Spring Valley couple Russ and Joanie Betsinger shared the magnificence of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. It was one of the highlights of their trip to Russia. (Photo courtesy of Russ and Joanie Betsinger)
Spring Valley couple Russ and Joanie Betsinger shared the magnificence of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. It was one of the highlights of their trip to Russia. (Photo courtesy of Russ and Joanie Betsinger)

A new world view, focusing on cultural similarities instead of differences, developed in Russ and Joanie Betsinger of Spring Valley as they traveled to Russia for their 36th wedding anniversary celebration.

Traveling abroad, then meeting citizens of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, this pair was offered a unique opportunity to mix this enjoyable cruise with their occupational interests. Russ, a retired chef and food manager, and Joanie, a Fillmore County Public Health nurse and lactation consultant and registered nurse at the Ostrander Nursing Home, found the people they met in Russia to be "wonderful" and their time in Russia was enlightening as well as educational.

"We were raised in the '50s and Russia was our enemy," said Joanie. "The Russian people were often depicted as all spies and we were taught that they were not to be trusted."

Flying from Minneapolis, the Betsingers journeyed to Chicago, Ill., then on to Helsinki, Finland, finally landing in Moscow, Russia. They were escorted from the airport to the ship, the MIS Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a five-stories-high river cruiser accommodating up to 200 passengers and 70 crewmembers. All meals were served in the dining room and additional rooms for the travelers to enjoy included three bars, a large gathering room, plus a variety of smaller rooms such as the library, exercise area, reading nooks and laundry room.

"The food was wonderfully different. We ate lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, some for the first time in our lives!" stated Russ. "Every evening had a different theme with food and costumed crew to go with it."

There was always a four-course meal consisting of salad, soup, entrée and dessert. They were able to choose the food desired from the menu the night before, so usually knew what was going to be served.

"The plating was a work of art," remarked Joanie. "They spent hours making beautiful plates for us that matched the theme of the evening."

With only 42 English-speaking people on the cruise, the Betsingers became friends with people from Australia, Israel, England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Armenia and the United States of America.

Moscow's three-day tour began their adventure. Although the Betsingers visited many sites, their favorite place was Red Square.

"The Kremlin, St. Basil's Cathedral, Stalin's Tomb, a gigantic four sided clock tower, Cathedral Square (which has five cathedrals, the oldest dating back to 1475), and huge shopping mall was all in the Red Square," Russ commented. "We did get to go into the Kremlin, which was the home of the tzars up until the revolution of 1917 and is now the office of the President of Russia. In the 70 acres of the Kremlin one of the many buildings has a hall that holds 2,000 people."

The Betsingers spent hours touring churches, palaces and museums.

Being Catholic Christians, Russ and Joanie were interested to see the differences between the Russian Orthodox church and Catholic church with which they are familiar.

"They have no pews to sit in, so people stand for the entire service," said Joanie. "Painted or tiled icons adorn the church's interior from top to bottom. The icons are painted in a certain order, usually in rows of the life of Christ, the life of Mary and the lives or actions of the saints. We did bring back a beautiful icon painted on linen."

The Betsingers used their "free day" in Moscow by heading in opposite directions. While Russ went touring with the English-speaking group, Joanie met with three lactation consultants.

"It was one of the highlights of the trip for me," said Joanie. "I toured hospital number 25 and number four (no names, just numbers for their hospitals). The hospitals were called 'Women's Lying In Hospitals' and had six beds and bassinets per ward. No nurseries could be found, as the moms wouldn't dream of being separated from their newborns."

She also explained, the Russian medical professionals are very much aware of the fact that babies need to breastfeed very often (every one to two hours) throughout the first week of life. An average hospital stay is seven to 10 days. The most senior or the one with the most experience helps the other new moms with breastfeeding and newborn cares. Russian women have 18 months of paid maternity leave and may have another 18 months off without pay. With national health insurance, the government manages the temporary services that supply businesses with employees to cover the moms' leaves.

Joanie continued, "The Russian lactation consultants say that the most frequently asked question by Americans is, 'Why doesn't everyone have very large families, with those very generous paid maternity leaves?' The average number of children per family is 1.78. The answer they told me was that you have to limit your children because you still have to feed, clothe and educate them. They don't have the social service programs we do and there is no one to go to for cash or food assistance. So you can't have more children than you can take care of. What a novel idea. Personal responsibility is thought to be common sense. Not that I don't think our human services are important, but that in some ways we have allowed people to lose their sense of responsibility. Our system needs some adjustments. Visiting with Anna, Sophia and Maria really brought that home to me."

It was on their fifth day in Russia that the Betsingers actually started down the Volga River, stopping at Uglich.

"Again, we saw several cathedrals and the main one was the burial site of Ivan the Terrible's son," said Russ. "A wonderful choir sang for us in the cathedral. It sounded just glorious."

One of the oldest Russian monasteries, Kirillo Belozersy, was the highlight of the sixth day. "At one time it had over 200 monks and 80,000 acres of land. It also housed the local prison which held wealthy and political prisoners," Russ added. "A small group of monks continue to live and care for the part of the monastery that is habitable."

