Entering Red Square just as the sun is beginning to set, the gates are slightly lower than the square so that the magnificent buildings come into view slowly. A red wall punctuated by manicured trees, a building delineated by lights, corner towers with ruby stars shining atop and in front, the onion towers of St Basil’s Cathedral are as decorated as a cake.

Monumental historic buildings, grand contemporary malls with high-end stores — grandeur is uninterrupted during the days we walk the city, where we had expected to ward off assailants with an offering of vodka. Fed a western notion of Moscow as a lesser city, perhaps even deprived, we have encountered instead a groomed and prosperous population and it is not until we meet “Agent K” that we hear of homes without running water in the country and the changes driving the city into the future since Perestroika, 1993. Before that, vodka vendors with trap doors in the street like underground moles used to supply the raucous aboveground citizens of Moskva.

We walk through a winter park to an impressive, contemporary building with an installation by Ugo Rondinone on the exterior and the inaugural Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art commanding most of the interior galleries. Alexandra Serbina, one of five curators at Garage Contemporary Art Museum orients us to a powerful show occupying over a city block. High-tech or gutsy-crude, the focus is on Russian-ness, a theme often probed in Russian art and literature. Russian women are noticeably rising in profile. Issues to do with the body are battle fronts for Russian feminists (a new law has just ‘legalized’ that a husband may beat his wife without repercussion. If she has been brave enough to call the police, he may receive a small fine but the first time is “allowed”). Gentle Women Group, a collective from Kaliningrad with cheeky answers to slurs against women, airs Milk for Vera where a lactating woman squirts her milk at a glass screen in front of the camera until there is just a milky mess.

The Tale Wags the Comet, an installation by Irina Korina, has clothed an interactive climbing space with images of the original building. The exploration maze is both kiddy construction zone and a museum — the “adult playground”.

In Vinsavod, a contemporary art complex, there is a photography exhibition, The Best of Russia. Having just heard of Russian men and their dominance over women, in this exhibition we see a father’s return home lauded by a little excited boy, a father holding his naked male new-born aloft with pride, a man lying with his son watching TV, cozy, and note that it is men with sons in these utopian depictions rather than daughters.

The aura is one of being watched but not attended to; assessed but not approved, trying to blend in but not up to out-matching the unyielding, self-possessed, front-back-and-sides of Moscow. It is convincing. The west may have cause to shiver.

St. Petersburg

Whereas Moscow was grand and impenetrable, St. Petersburg is crumbling at the foundations as if the city is having a hard time keeping up with its former splendor.

The General Staff Museum is entered through an insignificant door in one of the encircling Hermitage buildings. Having climbed a glass ramp joining two heritage wings under an immense glassed roof, we enter a darkened gallery. Overhead are wheel chairs, walkers and canes, encrusted in shimmering blue/green/ purple beetle shells. Two figures in the silent gloom are defined by ivory colored robes made from cross sections of human and animal bones poised as if involved in a concentrated monastic routine.

The next gallery is as ample but in contrast it’s a party, ribbons of crepe paper hang from the ceiling and on the floor, piles of confetti. Through the decorations we see dogs on the multicolored left and cats to the white right, taxidermy-ed. Some are contorted. All were victims of automobile accidents. The noise in this room is abrasive, screeching tires, the rush and roar of a highway, grating shatter and crash.

It is a relief to walk into the open courtyard where a bronze man sitting at a bronze desk is covered in sharp pins and needles. Dividing the length and height of the space, anchored by royal blue bull’s heads, there is a BIC pen drawing with crazy scribbles and lines like on the notepad by an old telephone. Opposite is a wooden boxcar, completely drawn upon to an inky patina, an oil-slick sheen. Another pin-cushioned bronze man interrupts the reverie, hanging by his neck from one of the historic, ornate balconies.

At the Hermitage we exclaim and inspect through 1000 rooms where each is splendid and works within the rooms are splendid. All is splendid and yet it is not our land. The taxi to the train station is old, black and unmarked with a tattooed driver. It breathes old cigarette smoke through the warm air vent.

Entering Russia was unnerving and having departed, we are re-assured, safer in familiarity. Yet in Russia, the intensity was telling. Since ours was a travel towards truth, the hands-on awareness of Russia was valuable and recommended for artists, seekers, and those who are energized by listening and looking.