Tag Archives: history

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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?

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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.

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

Novgorod: the medieval origin of Russia

October 26, 2017

When the alarm erupted at 5:30 AM, I popped out of bed, but it didn’t feel good. I needed to catch a train to Novgorod at 7:25 AM! To where? You say? This post is for you!

After a hurried breakfast of tea and pretzels, I tossed my things into my bag (which seemed harder to close than before) and lugged the roller bag down two flights of stairs to ground level. I had planned it out in some detail with the hotel concierge; I would run next door to the Lady of Kazan, flag any bus or trolley other than Bus 22, then get off when I see the tall pole with the star. I popped on board the first bus, but my metro system card produced a red ‘X’ on the contact. I popped back off the bus at the next stop. I started jogging down the street toward the train station, but then another bus heaved into site. I popped on board the bus. The red ‘X’ sent me right back to the street. I then just jogged as fast as I could with the roller back until I reached Ploschad Vosstaniya, with its high star guarding the train station. I entered at the proper place for “suburban trains” and found the track with ease. The train let us on board with around ten minutes before departure, and I dozed off soon after we pulled away. The train was considerably more placid than the tiger that hauled me from Beijing to Shanghai; it tooled along at a leisurely 100 kph, at best. The temperature outside hovered near freezing, never getting above 3 degrees Celsius. In less than three hours, I was at Novgorod.

Why Novgorod matters

Where did Russia start? Some will mutter about Slavs or Scythians, and others will darkly mention the Vikings. Most will assume that Moscow was where this spark first ignited. Moscow, however, developed in prominence quite late in the game. (I will leave Kiev aside, since it is in the Ukraine.) Novgorod (specifically Velikiy Novgorod) was a town that developed on the Volkhov River just to the north of Lake Ilmen. Different groups in the area had sparred over time, but they decided to band together and call in a prince named Rurik from the Vikings (Varangians) to rule them. Rurik started a dynasty that ruled until the 17th century. The “Tale of Past Years” was compiled around 1113 to chronicle the history of the “Kievan Rus” from 850-1110, and it provides this telling. To see where much of the culture that dominated Russia for centuries began, one must come to Novgorod!

I spent my first day steeped in the religious culture of early Russia. The “Rus” were Christianized late in the tenth century when Vladimir the Great was baptized, and Novgorod became the seat of a bishop. The first (wooden) cathedral built in Novgorod lasted only about fifty years before burning down, but the current stone cathedral was completed in 1050. Let me repeat that: the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Novgorod was completed 967 years ago! It is the oldest Russian Orthodox cathedral still standing.

My first day

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The fortified wall of the old city

Happily, Novgorod lies near the route from St. Petersburg to Moscow. I decided to spend a night in the city; because of the train schedules, I arrived around 10:30 AM on a Thursday and left around 9:00 PM on a Friday, traveling overnight to Moscow.  Walking from the train station to the Novgorodskaya Hotel was no problem, even with my roller bag towed behind me and a chill breeze blowing.  From there, it was a quick hike to the historic center of town, which is enclosed in a kremlin (fortified walls, or detinets).  Having passed through those gates, I soon saw the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom on my left.

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St. Sophia

When I say cathedral, many readers probably think of a Gothic construction like Notre Dame. Keep in mind, though, that the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom had been standing for about three hundred years when the last features were completed for Notre Dame. The concepts of Gothic architecture didn’t exist when Holy Wisdom was built. From the outside, you might think it’s a bit small to be such a significant church. It’s 38 meters high on its highest dome, while Notre Dame features towers that are 69 meters in height. Holy Wisdom was built with older engineering tools in hand, and that meant that its floor space is pocked with columns subdividing its space. The main nave is separated into three bands from the altar to the back, with each of two rows containing four columns. Since the light from side windows is blocked by columns, the church relies on dusky light filtering down from the domes, high above. It gives the interior an almost brooding feel.

