From Russia with Amicable Regards

The famous, onion-domed towers of St. Basil's Cathedral

The famous, onion-domed towers of St. Basil's Cathedral

So I’ve made it back from St. Petersburg, once again successfully navigating the various Russian metro and train systems to arrive back at Jim & Laura Hutchinson’s apartment.  Refreshed with a shower and fresh change of clothes, I headed back out into the streets of Moscow to meet up with a Russian couple outside the Kremlin.

Natashia and Leon are Muscovites I met during my train ride back from St. Petersburg.  Natashia was returning home from visiting her grandmother and she and I shared a cabin on the train.  The train left at 10:20, and I had intended to get to sleep early, as I’ve been desperately short on rest.  I discovered that she spoke a bit of English and we ended up talking until about 1 AM.  It was fascinating to hear a local’s perspective on her country.  She would often simultaneously disparage and commend Russia.  She claimed that post-USSR life in Russia offers many more choices and freedoms for people, but when I pushed to hear her opinion about comparing the quality of life now to life under soviet rule, she was hesitant to say that it was any better now.  “Who is to say it is better or worse now? Do you think your life is better than your parents’ or are your parents unhappy with their lives?  It is just a different life.  We each have a life to live and enjoy, and we have little control over anything else.”  I was taken aback by the wisdom in her words.  I had expected to hear a reinforcement of my opinion that things are so much better for Russia with freedom and newfound affluence.  No more long lines to enter shopping centers empty of all but a few shoddy products.  No more fear of the KGB crashing through your door because of suspicions of dissidence.  No more strict, drab dress codes.  In fact, what she said echoed my own drum that I’ve been beating for years: happiness is a decision, it’s not dictated by circumstance.

She also seems convinced that Russia will eventually revert to heavily authoritarian rule, if not fully communism.  She mentioned how throughout history countries get divided and then reunited.  Already Russia has cracked down heavily on many of the freedoms that accompanied the introduction of glasnost.  The Kremlin has bought out the major news networks, and pretty much everybody knows that the nightly news is nothing more than pro-government puffery if not outright propaganda.  Wired Magazine sized up the situation well in an August 2008 article about the Russian government’s harassment and censorship of an outspoken blogger, Sergey Gorshkov.  Russia is a “petri dish of soft authoritarianism, commercialism, and shady cronyism…”  I think it’s remarkable that Gorshkov is still alive, given a recent history replete with suspicious murders of muckraking journalists.  Even from my limited perspective, I find it easy to believe Natashia is probably right.

We even talked a bit about religion and I tried explaining what the Bible says about salvation.  It was a bit challenging as she didn’t understand the words “grace” or “saved” and words like “faith” and “works” needed extra explaining.  I tried explaining that because heaven is a perfect place and humans are imperfect, there is no way for a human to earn their way or achieve some status where they deserve to enter heaven.  No matter how good we live our life, it will never be good enough.  In the end though, I think I failed to adequately explain what repentance is and that though works are not required for salvation, a believer will do good works.  The conversation ultimately got to be too difficult to continue, but we both were impressed that we were able to navigate through the language barrier to even discuss something as complicated as religion.

I met her husband, Leon, when we arrived in Moscow, and he invited me to join them around 11 at the Kremlin for some sort of ceremony.  He works with PR for the Kremlin, something I found to be ironic considering his and Natashia’s less-than-rapturous view of the government.  So, with hopes that the ceremony wouldn’t result in my recruitment into the Russian army, I agreed to meet them a few hours later.

I was a bit unsure of the exact location where we were supposed to meet, and I arrived right at 11 without a minute to spare.  They had described something that was “near the entrance that was wide and white where you buy tickets.”  Well, the Kremlin is rather large, with several entrances, but I eventually deduced that it was a sort of mini tower-like pavilion with a long ramp leading up to the Kremlin.  By this time though, it was well past 11:15, so I figured I had missed them.  My phone will only work where I can get a wifi signal, so I had no way to call them either.  A bit disappointed, I walked back towards the entrance to Red Square, but halfway there I ran across them.  They informed me that everything in Russia tends to be late.  It is just the way of Russia.  Everything except the trains, that is.  I found that the trains ran on schedule to the very second.  In fact, I watched the time when we were leaving St. Petersburg, and our train lurched forward at the exact instant my phone turned to 10:20.  Anyway, we made our way back to the Kremlin’s entrance where he tried to get me in with his family.  He talked to his friends at the gate, but apparently they were checking passports.  Anyone without a Russian passport had to get an entrance ticket.  I also had to get rid of my backpack and camera.  Cameras were allowed but with a maximum lens size of 70 mm.  Mine is 72.

