This blog entry is from my manuscript, “My Russia: After the Soviet Union”.
Inside the Garden Ring
Located inside the historical Garden Ring, the Beliy Gorod was a beautiful old area of Moscow. This area full of wonderful classical architecture was once surrounded by a white wall, hence the name Beliy Gorod, or “White City”. Built on little hills and surrounded by the beautiful Boulevard Ring, the Beliy Gorod was full of endless wandering possibilities. It seemed that every turn offered a new chance to explore a bewildering number of small streets and alleys. There were glimpses of stately mansions, restored monasteries, revitalized theaters and the occasional tacky modern Soviet building. This part of Moscow was the home of the New Big Church, otherwise known as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, along with the Pushkin Museum, the elegant Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow Conservatory, and the once dreaded Lubyanka, home of the KGB.
The profusion of theatres makes the Beliy Gorod the best place enjoy Moscow’s formidable dose of high culture. Unlike many other countries, interest in this kind of thing was not just confined to students, travelers or a snobby elite. The performing arts were really important to everyday Russians. This helped keep Russian culture very much alive, despite very hard times. The cultural gamut ran from traditional dances in jeweled fairy tale costumes, to great classical music, deeply moving paintings loaded with social commentary, and the wonderful ballets — all greatly enhanced by the endless supply of talent.
One highlight of the Beliy Gorod was the Pushkin Museum, which had a huge collection of Western Art ranging from Greek sculpture to the Impressionists. The museum was founded in 1912 but was augmented by art confiscated after the revolution. State power was a handy way of expanding a collection. The place had changed greatly for the better from my first visit in 1990. Back then, the door of the Ancient Egypt room was opened and closed by a power crazy babushka for no apparent reason. It certainly wasn’t crowd control. Sometimes she’d close the door when the room was packed and we’d all be stuck inside — and at other times, it would be empty but no one would be allowed in. There was none of that nonsense in 1998. The museum had modern lighting and we were free to wander around as we wished. I was most impressed by the collection of Picasso, Rubens, Rembrandts, Monet, Degas, and Renoir — along with that nice Egyptian collection. I was less impressed by the dusty plaster reproductions of Michelangelo and other Renaissance statues.
The array of theaters and concert halls was incredible. The collection included venues such as the 200 year old Bolshoi Theatre, the Great and Little Halls of the Conservatory, Tchaikovsky Hall and the Kremlin Palace. The latter was a modern white building once used for Communist Party Congresses. When we saw Brezhnev giving his speeches in a large modern auditorium, this was the place. With the exception of the Kremlin Palace, the theatres were elegant old world type places full of crystal chandeliers, composer busts, beautiful interiors, ancient wooden doors and (alas) hard seats. But the post-Soviet money crunch did have an effect – these places all lacked air-conditioning and had little in the way of modern facilities. This made concert going an early 20th century experience. Despite these problems, the selection of performances was incredible, making Moscow one of the best places in the world for high culture. On a typical day, there were no less than ten concerts, ballet performances and other activities. This was not counting the even larger variety of Russian-language theatre performances. While Moscow’s stages were dead in the summer, fall and winter bring on the incredible cultural onslaught — at even more unbelievable prices.
Russian speakers could get the best Bolshoi seats for less than $20 each and conservatory tickets for less than $3 a seat. Non-Russian speakers get stuck when hotels rip them off by charging $60 or more per seat. Season tickets were a good deal but required a visit to the box office in August. Getting your idea across in Russian while squeezing your money through the little box office windows could be a challenge. Although they were being phased out, Soviet era ticket windows were designed to make it impossible to actually buy anything. Getting the money in and the tickets out required twisting my hand around two 90 degree angles simultaneously.
There was another important quirk about the season tickets: When you buy them, you only knew what they would play but not when! In other words, I’d end up buying tickets for Mahler’s 1st Symphony, Bruckner’s 9th and Scriabin’s Prometheus – for dates unknown! To be sure I didn’t miss anything, I had to make periodic visits to the conservatory to see if they had posted the dates of my concerts on a big handwritten chart. Sometimes, they only wrote down the dates a few weeks before the event. There was a web site but it disappeared without a trace or explanation halfway through 2000. Despite the risk of missed concerts, I figured the season tickets were so cheap that they were worth getting. I ended up buying six season tickets of 4-5 concerts each — and made it to almost all of them. The others made nice presents.
Another theatre/concert hall quirk was the Russian obsession with the garderobe. For the uninitiated, this was a counter in a hall’s foyer where you’re supposed to leave your jackets with an old woman. Given the profusion of outer garments in the winter, this could lead to post-concert waits in as long as 20 minutes. I tried many ways to foil the garderobe demon. I tried carrying my coat into the theatre — but got ugly looks. I was not being cultured. I tried running out halfway through the applause like some locals, but that was even less cultured. I had my greatest success by just leaving my jacket in the car. This worked well until the temperature fell below 0F (-14C). After getting sick one time, I learned to wait on line.