Holy Wisdom does not allow photographs of its inside, so I will draw from those I can find online to describe it. The altar is a solid screen of icons, with Jesus painted in the middle with “clothes” of gold over him. Saints and angels to either side all face inward toward him. The principal icon I saw on display was Our Lady of the Sign, which dates from the first half of the 12th century.. The icon is a little disturbing to look at, for me, because it appears to have suffered an awful restoration attempt in the 17th century. The relic that most drew my attention, however, was the Novgorod Cross, a heavy stone artifact in an alcove of the church. The carving was divided into five zones, with a crucifixion scene in the middle. It seems like a massive object from another time. I hoped to find a replica at the gift shop, but they had only a small marble one that might be too big for my stuffed bags and a small silver one that was a bit expensive for a whim. I was a little surprised I could not find anything more than a silhouetted of that cross on the net!

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The Church of the Transfiguration sits in the middle of a grassy lot, with just a sidewalk leading to its entrance.

I had high hopes for the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior. The church, built in 1374, was frescoed by Theophanes the Greek in 1378. Theophanes was one of the greatest icon painters of Russia (though he was born in Byzantium). There are very few fragments of his work remaining in the world, though. I walked the kilometer or so over to Ilyina Street. The wind was really howling, and the temperature was still close to freezing. I was glad that I had tucked my scarf and hat into my backpack!

When I arrived at the church, however, I saw a sad sign on the door. When the humidity gets too high, the church closes its doors to protect the precious art inside. I walked around the church, noticing the crumbling walls. I am glad the World Heritage Site is assisting this city to protect its history. I kept hearing a rattle off to the side, so I looked in the direction of the neighboring church, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign (1686). The rattling came from the wind bouncing the metal sheets that had been bolted to its roof to protect the church.

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This “ruin” has a lot of life left in it!

I took a closer look, sure that the building was in ruins. No! Its doors were still open! I walked into its main entrance and saw that walls and roof had been covered liberally in frescoes. I paid the entrance fee and was stunned to see how the 17th century colors played throughout that nave.

Yaroslavl’s Courtyard: outside the kremlin walls

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I am standing next to the monument for the Hanseatic League.

I trudged back toward the river, this time stopping at the area informally called “Yaroslavl‘s courtyard.” Back before Germany existed as a united country, several of its regions had banded together in a trade network called the “Hanseatic League.” Novgorod was the northeastern-most of the cities in the League, and that history has led to funding from the Hanse Organization to restore this area!

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This Russian Orthodox take on the Last Supper was restored in the 1990s.

I visited a small museum in the St. Nicholas Cathedral (1113) that showed how much the area had changed over the last hundred years or so. I was glad that some of the original art and structure for this church could be brought back to the modern world.

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Yaroslavl’s Courtyard, as seen from the bridge connecting the area to the kremlin (on following morning)

The Archbishop’s showcase: The Faceted Chamber

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The Faceted Chamber Museum

I returned to the area around Holy Wisdom, and I decided to enjoy one last museum, the Archbishop’s “Faceted” Chamber. It turned out to be much more developed than the museum in St. Nicholas, with a wealth of religious treasures to showcase within a building created by the fifteenth century Archbishop Evfimii II as a visual illustration of the power of the church.

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Ribbed ceilings in red brick (before plaster was added)

The architecture of the Faceted Hall was quite nice. I liked a ribbed brick ceiling that had been plastered and painted (each layer was visible). As I passed through the building, I think I snapped a photo of each original fresco I observed. It was in Novgorod that I learned of the Ostromir Gospels, the earliest dated book in the East Slavic language. They were created in 1056 or 1057, and they are apparently kept at the Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg. This will not be the last item that makes me hope I can return to that city!

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I don’t know what its purpose is, but I know it is beautiful!

Some of the last treasures, in particular, really took my breath away. I have seen many icons that had “clothes” of gold or silver and jewels atop an otherwise indifferent painting. The final room of the museum, however, showcased a cover for a painting that was around eight feet in height. I checked the caption to learn that it was a silver sheet that had been gilded, but still, where did all this silver come from? The lovely processional crosses, Bible covers, priestly garments, etc. were quite an eye-opener.

