Author Archives: dtabb1973

Moscow: One last bit of wandering

November 2, 2017

The last day in any place is always bittersweet. I want to be home, but I don’t want to waste the opportunity of time in another place. My responsibilities in that place have ended, but my email threatens to enchain me as soon as I return home. Of course, the thought of my loved one at home makes me weak in the knees! I tried to be realistic with my plan for the last day, but reality had a few surprises in store for me.


A view of “Moscow City” from my hotel room

Ditching the luggage

Saying farewell to the Korston Club Hotel was no challenge. I would not have to hold my breath to avoid the smell of smoke as I exited my non-smoking room. I would not have to endure more self-promotional posters on every surface. Most of all, I would not have to listen to more of their advertising jingles in the elevator. After a heavy breakfast at their buffet, I strapped together my 26 inch roller back, my backpack, and my laptop handbag and rolled across the street to the park. The weather had finally changed from drizzle to clear skies, but that also meant the temperature had dropped. I rolled down the paved road to the metro stop and bought metro tickets.

To start the day, I navigated to Paveletskaya, the train station in SE Moscow from which I would catch the Airport Express train to DME airport. I had realized only the night before that I was leaving through DME rather than SVO. I’m awfully glad that someone at the conference asked me to confirm the airport! Paveletskaya required me to switch between the red train and the circular brown route, and this time I was doing it with all my luggage in tow. I hit some runs of stairs that were less than pleasant, given all the gifts that now occupied my bag. In any case, I was at the train station pretty quickly (despite having gotten on the brown line in the wrong direction at first).

Obviously I didn’t want to tow all that freight throughout the day, so I found the luggage storage office. I panicked at first because I passed one that had obviously been out of operation for years. Once I reached the right place, though, I learned that I needed to show my passport and pay 270 RUB in cash to leave each bag. I swallowed my pride and shoved my laptop back into my backpack, surrendering only the roller bag. Now I was free for more ambitious navigation! I hopped the green line into the city center.

My plan: the Kremlin


No, Marx has not been exiled from Moscow!

My goal was pretty straightforward. Since my flights to South Africa began near midnight, I had the entire day to play. I would enter the Kremlin to see the classic buildings inside! I popped out at the (Bolshoi) Theatre exit. I paid my respects at the statue of Marx in its square. As I walked past the State Historical Museum, I heard a loud voice advertising its neighbor, the 1812 War museum (when Alexander I faced down Napoleon’s troops). I continued with steadfast determination.

Next, I saw the line for Lenin’s tomb. It seemed I might get through in an hour or so. I passed onward to Red Square and gazed again at St. Basil’s Cathedral. Hadn’t I seen an entry to the Kremlin on this side? I could not see where I could enter.


It is hard to photograph St. Basil’s without a mob of people!

In any case, I thought I should probably plan for lunch before going in so I would be fully fueled for exploration. I walked past the GUM mall again, this time to the block on its side away from Red Square. I saw a few churches, but it seemed I had moved substantially away from the tourists. I found a pleasant restaurant for lunch, and I lingered over a meal of eggplant casserole, flower tea, and bread. I have been re-reading the “His Dark Materials” trilogy from Philip Pullman, so I read for a little while. The restaurant played an album of covers by a band with a mellifluous tone. It was surprising to hear a soothing version of “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. I wondered if I should tell the waiter of the time I was driving in a parking lot when Jack White jaywalked in front of me.


Tomb of the Unknown Soldier


My father in the late 1960s

Now fed, I was ready to enter the Kremlin! I entered a set of gardens on the northwest face of the fortifications. I paused respectfully at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I looked at the soldiers standing guard and reflected that my father might have played some similar role during his time as an Honor Guardsman in the U.S. Army. I continued on my way, seeing raised places in the marble sidewall to represent particular cities in Russia that were home to particular struggles, such as Stalingrad. Of course, the names were written in Cyrillic lettering, challenging my ability to sound them out. After two weeks in Russia, I found it a lot easier to sound out many words, though some of the complex sounds stubbornly resisted my efforts to memorize them.

I reached the bridge for entry to the long axis of the Kremlin at last, but something was wrong. The staff entrance was live, but tourists could not enter. Instead, I saw a signpost indicating that the Kremlin was… CLOSED? I was uncertain whether the change reflected an ordinary Thursday or was due to preparations for the century anniversary of the October Revolution (which is in early November, by the modern calendar).

Well, figs!

Interlude: Dave attempts an alternative plan.


This baptism from a millennium ago has had far-reaching consequences.

The sunlight was lovely, and even though the breeze was cool, I decided to continue to the massive statue of Vladimir I that I had seen from the far side of the road a few days ago. It did not disappoint at close range. It has very dramatic detail, and some trick with his eyes makes them seem to peer right at the observer. I was able to examine the panels of relief behind him, and I saw that his baptism as a Christian was certainly the aspect of his rule that the monument celebrated. I encountered an Indian tourist, and he and I took photos for each other. He mentioned that the museum of 1812 was pretty interesting. I looked to the south and saw the massive church with five golden spires at the side of the Moskva River, another tourist site I had considered for the afternoon. I turned my back and walked the length of the Kremlin back to the 1812 museum.

It was closed.


Spoiler: Napoleon withdrew his troops at great cost!

In the absence of a plan, Dave improvises.

I wandered a bit in the area beyond the museum. I knew it was an area that offered interesting shopping, so I pushed into those neighborhoods. I asked a shopkeeper about bookstores in the area, and she pointed me up the road on the opposite side. I’d found her suggestion approximately a block and a half later. The shopkeeper greeted me by replying that she had no books in English. I pointed to one on the table and suggested that I’d enjoy taking a look. She shrugged. My interest in the shop grew as I realized she had large-scale posters from the Soviet era hanging around the upper shelves. I found books of smaller versions, but no poster tubes. Her shop seemed to have a fair number of history books, but of course they were in Russian. In the end, I found three books that I wanted, at “non-tourist” prices:

  • A book of fairy tales by Pushkin, one of Russia’s favorite authors
  • A book detailing the life of an American who served as a nurse in Siberia during the Russian Civil War
  • A book showing postcards from a variety of Russian cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

As my brother might once have exclaimed, “SCORE!” I was ready to check out when the sales clerk uttered that word that brings so much terror to the visitor: “Rubles.” No, my credit card had no value. Happily, the nearest bank was within sight.

