Subtitled: No big hug, Russian life and Snickers in Red Square
In case you didn’t feel the undertones in yesterday’s blog, Moscow is not St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, to me, at least felt a bit like Europe. I don’t remember if I mentioned it or not, but it was a cross between Vienna for some of its architecture and Venice for its canals and every day use of palaces that anywhere else would be turned into museums.
Moscow is not warm. Moscow is cold. And I don’t mean that in a terribly derogatory sense by any means. But if you look at cities I have loved, they are the type that make you feel warm and fuzzy just thinking about them (Rome, Edinburgh, Florence). Moscow does not do “warm and fuzzy”. There's no big hug. Moscow does a lot of grey cement, block structures. Moscow does boulevards too wide to cross on foot. Moscow holds on to history and displays it in everything it does. This is a city that has an insane amount of pride in its history and will not, or is it cannot, let it go. Now, that’s exactly why I like it.
Back when I started this whole crazy 40th birthday trip, I wrote that I had a huge hole in my world history education. Now that I know more about what Russia and its people have been through, I say “why the hell shouldn’t they show this all off?” I can appreciate the fact that there is Victory Park where military battles won are held in high esteem, the fact that there are military statues and soldiers and coats of arms on just about every building and monument that isn’t nailed down. Well, they’re all nailed down, but you get my drift. I’m just now realizing that they are just immensely proud and they cannot forget. They cannot forget the millions of people that died during World War II (which they call the Great Patriotic Battle of 1941-1945), in numerous wars against Turkey, against Napoleon and the French. Holy cow, Napoleon was here? See, I didn’t know that. What’s funnier is that the Russians commemorate their victories over Napoleon with triumphal arches that so closely mirror the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Napoleon’s celebration of his own victories. Ha!
So let’s just say that yesterday I wasn’t feeling the love. Today at least I understand it better. And I owe a lot of that understanding to Irina, my new guide who introduced me to Moscow. It was a gentle introduction, an easy way to say hello and get to know the city. I will admit right now, this city is just too vast for me to have done on my own. Things I wanted to see like KGB (sorry, FSB now) and Lubyanka prison are just out of the way and would be a special trip with nothing else nearby. For once, it was actually better to do it as a drive-by, which we did. We spent about 3 hours driving around and seeing a lot of the city and even things I hadn’t even planned on.
We of course started off driving by Red Square and the Kremlin walls. The Kremlin, in case you aren’t aware, is a fortress and among many other things including churches, armory and museum, it houses the current seat of the government (meaning, Medvedev works there). We also saw the White House, which is where the Prime Minister (Putin) works. Irina also walked through Victory Park with me, which is a large memorial/museum/obelisk/military park that is meant to honor those who served or were lost in the Great Patriotic War. The other thing I learned is that the Kremlin and Red Square are two separate spaces. Adjacent, but separate.
One of our longer stops was actually at this park, which I think was meant to be a quick walk through. At the far end of the park was a local arts fair. Different arts groups from around the city get together on Saturdays and show and sell their various craft works. Irina thought it would be a non-touristy experience to walk through the different booths and in so doing, I became a minor celebrity. They were all pretty impressed that an American bothered to stop and talk to them and look at their work. A local journalist wanted to talk to me to see how this crafts fair compared to those in America. I deferred on that question, because I honestly don’t know!
We walked our way back to me our driver (who, by the way, is not even a figment of hotttt Sergei!) and we immediately got stuck in traffic. I should say that on weekend days like today in Moscow, the streets are practically empty. We were zipping around the city like we owned the place. During the week though, it is pretty much bumper to bumper traffic everywhere until well past sunset. In this case though, traffic was stopped for a political motorcade, which our driver quickly figured out was Medvedev himself making his way from the presidential home up the road to our left to the Kremlin which was down the road to our right. We were second in line at the intersection, so I could see the half dozen or so chaser police cars clearing paths at well over 60 mph! A few minutes later another set of police cars then 3 armored cars surrounding a limo went whooshing by. It was all pretty impressive, but holding things up for about 15 minutes overall seemed a bit much!
I think Irina and the driver wanted to take advantage of light traffic because we fit in a visit to Church of Christ Our Savior too, which we had planned for Monday. This would save us having to drive or take the Metro out to see it. This church was a church that took 40 years to build. Then in the 30s the Soviets wanted to build a palace there, so they tore it down in 40 minutes. The palace never came to fruition, so it became a swimming pool until the 90s, when it was rebuilt in 5 years. The exterior is white with the shining gold domes, but the interior was really pretty. Instead of just the iconostasis (screen with icons at the altar), there is a smaller chapel at the front of the church with icons built into it. A church within a church, if you will. Alas, I have no pictures as it is a working church and that’s not allowed.
What was really cool was seeing the Olympic stadium from the 1980 Summer Games and the ski jump that is used to practice on right nearby. The entire area around Olympic stadium has become a massive sports complex.