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Given the mass of gold, I imagine this book required a cart for transportation.

My first day in Novgorod was quite the contrast with St. Petersburg.  A town settled in the ninth century is going to show lots of differences from one created in the eighteenth, after all.  I was really pleased to see that Novgorod’s historic and architectural treasures are being protected for the future.  I was impressed by the effort that had been put into making the city accessible for tourists, with a well-equipped information booth, a sign-posted “museum city,” and some eye-popping items on display.  During my visit, it seemed that most of the tourists spoke Russian.  Over time, more foreign guests may come as more people become aware of the richness of this “first city” of Russia.  For me, Novgorod seems key to understanding the origins of Russian culture.

St. Petersburg: jeweled eggs and ships of war

October 25, 2017

I had to make some tough decisions on how I would spend my last full day in St. Petersburg. Would I take a hydrofoil over to the Peterhof, Russia’s answer to Versailles? Would I take a suburban train to the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo? I decided against both since I didn’t want to work the logistics of getting to either, and opulent palaces depress me; imagine if that money had created a network of high schools instead? I opted instead to visit two local museums: the Faberge Museum at Shuvalov Palace and the Central Naval Museum in Truda Square.

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Our Lady of Kazan

Since Faberge opened at 10 and the Navy opened its doors at 11, I started walking east around 9:30 AM. I decided to pause at the Kazan Cathedral since I had a spare moment. The magnificent building has a splendid colonnade arc framing the central cathedral that reminded me of St. Peter’s square in the Vatican (the model of the architect), though obviously on a smaller scale. When I walked in the door (there’s no admission fee), I saw the sign barring photography and sighed a bit. It’s an active church, and I understand the tackiness of disrupting devotions with camera flashes.

In many respects the cathedral’s raison d’être is to house an early copy of the Kazan icon. This icon, discovered in 1579 after a fire razed the city of Kazan (east of Moscow, north of the Caspian), is credited by many faithful as the Holy Protectress of Russia. As I wandered the insides of the cathedral, I saw a consistent queue of parishioners waiting for their chances to pray at the icon and to kiss it. The tourists mostly seemed quiet after being shushed at the entrance. I could hear a priest intoning words in a sonorous bass voice. I decided to buy a small copy of the Kazan icon to accompany the Nevsky icon I bought at the lavra.

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The Shuvalov Palace is the perfect setting for a decorative arts museum.

I continued to the Anichkov Bridge and turned north, and I found the Faberge Museum easily. When I paid the entrance fee, the security folks pointed me to the cloak room to divest myself of the backpack and don baggies over my hiking shoes; everyone must do his or her part to protect the floor! I was really stunned by the beauty of the palace in which it is housed. The restoration is first-rate. I borrowed one of the guide books in English so I would know what I was seeing. The first couple of rooms were something of an appetizer, featuring work in silver that had been produced in service to the court. I loved a little sleigh drawn by to horses.

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Seven of nine eggs at the museum: Rosebud, Imperial Coronation, Cockerel, Fifteenth Anniversary, Bay Tree, Order of St. George, and Chanticleer (not Imperial)

When I entered the “blue room,” it was clear I was in for something special. This collection includes nine of the Imperial Easter Eggs. The “Coronation” egg is probably the best-known, containing a small model of the coach in which the tsar arrived to receive his crown.  Of course, there’s a lot more to see in the museum. I really liked a picture frame cut from rock crystal, and there’s a lovely pendant featuring aquamarines around a massive rose-cut diamond. The enamel work was also outstanding! During my visit, the museum had a temporary exhibit on Russian Orthodox icons, which seemed helpful given my exposure to the Kazan icon that morning.

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Not only the eggs shine at the Faberge Museum.

