A revealing Russian tour

My cabdriver shows me Moscow’s sights and soul.

Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters/File
A member of a Russian military band performs by St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square.

I look through the sheer curtains of my hotel room window onto the three cuspidate globes of a street lantern below. Their milky glow sheds a dim light on a garland of begonias that arches over the roadway. It is a gray, early fall morning in Moscow.

I am here on a layover, flying from Hamburg, Germany, to New York, and have a couple of hours to take in a few sights. Red Square is only a short walk, but I decide to call a taxi rather than brave a labyrinth of streets marked with Cyrillic signs. My flight leaves at 3:24 p.m.

A midsize Hyundai seems to have answered my call. It is 8:23 a.m. He’s early. I quickly grab my suitcase, my purse containing my notebook computer and tablet, my crossbody bag, and my camera.

A compact personable man in his mid-50s greets me with a heavy Russian accent and an engaging smile: “You called taxi!” He wears a quilted jacket, gray denim trousers, and polished leather boots. He pulls his wool cap over his ears and introduces himself as “Devid.” As he hauls my suitcase into the trunk I explain the purpose of my call, relieved by his command of English. He nods and indicates the front passenger seat. Though this puzzles me, I am quickly reassured by his joviality. Besides, I am in a foreign country and unfamiliar with its customs. 

He jumps into the driver’s seat, slams the door shut, throws me a convivial glance, and deftly sets the GPS. Then he starts the car and enters a wide, heavily trafficked highway.

“This is new road. Old road too small,” he says as we slither past rows and rows of modern high-rises.

He speaks of Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Tchaikovsky, then interrupts himself: “Look: Lubyanka … KGB building.” He points at a massive yellow block of concrete and stops. “Hurry, Russian government likes to give tickets,” he says. I jump out, take my photo, and hop back in. “Red Square next,” he says.

He drives through an elegant alley and finds a parking spot. “Very good here, very safe.” I grab my camera and rush after Devid, passing through the lofty arcs of an upscale shopping mall, past mannequins in white sable and Sochi hats.

We exit into a crowd of tourists. Devid labors his way out of the mob; I struggle not to lose him. The crowd clears and I’m in a staggering wonderland: Moorish minarets, the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral, with its ice-cream cone cupolas and its mighty, intricately colored steeple that culminates in a bulbous golden flame. 

A gargantuan red edifice with countless white and golden spires reaches high over curious heads. I am dizzy. “Behind Kremlin Wall is Lenin Square,” Devid says. “Building over there is where Putin holds meetings, and before him Gorbachev, back to Stalin, Lenin, and czars.”

This is intriguing, but we have to hurry. Devid halts. He seems uneasy. 

“I must check car,” he mumbles. “I come back.” With that, he rushes off. “Sure, I’ll wait,” I answer in soliloquy, still under the spell of Red Square’s wonder – that is, until fear and doubt gush into my mind. Who is Devid? Is it a coincidence that he speaks English so well? What if he’s an impostor, an agent? He’d arrived early, enough time to preempt the real driver. And he’s gone. My suitcase and purse are in his car, with my visa and ticket. How could I have been so trusting? 

The KGB building’s bright yellow walls seem to pull me toward a tribunal: I’m standing in front of stone-faced uniformed officials, one of whom bellows, “You come here to corrupt young people! You bring books Soviet and Russian government forbid!” True, but I belong to a book club, and we discussed Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, and those e-books are on my tablet. And yes, there is also some rap music. “You are smuggling banned materials!” Two stern female agents step forward to take me away ... 

“I thought you like pistachio,” Devid says, gently tapping my arm. He hands me an ice-cream cone. “I had to check car, almost got ticket,” he says. “Oh, no problem at all,” I say. “Thanks.” The cold ice cream restores me to reality.

I follow him to the car and embrace my purse as we head to the airport. I close my eyes.

“Last stop,” Devid calls out. He unloads my bags. “Maybe we meet again in America,” he says. He opens his arms and gives me a hug.

I thank him for being the best taxi driver and tour guide ever, hand him my remaining rubles and a good amount of dollars. Grateful for a good outcome, I enter the airport.

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