I realized on my jaunt to the bank that the neighboring shop was also a bookstore. I found the copy of Lonely Planet’s Russia for 1800 RUB (just over $30). That might have seemed a better deal before this trip. I considered getting their “Eyewitness Top 10” for Moscow (I liked the St. Petersburg one), but I was again out of cash. In any case, this shop had piles of English-language books, but they were almost all paperback. I moved on up the street.

Sharing Lubyanka with filmmakers

Just like that, my feet had returned me to Lubyanka Square. The memorial service was a memory. The center point of the service, a stone set in the square to remember victims of political executions during the Soviet Era, was surrounded by red flowers (chrysanthemums?) and bottled candles. I was reading its sign when a young Russian asked me if I could move to the side. He and his cinematographer were filming an older gentleman, relating his narrative about (one presumes) a friend or relative who died during the Soviet Era. I didn’t have anything in particular to do, so I sat at an out-of-sight park bench to watch their work.

It seems that the director was adopting a cue-and-response interview. Occasionally they would stop the older gentlemen, re-set to another camera angle, and then restart. The gentleman seemed to be willing to humor them, even shooting some “B-Roll” of his wandering in an arc around the stone monument. From time to time, the older gentleman or the producers would shoot an eye in my direction. Given the location (in front of the KGB building) and the presumed material, I realized they may be concerned that I was watching them for reasons other than my whimsical nature. While the cinematographer modified his equipment, I asked the director to capture a photo of me with the stone.


This Solovetsky Stone is partner to the one I saw in St. Petersburg.

Starting my journey south

With that, I had no other plan but to return to the rail station, acquire an Airport Express ticket (500 RUB) and rescue my luggage. All of that went smoothly. The Airport Express run was really smooth, taking around 45 minutes from start to finish. The train dumped us essentially across the street from the airport terminal entrance, so the worst part was dealing with everybody’s desire to rush off the train at once!

Once at the airport, I had more than an hour before boarding passes would become available, so I ran for some dinner upstairs, then returned to the line for Emirates Air. I hadn’t checked in online from my hotel this morning, and I got a nasty surprise when I arrived at the desk. They could not immediately give me a seat assignment, and the flight was oversold! I waited two minutes in a bit of a sweat where the agent could see me. Happily, my suspense ended very rapidly and she handed me two boarding passes. I had what looked like a middle seat on the way to Dubai (the shorter flight), but I discovered that it was the emergency exit row, with nobody to my left! I was on the aisle for the long leg to Cape Town. After passing through immigration, baggage, and customs, I returned to the arms of Natasha.  That feeling spells “HOME” for me!



The birth of a new conference

November 1, 2017

How does a new conference enter the academic calendar? I was encouraged by the example set by the Clinical Proteomics / Post-Genome Medicine meeting (ClinProt 2017), and I thought it might be useful to talk about some of the things that the group did really well, while relating a bit of what unfolded for me in my last day at the conference.

Logo_BGRS-shrinkFirst off, this is far from the first meeting to take place in Russia on the subject of human proteomics. The Russian Human Proteome Organization has been operating since 2002, and it sponsors two distinct meetings yearly. The main meeting takes place in the city of Kazan each October. Members who are particularly interested in bioinformatics may participate in an annual meeting at the city of Novosibirsk (Bioinformatics of Genome Regulation and Structure / Systems Biology). The RHUPO has also successfully organized a big event for the world HUPO; in 2009, Dr. Alexander Archakov hosted the third Human Proteome Project Workshop in Moscow!


Human Proteome Project, Moscow (2009)

The ClinProt 2017 meeting seemed special in that it sought to foster connections among many different institutions within Russia; the program was salted with several investigators across Europe and the broader world, but the emphasis seemed to be on developing networks within the country, including multidisciplinary links. As I look across the eleven-member organizational team in the conference program, I see five different research institutions, all in Russia, represented by post-doctoral scientists. This team of junior researchers will all have valuable experience for the future, and senior scientists who attended the meetings will remember who they could rely upon when trying to solve a last-minute problem before a talk!

I would catalog several things, then, that the organizers did right:

Skin in the game
Because several institutions contributed organizers, more schools sent speakers, poster presenters, and trainees. In total, 350 people registered, and 274 attended. That’s pretty great for a first conference!
Personal touch
Several speakers mentioned that they had been recruited by an organizer who knew them from prior contact. Since professors frequently get spammed by for-profit conferences, these personal contacts made a difference in getting the names they wanted for the meeting agenda.
Detail focus
I heard several of the organizers quietly worrying about whether something was going to go just right. Throughout, it was clear that each person knew what his or her responsibility included. The team was definitely committed.
Industry works
I occasionally hear academics sneer at the inclusion of instrument and reagent vendors in speaker rosters, but their participation in a meeting adds more than just money. I was glad to see a representative from Helicon lecture on the value of CyTOF for cell counting applications, since I am mentoring a student working with such data.

I became aware that we had some special guests today as I lingered in the speaker ready room. Several people in suits made an appearance. I had a rapid conversation with Sergey Suchkov, an M.D. and Ph.D. who has a relentless energy about him. He has a strong interest in developing relationships among BRICS nations in the field of “precision medicine” (sometimes called “personalized medicine”), and he wanted to talk about some possibilities between South Africa and Russia in that space. We agreed to touch base this afternoon when he could introduce me to another M.D. Ph.D. friend of his who has become involved in genome bioinformatics. That meting put forward some interesting possibilities in tuberculosis, which has become problematic in the Russian prison system. I hope we will be able to define some projects we can pursue together in this space.

Right away, though, I had to leave our discussion to teach my afternoon workshop on performing post-hoc quality control assessment in large-scale proteome projects. I was very grateful that the conference organizers could add a link to their website so that participants could download the R statistical script and input files for the workshop directly from the link above. That way the conference attendees who needed to leave Moscow early can still get access to the tutorial.


