The New Zealand paua shell heading is back – so, so are we. The re-entry checklist is ticked off. The jet-lag no longer an excuse. The weather is too grey to tempt me into the Labour Weekend ritual planting of tomatoes …. so what better to do than (at last) start posting about Russia.
As I try to sort my photos and impressions, I remember something reassuring. Almost every time any one of our Russian guides told us a story about something or someone, she would say – “of course, that’s only one story. There’s another, our local version, which goes….”
So, if I now am constructing my own versions of a land of complex and complicated histories – I am in good company!
The short itinerary: We flew into Moscow from Zurich, and yes – the driver was in the airport, holding a sign with our names on it. That was a good omen: all the other arrangements were equally smooth. We stayed a couple of nights in a central hotel (remarkably quiet) as a base for sightseeing trips around Moscow.
Then, five days cruising down the Baltic Waterway , stopping at villages along the way, till we reached St Petersburg and had three days exploring there.
So – what to make of our three-day version of Moscow? People!
The “resident” population is nearly three times that of New Zealand… and the “work-day” population is twice that again. The variety of people you see is much like any large city – but oh, those who’ve got it know how to flaunt it.
Traffic! Four lanes each way in the centre city … park where you can … ride a bike or scooter at your own risk.
Architectural surprises. The recent history of Moscow is written in stone. In order to cheat Napoleon of his prize and deny him a foothold, the people of Moscow burned their city. So apart from the churches and a few other buildings that were protected or spared, the bulk of the city’s architecture dates from post 1812. A two-hundred-year-old city, on 900-year-old foundations.
Then of course Stalin also set out to erase history.
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (famous now for the Pussy Riot Performance) was built to celebrate Napoleon’s retreat, then demolished by Stalin, and rebuilt in the 1990’s.
Other churches were demolished in the Kremlin in the late 1950s, to make way for a grey monolithic Party Congress Hall, which is now a Concert Hall. Stalin had other major intended demolitions, which fortunately were stopped.
So, it feels like a four-era city: A few precious buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries; a Paris-like city (sweet irony) from the mid eighteenth century; the symbolist post-revolution and Stalinist architecture (love the building which, looking down on it, is laid out in the form of a tractor!); and of course, the see-them-everywhere modern buildings.
The Moscow Metro is a story in itself – so I’ll post that later.
Public statues and monuments are quite a recent development.
Rather, it used to be that to celebrate anything or give thanks for anything, you built a church.
Pre-revolution, Moscow had 800 churches. Post-revolution, there were 200 left standing, 80 of those as active churches, and the rest converted to other uses. Church photos are coming up in another post.
Live music; sequins, white top-hats and tails on the dancers; no animal acts – except the horses who seemed to relish being the moving platform for acrobats; trapeze and tightrope artists high up in that ceiling, contortionists … all you could imagine. My only disappointment was the clowning. I had thought that to be an international language – but somehow it didn’t translate. Perhaps Russian humour is an acquired taste? See below for some samples.
The taxi ride there symbolised Moscow traffic. The show started at 7.30. “It’s about 15 minutes drive away”, said the hotel concierge, “So you’d better leave at 6.30.”
“Oooh, no”, said the taxi dispatcher, “that time of night… better make it 6.10”. So we did, and by 6.30 there we were. But later we heard of fellow travellers going in the other direction who’d taken 70 minutes for a 20 minute journey. No matter, it gave us time for heaps of people-watching, and the best hot chocolate I’d ever had.
Other great people-watching: the wedding parties. Friday and Saturday are big days for weddings – and it was getting close to the end of the season for outdoor parties – so they were everywhere! People have either church or civil ceremonies – or both – but, as our guide said looking at a bride whose bosom was leaping out of her gown “hers must have been just a civil ceremony, she’d never get into church in that!”
Crossing the canal on the way to the Tretyakov Gallery (of which more later),
is a bridge with trees of padlocks.
The custom is that after the wedding, the bride and groom place their padlock onto the tree, and throw the key into the canal.
I was reading that the authorities in both Paris and Venice have been busily removing padlocks from the bridge railings. A made-for-purpose avenue of padlock trees is a joyful alternative.
The ritual is for passing strangers to demand that the bride and groom kiss – and as they do, to count out loud.
It worked each time, once we’d mastered the pronunication. The duration of the count is supposed to indicate the duration of the marriage (or the number of children – “it depends on which version of the story…..”)
And the stretch limos … they’re an event in themselves.
Strange though, even the wedding parties, champagne in hand, weren’t smiling much, even when we smiled and saluted them.
We asked whether Muscovites are by nature sad, or grim, or unfriendly. “Oh no – it’s that people who smile a lot are thought to be stupid.” Uhuh … as an inveterate grinner I must have impressed an awful lot of people with my imbecility.
Or perhaps that’s just expected of tourists.
Of the building which used to house the KGB – “This is Moscow’s tallest building – you can see Siberia from here.”
“Russia has two seasons. A green winter and a white winter.”
Of St Petersburg which is notoriously rainy… A visitor asks “When is summer here?” A local responds “It’s already happened, but I was working that day.”