Published: December 16th 2008December 16th 2008
A Russian Airedale
For you Julie -- We found this guy at Moscow State University.
We returned from Moscow yesterday evening and fetched the cat. Rosie’s grown big; she ate well at the Vorontsov’s. They fed her milk and tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce her to pelmeni (a Russian-style ravioli) and sausage. I hope the experience has broadened the cat’s horizons. Maybe she’ll hiss at strangers less frequently. Before we dropped her off there was lots of running around "Have you seen her dinosaur?" I had not. The dinosaur was found and the cat deposited.
I made my first trip to the capital to participate in Moscow State University’s American Studies Conference. I presented a paper on American Golden Age radio, a short synopsis of the first chapter of my dissertation. I read my paper in English. I think I was the only one. Needless to say, the mostly-Russian proceedings left me confused. Even so, it felt good to be a historian again.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez once described Moscow as having been designed by a drunken cake maker. Gigantism, pastels, and excessive ornamentation seem to have been the guiding principles for both Imperial and Soviet builders. The city is beautiful and surreal, and if you walk in circles long enough (and everything in Moscow is
Ironic and nostalgic treatments of the Soviet era are common. This was at the State Universal Store. Laika was the dog the Soviets sent into space and who came back in a fireball.
circular) your head starts to ache. Sveta and I stayed in the University Hostel. A deceptive name for what to all appearances is a palace built for a race of Russian giants. The doors are a couple stories high and just as heavy. Towers spring up all over everywhere. The massive one in the middle can be seen from much of Moscow. Inside, however, things are human size. The accordion radiator in our little two-room apartment ($20 a night!) worked perfectly with the wood floors and orange light.
The first place we went to was the Red Square. Sveta regretted that the necropolis by the Kremlin wall where most of the state leaders and one foreigner are buried was out of reach. American born John Reed (a relation?) wrote “10 Days That Shook the World,” the saga chronicling the birth of the world’s first communist state. His laudatory narrative earned the radical journalist a place in the Bolshevik Valhalla and later an uneven biopic staring Warren Beatty. As expeced Red Square was swarming with people - field tripping students, people looking (Sveta said) as if they had walked straight out of the Soviet Union era, and foreigners in tri-corner
The Lenin Library with head
In the corner of this image of the Lenin Library -- the largest in Russia -- is the head of Dostoevsky, who sits outside.
hats that featured furry interiors and exteriors covered with indigenous-esque art. Lenin was unavailable, unfortunately. We just missed the his visitation hours. From what I understand (and from what Peter will soon see) the masoleum is creepy.
The most excessive example of Moscow gigantism is not in Red Square or in the Kremlin. For that you must go to the Church of Christ the Savior. After his armies defeated Napoleon’s in 1812, Tsar Alexander I decided to build a monument thanking God. Proper gratitude required forty million bricks for seven foot thick walls. These walls were then covered in Finnish and Italian granite slabs, which were attached to the 40 million bricks by means of lead grips. It is a wonder the thing did not sink. The bronze cupola weighed 176 tons and one had to pass twelve gates to get to the church itself. Inside was still more extravegant. The best Russian artists lent their talents and painted the wall. The icons required 442 kilograms of gold. One hundred seventy seven marble plaques narrated the Great Russian military victories. Tsar after Tsar poured the country's wealth in the Church of Christ the Saviour. Alexander I did not live
A small temple atop the palace
This is outside our hostel window. Just a taste of excess.
to see it completed, neither did Nicholas I, or Alexander II. Not until Alexander III in 1883, was the monument at long last ready. The Church was a marvel.
Until the summer of 1931. That’s when Stalin ordered that the Church of Christ the Saviour be torn down. An army of workers wielding hand-held hammers and dynamite worked day and night and succeeded in destroying in less than a month what had took over 70 years to create, and left a gaping hole in the center of Moscow.