Near the overlook where we saw the stadium is Moscow State University, the most prestigious college in the country, with over 70,000 students enrolled, half of whom are Muscovites. How are those for facts? Actually what is interesting about this was that the main building is one of Moscow’s “Seven Sisters”, one of seven skyscrapers built by Stalin to expand Moscow’s skyline. This is the prettiest of the seven, if that architecture style can be called “pretty”.
Around this time we headed back toward the Tretyakov Gallery where we would spend a good part of the afternoon. But first, about Irina. We got a chance to talk quite a bit. Her English is definitely not as strong as Katia’s and I would say she is a bit older than I am. Oddly enough, she lived in Boston (Somerville) for a year back in 1991, so she is familiar with things like the T, Harvard and clam chowder, all of which she used today to put things in perspective for me. She was astonished at first to hear this was my celebratory birthday trip that I’d wanted to do for ages because she didn't think there was much here to make it a "dream" trip, but then after a while she said that she understood my interest. I have been very fortunate to have had two great guides. I’m really looking forward to the rest of my itinerary with her in the next couple days!
The other point she shared with me that I found a relief and perhaps validation that I have made the right choice. She asked me what made me choose MIR Corp to put my trip together. I told her that I’d gotten quotes on itineraries from both MIR and Exeter International (the top two Russian travel specialists) and that Exeter came in almost $6,000 higher. She was flabbergasted. She said she’s worked for both and there is nothing different she’d do for one or the other, so I’m getting the same tour services I would with Exeter. So other than the 5-star hotels (which believe me, after this bed, I’m sort of nostalgic for 5-star!), I’m getting exactly what I’d have gotten with Exeter. Great news!
Anyway, back to Tretyakov Gallery. We started there with lunch. Irina pointed out to me some typical Russian specialties, so I had chicken baked in a cracker crumb mixture, a Russian omelet (don’t ask, I just wanted protein!) and a cabbage salad with cranberries, which essentially was like cole slaw with no mayo and those weren’t cranberries, I think they were more like lynchberries (is that a word?). Anyway, it was good to sit and relax a bit before we went through the museum.
Non-museum types may want to move along for a few paragraphs. I loved this museum! It is such an odd thought to go into a museum not knowing a single artist or work and come away completely smitten. As I mentioned earlier, there was indeed a shift from painting icons to painting non-religious works on canvas. But artists were so used to 1) painting on wood (as icons could only be painted on wood) and 2) painting portraits of icons that the first attempts to do otherwise were, you guessed it, portraits on wood! For the first 50 years or so it seems that all anyone painted was portraits. No landscapes, no seascapes, no still lifes. Then once artists got exposed to art from Holland and Italy in particular, they started to expand their horizons. And since they were really learning from where they studied, you see a lot of Rembrandt-esque, Vermeer-esque, Monet-esque type work. Nothing terribly original.
I did fall hard for two artists in particular. The first was Repin. His works were so dramatic and told such a story that I just could not take my eyes off of them. His Ivan the Terrible Killing His Son blew me away. And then there was Vrubel, who has an entire room all to himself. He reminds me so much of a cross between a Van Gogh (for the colors he uses) and Klimt (for the look of successionist art). My sister will have a fit when she hears this, but when I said he reminded me of Klimt a bit, Irina said he was a contemporary of Klimt’s so that totally made sense. Just...wow!
Irina is really sweet and doesn’t seem to want to leave me on my own much. Rather than abandon me at the museum and have me make my way back to the hotel on my own, she gave me an hour in the museum by myself and then took me on the Metro right back here, which I thought was great. I threw my museum guidebooks and umbrella in the room and went back out on my own, determined to see the inside of St. Basil’s, despite the fact that Fodors said it is not worth it. Well, they were right, it’s not.
I meandered around Red Square a bit, noshing on a Snickers bar as I was feeling a bit peckish (how decadent is that, anyway? Strolling through Red Square eating a damn candy bar…if only I’d had candy corn, it’d be even better!) I decided then to take a pass through GUM department store. It took me about 10 seconds to realize it’s not one store but actually a collection of several stores, many with names you’d recognize (Burberry, Hermes, Puma). It is more like a mall than a single store. But let me tell you, if you ever do make your way to Moscow, check out GUM’s food department. Good lord, it goes on forever and there isn’t much you can’t buy there! Heavenly!
I then started to head back out of Red Square to find some dinner, and I heard singing coming out of Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. I wasn’t sure if I could or should go in, but I followed another non-headscarf wearing woman in. Now another thing I learned is that Russians worship either standing or kneeling, so there are no chairs or benches in any church. They can also get about 10 times as many people into the floor space. This tiny little church was packed. And might warm, and smelling of incense. But the sense of community and belief and the music that carried them all in there was really heartwarming.
Color me crazy, but I was still full from lunch, so I only had a bowl of borsch (which I am really loving) and a chocolate banana blini for dinner at a Teremok stand I found. I also came across my first Starbucks in Russia. Oh how I ache for a frappucino!
I managed to take some night shots in Red Square tonight, so hopefully those came out as good as the ones from St. Petersburg.
That’s it for today…it was eventful! A bit of a lie in tomorrow as we don’t leave here till