Wednesday, September 03, 2014

From Russia With Love

I'm very disappointed with Moscow. It was not the chaotic place I expected or what the travel guide cautioned about. Either all the crooks were on vacation or it felt very safe, very normal, like any other cosmopolitan, modern capital. To hear it from our horrid travel guide (Fodor's -- but they all suck), we were supposed to look over our shoulders at all times for pickpockets during the day and bands of marauding drunks at night. All we got was a bunch of mostly local tourists and regular folks, with the occasional drunken bum here and there; nowhere near the amount of homeless people one sees in New York. Perhaps they were on vacation too.

The Bolshoi
Other than giving our brains a workout with the cyrillic alphabet, Moscow was easy. The Moscow Metro is the 8th wonder of the world. I want to live there. Each and every station is spotless. There is no garbage, not on the tracks, not on the platforms. I wonder if the Russians simply don't have that terrible custom of eating "on the go", or maybe they are just good citizens that don't like their city to look and smell like a dump, or maybe Putin sends them to Siberia if they litter, but whatever it is, it's working. Walking the streets of Moscow, from Red Square to far flung working class neighborhoods which were just as clean, I got angry about the cesspool of filth that is New York City. Why do we live in a giant trash can? Why don't we have good municipal cleaning? We should be ashamed of ourselves.
The metro was first built by Stalin (a very evil man) for the people, and it is a marvel of public propaganda and Soviet grandeur, that actually works. Many trains are old but in working shape. You never have to wait over five minutes for a train. And the stations! Each one has a different motif, from the streamlined art deco of Mayakovskaya, to the Soviet rococo of Komsomolskaya. We actually took a ride on its circular line and got off on all the stations, just to see them. It's a great thing to do on a rainy day.

We did not interact much with the locals. Like New Yorkers, they live and let live. A couple of women heard us speaking Spanish and asked in halting English where we were from and we had fun conversations with them.
The first weekend the city was deserted. If there was a war in Ukraine, you could not tell. Peace and quiet, except for the unfortunate custom of restaurants to broadcast techno music at all times. Apparently, this is a thing.
Moscow is an imperial capital. It has grand wide avenues, and huge imperial and Soviet buildings. It is pretty majestic. And it seems that the gazillions made by the oligarchs as they divvied up the spoils have trickled down. The city is clean and well preserved. I imagine this was not always the case.
We saw spawns of oligarchs in some places. The girls tend to wear a uniform of Louboutin high heels and flared miniskirts and lots of bling. Girls who are naturally six feet tall love to wear six inch heels to make everybody else feel like dwarfs. People who look like peasants go into the Louis Vuitton store (catty corner from a frieze of Marx, Engels and Lenin) to buy stuff for their sullen teenage daughters. For Russians, when it comes to luxury, more is more. Like a bottle of vodka that comes in its own Fabergé egg with crystal shot glasses and costs thousands of dollars. We saw that in this here humble supermarket:

We went to the Kremlin's armory museum which showcases the gowns and jewels of the Tsars.
You look at the accumulation of bling and you understand why there was a revolution. Too much! And now it's like that all over again. 80 years of brutal communist rule, to go back to oligarchs. In the meantime, Stalin destroyed a huge cathedral to build the largest outdoor swimming pool the world has ever known. He basically created a new religion of communism, with the same lies and fantasies as any other religion, plus a reign of terror. Now they have rebuilt the cathedral. Apparently, underneath it there is a car wash and a dry cleaner. We looked for them, but could not find them.
Highlight of the trip: Lenin's mausoleum. Lenin is still lying in state, in a somber, cool and sinister art deco mausoleum. He is embalmed. He is a redhead and had a beautiful nose. One of his hands is clenched. He looks rather pasty and shriveled, from all these years of being dead. Everybody loves Lenin (pronounced Lyenyin). There are statues, and the national library and plaques in his name. Stalin, on the other hand, is almost nowhere to be found.
Russian brides take pictures in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, around the corner from Lenin's corpse.  So cheerful!

What is interesting is that remnants of Soviet grandeur are proudly preserved. We went to a fabulous Soviet park that wants to resemble both Versailles and a World Expo.  Besides the Museum of Cosmonauts (super fun), it has pavilions for all the Soviet republics, and things like geology and petrol. The Soviets basically replaced religious iconography with their own iconography. There are always solid, hardworking Slavs looking forward into the future with resolve, when they are not carrying sheafs of wheat. The story of the triumph of the revolution is told through magnificently executed tableaux all around the city, the communist equivalent of stained glass panels in medieval churches. It's all a crock of bull, but at least they had great artists and designers in charge. I'm sure that the more you see thick sheafs of wheat and vases laden with fruit, the more privation there was, but that is propaganda for you.

To infinity and beyond!
Crock of bull
Commie kitsch
The Bolshoi was on vacation, as was the opera, but September promised to bring a lot of culture back. There are a lot of theaters. We went to the Moscow version of Pere Lachaise to pay our respects to Chekhov and Prokofief. Einsenstein was also buried there, but we could not find him. Some of the tombs are inscribed with the hammer and sickle in lieu of a cross. Religion is the opium of the masses, huh?

With my main man, Anton Chekhov.
Boris Yeltsin's grave. A disaster. 


  1. Americanize12:55 AM

    Is this the Anti-NPR? All I heard there was Russia is filled with corruption and the living standards are bleak at best for normal people.

  2. Russia may be filled with corruption, but most Russians love Putin because now they can have things. I'm sure the gaps between the haves and the have nots are getting wider, but it didn't look as bleak to us tourists. We went to a working class market where there was abundance, and people were shopping. This is a far cry from their communist days. However, Russia, whether under the Tsars, or the Commies, or now Putin and his merry band of oligarchs, has always been an autocracy.
    Thanks for reading!