Image from my paper with Xia Wang introducing “IDFree” metrics

This was my first time to teach a workshop on quality control. My normal curriculum has emphasized protein identification or the recognition of post-translational modifications. Since I am now chairing the HUPO-PSI working group on quality control, though, it was a good time for me to put together some training materials in this space. I chose a highly visible data set, the 1425 LC-MS/MS experiments that the Vanderbilt team produced from colorectal cancer samples for the National Cancer Institute CPTAC program. The workshop would focus on recreating figures that Xia Wang at U-Cincinnati had scripted in the R statistical environment from tables of QC metrics that my team had generated.

I was really pleased with the dozen or so students who attended the workshop. Their questions were very good, and their understanding of the statistical concepts was at a very high level. To give one example, a student asked how differently the files would have spread in my plot of the first two principal components if we had used ordinary PCA rather than robust PCA. Another asked how hierarchical clustering would visualize these data in principal components space. These are not the questions one encounters with people who have never seen PCA before!

So color me impressed. This meeting ran like clockwork, and the students came ready to learn. The speaker list did not have some of the biggest names in world proteomics, but in fact I trusted what I was hearing more because it came from investigators who had worked at the bench more recently. I am of course grateful for the time I’ve been given to see Russia first-hand, but in the end I was brought here to teach and to learn. I enjoyed both missions!


Feeling very far from home

October 31, 2017

I think professionals of all sorts are often surprised by the ways in which emotion can invade their work lives, and scientists are no exception. On October 31st, I found myself struggling to come to terms with being in Russia on a day when the first indictments were announced in response to the Russian government’s intervention in the most recent U.S. presidential election.

I have read before that jet lag is difficult to distinguish from a combination of exhaustion and dehydration. On Halloween I asked myself why I found it so hard to be productive at the ClinProt 2017 meeting. The answer, I think, was a combination of exhaustion and grief. The exhaustion is easy to explain. I left from South Africa on October 19th, so the 31st marked my twelfth consecutive day away from home. Even if much of my trip was vacation time, I tend to use a lot of energy on my vacation days!

Why would I be feeling grief, though? Some of it stemmed from the loneliness of being away from Natasha and my friends in Cape Town. I also felt a pang at spending the day in a place that doesn’t celebrate Halloween with the enthusiasm we do in the United States. The principal push, though, was a sense of loss from the unraveling of United States institutions.


Public Domain image of Robert Mueller, III

Around twenty-four hours ago, Special Investigator Robert Mueller announced that George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor to the Donald Trump presidential campaign, had admitted guilt in lying to the FBI. He had attempted to hide the fact that he made several attempts to connect the Trump campaign with his contacts in the Russian government. Two “bigger fish” in the campaign, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, have been arrested and are now facing twelve charges ranging from conspiracy against the United States, money laundering (apparently attempting to hide the fact that they had been paid by the Russian government), failing to disclose the fact that they had been paid by foreign governments, and making false statements to law enforcement.

I think most of my readers have inferred that I disagree with almost all of President Donald Trump’s actions since taking office. I would really like to believe, however, that he thinks his actions are what the country actually needs. I once heard that Alberto Gonzales, previously the Attorney General under George W. Bush and now the Dean of Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, claimed that no President of the United States could ever take an action that he (or she) believed would hurt the country. To the contrary, it seems obvious to me that President Trump has behaved in ways that are already hurting the United States. Just the same, I have wished that President Trump believed his actions are justified and appropriate. The fact that two people so close to him face charges of conspiring against the United States erodes my hope that President Trump actually wants what is best for the United States.

Of course, we have known since January of 2017 that the United States intelligence community believes it has proof that Russia intervened in the U.S. presidential election. My sense of this claim is that it takes at least two forks: 1) The Russian government wanted U.S. citizens to feel less faith that its elections were fair, and 2) The Russian government wanted the undermine Hillary Clinton’s reputation to diminish her standing if she were able to win the election. When I was planning my trip to Russia, I had to ask whether I was willing to visit a country for which the government would attempt such an influence.


An image for high school classmate Jason P. from “Rocky IV”

I decided that the people whom I would meet in Moscow had no part in such an attempt. I know that the scientists here already must deal with challenges in acquiring equipment because United States laws place special restrictions on exports to Russia. My goal in coming here is not so different than my goal in conducting research and mentoring in South Africa, really. I want to see the community of researchers throughout the world become more adept at retrieving information from their data, seeing that their clinical research aims are just as intended for the betterment of humanity as my own are.

1412867676245I have said before that I am a Global Citizen. For me, this means that where I see public health threats, I want to place my research efforts on the other pan of the scales. It means that the suffering of a person counts the same no matter the color of his or her skin, his or her gender, his or her religion (if any!), and his or her nationality. I believe that all the life of planet Earth is worth protecting. I sure hope that Earth’s governments will help rather than hinder that mission.


Clinical proteomics in Russia and my last pair of pants

October 30, 2017

At last the first day of ClinProt 2017 had arrived! I set aside my now-muddy pairs of jeans in favor of my fresh and clean blue dress pants, laced up my shiny black shoes, and put on my enthusiastic green shirt. With a spot of breakfast downstairs (on my third morning eating there, I found that the milk jug was full for the first time!), I was ready to meet with the others for a shuttle van ride over to the conference.

Moscow traffic at 8:20 AM is a bit intense. The drivers here are a bit more careful of road laws than I have seen in other countries, but they still produce some pretty creative merges in their traffic jams. What would have been a few minutes on the subway was more like a half hour on the road, but my dress pants were still pristine when we arrived at the Congress Center at the I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University. The facility had a lovely central hall, with a graceful split staircase to the two main venues for our meeting. I hadn’t seen lecture halls in which an array of nine HDTVs replaced the more typical projector. It certainly produced a bright image, though the borders between screens were distracting.


Why project when you can emit?

The Clinical Proteomics 2017 meeting was organized because a confluence of groups wanted to consolidate researchers in this country. EuPA, the European Proteomics Association, helps to integrate activities that span national proteomics societies. The Russian Human Proteomics Organization (RHUPO) sought to foster a sense of community among Russian research groups in this area. The Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University was happy to contribute a venue for the event, and many instrument, reagent, and other vendors agreed to take part, as well. I haven’t learned the total count of attendees yet, but I know that there are 87 research posters. For a first effort, I think it is clear that a great many things have gone well.

