Contributed by Tracy Alpert and Kraig Rice*
In June, Kevin Choate Sensei, head instructor of the Chicago Aikikai taught for several days in Moscow, Russia, and Kiev, Ukraine. Four of us accompanied him on this international seminar -- David Babbitt, Scott Hammond, Kraig Rice, and myself. It was an adventure from start to finish.
Only a few days before departure, we were not certain that the trip would come to fruition. Due to the bureaucratic hassles of obtaining a Russian visa, we didn't receive the visas until Friday, and our plane departed on Sunday. And this was after eight months of planning! You see, to receive a Russian visa, one needs to have an official invitation. A host must submit the proper paperwork locally, then receive the invitation document and send it to the guest. That's no simple thing in Russian bureaucracy. Then, the guest must submit the invitation with a visa application to the Russian Consulate in New York or DC. Now, assuming that at each step everyone gets the names, dates, etc. correct, it's only a matter of patience. Unfortunately, in our case, the visas were active from May 30 - June 30, and we were scheduled to arrive in Moscow on May 29 at 4:05pm, eight hours shy of a valid entry visa.
I joined the group in Chicago, and together we set off with our fingers crossed, hopeful for an uneventful trip. We showed our passports and visas to the British Air agent in Chicago, and they sent us to London without a fuss. After an in-flight movie and a short night, we arrived in London the next morning. In London, however, the passport agents would not let us on the plane due to the premature entry visa. British Air took pity on us, however, and put us up for the night in London along with meals and transportation.
24 hours later, we were on a plane headed for Moscow. It was May 30th, our papers were in order, and there was no stopping us now! After a long wait at the dimly lit, emotionless immigration area, we finally met Oleg Glushko, the Aikido instructor who had invited Choate Sensei to Moscow. He told us the car was waiting, and handed each of us a small shot of brandy for courage on the road. Soon, I understood what that meant. From the back seat of the black, sporty Volvo, I held on tight as we wove in and out of traffic. The brandy helped, but not watching the road helped more. Oleg took us to his house where he had arranged for our reception. Several of his students came over bearing food, wine, and vodka. We couldn't possibly have eaten everything they offered, but we gave it our best effort.
The next day, there was no morning class so some of us toured the city. Moscow is a huge city with a population of nine to twelve million (a large transient population and unregistered immigrants from nearby Republics make the population hard to precisely determine.) Today, eighty percent of the wealth in Russia is in Moscow. The older parts of the city house beautiful buildings and churches many centuries old. Apart from Kraig, who frequently acted as our guide, we were completely dependent on others to get around. It's quite a shock to become illiterate overnight. Russians use the Cyrillic alphabet, which is distant enough from the Latin alphabet to cause a headache. One sign that we all recognized regardless of the language barrier was McDonald's. Moscow is home to the largest McDonald's restaurant in the world. When it opened in the late eighties, there was a 2-3 hour wait, with a line around the block.
The transportation system in Moscow is the most comprehensive I have ever seen. The Metro costs 4 rubles (or 15 cents) a ride, and 120 rubles ($3.50) will buy you one month pass. The huge sea of people using the metro dwarfs anything I've ever seen in NYC. At some stations, you descend hundreds of meters on high-speed escalators to reach the trains. The platforms are beautiful with statues and mosaics, almost like you are in a museum sometimes. The trains themselves are clean and free of graffiti, and they are always on time.
That day, we walked through Red Square and down Tverskoi Boulevard to Pushkin Square. We met the others there, and while waiting we walked through the underground crosswalks several times (eerily, this passage is the place where a bomb exploded in August killing eight people....) After gathering as a group and visiting the infamous Arbat Street, we set off toward the dojo.
Choate Sensei taught two-hour classes every day at 11am and 7pm, where he quickly won the adoration of the Russians with his insightful instruction. Subtle, thoughtful training, he stressed movement, balance, posture. "Don't fight. Relax." At one point during the first class a student asked Kraig, "When will he tell us where to put our feet?" But, soon, the Muscovites had adapted to Choate Sensei's training, and they were asking him questions long after class was officially over. Open hand, bokken kata, jo vs. bokken -- they were hungry to learn as much as possible in the five short days that Sensei would be in town. Nikolai, an instructor from Perm, even rode the train twenty hours to Moscow to see Choate Sensei. On the last day, the Russians asked Sensei to demonstrate a series of basic techniques (omote and ura) so they could video his example.
Between classes, we attempted to see as much as possible in the city, but we hardly put a dent in the rich cultural and historical opportunities Moscow has to offer. One afternoon, we visited Gorky Park, which now houses an amusement park. Though, none of us braved the roller coasters, we did ride the Ferris wheel (or Devil's wheel in Russian). The view from the top is spectacular. Another day, we went to the top of Ostankino, the Moscow television tower. From over 330 meters high, we had another spectacular view of the city. In the evening, we were wined (or vodka'd) and dined in either the homes of Aikidoka or taken to wonderful Moscow restaurants. The food was fresh, plentiful, and delicious. One evening, we came across a Tram, which was a moving restaurant. Though the restaurant was closed, Oleg negotiated with the staff to open the bar and take us on a short tour. He was even able to convince the tram driver to re-route the tram to his house! Later, maybe because I was falling asleep, he talked the driver into letting me drive the tram. We were never sure what would happen next, but it was always a pleasure. We learned quickly to be prepared for anything.
*Tracy trains at Boulder Aikikai and has been a student of Aikido since 1988. Although all her grandparents were born in the Ukraine and Lithuania, this was her first trip to the region.
*Kraig trains at Chicago Aikikai and has been a student of Aikido since 1989. He studied Russian History and Slavic languages at the University of Chicago and speaks Russian. This was his 5th visit to the region since 1988.