Wednesday June 6, 2012 – Red Square

The Red Arrow pulled into Leningradskaya Station at 7:55am, and we trundled/lugged our bags to a cafe to have a coffee and danish. In hindsight we should have stayed there till after rush hour, but we set off to find the Brown Line at 8:30. After heading outside, and swimming upstream against the torrent of commuters flooding from a nearby exit, we found a building marked with an M. It looked like a Roman library with giant columns supporting a portico. But all the doors, on either side of the building, were exits. What kind of building only let people leave? We were beginning attract attention from the disheveled men hanging around nearby, so we joined the commuter stream and followed it to another M, this one entering an underground passage, where we got pushed this way and that.

We had to buy tickets, and I gestured for ‘2’, but the ticket woman gave me a single card. I approached a subway official talking nearby with her friend – both ignored me until I started gesturing to the ticket and motioning to M. and myself. They took the ticket and waved us through, into a throng of people at the top of an escalator. I’ve never been that crowded while carrying so much luggage.

Somehow we got on it, followed the crowd to the Brown Line #5, and then wondered which train to take. I’d been told different trains run on the same track, and to look for their markings. But none were labelled Brown Line, or even ‘5’. There were 7 different lists of names on the platform, all in Cyrillic, of course. No sooner had I tried to study one than another train pulled up, blocking the view. Where all trains on the Brown Line? Or none? I asked a commuter where our stop was, showing him the paper with it written down – but I’d neglected to write it in Cyrillic, so he just smiled and shrugged. M. pointed out that this was a circular line, so any train would probably do. We got on and, sure enough, it got us to our destination. Why have 7 different lists of names when only the Brown Line runs on the track? Why not just list all the stops that the Brown Line goes to? Why were we the only people with large bags? Actually, that one’s easy: it was rush hour.

Things improved after we left the Metro and found our next home stay. We’re just off the big inner circle road, in an incredibly wealthy area, very different from our place in St. Petersburg. The flat we’re in is old, has high ceilings and lots of wood details. There are multi-volume book sets, one of which is Mark Twain. It was published in 1959, proof that at the height of the Cold War, the Soviets still appreciated some American literature. Here’s the set with a creepy-baby chocolate bar:

I’d booked two beds and there were two rooms. The next day I learnt I’d booked two beds in one room, not two beds in two separate rooms.  I find that with travelling, you break rules that you didn’t even know existed. Nonetheless our host was understanding and didn’t charge me extra.

Our first priority was lunch, and Sasha told us about Jagganarth, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Moscow. It was a relief to get somewhere I could have everything on the menu, particularly after the carnivorous Buddhists. It’s in a swanky part of town, decorated with Hindu symbols, and it has a shop in front selling Indian spices and incense, and it serves curries and Indian sweets… but it’s not an Indian restaurant. Rather, it’s an approximation of Indian food by well-meaning chefs who are making their best guesses. There’s paneer in everything, and the spices taste like they come out of a very good box of MDH. I had an orange sweet with pistachios on top, which I’ve had in Toronto and it’s made with flour and honey. Here it was apricot jam. Also, I could’ve sworn I tasted fish in the beet-and-potato salad. Nonetheless, we were completely fortified.

That afternoon we went to Red Square, through some monumental metro stations with statues of workers and Communist crests. This is from our local one, Smolenskaya:

The pedestrian walkway to the square is lined with tourist stalls, selling a thin-but-broad segment of Russian souvenirs i.e. many variations on the same item. So there are USSR-themed mugs, matrushka dolls, doilies, poorly-sculpted bronze heads of Lenin, etc.

Red Square is huge, bounded by the GUM department store on one side, and the Kremlin on two others. It comes to a point at the top, where St. Basil’s Cathedral is. Here’s the outside:

Here’s the GUM. I couldn’t afford to buy anything inside:

It was hard to believe I was actually there; I’ve seen it in so many movies, but here it was in stone and cobble. The Kremlin dominates it: it’s a giant red-painted fortress whose walls go up at least four stories.