The Besingers were then on to the town of Yaroslavi, which just celebrated 1,000 years of existence.

Joanie stated, "President Putin came to help with the celebration. It is hard to grasp that our nation is 200 years old and they are five times older."

Two wooden churches on the Island of Kizhi on the Volga River impressed the Betsinger travelers.

"The first one was built in the 1540s and it is a huge 12-story, 22-domed, solid wood church, but the problem was that they burned so much wood to keep it heated in the winter, they were running out of wood on the island. So they decided to build a very low, two-story church with only nine domes for the winter. The large church is used only in the summer," explained Russ.

"There is an 80-foot-high bell tower between the two churches as well as 80 other buildings on the island," he continued. "We really enjoyed going into the houses with the barn on the bottom, the family lived on the next layer, and they worked in the hay loft during the winters. That way, everyone stayed warm."

The ninth day of their adventure took them to Mandrogi, an old village known for its original crafts. "We had a shish-kebab party and wandered the area at our own pace with many other English speaking people. We discovered a hotel that was for sale and jokingly decided we could all chip in together and have a 'home away from home' here," Joanie mused.

At this point, the Betsingers began traveling through a series of locks and dams and entering the Neva River, which took them into St. Petersburg. While ship bound, they kept very busy.

Joanie explained, " I took a Russian language class every other day. The Russian language will never be the same! We didn't learn too well, but we had a lot of fun trying. We also learned some dances, a couple of songs, we had several Russian history lessons, religious discussion and painted a Matryoska (stacking dolls)."

These Russian nesting dolls are among the most popular examples of Russian folk art. They are fashioned entirely out of wood and each doll is hand painted. Matryoska range from three to 40 pieces, with five being the most common for commercial dolls. The original is thought to have been made by a monk in Abramtsevo, near Moscow in early 1890, to amuse children.

Four days in St. Petersburg found Russ and Joanie intrigued with the "Venice of the North," which is said to actually have more canals and bridges than Venice, Italy.

"When Peter the Great started building this city in 1716, in the middle of the marsh as the new capital of Russia, people thought he was 'touched.' He made all the wealthy people build large homes along the canals so the town would grow faster. It is now a city of 6 million people," said Russ. "We took the shuttle to the metro, then the metro all over the city. We caught a couple of wrong buses, but we always found our way back to the ship!"

Russ continued, "In St. Petersburg, we went to our first ever ballet, 'Swan Lake', performed by the original Russian Ballet. The theater was huge with four full balconies, the tzar's balcony and the best part was that we sat center stage in row three. It was so thrilling! There were over 70 dancers and a full orchestra. The music alone was breathtaking. An experience we will remember for a lifetime."

Dance styles changed drastically the next night when Russ and Joanie attended a folk music show called "Bagatitsa." "They started with some very old music and dances and advanced up to modern times," Joanie shared. "The cast of 50 singers and dancers invited people from the audience to come dance, and then they came to the audience and took people to the stage. It was just so much fun. Their sense of humor and love of music made this a very special night for us."

Watching the city light up from the sea was very impressive for the Betsingers as they prepared to say farewell to their time in Russia. "The last night, a fancy farewell dinner was served in the ship's dining room and we said our goodbyes to the wonderful friends we met," said Joanie. "Many invitations 'to come visit' in Australia, Belgium, England and Armenia were given to us and who knows those countries may very well be future trips."

Flying back to Minnesota, Russ and Joanie were tired, yet happy and excited to share their adventure. They started their journey with just the two of them, and now have a whole new list of friends and a new appreciation for the Russian people, traditions and lifestyles. Anniversary celebrations often reflect the journey a couple travels in their life together.

Russ and Joanie would sit with the new foods offered at each meal and "figure out" the ingredients of each recipe.

"After a few nights, members of our English-speaking group would come to our table and offer their suggestions on what the ingredients were in such and such a dish," said Russ. "It was a lot of fun and helped us get to know them better."

Since returning from Russia, the Betsingers have prepared many Russian meals for family members and friends. Russ and Joanie are already making plans for their next trip, perhaps to Italy.

Russ and Joanie have shared two of their favorite recipes from their Russian trip below.

Borsch - Beet Soup

One-half pound finely slivered beef simmered in 3 cups of beef broth for 1 to 2 hours until very tender

1 small head of cabbage

1 large carrot

1 large onion

1 tomato

4 good sized beets

1 tbsp. minced garlic

Julienne or finely chop the vegetables.

Add to beef when the beef is tender with 5 cups of vegetable broth and 2 tbsp. vinegar, 2 tbsp. sugar, salt and pepper to taste.

Cook on low for 30-45 min or until the vegetables are tender.

Dish and add a dollop of sour cream on top.

White Salad

2 large cucumbers, peeled and diced

1 cup of diced cooked potatoes

1 apple peeled and diced

1/2 cup of diced celery

1 small onion diced


1/2 cup salad dressing

1 cup sour cream

1 tsp, vinegar

1 tsp. sugar

Salt and pepper to taste.

Mix vegetables and dressing. Let sit one hour. Serve.