Thursday, 17 October 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: 3k: Moscow (I)

world-map moscow


And here’s something you don’t get very often on UTM; a post that’s early rather than late! Well, the truth is, I’m not likely to have time tomorrow evening due to an appointment with several pints of real ale in a public house or two so I thought it best to send this one out early. And besides, it’s rather fitting too, since a large part of this post is dedicated to drinking beer. I just hope that the people I’ll be drinking with tomorrow are a little less weird than those I met in Moscow all those years ago. However, since at least one of them was with me in Russia’s great city too, I’m not holding out too many hopes…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

european russia 1


27th - 31st August, 2002 – Moscow, Russia

And here alas, did my journal finish. The one that I'd so meticulously kept up for almost two months across an entire continent, the Earth's largest, the backbone of this work, I finally neglected. And now looking back, trying to recapture on paper the activities, accounts and emotions of those days spent in the Russian capital, I find the task difficult. They were memorable days and they were happy days, but they were also days that have blurred together as one. So, I apologise now, that this account is not chronological, not ordered and not the best. Like I was on the journey, I am now with the pen. Fatigued by it all, realising that I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to see all those fine places, but not really appreciating it all as fully as I should be, and instead at the back of my mind, growing ever larger as each day passed by, the desire to settle down, stay in one place for some length of time, to return to a normal, routine based existence. Yes indeed, as we took the train out of Kievskaya station, leaving that famous old city behind, that's how I felt. It was a feeling that had started with the rigours of Uzbekistan and grown slowly, almost unseen, continually...

Continually? No, not continually. For some strange reason, throughout our six days in Moscow, that feeling, that fatigue, just vanished. It was like the start of our trip once more. We were new to it and as eager to explore as we had been back in Korea. Was it the addition of two new faces to our company? Or was it just that this was not Uzbekistan, or perhaps was it simply the aura of that great city itself? Who knows? Not I anyway, but those six days were an oasis of freshness, energy and excitement.

The two new faces were from home. My home that is, not the Lowlander's. One was the Sibling, a twenty-year old art student with whom I've had the good fortune (and misfortune) to share a family, home and bedroom with for the majority of my life's younger years. His travelling was just starting: Japan last year, and Moscow to Bulgaria this. And with him a lady named Hazel whom I did not know, but had once met briefly in the pub (I think). This was her first big trip. They arrived the following day, turning up with the ever-smiling Yevgeny, (who according to Hazel was more than a bit sexy, I never saw it myself), at our hotel room high above Ismailovskii Park. That I remember clearly. The order of the rest is a blur.

We liked Moscow. Not just the Lowlander and I, but the two new recruits as well. The Sibling revelled in the art and architecture. Hazel, well I don't know exactly what it was that she liked about it, but we were assured that like it she did, a lot. The Lowlander even said that he was definitely coming back one day, (and I've never heard him say that about anywhere else except China because it was changing so fast and the Netherlands because he lives there), and I...

I fell in love with the place.

Moscow is without a doubt the finest city that I have ever had the privilege to visit, (well, apart from Stoke on Trent of course, but I am biased about that one). Barcelona comes close, and Istanbul is not far behind, but Moscow takes it. It is a city to see.

I was worried beforehand about the Russian capital. Apart from my fascination with communism, for years I've had a thing about Russia in general and her capital in particular, partially brought on by her great literature, partially her music and partially something else unknown. This was the one city, more than all the others on Planet Earth, that I'd longed to visit. Yet that was bad. How many times have you built your hopes up about a place, formulated some mystical image of it in your mind, only for the reality to be a bitter disappointment? Such had been Kyoto, Bukhara, Amsterdam and Athens for me. And the cities that I loved; Hong Kong, Manila, Thessalonica, Urumqi, Barcelona and Istanbul. Those I'd no prior expectations about.

Yet Moscow broke the mould, and it broke it because not only did what I'd expected to find there did I find, but there was much more besides that I'd not anticipated. What I'd visualised was the socialist city; Red Square, Lenin's Tomb, the Seven Sisters... For Tsarist history I could go to St. Petersburg. And yes, the Red stuff was there, but so too was the City of the Romanovs, streets that echoed the pages of Tolstoy, Goncharov, Bulgakov and Pasternak. And the mediaeval Russia too, shades of Ivan the Terrible and the glory of Orthodox Christianity's Third and Final Rome, the Holy City of onion domes and icons. Yet that too was not all, for here, unlike in the countryside that we'd passed through from Orenburg, were the signs of the new Russia, the latest era in a history of epic proportions. The latest chapter in the tale of a great country that is trying to re-establish its position in the world.

