So, our first full day in Moscow. We all slept in since we were all exhausted. Got up around 10:00 a.m. and my brother made us breakfast. He then took us to Red Square so we could see all the sights. The main points of interest, in my humble opinion, are at Red Square–St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s Tomb and the Kremlin and Kremlin museums.
As we sped towards downtown, the location of Red Square, I was amazed at how Moscow has changed in fifteen years. Back in 1999, the ruble had collapsed and the Russian economy was teetering. It had only been a few years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new Russia was taking its first tentative steps into a capitalist economy and a free society.
As a result, everything was dirt cheap, nobody spoke English and there was little economic activity. Now, with the escalation in oil prices and the rapid development of the oil industry (along with the attendant incredible wealth), Moscow has become a city of the future.
We drove past New Moscow City which is an area that was slated for development to take pressure off the old downtown that is hundreds of years old and void of the necessary infrastructure. I was amazed at the skyline of New Moscow City. It reminded me of Dubai, although the number of high rises didn’t compare. Yet the unique designs of the skyscrapers along with the fact that they even existed only served to underscore the difference between 1999 and 2014.
Along the route we also saw condos and apartment towers and other office buildings along with shopping centers and massive billboards advertising undergarments, exotic perfume and flashy cars. What a change.
Tony dropped us off in front of the entry to Red Square. Walking up to the Square, Barry was giddy with excitement. He kept exclaiming how his dad would probably freak if he were alive now–yet how he’d be thrilled and green with envy knowing his son was in Red Square. As a die-hard conservative Christian man, he was avowedly anti-Communist, yet fascinated by the regime that was so closed to the world.
Red Square is exactly that–a red square. Although not quite an actual square. The walls surrounding Red Square are red brick, hence the name. And there’s millions of them in this wall. The entry is very opulent and once you walk through said entry, the first thing you see in St. Basil’s Cathedral in the distance. It’s onion-domed spires are painted in every color of the rainbow. As you walk closer, it becomes even more spell-binding. I had been unable to visit St. Basil’s in 1999 because it was under renovation.
To get to St. Basil’s, one must walk through an exceptionally long plaza. For those of you who remember the former Soviet Union, this is the plaza where Soviet leaders would parade their arsenal of weaponry in a faux show of military might. The images one might remember of thousands of people watching tanks and gunnery moving through the square used to instill fear in the West–until the Soviet Union collapsed and we realized how bankrupt everything about their system was. Including their military bravado.
St. Basil’s has to be seen in person to be believed. No photo can do it justice. The colors are so vibrant and the onion domes so unique that it can’t be captured with a mere Sony camera. I was surprised to find out that each of the domes represents a different church inside the cathedral. Upon entering (it costs about $10) there is no real cathedral inside with a normal pulpit, choir loft, pews, etc. It was a bunch of small worship-type rooms filled with all sorts of Christian memorabilia. Every wall and every ceiling was adorned with paintings and these paintings were basically floral in scope. Truthfully, I found the inside to be kinda boring.
We were unable to enter Lenin’s Tomb because it is closed on Mondays. I’m going to get there if it kills me. I visited Moscow in 1999 and couldn’t get in to the Tomb. I’m not going to let that happen again.
From St. Basil’s we visited the GUM (pronounced “GOOM”) Shopping Center. During Soviet times, this was a large department store called “GUM”. But it carried mostly bland, monotone clothing and over-ripe fruit. Now the building has been refurbished to bring out its glorious architectural design. Inside one will find nothing but designer stores–Lancome, Gucci, Armani–and high end restaurants. The building is breathtaking and inside is beautifully decorated with flowers everywhere–on the floor, in flower boxes (FLOWER BOXES!!) and hanging from a gazebo.
I couldn’t help but consider the irony of the GUM shopping mall. It’s no secret that, during Soviet times, capitalism was a dirty word. Everyone was equal–equally poor and repressed. We all know how bankrupt communism is. During Soviet times consumer goods were shoddy or non-existent and life was bland or monotonous. This was in addition to human rights violations.
