When traveling somewhere I usually have a basic idea of what the surroundings will look like along with the way of life, whether it be a 3rd world country or a westernized local. There may be some culture shock involved, depending on where I go, but that's taken into account. Likewise, I knew Russia would be quite the experience, but I never realized that it would be unlike any country I've ever visited.
The effects of communism are ever present. Moscow is a spectacular city with some of the most beautiful architecture I've seen yet. The metro stations are works of art. The streets are spotless, the gardens are well groomed and even the guards are periodically checked (clothes adjusted, hat set straight, face wiped clean) to ensure perfection. But 5 feet outside of the city center is an entirely different world.
The world outside of Moscow city center is one filled with row after row of tall gray dilapidated buildings, 20 year old cars on the brinks of death, potholes the size of Montana and unkempt yards. Granted, not all of Russia is as extreme as the picture I'm painting, but a large portion of what we saw is exactly how I described.
No matter where we were, every person we passed on the street (and there are MILLIONS) walked by straight faced. I made it a game to smile at them to see who would smile back; all I got in return were odd looks. But the moment a conversation started it was easy to see that they are the warmest, sweetest people who'll give you the shirt off their back and leave you with a hug and well wishes.
I'm so glad I was able to see both extremes, and that all my time wasn't spent in "tourist Russia" - Moscow- which is the Russia the former communist leaders wanted the world to see. And in doing so, it was easy to see past the rough exterior, which was presented, into the heart of Russia, which is warm and inviting.