From the very first talk, it was apparent that Russian clinical proteomics researchers are grappling with challenges that became familiar to me as part of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) CPTAC program. Anna Kudryavtseva discussed her efforts to reconcile proteomics data with those that had been produced by NCI The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), working in a particular sub-type of head and neck cancer. Prioritizing genes that were more frequent targets of mutation in tumors has value for understanding which proteins are most useful to monitor closely, for example. It was a great “plenary” (all attendees) talk to kick off these discussions.

As soon as we split to multiple sessions, I was on duty. I co-chaired the “Genomics and Beyond” panel with Sergey Moshkovskii. It was a bit odd to be fielding this panel while the Protein Informatics workshop was taking place in another room (that topic has been my bread and butter for two decades)! In this case, however, Sergey and I were not only chairing the session but also leading it with our two lectures, both in the field of proteogenomics.


Photo credit: Olga Kiseleva

I defined the term by saying that we want to improve our interpretation of genomic data by integrating proteomics data, and we want to improve our interpretation of proteomics data by integrating genomic data (I was trying to be ecumenical). From there, I led the group through the new paper that I’ve published with Anzaan Dippenaar and Tiaan Heunis, in which we demonstrated our ability to recognize sequence variations and novel genes in Mycobacterium tuberculosis “bugs” that had been isolated from patient sputum in South Africa. Sergey followed up by finding evidence of RNA editing in fruit flies.


Photo credit: Olga Kiseleva

The other speakers in the panel were also quite interesting. Matthias Schwab was visiting from Germany, and he educated the group on the current status of the field of pharmacogenomics. Vladimir Strelnikov, a geneticist, described the value of bisulfite sequencing for measuring DNA methylation in breast cancer. Sergey Radko outlined a SISCAPA-like strategy for using “aptamers” to enrich proteins prior to Selected Reaction Monitoring. Artem Muravev closed out the session to discuss the challenges of biobanking. This last talk was delivered in Russian, so I benefited quite a lot from real-time translation to English by Anastasia, one of two translators fielding our session (during my talk, she had been translating my words to Russian as I worked through my slides). Finally all the speakers came together for fifteen minutes of question and answer. I tweaked our pharmacogenomics speaker a little bit by saying that even if we had the complete sequences for every human on earth in our hands today, personalized medicine would not have arrived!

With the morning complete, everyone adjourned to a nearby restaurant. I was a little leery when I learned our destination was the Black Market, but I needn’t have worried; we wandered down the street to a lovely restaurant named “Black Market.” I had the Black Market Burger and felt thoroughly happy. I felt very grateful that the European Proteomics Association picked up the bill for that morning’s speakers!

Back in the conference, I enjoyed hearing my long-time friend David Goodlett discuss his long-term monitoring study of diabetes. He’s a careful guy, and it is good to see that he can make label-free proteomics sing in biofluids (a tough space to work), recognizing protein pairs for which expression can flag the onset of disease. It’s very reminiscent of the kind of study Stellenbosch University has produced in the space of tuberculosis. Our next speaker returned to the subject of biobanking, and he delivered his talk via Skype, not my favorite format. I am a big believer in contact with my audience.


Did I mention it was my enthusiastic green shirt?

I threw all my remaining energy into the poster session. Interacting with researchers at the start of their careers is very rewarding, and people who stand beside their work without knowing whether or not anyone will take interest have a hard job. These students were even braver, since they were prepared to defend their work in English!

I started with a poster very near and dear to my heart. A.V. Mikurova was evaluating the different levels of sequence coverage achieved by database search (Mascot, X!Tandem) and de novo algorithms (PepNovo+, Novor, and PEAKS) when working with 27 LC-MS/MS experiments for a defined mixture of human proteins. We discussed the relative unresponsiveness of sequence coverage as a metric for performance evaluation and the challenge of ensuring the algorithms had comparable configuration. I asked S.E. Novikova about her choices of statistical model for a time-series measurement of proteomes in response to all-trans retinoic acid. I hope my statistics lectures online will be useful to her, though it sounds like she’s already on the right track. N.V. Kuznetsova taught me a few things I didn’t know about celiac disease! She had been evaluating the ability of Triticain-Α to degrade the most immunogenic peptide of gluten-family proteins. Finally, J. Bespyatykh was presenting a poster on the proteomics of Mycobacterium tuberculosis from a strain called Beijing B0/W148. Her work obviously had a strong relationship to what Tiaan and Anzaan had published with me, so we had a great conversation about the work. I hope we can help her find a sequence database that is a more ideal fit for her proteomes than the generic “H37Rv” protein database. I was really pleased to speak with so many students about their work at this meeting.

With that, I slumped onto a wall and didn’t move very much. The other conference attendees had flowed back into the conference room for an afternoon round of talks. I let my mind wander for a bit, though I did have some nice conversations with the vendors. Soon, though, I heard some odd noises echoing through the entry hallway. Was there a music practice room somewhere in the building? Was that a tuba?


Dixieland music in Moscow! Photo credit: Olga Kiseleva

My questions were answered when I eventually joined everyone downstairs for a catered closing reception. The organizers had invited a Dixieland band to perform for our reception! The group was really solid. I particularly liked one of their trumpeters, since he had a smooth Chuck Mangione vibe going on. I kept recognizing songs only part of the way, since they were singing many of the lyrics in Russian! I finally got a solid hit on “Mack the Knife!” I sat up close to enjoy the show.

With the evening at an end, I declined invitations to go hit a bar and walked to the nearby Frunzenskaya subway station. Two stops later, I was in my neighborhood. I trudged up the paved driveway to the street with my hotel. As I awaited the green light at my last crosswalk before the hotel entrance, a car drove too close to the curb where I was waiting, and dirty rainwater soaked my last clean pair of pants.


Moscow: “Forgotten” monuments

October 29, 2017

During the last day before our conference opened, I decided to go in search of monuments from the USSR, buried within today’s Russian Federation. The Moscow City Council decided in 1991 to move statues of Communist luminaries to the Muzeon Park of Arts. I wanted to see this collection in hopes of visiting a bête noir from my days of reading spy novels! I found more than I bargained for.