In fact, our Moscow highlight was but five years old. That was the mighty Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, completed in 1997 in time for the city's 850th birthday under the auspices of the flamboyant mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. Originally, the cathedral was built between 1839-83 to commemorate the Russian victory over Napoleon, but Stalin, who was big on the old secularism blew it up, planning instead to erect a 'Palace of the Soviets' in its place, complete with a humongous statue of Lenin. That never got built though and instead all that filled the space was but a swimming pool.[1] When the USSR fell in 1991 however, it wasn't long before there was talk of rebuilding, with Yuri Luzhkov presenting the job to his favourite architect, Zarub Tsereteli. The result is a huge white Orthodox edifice topped by golden domes and decorated with scores of modern icons and images of the holy. We wandered around the mammoth interior, our heads fixed upwards, before descending the steps to the vaults beneath where an exhibition of the cathedral's past and an art gallery were hosted. The whole complex was magnificent and a fine addition to Moscow's panthenon of architectural masterpieces.

Or so we thought.

Our guidebook however, had other ideas.

'Just as Francois Mitterand left his mark on Paris through a series of mega-projects such as the Lourve pyramids and La Defense, so too Mayor Yuri Luzhkov wants to leave his mark on Moscow. However, to date his ‘mark’ has been more akin to what canines do to signal their territory – at least from an aesthetic view'[2]

moskva06 The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

It then goes on to give it's open and balanced opinion on one of Luzhkov-Tsereteli's other big projects in the city: The Peter the Great Memorial.

'Impossibly ugly, ungainly, and lots of other unfavourable adjectives, the 60m statue allegedly depicts the Russian ruler on the prow of a stylised boat. In reality, the monstrous pile shows a strange blob of a man on an even blobbier boat with sails that look like so many sheets hung out to dry.'[3]

Now wait a minute! We had a look at that monument and whilst it is undeniably huge, 'blobby' is not an adjective that I'd use to describe it. 'Different' yes, 'exciting' too, and perhaps 'brave' as well. But 'ugly' and 'ungainly' no.[4] Such attitudes really piss me off actually. So the guidebook writers don't like Yuri Luzhkov, fair enough. I don't know enough about the guy myself to pass an opinion, but one can guess... But surely the character of the man and the things that he's had built are two different kettles of fish entirely? It doesn't stop there though. These fine recorders of all things touristy also have a word to say on the city's famous Seven Sisters, ('Stalinist neo-Gothic monstrosities'[5]), and in the Eastern Europe on a Shoestring guide that I also possess, Ceausescu's Palace of the People in Bucharest is similarly lambasted. Now I'm sorry, but this annoys me. Ok, so everyone's entitled to their own views on architecture, and I obviously think differently to those that write the guidebooks. I know that I think differently to many people about buildings since I actually agree with Prince Charles on the subject and what's more, when I visited Rotterdam some years back I was far from impressed by its renowned Kijk Kubus (Cube Houses) which I considered ugly, impractical, gaudy, egotistical crap. My comrade from nearby that metropolis takes the opposite view and on more than one occasion have we argued about the matter. No, diverging opinions are great, but what is not great is firstly when a writer of a guidebook thrusts their view on you and secondly, when I suspect that it's not really the building that they are criticising.

