I had been eagerly looking forward to interviewing Robert Drumm, CEO of Alexander + Roberts, to hear his views on current events from his perspective as head of the company that has done more than any other to promote American tourism to Russia since the 1950s.
As explained elsewhere, Alexander + Roberts, under its previous name General Tours, was the first American tour operator to offer tours into Soviet Russia in the 1950s. It began in the early years of the Cold War, while there was a Red Scare blazing in the United States. Popular figures at the time were being blacklisted, prevented from earning a living, for even the suspicion of sympathies with the Communist Party at any time in their lives. It took a lot of courage for Alex Harris, the founder of General Tours, to launch tours to Russia in that climate.
Bob Drumm started working with Alex Harris in the ‘80s, and in the 1990s Harris passed the baton to him to head General Tours. Drumm continues to head the company today, as Alexander + Roberts.
I had a good conversation with Bob, and afterwards poured a cup of tea and opened Spotify for some music to play while writing. I opened the “Soothing Classical Music” playlist, scrolled down half-consciously and dropped my finger on a selection. It was Swan Lake. It had started to play before I made the connection that it’s a Russian ballet. The grand emotion of Swan Lake swept over me, with a wave of sadness.
Over the last several weeks the horror and suffering of the Ukrainian people has overshadowed everything else. But at that moment, in addition to the tragedy of Ukraine and of the Russian soldiers who have also been thrown into the fire, I felt another kind of sadness—a sense that we have lost Russia. A new Iron Curtain is drawing around it.
I fear that we will not have Russia to visit anymore. We won’t have that openness that we had for 30 years. And that is deeply saddening.
I’m grateful that I was able to visit Russia a couple of times while I could. World travel has been more accessible during the last 30 years than ever. I have often wondered if we may someday look back and realize that it was an extraordinarily fortunate, but temporary, benefit. Will the exhilarating freedom to travel of the late 20th and early 21st centuries prove to be the way of the future, or just a passing Golden Age? Already we are seeing Russia removed from the tourism map. Hopefully we won’t see a further closing off of the world.
General Tours/Alexander + Roberts took Americans to Russia throughout the entire Cold War, through all the tense confrontations between the superpowers. Now for the first time, it’s not happening.
Bob Drumm told me, “We had trips to Russia booked, but we had to refund them or move people to other programs.”
The company had a land program, did a lot of private custom travel, operated a small ship on the Volga, and had a Baltic cruise with St. Petersburg and the Baltic countries.
“All that Baltic travel is gone,” he said, “and of course anything in Russia proper. We had to cancel them. Who knows how long this war will last? And there’s no air service. It’s not operating at all in Russia. And it’s limited to Eastern Europe. There is little to Poland, Romania, and Turkey.
“This is the first time political events stopped General Tours from taking people to Russia.”
The company even had a group in Moscow in 1993 during the attempted coup against Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president of Russia. The group was staying at the Hotel Ukraine, across the Volga Canal from the Russian White House, when it was shelled by tanks under the control of anti-Yeltsin forces, killing 147 people and wounding 437.
We had people on the ground during the tumult around Yeltsin,” said Drumm. “We were there, at the Hotel Ukraine. There were quite a few tanks and a howitzer set up in the parking lot. We had to evacuate our guests through the kitchen. One of our staff people commandeered a school bus to get us out. In those days you could to anything, if you had cash.”
Hearing Swan Lake brought home the sadness of losing Russia. During all the violence and destruction in Ukraine, the idea of losing Russia has not been top of mind. On the contrary, the idea of going there was not attractive at all.
But when I heard Tchaikovsky’s music, it cut through the concepts and abstractions, and the anger that made me want to cut Russia out of my mind. Music bypasses the mental barriers and goes straight to the heart. And in spite of all this, I still love Russia.
I could never calculate how much pleasure and enrichment I have gained from Russian literature and music. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev have been important people in my world.
When I traveled to Russia in the 1990s, I was able to greatly amplify my connection with those artists by going to the land that produced them.
I had felt a great intimacy with Dostoevsky through reading his books. When I went to St. Petersburg, I was able to walk the streets described in the novel Crime and Punishment and experience them for myself—deepening the experience of reading his books.
I went to his last apartment where he lived with his family until his death in 1881, where he wrote The Brothers Karamazov. It was set up much like it was when he was living there, and there were photographs to verify that. There were exhibits on the walls of the hallways and many artifacts from when he lived there, things that he knew and handled. There was a note that one of his children had written to him and slid under the door of his study when he was writing, asking him to come play with her. There was a tangible sense of his presence. It was a phenomenal experience for someone who already felt a connection with his spirit through his books.
I still have that experience, and will always have it, even if I am never able to go to Russia again in my lifetime.
In Moscow, I attended the Bolshoi; and I have that too. Whenever anyone talks about Russian ballet, I know that I was there. I saw the ultimate, definitive ballet.
I don’t want to lose Russia. Russia is a fantastic country. Culturally it’s extraordinarily rich, while at the same time mysterious and enigmatic to the Westerner’s mind.
I recently read an interview of Stephen Kotkin, a scholar of Russian history who has written a huge biography of Stalin. He said, “Russia is a remarkable civilization: in the arts, music, literature, dance, film. In every sphere, it’s a profound, remarkable place—a whole civilization, more than just a country.”
And yet, he acknowledges that what is happening now is not uncharacteristic of Russia’s history. Russia has gone through cycles of imperial expansion, leading to overreach, followed by contraction. It’s had its brutal strongman leaders from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin, and now Putin seems to aspire to be as terrible as his predecessors. That’s the way it is.
In spite of all the ways my country has been pitted against Russia, and all the ways the Russians are incomprehensible to the Western mind, I love that culture and all it has given the world.
Even if it’s true that the Russian people support Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, and believe the framing of events that he is just defending them against the West, which wants to destroy Russia—even then, I love them. Even as their leader launches social media campaigns designed to disrupt American society and turn us against each other, I still love Russia.
There are world events that most of us can only observe, with little power to affect. We don’t get to choose the times we live in. It reminds me of something Jean Paul Sartre said in a letter to Simone de Beauvoir.
“Look back, look forth, look close, there may be more prosperous times, more intelligent times, more spiritual times, more magical times, and more happy times, but this one, this small moment in the history of the universe, this is ours. And let’s do everything with it. Everything.”
I hope that we don’t lose Russia for very long.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.