Monday, August 6, 2007

Midnight in Moscow

Despite its prominence in world affairs throughout our lives, we have never had a burning desire to see Moscow. We came out of a curiosity to see what it was like, especially since the fall of Communism, and because it was the starting point for a river cruise to St. Petersburg.

We spent three days here, sleeping on the cruise ship, traveling around with guided tours and on our own. We found a very cosmopolitan city, with new residential developments beside grand pre-twentieth century buildings; monumental Stalinesque structures; tired communist-era apartment blocks; and large, institutional buildings that could have been designed by Khrushchev. We were told that many of the new apartments are not lived in; they have been purchased purely for speculation, . Today’s average price is around $400 a sq.ft. However, the best new buildings are selling for as much as $3,000 a sq.ft. We were also told that based on a Forbes survey, Moscow is now the most expensive city in the world.

Without a doubt, the highlight of our stay was seeing Red Square and its surrounding buildings on our first night. The GUM department store is decorated in incandescent bulbs like the LegislatureBuilding in Victoria. The nearby Cathedral seems surreal with its vividly coloured onion shaped domes. Other buildings are dramatically illuminated, while the heavy granite slabs of Lenin’s Tomb reflect the outline of the department store across the square. The overall effect is quite spectacular.

At midnight, we left Red Square and took the subway back to the ship. Unlike any other place we have been, many of the passengers were openly drinking vodka and beer in the subway cars. Walking back to the ship, we felt relatively safe since it wasn’t completely dark, despite the hour. But here sure were a lot of empty bottles lying around.

The next day, our first site tour was the Kremlin. Boris, our guide was well educated, traveled and experienced, with a good sense of humour. I asked him about life today compared to the past. Although claiming to have never been a Communist, he thought the results of Perestroika were best described by the story about the Russian dog that is asked by his Finnish friend what life is like with his new owners. “Well” he says, “during Communism, my leash was about two metres long, and my dish of food was about two metres away. Now, my leash is still about two metres, but my food is four metres away. However, I can bark as much as I want! No one pays attention, but I’m allowed to bark.”

Originally a fortress, the Kremlin is a large complex with cathedrals, palaces and government buildings in a mishmash of forms and styles. It clearly illustrates the common belief that the difference between Moscow and St. Petersburg is that the former was built and then planned, while the latter was planned and then built. Boris pointed out Putin’s corner office, but he wasn’t there. Interestingly, when he drives along Moscow streets in his cavalcade, all the other traffic is stopped. He doesn’t have to suffer the incredible congestion that we experienced.

For our second evening, we had a choice of seeing the Bolshoi Ballet dance the Nutcracker, or a production by a Russian folk theatre. We chose the latter since we have seen the Nutcracker performed one too many times. We were not disappointed. It was a very professional production, on a par with the caliber of shows one might see at Vegas. Speaking of Vegas, we were told there are now more casinos and slot machines in Moscow than in Vegas. This is a city of gamblers and boozers.

Our city tour the next day was marred by rain and incredible traffic congestion. I was interested to learn that many of the older apartment buildings throughout the city have been sold off to residents who are renovating the inside and outside of their suites. Like Albania, there are no overall guidelines and regulations, and you see many different types of windows and balcony enclosures in the same building

We were taken around the Nivodevichi Convent that had originally been built as a fortress, and subsequently used as a place where men could exile their wives, since divorce was not allowed. We went into one area with some incredible gilded framed frescoes and artwork. We were also taken to the campus of Moscow State University, which like SFU is located at the top of a nearby ‘mountain’. Normally, there is a grand view overlooking the city. Unfortunately, the rain and fog prevented us from enjoying the sight; however, I was intrigued by the main building, a large monumental Stalinesque tower block, which is very different from anything at SFU, or any other North American university for that matter.

That afternoon, after buying some red socks in Red Square (it was cold!) Sally and I decided to take a tour of Moscow’s subway stations. I had been told that stations along the Circle Line are the most magnificent in the world. After seeing some wonderful artwork, sculptures, stained glass and vaulted ceilings, we have no doubt this is true. The mosaic work is what one might see in a great cathedral or art museum. Furthermore, it has been well preserved with no graffiti and little damage. However, there is a lot of dirt and peeling paint in the stations, and the train cars are quite filthy.

That evening, we returned to the ship after stocking up on vodka, Russian wine and champagne, caviar, herring and smoked salmon for the voyage. As for the food on the ship, like the crew and staff, it’s Russian! This is not going to be the sort of cruise we have experienced in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. But amongst the 300 passengers, there is a great variety of people. They include groups from Japan, Turkey, Holland, Denmark, and the Salt Lake City Art Museum. There are also about twenty five other ‘individual travelers’, including a few Brits and some delightful people from Greece. We are the only Canadians. Our dinner table companions are very interesting. Paula is a retired medical lawyer and former member of the Finnish parliament, who is now Deputy Mayor of Helsinki. Her husband is a journalist who writes on national and international matters for a Helsinki daily.

Over the next six days, we will be traveling 1800 km along three rivers and three lakes. We will be stopping at Uglich, a 10th century town with a famous 16th century church; Yaroslavl, a city founded in the 11th century with many more churches; Goritsky, home to a very old and famous monastery; Kizhi, with a collection of 17th century wooden structures; and Mandrogi, which is described as a recreational stop. There will be opportunities to take Russian classes and learn about the country’s history. On board is a small swimming pool, but no golf facilities, no internet, and few of the other amenities and services one finds on larger cruise ships. But we are hoping for a more relaxing pace and some interesting sights. We will arrive in St. Petersburg next Tuesday and will stay there until Saturday, when we have a flight booked to Amsterdam. We will not be trying to take any more trains for a while!

1 comment:

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