I’m still en route to Vladivostok, flying over the area just west of Sakhalin Island, with endless miles of gently rolling hills and low-lying clouds nestled in desolate valleys below me.
Last night the plane passed over the northern parts of Russia. I opened my window at one point to find a misty arc over the horizon, pale green and almost invisible. The earth below was black—not a single light or sign of civilization for hundreds of miles. The Big Dipper was directly in front of me and seemed so close that it might touch the clouds floating over the earth below.
Yesterday flying out over Moscow I realized that it’s been years since I looked out an airplane window and saw such unfamiliar sights. Tiny hamlets dotted the landscape, each carefully circumscribed by forests and twisting roads. Nothing in the landscape ran in a straight line. Without the overlaid grid that dominates the U.S. landscape, Russian development has been free to follow the natural features of the land. Most of these houses sat close to the street, with a long plot of land stretching out behind them. I read yesterday that more than half of the country’s agricultural production comes from small private farms and home garden plots. I can see how this might be possible looking at the landscape from the air.
In addition to the small homes laid out on irregular streets, large Russian versions of American McMansions were visible from the air. Judging by the number of unfinished homes surrounded by reddish dirt, this is a booming part of the construction sector. Even these homes were on irregular streets, with none of the “lollypop” development we see so often in American suburbs: houses placed close together on quiet cul-de-sacs with only a few feeder roads to connect the subdivisions. Although many factories were visible from the air, I didn’t see a single large parking lot attached to a shopping center or big box retailer.
Although I wasn’t in Moscow very long, and never really made it away from the airport area, I got my first taste of that contradictory Russia I was expecting to see on this trip. On the way from the hotel back to Sheremetyevo 1, we were on a small paved road lined by cargo buildings in various stages of decay. Suddenly, surrounded by a proper wrought iron fence, was a small gilded chapel with a traditional onion-shaped roof. It’s gold was glinting in the sun, easily outshining the drab concrete and dust around it. Further along the road, we went by a copse of white birches, their leaves tinged gold with just a glimmer of the coming fall. The two sites made me wonder if this area had once been the property of a wealthy landowner—and what it might have been like to ride on horseback through the beautiful forest to the chapel that was now part of the ramshackle international airport.