Now, the juxtaposition of mass merchandizing on an elitist scale inside the belly of the communist beast is perhaps the nail in the coffin of communism in Russia. The fact that this immense icon to capitalism overlooks the Tomb of Lenin is delicious. As Barry and I kept chirping throughout the day: “We won, dammit!”
OK, enough of that. Out we went to Red Square. Upon exiting GUM, we saw another smaller church right before the exit out. We opted to enter and check it out. A word of advice–don’t ignore the little churches because oftentimes they have something to offer that you don’t expect.
In this case, for my money, I was moved by the level of veneration by the people who entered this church. I saw dozens of people entering, bowing and making the sign of the cross and bowing before they walked out the door. Many would turn and bow again outside the church. There were also many older believers who would kiss the feet of a painting of Christ and make the sign of the cross and pray. I was captivated by this. I saw older pensioners, twenty-somethings (which I loved), middle-aged people expressing their faith unabashedly, conspicuously in front of so many tourists. We were unable to photograph anything inside the church.
It was inspiring for me as a Christian. I don’t really see that in America. Yes, we have mega-churches and we have people serving and venerating in their own ways. But when I see people expressing their faith in such a way, taking time out of their day to have a moment alone in their heart exalting, thanking or worshipping God, I was touched. I’m not the type of person who goes for pomp and circumstance, ritualism or legalism. But witnessing this in a former officially atheist nation was beautiful. As I’ve said in other postings, dictators, governments, despots can do their damnedest, but they will never extinguish the heart of the people. This is especially true of spirituality. I saw these people as individuals who were openly expressing something that had been squelched for decades. For generations.
So it wasn’t just the irony of capitalism laughing over the grave of Lenin, it was the irony of intense spirituality, openly expressed having the last “laugh”, if you will. People like Lenin will always be relegated to the trash heap of history where they belong.
OK, once again I started pontificating! Sorry!
From there we exited Red Square to get to the Kremlin. We walked by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Eternal Flame. Yes, Russia has one of these, too. From there we stood in line for an hour to get tickets for the Kremlin museums. It was about $30 to get tickets to see them all and it is worth every single penny.
While in line, I struck up a conversation with the gentleman in front of me. He was Pakistani and a professor of entrepreneurialism at Cal Berkeley. He also taught in Turkey and Pakistan. When he found out I was American, he asked where I was from. I always answer “West Coast” because so many people I meet in Europe are familiar only with the East Coast. Obviously, he knew where Oregon was. The first thing out of his mouth was, “Is Portlandia true?”
I had to sheepishly admit that, yes, to a degree Portlandia is true but it’s Hollywood’s view of Portland and it’s embellished. I then mentioned less embarrassing aspects of Portland like downtown and the Pearl where the normal people live.
After we got our tickets, we entered the Kremlin. The Kremlin is in Red Square. The red brick wall I mentioned envelopes the Kremlin, too. When we entered, we had to go through a metal detector. I’m not sure why; I guess it’s because there are so many government buildings inside. There were policemen all around making sure that we didn’t walk in certain areas since some of the buildings are still used for important functions.
We took photos of beautiful gardens and Russia’s version of the Liberty Bell. Yes, they have one of those, too. I get the impression that Russia is impressed with some of the monuments we have so they replicate them!
There are a number of churches inside the Kremlin walls. This surprised me. I kept remarking to Barry how interesting it was that, for an officially atheistic nation, so many cathedrals remained intact. Indeed, some right inside the very bowels of the center for communism.
Yet there they were in all their white glory with dazzling golden onion domes. We went into all of them save for one which was presenting an exhibit on Indian jewels. We were not allowed to take photos in any of these cathedrals in the Kremlin.
After visiting these cathedrals (there were about five of them), we went into the armory which is the location of all the chariots, gowns, capes and coverings for the horses. These pieces were extraordinary. Blankets and head coverings for horses were intricately sewn with gold threads and pearls. Gowns and official capes worn by tzars, kings and queens were similar. Hair pins were festooned with jewels. The level of opulence was unbelievable. No photos were allowed in any of these facilities.