The story of giants does not end there. Stalin’s dream was not just to destroy the Church, but to replace it with something that was somehow even bigger. Bigger than the Tsars, bigger than God. Bigger even than the biggest building in United States. The Palace of the Soviets was to be six times more massive than the Empire State building, it was to be crowned with (surprise) a statue of Lenin, which was to be three times taller than the Statue of Liberty. The Palace of the Soviets, including the giant Lenin was to have 150 floors and weigh 1.5 million tons. Inside would be more capacity than New
Going into the Kremlin
Sveta prepares to get lost
York’s six largest skyscrapers combined. Lenin’s index finger alone was to stretch 20 feet.
But unlike the Tsars, Stalin got sidetracked, first starving the Ukraine, next purging the party, and then leading the Soviet Union to victory in World War II. And, as he retreated inside the Kremlin’s walls, the Palace was slowly forgotten. The hole, however, remained. Eventually, Khrushchev filled it with water, creating a popular heated outdoor swimming pool.
In the resurgence of national identity and Orthodox Christianity in the 1990s, the Russian Federation decided to give the pool back to the Church. The Russian Orthodox Church filled in the pool and rebuilt what Stalin had taken away. The Goliath is back, as if it never left. The brilliant interior, however, is gone forever.
These enormous structures are also labyrinthine. The old state department store, now filled with Armani Emporium and other examples of formerly-decadent capitalism, has three vertical levels, but also extends horizontally. Stairs and go up and hallways in all directions. Navigating the state universal store is an exhausting experience.
Of course the epitome of confusion is the Kremlin, which along with the Lenin Mausoleum is opposite the state universal store. Sveta
and I made a last minute Kremlin visit, walking across the bridge and inside the walls of the Russian Vatican. Sveta spent many frustrated minutes looking at our map, and then squinting up at the squares and churches. “It’s designed to mislead!”
The Kremlin remains sealed off. Even if you buy the pass to get in, you cannot wander freely. Take a step in the wrong direction and a guard will raise his hand. Keep going and he’ll blow his whistle. I don’t know what he’ll do after that - no one went that far. The guards, when not whistling their whistles to stop wayward tourists are actually quite helpful.
The Kremlin’s worth it. We skipped the main attraction, the Armory which holds the Hat of the Tsars, and instead checked out the churches. Cathedrals in the West have great windows with stained glass to fill the worship area with multi-colored light. Russian churches have few windows and feel closed up and forbidding from the outside. But inside every square inch is painted in brilliant colors. The illumination comes not from natural light, but from the thousands of tallow candles, so that the church feels warmer, cosier than
Great rooms! And very cheap, but you have to be an invited guest.
the grey stone cathedrals. Also inside, at least the Kremlin churches, are the tombs of the Tsars up to Peter the Great. Peter moved the capital, and so his corpse and those of his descendents rest in St. Petersburg.
In one unfortunate church the walls, sadly, had been whitewashed. Inside the blank walls was a jewellery exhibition. A famous Italian firm dating back to the seventeenth century, Bruccilatti, had its finest pieces on display. The Bruccilatti bling was very popular with the Russians. Later, out on the street I noticed a banner for a whole museum devoted to Jewellery. I guess it's the old, "I don't know art but I know what I like" thing.
The best place in Moscow is underground. I like metros and Moscow’s is the best. Walking the corridors is like moving through a shaft of light. Every station is different from the next. Some are filled with Socialist Realist art and statuary, others with simple Soviet iconography. One station - the Revolution Square -- features statues of workers, peasants, schoolteachers and schoolchildren, as well as border control officer with his dog (apparently a German shepherd). The side and the nose of the dog
Strange to find the fasci, a common symbol dating back to Roman times, in Red Square.
are worn off from the millions of Russian patters who do this for good luck or out of the unknown superstition. A station named Kievskaya (actually three of them) feature pictures from the happy life of peasants and workers in the communist Ukraine of the 1930s, in the time when their real-life counterparts were suffering from hunger and eating each other, as all the food supplies where requisitioned to feed the Moscow metro-builders.
There are more photos below