While the theatres represent the light of Russian culture, the darker side lies on Lubyanka Square. This is home of the infamous Lubyanka, former home of the KGB but now home to the similar but domestic only FSB (Federal Security Service). In the center of the square was a little hillock that once hosted a reviled black statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a Pole who ran a KGB predecessor called the Cheka. The Cheka was the first of the Soviet Union’s secret police forces that was charged with arresting and eliminating “class enemies” and other counterrevolutionaries during the Russian Civil War. They were quite successful at both killing and developing a top flight intelligence service. To this day, former KGB officers including President Putin still call themselves with pride “Chekists”.
Although the Cheka killed a lot of people, the worst tenant was the genocidal and completely unpleasant Stalin-era NKVD, or the “People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs”. While the Cheka killed thousands and the KGB was deeply repressive, the NKVD ordered the murder of millions. After passing a small memorial to the victims of totalitarianism, a stone slab from a labor camp on the northern Solovetsky Islands, I walked by the large orange and gray Lubyanka building. Each small window was covered with many small hammer and sickles. All the cramming of Soviet symbols on Lubyanka made me think that someone was really trying to show their loyalty to the system. The odd detailing deepened my spooky feeling about the place — I could almost feel the ghosts. As I went by, I shivered as I imagined the horrors that emanated from here. This place felt evil. When asked about the NKVD, most Russians say the bad old days of the Black Raven Vans and the late night arrests are far in the past – and that this sort of thing didn’t happen anymore. Then, almost in a hush, most add a story about how an uncle or aunt disappeared in the 1930’s and was never seen again. For many of the older generation, the fear lies just under the surface.
Just outside the Beliy Gorod, Moscow is a little bit more built up and architecturally more eclectic. There were more modern buildings and the Garden Ring and its Stalin skyscrapers loomed close, making the part of the city an odd mix of the Beliy Gorod’s intimacy and Stalin-era gigantism. The Old Arbat was a beautiful old street overwhelmed by the massive gothic Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MID). MID looked like something out of a Dark Knight/Batman movie — grandiose yet dark and sinister.
South of the Moscow River and the Kremlin, the Zamoskvareche District (“Across the Moscow River”) was full of small old streets. The highlight was the beautifully renovated Tretyakov Gallery, which deserves to be one the world’s most famous galleries. Although aficionados rave about its supposedly incredible icon collection, I greatly preferred 19th century “Peredvizhniki” paintings that combined elements of impressionism and some amazing social criticism, which was unusual in paintings from the period. These paintings were not just romantic Renoir like depictions of beautiful women or Monet’s foggy London scenes — these paintings had bite. The word “Peredvizhniki” meant “Wanderer”, which is what these artists had to wander to avoid imprisonment and censorship under the Tsars. Their trenchant works were often too much for the authorities.
Some of my favorites were the “Unequal Marriage” where a rich sleazy old guy marries a beautiful but emotionally broken young woman — as her lover looks on in silent rage. Other paintings range from beautiful renderings of Italy to depictions of terrible religious persecution, oppression of the landless, mass executions and tragic historical events. Some of the most powerful works were depictions of war. There was a painting of a pile of skulls called, “The Apotheosis of War” by Vasily Vershchagin. There was the tormented and pathetic portrayal of Ivan the Terrible by Ilya Repin, “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan: November 16, 1581” which depicts a tormented Ivan after he murdered his son only heir Dmitri. His face was insanely agonized. Almost 200 years later, Peter I “the Great” did the same thing by having his son tortured to death, which was the subject of another painting. Peter didn’t seem so conflicted. Tsars apparently didn’t make great fathers.
Just down the river, lay the staggeringly tasteless monument to Peter I commissioned by Mayor Luzhkov and built by his de facto Court Artist-Sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli. Tsereteli’s works are derided by the kinder critics as lacking subtlety and artistic merit. I think they are grotesque, gaudy, and in generally bad taste. The thing was not only grotesquely tall (165 ft) but was almost black with little obnoxious gold trimmings. Peter and the boat he’s piloting look twisted, stretched out and oddly bumpy — almost like they came down with a pox. I almost hoped that Yeltsin would remove Lenin from Red Square so that the New Bolsheviks would have carried out their promise to blow it up. Maybe it will rust and get some character.
Nearby was a strange graveyard of Soviet statues. If you’re looking for monuments to Brezhnev and that missing Dzerzhinsky statue from Lubyanka, this is the place to come. Virtually no one comes to this park anymore except for tourists. The statue graveyard was in the same area as the New Tretyakov Museum, which held most of the Tretyakov Gallery’s post-revolutionary art. Housed in a big white modern building surprisingly lacking in aesthetics, this was the place to see paintings of Lenin, Stalin and heroic tractor drivers. Few Russians came here also. The old system had not become chic yet.
As for the Moscow River itself, there were two words of advice from Muscovites: One, don’t swim it and two, don’t use it for navigation. The reason for the first was obvious: the water was so polluted that if you don’t die from the water, you will wish you did. The second reason was that the river’s path was completely convoluted. It zigzags back and forth across the entire city, making it a useless way to find out where anything is. However, if you’re looking for the LONGEST way to get from A to B, the river might be useful.