moskva05 Luzhkov’s folly or Zereteli’s masterpiece? The Peter the Great Memorial

Or maybe they are? Ok, I can see why some would not like the offspring of the Luzhkov-Tsereteli marriage. But the pattern that I see here is more a tendency to criticize buildings erected by those leaders who sway more than a little towards dictatorship. Stalin ordered it? Well then, it's an abomination! Ceausescu, it's monolithic. Mao, ugly and imposing. Fair enough, so these guys weren't exactly the gentlest and sweetest that the world's ever seen. But is it right to criticize what they ordered to be built, just on the basis that they were evil? Methinks no. But such criticism gets even more hypocritical when it comes to age. Suharto, Lenin and Hitler; the evil minds of the modern world get their contributions to the architecture of mankind pulled to pieces, yet the world's largest mass grave, the Great Wall of China, or the Pyramids, (whose construction it is reckoned cost thousands of lives, they just can't decide whether these were human or alien), why they're ok! So what if the people who ordered them to be built were complete bastards? It was so long ago that no one can remember! No, I'm sorry but whilst Stalin was bad, his Seven Sisters aren't. Luzhkov is full of himself, but his contributions to the Moscow skyline are great, precisely because of that, and the government of South Korea, whilst having produced a successful and dynamic modern country, are pitiful when it comes to producing good architecture and it is virtually in this field alone, in which they lag far behind the pitiful North.

Near to the Peter the Great Memorial is Gorky Park, made famous in the 1980s by (what was in my opinion, a rather crap) novel by Martin Cruz Smith of the same name. Crap or not, it sold and so the place is now known to all Westerners. Not that it's anything special mind, it is after all, just a park, largely green with trees, bushes and other similar vegetation, but at the far northern end there is one little gem to be found, and find it we did. The Sculpture Park.

Now to be honest, I'm not really a sculptures kinda guy. I've looked at a lot, from the blobby works of Henry Moore to the finely chiselled pieces of Ancient Greece, and I'm sorry to say that most have left a similar impression on me as say, a Genesis album. Not bad, but not brilliant, and certainly not something that I'd go out and buy.[6]

But I am a sucker for the old Socialist Realism, and that's what this place was largely full of. Old Soviet statues collected by artists, and then turned into new works of art symbolising the new realities in Russia. Old-time generals mingled with modernistic stick men and heroic soldiers fought with eco-warriors. The most haunting however, was a large proud-standing Uncle Joe Stalin, looking with confidence towards the future.

And surrounded by the stone faces of his victims, locked in rusting iron cages.

We so liked the place that we visited it twice, (well, maybe the second trip was due more to the fact that it was free?), the first to look at and admire the creations of the modern Muscovite artistic community, and the second to put Stoke City shirts on the Lenin and Stalin busts and have our photos taken next to them for the next issue of Famous Stoke City Supporters. 'Stalin is a Stokie!' Cool, eh?

moskva04  moskva03 The Sculpture Park in Gorky Park

Whilst in Japan, two of my closest friend and drinking comrades had been Russian. Dimitri Charikov and Natalia Dorozhkina, partners in many a barbeque, evening meal or game of football, had both been born and brought up in the country that was now hosting us. Not that that means a lot mind. The Russian Federation is a big place. (Correction, oceans aside, it is the biggest place). They both hailed from cities as near to Moscow as Dallas is to Stoke on Trent, but if you're Russian, then have roubles, will travel, and whilst there was no Dima or Natasha in the capital, (well ok, there were millions actually, but none that we knew personally), there was an Olga Vlasova who was Dima's cousin and wanted to meet up. And so, one evening, the Lowlander and I waited outside the Bolshoi Theatre to meet our Russian contact.

The Russians are of course, a strange, extreme and somewhat eccentric people, their history being littered with the flamboyant and the weird, from Rasputin to Stalin, Ivan the Terrible, the False Dimitri, the Second False Dimitri, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov and of course, those rapers of the Russian skyline (if you are a guidebook writer), Luzhkov and Tsereteli. Considering such a heritage, I suppose I should have expected something, but... but well, Dima had seemed normal enough.

“I'm Olga,” said the thin young lady, who greeted us outside that most famous of theatres. “But all my friends call me 'The Mouse'.”

“'The Mouse'?”

“Yes, 'The Mouse', because I love cheese! I adore it! I eat cheese everyday!”


Olga escorted us to an atmospheric bar on nearby Bolshaiya Dmitnovka Ulitsa that smacked of Bohemianism. There was a small bookshop selling arty works of world literature upstairs, whilst downstairs students and others with scarves around their necks and ethnic clothing on their torsos, drank and discoursed. This was more Parisian than Muscovite and was yet another indicator as to how European the Russian capital truly is.