Reaching the Muzeon Park was not terribly difficult. The Red Line of the metro ran directly from my hotel to the “Park of Culture” stop. From there, I needed only to walk across the Moskva River bridge (a sales clerk got me pointed in the right direction). Two big attractions drew my eyes even while I was crossing the bridge. The first, a kilometer to my northeast, was a monumental statue larger than any I had ever seen; I’ll tell you more about that in a minute. The other was a massive Communist-era gateway to the south of the bridge on the eastern shore. It provided the entrance to Gorky Park, a massive Central Park including massive gardens and amusement rides for kids. My goal, however, was the set of gardens on the north side of the road, surrounding the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val.

I was glad to see that entry was entirely free. At first, I was concerned I had come to the wrong place. The statues that I saw at first met Communist ideals, but they weren’t figures I recognized. Once I reached the area to the northeast of the gallery, however, that changed in a hurry.


Be cautious of true believers. Iron Felix

He was standing tall, high on his pedestal, looking just as I expected. Felix Dzerzhinsky was sculpted to look absolutely assured in his convictions, wearing a full-length trench coat that was modeled almost like a holy robe. For years after its creation in 1958, this statue stood in Lubyanka Square, here in Moscow, just yards away from the KGB headquarters. The statue is so famous that it received a name of its own, “Iron Felix!”

Why would this aristocratic ethnically Polish man, born in Belarus, be so commemorated? Dzerzhinsky created the Cheka, or Soviet secret police, in 1917, and he remained at their helm as they were renamed the GPU (state political directorate), until he experienced a fatal heart attack in 1926. During the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), he was responsible for the execution of tens of thousands without trial. His statue in front of KGB headquarters sent a clear message about the state’s willingness to use lethal force against its own citizens.


“Uncle Joe”

“Felix” is not alone in this park, though. Josef Stalin appears there in a 1938 granite statue by S.D. Merkurov. His nose seems to have been chipped off in its relocation. I suppose that being a megamurderer will leave some hard feelings.


V.I. Lenin, architect of the “Stronghold of Peace”

Of course Lenin has statues all over this part of the world. The “Young Lenin” statue from the 1970s seems the most charming, especially given its location next to “USSR, the Stronghold of Peace” in aluminum. Marx and Brezhnev are also nearby. I thought I might find Kalashnikov (rifles) or Mikoyan and Gurevich (MiG aircraft) in the garden as well, but I did not. I did, however, see Mikhail Frunze, a 1920s minister of defense for whom an academy for general staff officers was named.


This monument to the Russian navy is not subtle.

The monument that towers above it all, however, is the almost otherworldly in its scale. To celebrate 300 years of the Russian Navy, a 98 meter statue of Peter the Great in steel, bronze, and copper was erected on the Moskva River. I was surprised to learn that it is only the eighth largest statue in the world (large Buddhas dominate that list). For comparison, the Statue of Liberty is 93 meters. It appears that Muscovites are less than satisfied with this monument, though. Remember that Peter the Great built St. Petersburg to be his capital rather than staying in Moscow!


The artist and his work

I lingered in the park to peruse an open-air market of oil paintings. The artists were there to discuss their work, though many were not comfortable in English. I had a good conversation with a gentleman with leonine grey hair. We discussed different styles in which he had tried painting (small canvasses, rich in detail, larger formats in impressionism, etc). He had a lot of feelings about the architecture of St. Petersburg and that of Moscow. He showed me two paintings side-by-side to compare the styles. One of them really caught my eye, showing a nineteenth century view of a Moscow neighborhood with the sun angling low in the sky as people move cargo through the streets on sleds. It is captured in an impressionistic style on a 30x40cm canvas. We talked about the price, and I decided to purchase it, even though it was a bit costlier than I might have liked. My birthday is coming up. Natasha reminded me I’m allowed to bring home goodies for myself, as well!


Federal Security Service headquarters

A misty drizzle had begun to fall, and I had to ask whether or not I had the energy for more touring. I opted to continue my journey up to the Lubyanka stop of the red subway line. When I exited the metro, I had a bit of an oppressive feeling. Some of it came from a memorial being held in Lubyanka Ploschad near another Solovetsky Stone like I had seen in St. Petersburg. In South Africa, memorial services can be rather raucous, and I wanted to stay clear of anything of the sort here. It was important, though, to see this square where Iron Felix had stood so long. It’s certainly not marked as a tourist attraction, but the old KGB headquarters is right there on the northeast side of the square, though now it serves at the offices for the “Federal Security Service.”

I walked past the building toward the theatre district. I found a cafe with the silly name “Му-Му” and a cartoonish cow out front (it’s pronounced “moo moo”). I ate chicken noodle soup, pork lasagna, fruit juice, and even a piece of carrot cake to shake off my doldrums!


the famed Bolshoi

From there, I simply walked. I passed the famed Bolshoi Theatre, then walked the loop passing counter-clockwise around the Kremlin from there.


Mikhail Lomonosov is like Ben Franklin, only Russian!

I spent a moment with the Mikhail Lomonosov monument in front of the old building for the Moscow State University. Having seen his likeness twice in both St. Petersburg and Moscow impressed me on his legacy here!


He authored “The Idiot,” but he was far from being one himself!

I passed the Russian State Library, enjoying the statue of Dostoevsky but wishing the pigeon would nest somewhere else. I wondered why I had seen this author twice but hadn’t seen any sign of Tolstoy.


Vladimir I (956-1015)

Near the south end of the Kremlin, I encountered the massive monument to Prince Vladimir, the ruler who brought Christianity to the Kievan Rus’. The people in the photo cannot even get their heads at the level of his toes!


What a great spot for an “I’ve been to Moscow” shot!

I continued across the Moskva River, thinking that I would get a nice view of the entire Kremlin complex from there, and I was right! A bump-out on the bridge is perfectly positioned to showcase the Kremlin towers, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, and the State Kremlin Palace. After I photographed a family for their camera, they agreed to photograph me, and I am thrilled with the result.

Even though it was only three o’clock in the afternoon, I felt that I’d walked in drizzle quite long enough. Time for a nap at the hotel!


Moscow: Red Square and State Historical Museum

October 28, 2017

Yesterday didn’t end with my piling into bed. Instead, I ate dumplings at a tourist restaurant, reclaimed my bags at the hotel, and trundled over to the train station. My life nearly came to a premature end as a reckless car attempted to race me to the other side of the pedestrian crosswalk. Nonetheless, I reached the train station with about twenty minutes remaining before my departure to Moscow!

From city to city

Novgorod to Moscow by train

I was asleep for this part.