I wandered in the direction of the Naval museum, but I broke up the long walk to the southwest by stopping twice, once for a bookstore (where I acquired postcards and a book on the Romanov ruling family) and once for lunch. I chose to eat the The Idiot Restaurant. The menu tells a humorous tale to relate the restaurant to the author of The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but I couldn’t really discern whether the story was tongue-in-cheek or not. While ordering, I tried to get a glass of kvass, a traditional drink made from rye, but alas, they only carried it in summer time. When my meal came, I was surprised to discover that they include a shot of vodka with every meal! As I ate my parmigiano and mushroom tagliatelle, I kept eyeing the shot glass with suspicion. Having finished my meal, it was still there, staring back at me. The waitress was there when I decided to gun down the shot. POW! After I downed it and started feeling the burn, the waitress pointed urgently to the slice of lemon. Yes, the lemon helped.

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The view across the water toward Au Pont Rouge shopping area

I continued on to the Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was murdered. When I got there, the ticket seller was unhelpful, and she only wanted the 700 RUB (!) entrance fee. I handed over my credit card, but she decided without trying it that it wouldn’t work and insisted on cash. I walked away instead. The stories about Rasputin’s assassination seem pretty untethered to fact, and the Palace benefits from heightening that mystery.

From there, I had only a short walk to the Central Naval Museum. The entrance fee was also pretty high, at 600 RUB, but it’s an established museum with a long track record. The museum roughly divides into two areas, a cavernous space featuring naval history from ancient times to Peter the Great’s era, and a series of roughly 20 rooms that consider the navy fielded by Russia over time.

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The botik of Peter the Great shaped his future when it was rediscovered in 1688.

Of course, you know that my chief draw for the museum was to see the boat in which Peter the Great learned to sail! The St. Nicholas was built in the 1640s for Peter the Great’s grandfather and was moldering at the Izmaylovo Estate when a sixteen-year-old Peter discovered it. He asked for help from a Dutch seaman who taught him how to sail against the wind (not possible with Russian ships of that era). His intense love of ships grew from that discovery, and at one point the boat was displayed at the Peter and Paul Fortress with the words “From the amusement of the child came the triumph of the man.” The boat took part in many state events thereafter. Today, Peter the Great’s boat is one of the first things a visitor to the Central Naval Museum sees!

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Torpedo guts!

I’ll be up-front with you. The Central Naval Museum is a tough visit if you don’t read Cyrillic. Perhaps you are the sort of person who likes little wooden models of sailing ships. Perhaps you spent a fair amount of your adolescence building tiny plastic models of military equipment. Perhaps you’re curious what the inside of a torpedo or depth charge looks like. If these describe you, this museum is going to be a winner for you. I was very, very sad that I couldn’t find an English translation or even Latin lettering until I was halfway through the museum. I could sound out a few of the names, and I could get other terms by context. For example, the earliest part of the history hall showed an oar from a twelfth century viking ship. Some of the models were really impressive, such as one showing the Admiralty at a time when it was hosting multiple ship-building crews simultaneously. I also got a kick out of a two-person submarine on the upper level of that big hall. Even if I couldn’t read details there, I was still impressed with what I was seeing. I see from the website that English tours are available for groups of five or more, but I would happily have settled for a little book like the one I toted around the Faberge Museum.

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Память means “in memoriam.”

The History of the Russian Navy was easier to follow because each room had a brass plaque to contextualize what I was seeing, and a few of the rooms had computer terminals that would provide an English summary plus photos of exhibited items (albeit without English captions). The descriptions were a bit weak on detail. For example, what were the circumstances of the battle in the Russian-Japanese War featuring the Varyag? Why did Port Arthur and Vladivostok require defense in that war? The computer describes the Battle of Tsushima as “one of the most tragic and heroic pages in the history of the Russian Fleet,” but one needs to know some external history to realize that two-thirds of the Russian Fleet was sunk in one battle in 1905!

