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Moscow

We had been planning a trip to Russia since last winter and even though our experience with the Russian consulate last May was, at best, terrible, we were looking forward to the trip. Lynn was looking forward to it with great anticipation; I was looking forward to it with fear and trepidation. During World War II, Russia, or more correctly, the Soviet Union, may it rest in peace, was our friend. Iím a bit younger than World War II, which the Russians call the Great Patriotic War, and by the time I became aware that there was a world beyond my neighborhood, the Soviets were our mortal enemies. We were scared to death of the Soviets when we were kids. No wonder. We had monthly and sometimes weekly air raid drills where we had to either hide under our desks or go into the windowless hallways making sure we didnít sit in front a door with glass because the glass could shatter and cut us to shreds when they dropped their bombs on us. The doomsday clock was two minutes before midnight. (Itís now five minutes before midnight, recently upgraded [downgraded?] from seven minutes and is at itís worst position since 1991, thanks in part to the brilliance of the current occupant of the White House.) At any moment there could be Communists coming down our street ready to carry us away. Boris Badenov was a famous cartoon character. Anything Soviet or Russian was inherently evil and inspired fear. And then, and then, Americans became collectively embarrassed when they beat us into space with Sputnik in 1957 and then again in 1961 when Yuri Gargarin became the first human in space during a sub-orbital flight. Along with a suitcase, this is the baggage I carried with me to Russia.

Moscow moves at a frantic pace. Itís not chaotic like Rome, but itís easy to get bowled over by traffic and people. Drivers are totally lacking in courtesy, weaving in and out, leaning on their horns, and generally encouraging a tourist not to notice that most the city appears rather rundown. The area around Red Square and the Kremlin is, as one might expect, a showcase, but, generally speaking, the city is not in good repair, it seemed to me, even though there was a citywide renovation in 1997 for its 850th anniversary. Our guide, Kate, a native Muscovite, was as nice as she could be, but everywhere we went we were pushed and shoved while going through revolving doors or lining up to get on an escalator. The hotel provided breakfast and dinner buffet style, and while getting our meals, Lynn had her toast knocked off the plate she was carrying. Another time, some other joker knocked her arm while she was filling a coffee cup because he reached over her for the milk. Unlike our British cousins who apologize even if you bang into them, here nobody ever acknowledged they had done anything. On a couple occasions, we spent evenings out, one at the Moscow Circus and another at National Russian Dance Show, both of which were excellent, and we wondered who all these smiling and happy people were in the audience because we seemed to see none of them on the street. Even the first person we encountered in Moscow, the woman in the money exchange at the airport, was pretty miserable. I asked to change Ä100 into rubles. The sign said I should get 3410 руб back. She gave me 3250 руб and a look like I had just assaulted her mother. I donít even know her mother but I felt pretty dirty anyway so I wasnít about to question the amount.

The hotel we stayed at was built for the Olympics in 1980. You may remember those games. Or you may not. The U.S. didnít win a single medal because we didnít participate. Something about invading Afghanistan. Anyway, the hotel looked like something out of Las Vegas. In front was an enormous statue of that famous Russian, Charles de Gaulle. I donít get it, either. Slot machines were all over the lobby and a casino was nearby down the hall. The lobby, crowded at any time of the day or night, was also frantic. The hotel looked like it was magnificent, though very gaudy, in its day but it seemed to us that no maintenance had been done in the 27 intervening years.

A book we read before we left warned us that the police have the right to ask for passports and other documentation at any time for any reason. One of those weekly hotel throw-away guide books said the same thing. So did Kate, our Muscovite guide. It was really drilled into our heads. On the night we went to the circus, Kate thought one of the people in our group had left the hotel without her passport, and she became very alarmed. It doesnít provide for a warm feeling. We were warned not to even go to the supermarket across the street to buy water until the hotel returned the passports after processing. We especially needed the water because we were also warned not to drink the water from the tap. After filling the tub and seeing that the water was some splendid shade of rust, we understood. We didnít even really have to fill the tub because in the sink and the tub, the white porcelain under the spigots was something akin to the same lovely rust color.