When I slept on trains during my 1994 vacation, I was generally stretching out across a bench seat (unless the train was full), though that wasn’t always possible. For the overnight run to Moscow, however, I paid a bit extra (20 percent?) to get a reserved bunk. The train car was split into what I’ll call “cells” with a continuous corridor stretching through them all, off-center. To the left side of the corridor were two levels of two bunks, running perpendicular to the direction of motion, with a table between the two lower bunks. On the right side of the corridor, where the lower bunk had a middle section raised as a table and the upper bunk was directly above. I was in the upper bunk, but oddly only one set of sheets had been issued to me and the fellow below me. I tossed it down to him since I was bundling in my hoodie.

I was asleep before almost any time passed, though I awoke slightly from little changes in the night, as in stops at minor stations. The lights in the train came back up at 4:45 AM, and we reached Moscow around 5:15 (though my memory of this morning is unclear). My best barometer that we were close came from seeing everyone don their shoes. Why had I taken such a potentially uncomfortable night of sleep to reach Moscow? It was because, at present, there is only one train running from Novgorod to Moscow each day!

Like a batch of zombies, the commuters flooded down the train platform. At this point, I was at a bit of a loss. I knew my hotel was in the southwest part of the city, but I was unsure where the train station I’d reached was located on the map. I could descend to the subway, assuming a station was nearby, but I wasn’t sure which station would be closest to my hotel. Lugging my 26″ roller back over cobblestones seemed like a poor idea. I found a cabbie, learned what the fare to get to the hotel would be (1500 RUB = $26 USD), and hit an ATM to refill my wallet. Off we went! He was a good sport and pointed out landmarks (in Russian). Twenty minutes later, we pulled up to a building that was glowing in neon lights. I had arrived at the Korston Club Hotel!


Image from TripAdvisor Serbia

From hotel to the CBD

Just to be absolutely clear, I really love many aspects of Russian culture. The Korston Club, though, feels crass and glitzy. I felt as though I was walking through an early-morning casino at 6AM this morning, with loud music thumping without anyone there to dance. The staff have been uniformly listless, almost resentful that they must deal with me. When I get in an elevator, I must pray that the video screen doesn’t come to life with an obnoxious dance beat. This feels entirely unlike any other place I’ve been in Russia. To add to the experience, there’s apparently some sort of event taking place here that ensures that the downstairs area is continuously mobbed by children and their parents during daytime. These things happen.

After checking in, I almost immediately lumped into the bed and passed out. I came down to the restaurant barely in time for the end of the breakfast buffet. As I lingered over the food, a pair of four-year-old girls raced after each other in orbits of the restaurant. It was soon time for me to make the fateful decision; what should I see, with only three days to play tourist in this city?


No problem!

I resolved to take the subway to Red Square. Surely some tourism option would present itself from this historic location. How could I get there, though? I marched outside and immediately realized I had a wardrobe malfunction. I’ve been using this winter coat since a conference on Electron Transfer Dissociation in Madison, WI, years ago. When I left the hotel, the zipper pull stopped closing the zipper, and when I tried to replace it, it came off. I tried again to repair it, and this time the front and back separated from each other. I’m just lucky it wasn’t a frigid day! The dusting of snow almost entirely melted away in the course of the day.

Google Maps had shown me a Line 1 (Red!) station was quite close, and the route ran straight for Red Square. For some reason, the map showed the station in the middle of an automobile bridge across the Moskva River. I found the bridge, and from an overpass, I saw no sign of a pedestrian lane to reach it. I wandered a bit through the park flanking Prospekt Vernadskogo and found a paved road, apparently leading beneath the bridge. Sure enough, it led me to a lower layer of the bridge, given over to the subway. 110 RUB was all I needed to pay for a two-use ticket. That’s a far cry from the 1500 RUB one-way taxi ride!

Red Square

It really didn’t take any time for me to reach the Okhotny Ryad station, and the minute I came above ground, I had a little shocking moment as buildings I had only seen in web photos were suddenly right in front of me. As I wandered in the mob of tourists, I tried imagining the historical footage I had seen of this square, with military units passing in review. I assume the leaders of the Communist Party would be sitting in the towers of the Kremlin Wall that overlook the square. Of course, St. Basil’s Cathedral is very eye-catching, and it’s not a tiny gem, either. I didn’t feel ready to handle the mob of people seeking tickets.


St. Basil’s is far bigger than it seems here.


The three letters on that seal sound like “GUM.”

Instead I turned to the east side of the square to enter what was once the GUM store. Its history is a bit complex. The shopping arcade was built under Catherine II to replace a market area that burned in 1812. At the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, 1200 stores occupied the complex! The Communists sought to transform the space to be used for a more socialist model of market, and that failure led to Stalin changing it temporarily to office space. With the end of Communism, GUM returned to a private shopping mall, and it has embraced that role with enthusiasm! If you can name a very high-end brand, you can expect to find a store here. I was a bit mystified to encounter my first Manolo Blahnik shoe retailer here in Moscow (I’d heard of the brand only on TV). I raised an eyebrow to see how popular the ice cream stands were at the mall. People seemed very happy to shell out 50 RUB (less than $1 USD) for an ice cream cone.

The State Historical Museum


Who could imagine a better museum location than Red Square?

I left the mall and resolved to do at least one touritsty deed that I had on my list. The answer was right in front of me: the State Historical Museum! I had hoped to have a little more brain power for the day I attempted it, but I’m going to run out of time waiting for that! I paid for my admission fee, but again I decided against the cumbersome and expensive audio guide equipment.


Hundreds of years ago, people just like us wore these things!

Since it’s right on Red Square, I feel sure that the State Historical Museum gets plenty of visitors who don’t feel comfortable communicating in Russian. Sadly, the museum doesn’t make very good provision for them. At least on the first floor, one can read a little bit about major displays in a room or, more commonly, the history of the display room decor from a laminated sheet in a pocket at the doorway. Almost none of the exhibited materials, however, have labels in Latin lettering or in English. The situation gets even more dire on the second floor, where the laminated sheets are only in Russian. Only one room on the second floor had English-language labels, and it covered the room furnishings and outfits for privileged society in nineteenth century Russia.


Is this the 13th century manuscript containing the Novgorod First Chronicle? I wish I knew.