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World War II rocket artillery

My attention really came together when I came to the “Great Patriotic War” (World War II). Suddenly Stalin was everywhere, and hammer and sickle flags were on display. I saw a strange-looking rack in the corner, and then I pulled to an abrupt stop. It was a Katyusha multiple rocket launcher! Those things were the bane of the German Infantry in World War II. By war’s end, 518 batteries were in service.

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It’s so stark that it immediately arrested my attention.

As I moved into the Cold War part of the museum, I entered an altogether different mood. This was the stuff of my nightmares from when I was a child. Sea-launched ballistic missile submarines, the heavy cruiser Kiev, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, rocket powered torpedoes, and supersonic cruise missiles. I left that hall thinking, “the world survived that. It looked like disaster was coming, but the world survived that!” Even a more than two-meter high head of V.I. Lenin couldn’t bring my spirits down!

My walk back to my hotel was in brilliant sunshine as the sun was no longer masked by clouds. I inspected the bronze doors of St. Isaac’s Cathedral (modeled after those of the cathedral in Florence), took another photo of Peter the Great’s monument, and paused to photograph a memorial to the siege of Leningrad during World War II.  I paused in Palace Square as the sun descended toward the horizon.  I spun in a circle with my camera, taking it all in, one last time.

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Palace Square is glorious in sunlight!

Just before dinner, I bough an oil painting by Ivan Kapitonov at a boutique near the Church on Spilled Blood. It will remind me of this city I love.

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I took a little bit of St. Petersburg home with me!

St. Petersburg: the Communists make their move

October 24, 2017

Americans can be forgiven for thinking that the Communist revolution centered on Moscow, but in fact St. Petersburg was home to some of the most intense conflict surrounding the 1917 revolution. Remember that it was the capital under the tsars, not Moscow! I used my penultimate day in the city to retrace some of the key events leading to the Bolshevik takeover.

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Part of the twelve colleges complex

Since I had a little time before museums opened this morning, I decided to take a walk over to Vasilevskiy Ostrov, the largest of the islands in the mouth of the Neva. My particular target was to see the “Twelve Colleges.” In the States, we think of the executive branch of government being divided into departments, each headed by a secretary in the Cabinet. Peter the Great sought to modernize Russia’s government by replacing the older prikazy system with one where nine colleges would handles areas such as Justice, Revenue, Commerce, etc. These administrative groups would be housed in the set of twelve college buildings he created all in a row on the island, and they would be joined by the Senate, the Synod, and another ministry for trade. The buildings, finished in 1744, are a lovely baroque style.

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Mikhail Lomonosov is the Russian Benjamin Franklin.

I mentioned visiting the grave of Mikhail Lomonosov yesterday, and I was pleased to see his statue relaxing just outside the Twelve Colleges. From there, I wandered to the point of the island facing the rest of the city. I walked past three “fifth-wheel” trailers parked in a row. I look forward to sharing the photo with my aunt and uncle, who remodel antique camping trailers.

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Hi, Aunt Joyce!

I also saw the old stock exchange, which again looks worse from the back than on the side facing tourists. The antique Rostral Columns, which once served as lighthouses, are still impressive. Giant figures at the base symbolize the four major rivers of Russia, the Neva among them. Ships’ prows point out the sides of the columns in a sort of ladder.

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The Artillery Museum

My walk next took me by the artillery museum, on the near-land side of Rabbit Island (dominated by the Peter and Paul Fortress). As I passed the massive artillery pieces, I tried to figure out which kind would have been pointed at my father had fighting re-erupted in Korea while he was stationed there. Soon after that, I had arrived at my destination, the Museum of Russian Political History. As usual, I had arrived early, so I paused for twenty minutes on a convenient bench. As the hour arrived, a group of primary school children in reflective vests arrived, and they happily clattered into the building as the security guard opened up.

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The mansion doesn’t look much like a Communist landmark, does it?