If you don’t care about efficiency, the river boats are highly recommended — and the best place to start was near the chaotic Kievskaya train station. Although the station had an elegant white classical facade, the inside was a mad house full of people carrying big plastic bags of stuff on wheels everywhere. The crowd was full of Uzbeks in their skull caps, lottery ticket hawkers, over-tired travelers and bored railroad workers. This was Russia — both waiting and on the move.
I ended up buying a boat ticket after getting yelled at violently for not having exact change. Happily the ride was worth it! Along the way, I passed the magical fairy tale Novodevichy Convent (home of a very famous graveyard and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake), the biggest Stalin tower of all at Moscow State University, the hideous statue of Peter I, and most beautifully, the golden domes of the Kremlin.
The route ended near the Novospassky Monastery, which was under extensive renovation and guarded by sword-bearing black-clothed Cossacks. Although sometimes confused with Kazakhs, a Central Asian ethnic group, Cossacks are Russians and Ukrainians who originally settled in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, especially in areas on the edge of the Slavic world. Organized into villages, the Cossacks often lived free from central control while using their military skills to keep out invaders from Turkey, the Caucasus or other surrounding territories. In Tsarist times they were often served as the Empire’s elite (and ruthless) shock troops. Although the Soviets repressed Cossack culture, it has bounced back since 1991. Today, many Cossacks seem themselves as guardians of Russia’s sacred traditions, especially the Church. This is why they were guarding Novospassky.
Founded during the time of Yuri Dolgoruky, Novospassky Monastery was likely Moscow’s first. Since then it had a hard history. It was burned to the ground by the Tartars and then during the 20th century the monastery was used by the NKVD as a murder camp before becoming an archive, a furniture factory and finally a center for alcoholics. It was finally returned to the church in 1991. Since then, this place has made up for last time by becoming a place for the hard core believers. It seemed to be a major pilgrimage spot for older women, who covered their hair in the churches — and even upon entering the monastery grounds. This was not like my museum experience of the Kremlin. The churches were lit by colored candles and filled with incense. The air was full of the rhythmic singing of the parishioners. This was the Old Russia before the time of Peter I, when the insularity and solemnity of the church and the fairy tale Russia still held sway…
There were other famous monasteries in Moscow. The Don was very atmospheric. Once used as a fortress, it was surrounded by huge brick walls and was mostly used as a cemetery. At one point it was very fashionable to be interred here. The sharp-eyed can find names such as Pushkin, Tolstoy and Golitsyn sprinkled around. These are not the famous people themselves, but rather their relatives. The graves were arrayed under trees and around some beautiful churches. The headstones were often either carved ornately out of stone or made of metal shaped in the form of the triple orthodox cross. The place was just dilapidated enough to give it character. There was even a small group of black caped monks living there.
Despite the presence of the Kremlin and the monasteries, the highest ranking Orthodox church in Moscow is the light green Yelokhovsky Cathedral. The atmosphere inside was a magical mix of gold icons and clouds of sweet incense — all drenched by the gentle late afternoon light. In the middle of the floor, a woman was praying so hard that she lay face down and started crying. In the background was the solemn yet deeply beautiful music. There were no tourists, no people looking for money – just a quiet but intense atmosphere. I felt a profound sense of the spiritual here — a feeling of awe and mystery that comes with the belief that the universe is larger than just the mere material. It almost felt like a conduit to another reality.
On the other extreme was the Danilov Monastery, a.k.a. Corporate Headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church. Despite its age (700 years), this place was hyper-clean, new, neat and organized — unlike the other monasteries. Every building looked like it was fixed yesterday and the Patriarch lives there like a head of state in a huge mansion on one side of the compound. Church officials are so well-connected that they even have special license plates, just like government officials. Power and money oozed out of the very (newly carved) stones. For the really enthusiastic, Danilov even had its own hotel. This was no Yelokhovsky.
My favorite monastery was Novodevichy. Not only is it home to beautiful, atmospheric churches, lovely grounds, fancifully crenellated walls, and hoards of golden onion domes, but it adjoins probably one of the most fascinating graveyards in the world. Novodevichy Cemetery is so special because celebrates the lives of those who’ve passed away. Doctors get immortalized on stone saving patients, General’s monuments are topped with tanks, composers get their music themes put into stone, and a clown is depicted in costume. This place is a veritable who’s who of Russian culture and politics. Giants were everywhere: Gogol, Chekhov, Shostakovich, Skryabin, Molotov (as in cocktail), and finally, Nikita Khrushchev, the only Soviet leader not buried in the Kremlin wall. His memorial, which sandwiched a sculpture of his head between jagged columns of black and white seemed appropriate. On one hand, he was responsible for de-Stalinization which ended the Great Terror and presided over a brief liberalization inside the USSR. However, he also ordered the 1956 invasion of Hungary and the building of the Berlin Wall in 1962. He was black and white indeed.