We also saw Russia’s version of the Liberty Bell. However, their bell was from the 1830’s. I didn’t find it too impressive. Just a big bell sitting on the ground. I couldn’t help but feel like they were stealing our ideas. First the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, then the Eternal Flame, then the Liberty Bell. Hmm.
The room with the chariots was vulgar with opulence. These chariots were inlaid with gold with velveteen seats inside. The carvings were so ornate that I couldn’t figure out what in the name of Moses they were trying to depict. Many of these chariots were used by Catherine the Great. Some of them were gifts.
The astounding level of wealth for these individuals was kind of sickening. Their subjects lived in poverty and yet the leaders of the nation were living grandiosely, eating off gilded utensils. Is it any wonder that Boshevism, Socialism and Communism swept into power?
OK, pontificating again.
After the armory, we went to the Diamond Room. I remembered this from my 1999 visit. At that time I had a private tour guide. When she brought me into this exhibit, it literally took my breath away. Inside were display cases showing chunks of gold and silver, piles of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies. The jewelry from the tzars and royalty was inconceivable. There were brooches made of rubies in the shape of a butterfly with every detail appointed. There were rings with sapphires the size of a silver dollar. There were many other pieces of jewelry with every precious stone imaginable depicting a rose or some other item. Crowns with 5,000 diamonds were on display. I observed each one intently marveling over the workmanship.
This time, however, the tour had been changed. The piles of gems and gold were gone. There were still hunks of gold on display, but they were placed separately. The jeweled cases were still dazzling, but not as much as the piles of jewels before. I did see a “map” of Russia made in jewels. I found it so interesting that this map had already been updated to include the recently annexed region of Crimea…
By this time, it was after five. We were starving. Across from Red Square is an underground mall with some stores above ground. I was so hungry that I went to McDonald’s and bought a Quarter Pounder with a small fries and a small Coke. For those of you who know me and know what a food snob I am, this was tantamount to walking on my eyeballs over live coals. McDonald’s? In Moscow? Across from Red Square?
Where’s my razor blades?
We then walked to Old Arbat, an historic district not too far from Red Square. I had also been to Old Arbat back in 1999. New Arbat is a ten lane highway leading to Red Square. Old Arbat parallels New Arbat for a distance. As I mentioned earlier, Old Arbat is a district full of street performers, artists, outdoor cafes, shops and hucksters. It took me awhile, but I found it. It was getting late and my brother was waiting for us so we didn’t see much of it.
Tony had been waiting for us at his apartment we hailed a cab. Now you don’t hail an actual cab in Moscow because cabs are so pricey. Instead, I did the same thing I did back in 1999. I walked up to the street and held out my hand from my side with the palm facing backward. In less than a minute a car pulled up, I told the driver where we needed to go, we negotiated a price and we hopped in and took off. The price was 500 rubes which is about $15. Not bad considering we had to drive halfway across a city of 13 million. Picture driving halfway across the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area.
These drivers are individuals who want to make a few extra bucks. They’ve got some time so they’ll pick up a hitchhiker. It’s very safe, like I said, I did it back in 1999 after attending the Moscow Circus. It was late and I had no idea how to find my hotel. A guy in a car picked me up and took me straight to my hotel for the equivalent of about five bucks at the time. It’s part of the new economy we’re seeing in Oregon and the U.S.–people offering a one time service to someone who needs it, independent of government oversight.
Anyway, after getting in the car, I called my brother and had him speak to the driver who knew no English. I wanted to the driver to know for sure what our destination was. To make a long story short, the guy got us home quite quickly where Tony made us a dinner of spaghetti featuring his pasta sauce.
We then sat up all night and once again listened to my brother tell us hilarious stories from his amazing life as a Canadian expatriate traveling the world as an oil industry executive. I’m trying to get him to work with me on a book about his life. We could connect it to my book. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Tomorrow my brother takes his Ferrari in for some work. I’m going to try and tag along so i can get a photo of myself inside. I know. I’m living vicariously.