This museum is located in a building that seems far from the Communist ideal. It was a gorgeous mansion! Prima-ballerina Mathilda Kshesinskaya had the home constructed in 1904-1906 in an Art Nouveau style. It included a grand hall where she occasionally rehearsed before a big show along with the normal rooms of an affluent mansion. Her talent in the arts brought her to the attention of Tsar Nicholas II in the three years before he married (starting in 1890), and his favor led to her being advanced in her career. As sentiment in St. Petersburg became increasingly revolutionary in 1917, she decided to move away in February of that year, moving to France in 1920. Her home was occupied by soldiers and soon thereafter by revolutionary organizations, particularly the Bolsheviks (they had formed relationships with many of the enlisted men in the armed services).  Her story is told in the 2017 film, “Matilda.”

The museum bridged the Kshesinskaya mansion with the Brandt mansion behind it during the 1950s, and more recent work has modernized the facility to a great extent. While I found the flow through the museum a little confusing (the wings told separate stories from the core of the building, so one moved upward rather than outward), the material seemed well thought-through, though it occasionally assumed visitors had a bit more information than the average American might know, (Do you know who Sergei Kirov was? Do you know why he was assassinated? I didn’t.)

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The Decembrists, rendered in cut paper

It was helpful that the museum walks visitors through the nature of the discontent with the Tsar. A childlike model visualizes the 1825 Decembrists’ occupation of Senate Square. They exhibited the clothing of a man shot down in the 1905 Bloody Sunday incident (which took place in a plaza next door to the museum).  By the time an empire uses its military against large-scale protests, the end is not far away.  the wall featured a full-scale recreation of a portrait of Nicholas II with bayonet tears gouged through it. The teenage dream of Tsar Alexander I to transform Russia into a constitutional monarchy (start of the 19th century) might have succeeded before all these disasters took place.

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National emblem from the House of Soviets (Moscow)

When revolution came, a strange three-body dynamic formed. The Tsar abdicated in favor of his brother, who also soon abdicated. The Russian Provisional Government claimed control over all the government offices and military forces, but the Communists gained credibility day by day until the military only nominally answered to the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks suborned all the other Communists until they were powerful enough to launch a successful coup against the Provisional Government. Suddenly their message of “we will create a paradise” had some rather serious teeth!

A real highlight of the museum comes from the fact that V.I. Lenin made real history right in the house. His “April Theses” were announced in the mansion on April 4, 1917 just after he arrived. He wrote around 170 works between April and July of that year, working from a table that has been returned to the place where he used it.

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It’s just a table, but what a history!

That room featured a small balcony, and Lenin frequently made speeches to crowds gathered below from the balcony. The room now features a painting of his oration from that window! Meetings of the Central Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party took place in the large room downstairs where the dancer had practiced her moves. It felt a little spooky, frankly, to stand in that space. I am glad that the Kshesinskaya Mansion has been restored to be essentially as it was historically rather than being turned into exhibit space. Being in Lenin’s old office is powerful in an almost opposite way to what I experienced in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which was constructed in the hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

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Lenin’s balcony, as seen from below.

I did find some inspiration in this museum. I loved this quote from the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersberg (1990): “Any enterprise should begin with a human being and not with a government decree, any project should end with a human being. Legal rights are nothing more than a necessary means of maintaining order in society, not an instrument for turning a human into a cog in a machine but for addressing the early concerns of an ordinary person. A legal state begins with understanding this simple truth.” (Anatoly Sobchak, The Road to Power) I popped over the gift shop to buy a folder full of Soviet-era propaganda posters entitled Vice, Get Out!. A fair number of them focus on abstaining from alcohol!

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Solovetsky Stone Memorial

I went to the park next door to acquire some photos of the mansion and its balcony, and then I headed to what was once Revolution Plaza (now called Trinity Park). A large boulder, called the Solovetsky Stone, stands as a monument in the plaza to victims of political repression.

I stopped at a cafe on a side street. At first, I thought I couldn’t eat there since the menu wasn’t in English, but then another customer stepped up to translate. I ended up with soup, salad, a full plate, and tea. Another customer stepped forward to help me with the tea urn. This city shows real warmth to visitors!

