The message here is clear, and it is delivered right away. It is: WE ARE NOT KIDDING.

As the plane is landing at Sheremyetovo Airport, the flight attendant announces for the second time, in urgent tones, that picture-taking is forbidden in the terminal. Once there, we see immediately that the prohibition will be enforced: Young soldiers with green hats are posted five feet apart along the route to the exit. We wonder why. It is, after all, a civilian airport.

At our state-run hotel, the Rossia, we are given not keys but passes. We must give the passes to the floor-lady, who gives us our keys, which must be surrendered when we go out, in exchange for the passes. It is a matter of great gravity, we find out when we come back from dinner in an ornate restaurant once frequented by Lenin. An old gentleman in a uniform will let no one enter without a pass.

We wonder about it and inquire of Nina, a blond theatrical producer whom we enounter at the Bolshoi Ballet.

"The hotel is for foreigners," she explains. "If the foreigners do not have passes, Russians could enter the hotel and use the restaurants and the lobby and the restrooms."

"What is wrong with that?" we asked. "It is their country."

It has not occurred to Nina to resent the fact that Mother Russia, having provided the basics, treats her own like stepchildren.

We did not ask any such questions of our Intourist guide, Olga. She was a no-nonsense, no-makeup Soviet woman of about 35, and she disapproved of us enough as it was.

We got off on the wrong foot with her by requesting to go to Russian Orthodox Sunday services at the Church of All Consolation.

"Why do you go there?" she asked disdainfully. "We have many more beautiful churches, and that one is a functioning church."

The church was packed with worshipers, many of them older women wearing babushkas. The air was full of incense, and the people bowed and crossed themselves with great fervor. Two choirs sang antiphonally in beautiful harmony from each side of the church. We wondered how many hours of clandestine rehearsal they spent each week.

Olga's fears were confirmed. An old woman finally found a Russian speaker among us and said to him, "We are glad to see foreigners here. I am a believer and have suffered much from it."

Olga took us around Red Square, which is spectacular and unexpectedly colorful, its vastness softened by the gleam of the gold domes of the czarist churches that stand behind the crenelated walls of the Kremlin.

And tucked in one corner is an exquisite architectural confection that looks like a picture from a fairy tale. It is St. Basil's cathedral, which has nine domes, each gaudier than the next -- one red and white rick-rack, another in a swirl of green and gold.

Olga showed us the headquarters of the KGB, which houses the dread dungeons of Lubianka prison. It is a gracious 18th Century structure, painted a pale yellow.

Among ourselves we fell into a mild argument about where we should go next, Lenin's tomb or the World War II museum.

"This should be decided democratically," Olga said, causing derisive laughter. She took another tack.

"Here is the difference between Americans and Russians," she said. "When I take Russians around and they can't agree, they let me make the decision, and they trust me. You are so -- so individual."

We passed by stores with no goods in the windows and lines everywhere -- for vodka, for bread, for Lenin's tomb.

Leaving Moscow on my own, I stood in a long line before the customs point. I thought the Russians would observe the rigid English rules of fair play. That was not the case. People broke in laterally all the time. They indicated they were with someone who had been waiting or had been there all along. One man was an unmistakable crasher. He was carrying a pair of antlers the size of the airplane cabin we were all hoping to achieve. He went boldly to the barrier and was admitted.

After 40 minutes, in the American way, I began to complain. "What is going on here?" I asked loudly.

A white-haired woman behind me, who knew a little English, sighed and shrugged. "Are they party members?" I asked. She looked at the floor.

In Russia, you don't ask. They are not kidding.