I had a particular exhibit in mind for this visit, though, and I am frustrated that I couldn’t seem to locate it. I wanted to find the “Novgorod First Chronicle,” an artifact that gave us most of our information about Novgorod’s early democracy. It was mentioned tens of times in the history museum at Novgorod, and yet the earliest manuscript containing this information is located at the history museum in Moscow. I saw plenty of books in the relevant time period (thank heavens the Russians use Roman numerals to indicate centuries), but I couldn’t really discern which was the Chronicle. Perhaps it wasn’t even on display! As I was leaving the museum, I saw a lovey inch-thick volume describing all the treasures of the State Historical Museum, and it was in English! I think I found the right book in there. Sadly, the book I found was 4800 RUB ($83 USD). It’s a little pricey for a book that I might never open next year.


A massive globe by Willem Blew in 1690s, bought by Peter I on deep discount

I admit I expected a higher standard of accessibility from a museum in such a prominent location. The exhibits were of good quality, and they were quite varied. I enjoyed the chance to get a photo standing beside scientist Mikhail Lomonsov, who appeared in a large-format portrait. We scientists must stick together!


Lomonosov has a posse.

Why, though, did the museum have almost no exhibits whatsoever concerning Russia after the revolution? Surely the USSR counts as a key period of history for this country. All I saw to acknowledge the Communist era was a Rolls Royce used by V.I. Lenin. It’s a puzzling omission for this major museum.


Lenin wuz here.

Decanting my brain and feeding my stomach

With that, my adventuring spirit was satisfied. I thought I might go be assertively American by eating a hamburger at the Red Square McDonald’s, but I couldn’t get in. The lines of customers stretched out the door! I walked along the outside of the Kremlin wall for a few minutes and then shrugged, walking back to the Red Line to my hotel once more. As I walked up the path back to my hotel from the subway station, I passed a couple of horse-mounted police officers in the park.


The park slope leading down to my subway stop.

For dinner, I checked the options in my hotel, but they were expensive and had crowds of children outside. Instead I walked east along Ulitsa Kosygina toward Third Ring Road. I soon found the “Илларион Кафе” or Illarion Kafe. The bar seemed very active, but a quieter dining room looked alright. They even had an English-language menu, though the manager apologized that the prices had risen since it was printed. She agreed that prices in Moscow were generally higher than in the rest of the country, in part because it’s such a large city. I really enjoyed my lamb shish kebab and grilled vegetables. Even though peppermint tea wasn’t on the menu, they still found a way to produce some for me.

Yes, I think there’s a lot to like in Moscow, if you know where to find it!


Novgorod: medieval democracy in Russia

October 27, 2017

With several hours left in Novgorod, I set my sights on understanding the remarkable “veche” government of the medieval city.  What would 14th-century democracy look like?

First, though, I scratched an itch by returning to Holy Wisdom for another look at the Novgorod stone cross inside the cathedral. While I was there, I found a couple of gifts for people who might not have been expecting presents from this trip.  While I dithered over potential purchases, I realized I was standing right next to a chapel in which a service was taking place.  A priest in the chapel intoned from a script.  Individual parishioners stepped out of the service at my left to consult with a priest at my right.  From time to time he would punctuate the other priest’s litany with a singing cry, to which the other would respond “Amen.”  You can listen to a brief sound recording of the duo.


A dusting of snow makes anyone seem friendlier.

Snow continued to fall through the night, so I got to see the city plazas and statues with a light blanket of white. I realized that I recognized the figure standing in the plaza outside the Novgorod kremlin (walled fortress); he’s Lenin!


Five looks for the Monument to the Millennium of Russian Statehood

I took photos all around the periphery of the Millennium of Russia, a statue unveiled inside this city’s kremlin in 1862 to celebrate the 1000th year since Rurik came to rule over the Slavs and Urgo-Finnic people in this area.  Rurik appears in the left-most panel above; he’s the one holding the shield.  The next panel shows a ruler holding a cross aloft; this commemorates Vladimir the Great becoming a Christian (and forcibly converting all his followers) in 988.  The martial-looking dude to the right of the first panel represents Dmitry Donskoi, beginning to push back the reign of the Golden Horde in 1380.  The fellow who looks like a monk in the third panel represents Ivan III, “The Great,” who assured the power of Russia against the Tartars, Livonians, and Lithuanians in 1491 (just before Columbus’ fateful voyage).  The fourth panel shows the nobility guarding the ascent of the Michael I Romanov to close out the Time of Troubles in 1613.  The figure in the final panel should seem familiar after my post on Peter the Great!


Novgorod History Museum

From there, I turned to the history museum of Novgorod (called the “Novgorod State Museum-Reserve”). From its front step, one looks past the Millennium Monument, straight towards Holy Wisdom. There’s a lot of culture, all in one place! Sadly, the museum frustrated me, right out of the gate. I had walked through about four rooms of the place when I gave up; not a single exhibit in that space had an English label (or even one with Latin lettering)! I had already paid 200 RUB to enter the museum, and now I had to pay 200 RUB more, plus a 1000 RUB deposit, to rent an “audio guide.” As I walked through the exhibits, I touched the pen to the provided map to indicate where I was. The numbered spots would play back a recorded audio in English to describe those items. I would have preferred a printed book, because then I could capture the information with my camera.

It is plain that Lake Ilmen was popular with settlers from many tribes, over a very long period of time. The sediments around here are just loaded with the leavings of all the groups from which Russia was merged. I was fascinated with the quality of artifacts that have been recovered from Rurik’s Fort, just southwest of town. These ruins have produced a fair bit of glass, including an intact drinking cup. In the ninth century, glass was only available to the very wealthy!


The daily grind

The audio left an important leap of logic unfilled. It reported that the soils around Novgorod are not particularly great for farming, therefore the population turned to arts and crafts to get by. Generally, I think of cities working in the other direction. Once food production is ensured, then people start differentiating into specialties. In any case, Novgorod became very good at pottery, iron and copper working, and any number of other specialties. As I mentioned before, the city became part of the Hanseatic League. If any League member wanted to sell items in Russia, they were only allowed to sell to Novgorod. Sales to other communities in Russia would subsequently be handled by the merchants of Novgorod.


Some of the biggest and the smallest of coins!