Iíve gone on here for more than 800 words about general awfulness making it sound like we had no fun. I donít want to leave that impression because after forgetting about all the above which admittedly wasnít easy, we had a lot of fun.

We entered Red Square which is really a rectangle. Refer to this picture. Red Square is the A. Itís just outside the Kremlin wall which is the southwest boundary. Along the Kremlin wall is B, Leninís tomb. We really wanted to go there but it was closed to visitors on the day we went. Stalin also used to be buried there when he was a designated good guy. Nikita Khrushchev subsequently designated him a bad guy so he was removed. Now, heís officially still a bad guy but maybe not as bad as he used to be because they sell souvenirs with his picture. There were also souvenirs with Osama bin Ladenís picture but I didnít even touch those. The C is GUM, pronounced "goom" rhyming with room. Itís a department store. Our guide referred to it as a museum with prices because everything is so expensive. We stopped in there for a quick, easy lunch at a Sbarro (СБАРРО in Cyrillic). All we wanted was a slice of pizza and a Coke. We stood in line for 30 minutes.

The D is St. Basilís Cathedral which is a sight to behold. The onion domes are seen in many places in Russia but this one youíre most likely to be familiar with. Itís more than 400 years old. We went inside where there were several rooms to wander about in. For a building that old, it wasnít surprising that the floors were very uneven and it was difficult to walk around. The inside isnít nearly as large as might be expected from the outside.

The Kremlin is inside the area bound by the red lines. Pun intended. "Kremlin" derives from a word meaning fortress and it has walls from 16 to more than 60 feet high and 11 to 21 feet thick. The perimeter of the wall is almost 1.4 miles. Breaking in is highly discouraged. The area bounded by yellow is where a visitor is permitted to walk. There are a host of cathedrals in here which, our guide said, have different purposes. Inasmuch as they are all Russian Orthodox, I donít know what "different purposes" means. During Soviet times, they werenít used as cathedrals.

The green line bounds a building known as the Senate. Unlike in the U.S., the Senate is not a legislative body. That would be the Duma located a few blocks away. The Senate is the official "residence" of the president. Itís really his office. He lives elsewhere in Moscow and when he commutes to work in the morning, traffic is stopped. Our guide said itís not known where in this building his office is. You can see a street between the yellow line and the green line. It was crowded that day but nobody was in the street. Donít even think about crossing that street.

We visited a Russian Orthodox church called the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer. Russian Orthodox churches have no seats; parishioners stand during the services. This one has room for 10,000 people. You can see that the outside is pretty spectacular and the inside is the same but no pictures were allowed. This building was under construction from 1994 until 1999. The original cathedral on the site was built between 1839 and 1881. So what happened to the original? My mind boggles at the wanton destructiveness of some alleged humans. It took more than 40 years to complete the original, itself a masterpiece, but Joseph Stalin, then a designated good guy, decided in 1931 that it had to come down in favor of a "Palace of Soviets." This was to be a building more than 1,000 feet tall topped by a 300 foot, yes a 300 foot high statue of Lenin. Hereís what 300 vertical feet looks like. That's some statue. Big surprise: it never happened due to technical difficulties. It became an outdoor swimming pool until construction began on the current version.

This was the first trip weíve taken that was a guided tour so there were several others in our group. The right mix clearly enhances a trip and the wrong mix can wreak havoc. Happily, we had the former. Besides Lynn and me, we had Monica from Croydon, England, and Kim from Sydney, Australia, two women who were schoolmates in Malaysia from the age of 12 (or 11, they couldnít agree on which). Also, there was Ann from Liverpool and her daughter Eleanor from London. Our trip was much better because of them.

On our last day in Moscow, we went to the train station for the five hour ride to St. Petersburg. The big event on this train ride was that the downpour in Moscow ended and the clouds completely blew away. Had we taken this very same ride a week later, we would not have fared quite as well because this was the route that someone blew up, allegedly Chechen rebels, sending 38 people to the hospital.

See all my pictures of Moscow.

See videos from Moscow.

 

© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008