And it suited our Olga down to the ground, for if the establishment had an aroma of Bohemianism, then she positively reeked of it. We soon learnt that apart from a daily dose of cheese, she also slept at irregular hours, was a vegetarian and had a love affair with St. Petersburg where she would often pop off for a weekend, spending her time at the Hermitage or gazing at the buildings. This was intriguing since I was fast falling in love with Moscow because of its cultural assets, so how did Leningrad compare?

“Moscow is fantastic too, but St. Petersburg is better. Oh, it's amazing! You should give up the idea of going to Bulgaria and instead work in St. Petersburg! We could get an apartment together and eat cheese everyday!”

Hmm... Perhaps. Maybe St. Petersburg was not such a good subject to dwell upon.

“So, how long is it since you've seen Dimitri?” I asked, considering cousinly common ground to be a good idea.

“Oh, far too long! Years! Last time he returned to Vladivostok from Japan, I was here in Moscow. It's such a shame since we are very close. I love him so much, even more than I love cheese!”

And that was evidently a very strong bond indeed. I made a mental note never to relate her admission to Natasha.

The following night we were back with the Mouse in the Bohemian Bar. Or at least I was. The Lowlander was feeling sick, but this time I was joined by Hazel and the Sibling. And our rodent-inspired friend was not alone this time either, bringing with her Bohemian self, several Bohemian friends as well. And so it was that the beer and vodka flowed and we enjoyed one of the most, erm, interesting drinking sessions of our lives, where the topics dipped and swirled like the patterns on Olga's friend's tie-dye T-shirt, from literary criticism of Dostoevsky and appreciation of the pictures in the Tretyakov, to one young man's announcement that, “I am not racist. I just hate niggers!”

“Excuse me?” Only a moment before we'd been on the emergence of the Cyrillic alphabet.

“I hate niggers.”

“But how can you hate niggers? [Being British, that once harmless word made me cringe.] There's none here to hate.”

“I hate their culture.”

“What's wrong with it? Tribal beats, the brightly-coloured costumes, primitive faiths...” (I'd have expected such Bohemians to dig such things, baby).

“No, not that, I mean rap music, R 'n' B, the ghetto culture, that sort of stuff.”

“But that's not fair. I hate rap too, but most 'niggers' don't rap. Most are in Africa. Why blame them for the travesties in music that rap, R 'n' B and hip-hop are?”

He thought about this for a moment. “Fair point,” he said, “I don't hate niggers. I hate Afro-Americans.”

But is his view all that bad? Well, erm, yes it is, or at least it is in my opinion. What it is not however, is unusual. Visitors to Eastern Europe are regularly shocked by the overt racism displayed by otherwise well-educated and sophisticated people, (like this guy). Gypsies, Jews, Blacks, Arabs, Turks and 'the Yellow Races' all are considered fair game, and those people who wonder how could so many have assisted the Nazis in their Final Solution, wonder no longer if they visit the vast majority of countries from whence the Jews and Gypsies were taken. To us it is shocking, unexpected. Yet, should it be? After all, it is us who have changed, not them. Talk to many British pensioners and you'll still hear tirades against the Papist, warnings that 'The Jew likes the feel of money in his hands' and a reassuring belief that the White Man is of course superior to his Black, Brown and Yellow cousins.

But racism aside, the night was good and we emerged onto the street a satisfied threesome indeed, before taking a long taxi ride through the dark streets of Moscow back to the Ismailovo Hotel.



moskva33 Drinks with the Mouse and her friends

Next part: 3l: Moscow (II)

[1]Humble though the swimming pool was, it was also much loved by many Muscovites. Later when writing this account, I talked to members of the Russian Consular Staff in the Varna Consulate. They lamented the pool's demise, saying that many's the happy winter's day they spent swimming in the now demolished pool.

[2]p.196 Lonely Planet: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. 2nd Edition, April 2000

[3]p.196 Lonely Planet: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. 2nd Edition, April 2000

[4] To be fair to the detractors though, there is one tale that may well be true, and that is that Tsereteli designed the statue as a monument to Columbus. Problem is the Americans weren’t interested in buying it. For a few modification in detail and price though, Luzhkov was.

[5]p.192 Lonely Planet: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. 2nd Edition, April 2000

[6]N.B. Not including the very first Genesis album, From Genesis to Revelation which is not only something that I would go out and buy, but in fact something that I have gone out and bought. And very pleased with the purchase I was too.

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