St. Basil’s was closed that day (randomly – there was just a note on the gate):

Lenin’s Mausoleum was only open till 1pm, so we went back out to the tourist stalls and fulfilled a long-time fantasy of mine: posing with a Lenin impersonator. There were two Lenins, but one had a Stalin with him and I didn’t want Stalin in the photo. Plus that Lenin was smiley – Lenin’s supposed to be gruff. This one looked more disaffected and I had to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention, as he didn’t make eye contact. When I asked how much, Brezhnev came up and said “100 roubles”. He asked if I wanted both, but I said, “Just Lenin”, and M. took three photos. Afterwards I lifted up my sleeve and tapped my red flag tattoo; Lenin laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. Whether that was “I’m with you comrade” or “You’re a fool but I’ll take your money” I’ll never know.

From there we wandered through the Medieval part of town, where the roads are curvy and steep.

Russia – where 25 year old American bands go to die, I mean live:

After a rest at a disappointing Protestant church (where’s the ornamentation? Why give that up just because you have a direct line to God?) we found a broad park in the middle of the road that sloped down to the river.

We ended up at one of the Seven Sisters, a luxury apartment building that Stalin built post-war for the party elites. It was impressive, monumental, classical and art-deco – it would even be tacky were it not on such a grand scale. It struck me that even though the elites lived in this building, they lived there all together. It was an architectural reminder that they had a common project of managing the country, and perhaps a way to keep an eye on them.

The building enclosed a park; we walked up some steps to emerge into a playground and vertically-landscaped paths that looked like woodland. Up some more steps and we were back into small (by Moscow standards), steep streets.

These are everywhere – I think it’s cool that they apparently celebrate the lives of engineers, technicians and other workers:

Moscow roads

Nothing demonstrates the irrationality of capitalism better than Moscow roads. OK, maybe other things do, but you have to start reaching towards nuclear disasters to get there. It’s a city designed, at best, for a small number of cars, and in Soviet times that’s what they had. The vast concentration of wealth that’s taken place since the USSR broke up has expressed itself, in downtown Moscow at least, in the largest collection of luxury automobiles I’ve ever seen. Giant Audis, Mercedes and Range Rovers are everywhere. I’ve even seen three Maybachs, an obscure limousine so luxurious it has curtains in the back window. And there’s no space for all of them.

Of course the USSR had material privileges, the leaders lived a much more luxurious life than everybody else. But I can’t imagine the difference between the poorest and the richest were so huge as today, or so on display. If you privatize wealth, the money that should go to infrastructure goes to personal enrichment, and everyone tries to cram their luxury goods into the same shrinking space. Result: traffic is at a standstill during rush hour, even on side streets, and people park everywhere – on the sidewalks, boxing other cars in, anywhere there’s space. It’s often hard to tell whether cars are waiting in traffic or parked and empty, because there’s no line between parking and driving space. Even ambulances wait in traffic. Oddly enough it feels safer than St. Petersburg, because in Russia there are few crosswalks (with no flashing lights) and not everyone uses them: you just step into the road and hope people slow down. In St. Petersburg they always did but they went at a fair clip; in Moscow they’re not going that fast to begin with.

Moscow women

I have to make this observation with a caveat: this is not me ogling/lusting/objectifying Moscovite women. There are marriage sites for that sort of thing. It’s more of an awe at their aesthetic. I have never seen women dress like they dress here. In St. Petersburg there were a lot of platform stiletto heels, but the heels look higher here. They’re combined with designer suits or blouses and skirts in highlight colours, shimmering long hair – or perfectly curled hair – and make-up that looks like it took hours to put on. They look like they stepped off of billboards. They walk in their six-inch platform heels down cobbled streets or along unevenly paved underpasses that trip me up. But they don’t wobble or miss a step. And it’s not like Bloor Street West back home – no one hoots or stares at them. It’s just treated normally.

The majority of women aren’t dressing like this, of course, but those that do stand out. I don’t understand why. (The men, by the way, are not outlandishly dressed. The strangest I saw was a pair of Converse-style sneakers with gold studs all over the toe. The strangest thing about the men are the shiny suits – that must be a Russian thing.) More than once, I’ve seen women applying make-up on the long escalators up from the metro – or rather, re-applying, because I don’t see many women leaving the house without make-up here. If gender is a performance, these women are constantly on stage at opening night.


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