Correspondingly, Novgorod has proven a rich site for coins from throughout Eurasia.  I particularly enjoyed a large sheet of metal that served as a high-denomination note.  The trove also includes large numbers of coins first struck in Moscow under Ivan III featuring a horse on one side.  The coins came to be called “kopeks,” nicknamed for that equine image.


While it may seem odd to make a wooden road, it would carry the weight of people and carts just fine.

Wood was in abundant supply to Novgorod. Almost everything was built of it. A model showed a reconstruction of a district of town. The mansions were wood. The lesser homes and outbuildings were wood. The roads were made of wood, and the walls separating public and private property were wood. In fact, when a segment of road had degraded too much, the city would add a new layer parallel to the flow of traffic and then another layer perpendicular to it. Over time, the roads became somewhat elevated, and drainage became an issue (as you may have guessed, the channels were also made of wood). A wood-construction open air museum devoted to wood construction has been open since the 1960s, but unfortunately I didn’t have quite enough time to see it.

Novgorod also became involved in long-range trade routes between Asia and northern Europe. I hadn’t been aware that a northern companion silk route fed this product to Scandinavia. The variety of coins and foreign products that have been found in layers since the 10th century is quite surprising. Obviously the city built close ties to Byzantium, considering its religious link.


One student became bored with writing exercises.

I hadn’t realized that Novgorod had been such a center of literacy for the Old Russian language! The museum had two forms of written works on display. The first was a small tray to produce a thin layer of wax. A student could practice with a stylus on the wax and then re-melt to erase. A psalter in this format was on display, one of the earliest examples of the written communication in this part of the world. The next type of written work was birch bark. Certainly, there are enough trees of this type in this part of the world! They displayed a few “pages” from a small boy who enjoyed doodling when his attention wandered.


The bells on display at the St. Sophia bell tower range back to 1614.

Novgorod is remarkable for its form of government. The merchants had enough sway that they were able to retain right of approval on their political leader; essentially the merchants pushed the nobility out of town and elected a prince from time to time. Novgorod was the city that elected Prince Alexander Nevsky in the time of Swedish and Livonian attacks. They retained him as Prince even though he agreed to pay the Mongols protection money; in fact, Novgorod paid more than its share of Russia’s tribute under the “Mongol Yoke.” A key symbol to Novgorod democracy was the bell calling the city to have a veche, or assembly.


St. Nicholas, by Alexa Petrov, 1294

The museum has a really phenomenal collection of Russian Orthodox icons. I’ve seen enough that I know this isn’t my favorite style of art! Just the same, the collection is astounding. The Peter and Paul icon is taller than I am; it had been placed in the Holy Wisdom Cathedral in the twelfth century. The St. Nicholas icon is pretty recognizable. When I was at the museum, an artist was trying to duplicate the face of the saint on a fresh canvas. I particularly liked an icon that showed a battle between the Prince of Suzdal (another Russian princely state) and the people of Novgorod. An archbishop held one of the city’s icons up on its wall, and an arrow apparently bounced off the icon. The bishop then exclaimed that the icon had begun crying in response. The icon representing the battle then showed heroes from the dead (such as St. Nevsky) fighting on the side of Novgorod’s defenders.


Detail from icon of battle with Suzdal

All good things come to an end, and the Novgorod Republic found its end in Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584). He felt that their ties to the west represented a betrayal of Russian ideas, and he sent his unsavory Oprichniki forces to raid the city. They burned and pillaged Novgorod, killing thousands. Perhaps their most symbolic insult to the city was that the bell to call together a veche was taken down and ported on a sledge back to Moscow (though legends reported the bell never arrived). After the assault of the Oprichniki, Novgorod would forever be part of a greater Russian state.

The museum really did have a great collection. I wish that they would improve their accessibility with more signs in English. I should also mention that Russian museums seem to be part of a large scale employment plan for little old ladies (LOL). Every room has its attendant LOL. As I completed the arts side of the first floor, a LOL kept interrupting my audio recording. Eventually I understood that she was saying that for the rest of the arts side, the audio guide was not in sync with the updated exhibits. She kept following me around and insisting about something or other. Eventually, my part of the conversation sounded quite like this: “I know you want to have a conversation, but neither of us speaks a language the other understands. What I want at this point is for you to sit back down let me get on with the museum.” In the end, I just turned my back and walked away. I sat in another part of the museum to hear about the literature that was no longer on display.


St. Sophia (it’s only a model)

Having finished with the history museum, I wandered back to the visitor’s information center. A line of sheds have been put in place to sell souvenirs. Of course one can buy bells, but many types of wood art are available. I bought a couple of items for loved ones. With that I went to the information booth itself.  I bought a bottle of kvas, which is a beverage fermented from rye bread. I had heard about it before this trip, and I thought I should try it. How would I describe the taste? It’s a little like beer, but not as sharp. It has very little alcohol in it (less than one percent). I like it!


The grounds of the St. Gregory (Yuriev) Monastery

The information folks hoped I would go ahead to visit the monastery of St. Gregory, just south of town. To get there, I needed to catch a city bus across the street. The bus cost was minimal (just 22 RUB), so I just gave it a whirl. In fifteen minutes, I was at the monastery. I took several photos within the grounds, but I saw my battery was running flat.


Palm Sunday?

I took a couple of shots in the Cathedral of St. Gregory. The floor is only partially intact, but there are some lovely works of art to see in the columns and the ceiling. As I stepped outside to take a picture of yet another pretty church, the dreaded “change the battery” warning appeared on my camera. Where was the spare? Dreck. I’d left it in my laptop case, which was waiting back at the hotel.  For some reason I had left my inferior camera battery from Watson in place rather than using the proper Canon battery.

My secret agenda in coming to St. Gregory’s was actually to see Rurik’s hill fort, visible from the river bank at St. Gregory’s. I walked over there, in hopes of squeezing just one more shot from my battery. The first place was on the water, but my view of the fort was blocked by trees. I crossed a concrete bridge after trekking through a muddy road bed. Then I slogged across a very muddy trail up and down a bluff to get to the perfect spot. I said a brief wish for good things and attached my 55-200 mm zoom lens. The camera powered up! I fixed my zoom on the fort (at least on the church above the ruins), hit the shutter trigger, and… “change the battery.” I didn’t get my photo after all.