November 19, 2012 by dsalkowski
An overnight train took us from Kiev to Moscow. It was my first experience with a Russian train, and it was quite pleasant. You can only expect the best treatment with Tadhg flirting with the passport officers.
Moscow’s reputation certainly preceded it, not only by the words of Napoleon, Tolstoy, and Bulgakov, but also by the leagues of Petersburgers who told us what a dreadful place it is. Again, a SF/LA comparison might be practical. But when it comes down to it, there’s probably at least a few good reasons why the city of 12 million continues to grow rapidly.
There’s just certain things in Moscow that don’t exist anywhere in the world. Like St. Basil’s Cathedral, the famous Candy Land church. Ivan the Terrible built it to commemorate his sacking of Kazan and devastation of the by then harmless Tatars, which probably proved a point that was relevant at the time. It’s actually officially called Pokrovsky Cathedral, which means something like “In Blood.” The Saint Basil name came from the fact that it was built on the burial place of a certain Holy Fool named Basil. Nobody loves the holy fool like the Russians; Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is about one, Mussorgsky put an important one in one of his opera’s. So logic holds that the most famous site in Russia is named after a bumbling fool, not the Tsar who built the church.
Then there’s the Seven Sisters, the architectural monuments to Stalin’s “aesthetic vision.” There’s an idea in Russia that Moscow is the third Rome; first was Rome, then Byzantium, and then, since the Romanov line was supposedly descended from a Byzantine princess, Moscow inherited the right to the legacy of Rome, and since the dynasty is now extinct, it is worthy of the monicker “the Third and Final Rome.” Of course, I’ve never heard this idea from anybody outside of Russia. One convenient parallel, however, is the fact that Moscow was founded on seven hills, just like Rome. To enforce this mentality, Stalin erected seven monumental skyscrapers in the city in a style invented solely to suite the aesthetic needs of the state – Soviet Classicism is the term I’ve heard most often, but it looks more like Gothic Futurism to me. It conjures to mind Minias Morgul, the entrance to Mordor in Lord of the Rings. The buildings are still used – their functions vary from Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the Radisson Hotel.
Moscow is known for its gloomy, urban cityscape, which is accurate, but it also has an impressive amount of green space, including Gorky Park, Europe’s largest park. It also is a major international culture hub; I had the chance to see The Tsar’s Bride, by Rimsky-Korsakov in the Bolshoi Theatre for 100 rubles (about four dollars), and though I left Moscow a day before the tuba concert at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, the seemed to have pretty innovative but accessible programming there.
There are also a few instances when the borderline grungy city atmosphere compliments the arts quite well. One great find along these lines was the Vinzavod Center for Contemporary Art. First a wine factory (which is the literal translation of “vinzavod,” then a beer factory, the old brick warehouse-like building now houses a multitude of galleries and workshops, which attracts both local and international hipsters, but a surprisingly friendly crowd. In an city simultaneously overcrowd and full of vacant, dilapidated buildings,Vinzavod satisfies the chic bohemian fetish for gritty, quasi-industrial “edgy” spaces while simultaneously utilizing space efficiently, the latter of which is surprisingly surprising in Russia. Shall we patent this business model and sell it to Detroit?
Of course, most of the more famous sites speak for themselves – the Kremlin, Tretyakovsky Gallery, the Armory Museum. Unfortunately, however, entrance to Lenin’s tomb is now closed to the public. I imagine he’s spinning in there, though, because, being the city of oligarchs, right across from his tomb stands an extremely ornate shopping mall of Western designer-brand stores. So today you can stand on Red Square (which is not red, just so you know) surrounded by monuments to various credos – victory over Asia (St. Basil’s), victory over Europe (the museum about the Napoleonic Wars), international communism, and conspicuous consumption.