cake architecture until we got to our hotel, The Golden Ring.

Anyway, we checked in, Denny and I got situated and we were told that we could meet on the 22nd floor at the Winter-garden for supper. The food was outstanding, it was a buffet and I didn’t know where to begin. As we were eating, Fr Ilya came in and introduced himself (he had arrived on another flight) and got to know each and every one of us. A gracious man who spoke flawless English (albeit with a thick Russian accent), he didn’t look like the man I had imagined in my one or two phone conversations. I had pictured a tall, austere priest of sorrowful mien; instead Fr Ilya is a jovial, ruddy-complexioned man of an elfin nature. A natural-born host who is eager to please and as we would find out in due time, one who has things firmly under control.

The view from the 22nd floor was spectacular. We were facing West and across from the Moscow River (in the direction of the airport) was that magnificent office complex I was telling you about. Over to the North (on our side of the river) were a jumble of high rise tenements. I didn’t like that view as much so I decided to walk to the other side of the restaurant.

There I beheld the iconic Stalinist/Wedding-cake monument, the old Soviet foreign ministry. It was built in 1951 and at the pinnacle, it had the coat-of-arms of the USSR. That was disconcerting to me. But then I shifted my gave to two o’clock and in the distance saw Christ the Savior Cathedral. Wow. It was stunning.

I went back to our table and told my dinner companions and one by one, they went to see it as well. It was now about 8:00 pm and as excited as we all were, our lids were getting heavy and so we decided to call it a night.

Tomorrow we would hit the ground running and wouldn’t stop for a second. Breakfast would be at 7:00 am on the second floor in the Suzdal Fr told us. He also said that the bus would leave at eight. We got the impression that Fr Ilya ran a tight ship, which is a good thing. Little did we know that this pilgrimage would be a whirlwind: eighty churches, several monasteries, five museums; planes, trains and buses. And lots of walking.

As we’d find out at the end, we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.


  1. Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) says

    Why does this come AFTER “Moscow: How it’s going so far?” I think you just needed to get the “Khan Job and Trump Trap” in a less prominent place…

  2. Very interesting, George. I was born in America but of Russian ancestry and have never been to the Motherland. Business is picking up so I’m going to go on a scouting trip as soon as I can afford it out of pocket without taking any significant financial hit.

    Mostly, I want to see Moscow, Petersburg and Arkhangelsk in the North. I would like to set up an office in Arkhangelsk as a retreat in the years to come. Obviously, I’d be interested in seeing the Temple of Christ the Savior (as it is called in Russian). Also, I’d like to see St. Sava’s Cathedral in Serbia. Those are the two largest churches in Orthodoxy.

    I hate the idea of the whirlwind thing though. Ok for some, I suppose. I’d probably sleep a day in Moscow before getting started. Definitely want to see the Hermitage in Petersburg. Also, I want to visit a little church in Sergiev-Posad that I’ve seen online. I’m not much of a tourist though. It would really be more spiritual and a business scouting trip than anything else. I would like to visit Valaam and Solovjetsky, but I’d arrange that through the Vladyka Pjotr’s people in advance.

    I look forward to the rest of your posts on this. I’m sure you’ll remember it forever.

    God bless,

    • George Michalopulos says

      I will remember it forever!

      Just so you know, we saw a lot but it wasn’t hurried. We actually spent several nights in every city we visited which was nice.

  3. Cynthia mae Curran says

    Russia has such modern buildings changed a lot since the Soviet Period.