[The following section has been borrowed from October 21, 2017.]

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The Aurora

I turned my sights east so that I could visit some sites relating to Russia’s revolutionary history. The Aurora is permanently moored at the site where a river empties into the Neva nearby. The Pallada-class cruiser had seen action in the Russo-Japanese War, but it was returned to Russia at the end of hostilities. The ship was undergoing major repair in 1917 as the population of St. Petersburg grew in revolutionary fervor. The ship’s crew joined the side of the revolt, and the ship’s captain was killed when he tried to halt their actions. This ship fired a blank from its forecastle gun on October 25th, 1917 (old calendar) to signal that the assault on the Winter Palace was to begin. The October Revolution had officially shifted from speeches to action.

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My photographers were a bit shocked that I wanted a picture with the statue.

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This engine pulled Lenin into town on two occasions.

I continued east, walking across the Sampsonlevskiy Most (bridge) along the waterfront beside a major highway (the Pirogovskaya Nab). At last I reached the Finlyandskiy Station, or Finland Train Stration. At first, this might not seem a tourist hotspot, but the site didn’t make it into the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls” for nothing! This is the train station where Lenin arrived in Russia after his exile in Switzerland. The plaza to the south of the Station features a massive (and famous) statue of Lenin giving an impassioned speech before a crowd of workers.

I requested permission to see the Lenin train, and a station worked telephoned for backup. The security person introduced herself and guided me onto the train platform. We walked over to the east side, and there, encased in glass, was engine 293 with its coal tender. It was hard to believe I was looking at a train that twice had shipped the famed revolutionary to Russia (Lenin had been forced to flee to Finland during the “July Days“).

After that satisfactory moment, I retired to a side street to enjoy some California rolls at a sushi restaurant. I was surprised that they recognized that term but not “maki,” another common type of sushi.

[…and now we return to October 24, 2017.]

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Tauride Gardens

For my last act of the day, I decided to find the building that had served as the first seat of government for the Bolsheviks after their coup. I had become confused between the home of the provisional government (before the coup) and the home of the Bolshevik government (after the coup).  I set out for the Tauride Palace, only later realizing I needed the Smolnyy Institute instead.  I took the metro to the Cherneshevskaya to take in the sights. Sadly, the nearest metro stop is quite some distance from both those buildings! I trudged over to the Tauride Gardens, and I am glad I got to see them. The grounds a truly lovely. Heavy clouds had been threatening all day, and a few drips started hitting the ground. When I was standing in front of the Tauride Palace, I got the sense that I was in front of a government institution, and I wasn’t even sure that photographs were allowed!

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Smolnyy Cathedral

I continued heading east, since I had suddenly realized the Smolnyy Institute was just south of Smolnyy Convent, a major religious structure to the east of central St. Petersburg (I had seen it far off in the distance, looking like a wedding cake, since it is quite tall). My reasonable walk to Tauride had become an unreasonable walk. I was happy to photograph the Smolnyy Convent, and when I reached the Institute to its south, I knew I was in the right place!

A quote from Karl Marx spanned both halves of the entrance gate. Halfway down the drive, I encountered a bust of Marx facing a bust of Engels across the road, almost as though they were still locked in conversation. When I arrived at the security gate for the Institute, the security guard allowed me to take photographs inside the gate, so long as I didn’t approach the building. Both Tauride and Smolnyy would be obvious candidates for running a government since they’re both mammoth structures.  I learned, in retrospect, that this is where Sergei Kirov, a rival for power among the Bolsheviks, was gunned down.

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Panorama of Smolnyy Institute facade

I opted to trudge back to the metro by a different route. Suvarovskiy Prospekt took an awfully long time to bring me back to Nevsky Prospekt, though. I was compelled to stop at the halfway point back to eat a chocolate cake at a bakery. It only rained on me a little bit. I hopped on the subway for the last leg back to my hotel.