We finally made our way up the long rampart and through the thick walls of the Kremlin.  These walls stretch for over 2 kilometers and are up to 15 feet thick.  Twenty distinctive towers punctuate these walls.  Once inside, Leon pointed out some of the buildings and landmarks as we made our way past the president’s residence to a large plaza where the ceremony was to take place.  The plaza was located between some government buildings and a couple of churches.  This is yet another example of the incongruity that I found in Russia.  The Kremlin is essentially a large, walled fort with all of the major government buildings inside.  But then there are also a few onion-domed churches thrown randomly into the mix.  Red Square is another good example.  It is the epicenter of Moscow, which is the epicenter of Russia.  Like most capital cities, it has its series of gardens, fountains, plazas, monuments, etc. to signify its importance.  It also has a large, bronze benchmark, marking the center of Moscow.  I’ve seen this sort of thing before in places like Washington DC and Paris, where these city centers are marked with grand style, aligned in perfect symmetry with long concourses, distant monuments, reflecting pools, etc.  In Moscow, it appears to be a sort of afterthought, placed somewhat off-center in the alley leading to the gates heading into Red Square.  To one side is a row of pay-per-use port-a-potties.  The famous Red Square itself is an oddly mismatched place.  The entrance is formed by an appropriately-impressive red building.  The far end is terminated by Russia’s most famous landmark, the colorful, onion-domed St. Basil’s.  One side is formed by one of the walls to the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb, but the opposite side is formed by the lavish GYM, a huge shopping mall.  Not exactly the sort of thing you expect at a major government landmark.

We made our way to the plaza where things were taking shape for the ceremony.  Neither Leon nor Natashia seemed to know what the ceremony was about, and nobody we asked seemed to know either.  There was quite a bit of media coverage getting set up, so I figured it must be something important.  Natashia said that it was just some sort of generic ceremony, kind of like what you might see at Buckingham Palace, but that it was a rare and special treat for Russia, where things are not as open.  As we moseyed into the plaza, a double line of soldiers goose-stepped their way up the walkway, with us standing in the middle.  They then stood at ease, and we continued our way out to the plaza, feeling rather important with a line of soldiers on either side of us.  We found a spot on a raised platform and waited for 10 minutes in the bitter wind and whipping snow.  I was feeling very Russian.  Finally, the ceremony started.  It turned out to be pretty entertaining.  A marching band played with remarkable skill, especially considering the brass players had to cope with the cold.  A dress guard performed a long but very precise routine of marching formations, complete with gun flipping and tricks.  Then a troop of horses joined the scene with an impressive show of… well, synchronized trotting.  After the ceremony a news crew spotted Natasha & Leon with their cute 4-yr-old boy and descended upon them to get some B roll material to bolster the feel-good piece for the nightly news.

We parted ways, and I went into one of the Kremlin museums partly to see a collection of treasures from India but mostly just to warm up.  The displays were indeed impressive, but I wished I had time to visit the Armory which houses the real bling, including several of the famous Faberge eggs.  Unfortunately, this area sells out quickly, and I had planned to be back to the Hutchinson’s so we could head out for dinner.  I strolled through one of the crowded cathedrals.  It was crowded with both tourists and dead bodies.  The entire interior was painted with various religious scenes.  I found it interesting that the towers and onion domes were hollow, and even the inside of the domes were painted just like everything else.

I left the Kremlin, fetched my bag and camera, and walked back through Alexandrovsky gardens and into an underground shopping mall at Okhotny Ryad for some coffee and chocolate mousse cake.  I sat in the rotunda center of the mall, next to a large two-story fountain and stained glass domed ceiling.  From there I walked towards what I thought would be the Kitay Gorod metro station, but ended up being the Tretyakovsky proezd, Moscow’s upmarket version of 5th Ave.  Not at all interested in Gucci bags or Bentleys, I continued another block to where I had a great view of the infamous Lubyanka Prison, powerful symbol of the former KGB.  The circular plaza in front of the building used to hold a statue of Felix Dzerzhinksy, founder of the Cheka which became the KGB.  The statue of this ruthless man was torn down by angry mobs in 1991 leaving the circle rather naked.

I took the nearby metro station and made my way back to the Hutchinson’s.  We’re planning to leave shortly for an authentic Russian meal in the Arbat district, then a stroll through the shopping area of old Arbat and perhaps a visit to Victory Park.

2 Responses to “From Russia with Amicable Regards”

  1. Joscelyn Says:

    So when do the Greece photos start? I’m checking daily in anticipation! 🙂

  2. Ken Says:

    uploading a few today… Don’t have enough time to get everything up yet. Getting up at 5:30 to catch a train and then a boat for a 3-island tour tomorrow.

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