Mother Russia was once called the sleeping giant of the East. Now she's wide awake.
Making headlines in the news due to its recent spat with a former Soviet state that is leaving thousands dead, Russia has come under international scrutiny. President Bush called the state's invasion of Georgia, which has a pro-Western government, "unacceptable" in the 21st century.
From my cruise ship docked on the Neva River in St. Petersburg, I watched the breaking CNN reports of the invasion on television with Russian citizens I had befriended during my two-week stay.
The jolly bartenders and rainbow of onion domes I'd come to associate with Russia nearly faded from thought as an eerie fear of old Soviet totalitarian regimes crept over the American-filled lounge. Georgia was requesting American support to boot.
Dinner was tense that night on Aug. 8.
Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and the English sat at tables with Russians for a delicious meal of salmon and robust vegetables while the West eyed Russia from afar. We chatted about the opulence of the Hermitage and the peace of Catherine's Palace - anything but the invasion.
I tried to keep in mind the statistics Inna Gritsenko, a Russian history professor at Taganrog State University, had shared with me. From aboard the cruise ship that sailed along the Volga River from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Gritsenko said a 2006 opinion poll from the Levada Center reported 62 percent of Russians maintain a generally positive attitude toward the United States.
Gritsenko said since Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991, most Russians perceive the United States as the "epitome of freedom," despite its "simpleton" president. But surprisingly, the professor and others also spoke freely against the many failings of the Russian government.
It seems Russians are no longer afraid to voice their desires for democracy as their teenage government struggles to mend Russia's shaky image in global affairs.
Moscow vied for the honor of hosting the 2008 Olympics, and even shared a spot on the final list of three host cities along with Beijing. Despite former USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika policies, which called for a transparent government and economic reform, Russia is balancing on a tightrope under the guidance of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev.
While the invasion of Georgia may be a step back for Russian diplomacy, it is clear capitalism is alive and well in modern Russia.
As one of the world's leading producers and suppliers of oil, Russian oil companies are enjoying windfall profits thanks to the global surge in demand for crude oil.
In Moscow, visitors to Red Square can watch the filthy rich "new Russians" - young Russians who have quickly amassed great fortunes since 1991 - flit to GUM department store, strutting in high heels and designer skinny jeans while cradling pricey handbags.
I was surprised to find a stark contrast among Moscow's 15 million residents.
The vast majority live in small block apartments, some of which were shoddily built by the Soviet government far from the city center. Yet others reside in sparkling high rise apartments that cost them millions, but vacate their city dwellings Friday afternoon for their countryside "dachas."
Gritsenko said Russia turned out nearly 40 new billionaires this past year. And last week, a Russian billionaire purchased a $750 million home on the French Riviera - the highest price ever paid for residential real estate in the world.
As one Russian artist put it, the money is in Moscow, but the art is in St. Petersburg.
Five million people live along the winding canals of Peter the Great's prize city, which is sometimes called "the Venice of the North."
Famous for the decadent domes and mosaics of the Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood and St. Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2003. Once the capital of Russia prior to Communist years, St. Petersburg oozes with art.
The Hermitage Museum, once home to Catherine the Great but now home to one of the world's largest art collections, rivals Versailles in elegance and artistic splendor. Rembrandts, Rodins and Monets are just some of the millions of pieces that fill the baroque palace.
Fyodor Dostoevsky called St. Petersburg home, writing of its child-like dreamers who guard its sparkle. Ballerinas still grace the city's stages as ebullient orchestras float the masterpieces of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker" up to the rafters.
Aleksander Pushkin's poems and fairytales remain the pride and joy of Russians young and old.
A common misconception Westerners have of Russia is that Moscow's Red Square was named in connection with the Communist Party's red banner. But hundreds of years ago when the square was named, red was the common word for beautiful.
Although roused from its winter slumber, to many, Russia remains an enigma.