Sunday, 24 June 2007
How times have changed! Outside the History Museum, I spotted Lenin hanging out with Nicholas II. When the lion takes time out to have a smoke with the lamb, can the Age of Aquarius be far behind? Later, when Valdimir Ilich took his cap off, it occurred to me that he bore a striking resemblance to Maxwell MacLeod.
Summer is here and fountains are everywhere. These are on the branch of the river that flows past one of my teaching places, opposite the statue of Repin in Bolotnaya Square, on the Vodo-otvodny Canal, not far from the Kremlin. The bridge in the picture is known as the Luzhkov Bridge, after the Mayor of Moscow, since 1992, who enables everything and who calls forth bridges where hitherto bridges ran there none. The tented structure to the left is a summer restaurant, which is erected in spring and will be dismantled in the autumn.
This is a view of the Ivan Veliky church in the Kremlin from the square outside Kropotkinskaya metro station, taken from the base of Engels's statue.
This is the same church viewed from near the famous Дом на Набережной or House on the Embankment. This was an elaborate, Washington-style apartment house built in the mid-1930s just across from the Kremlin, where Stalin's elite lived--or did until they were whisked away in the early-morning bread vans for a less luxuriously existence, first in the Lubyanka and later, if they were very lucky, in the lumber camps or salt mines of Siberia.
This is the small but charming Church of St Nicholas, with the west front of the House on the Embankment behind it, larger but less attractive, though one of the most desirable and expensive addresses in Moscow today.
This, of course, is the grand-daddy of all Moscow churches, St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square (see also the first picture in this section). It was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1555 to commemorate the capture of the Khanate of Kazan on the Volga from the Tatars, a victory which cleared the way for Russia's expansion into Siberia. It is said that Ivan was so pleased with the final result that he had the architect, Postnik Yakovlev's, eyes put out and his hands cut off so that he could not build anything comparable for anyone else. Rumours of this sort came to the ears of Queen Elizabeth I of England, whom Ivan once expressed a wish to marry. Apparently they influenced her decision to refuse the Tsar's hand. (Where, I have often wondered, would they have lived if they had got married? It is hard to see her in Moscow or him in Whitehall Palace.) Four hundred years later, Stalin was asked by Lazar Kaganovich whether it would not help facilitate military parades to have St Basil's demolished as part of the Soviet reconstruction of Moscow in the 1930s. Stalin is said to have curtly dismissed the suggestion.
Moscow not only has churches and cupolas, but cars: three million of them at the last count. This is part of the so-called Garden Ring, near the Paveletskaya railway and metro stations. The ring was originally a defensive earthwork surrounding the city about a mile and a half from the Kremlin. After Napoleon, it was made into a boulevard with gardens in the middle. Stalin had the gardens ripped out and a ten-lane trafficway built. That was large then; now it is far too small. Parking is free in Moscow--no meters, no yellow lines, no wardens--so if you can stand the jams, it makes sense to drive. Massive numbers of people do, and so the jams expand. It's a cruel world when you're allowed to seek your own convenience, rather than being forced onto the crowded (though cheap and very fast) metro, the often dilapidated trams or the busses with their blaring music and even greater crowds at rush-hour (часпик).
The reason there is so much traffic in Moscow, is because there are so many people. Fifteen million of them, I gather. Since I last visited, in 1991, the population of the city has grown by more than the entire population of Scotland. This picture gives some idea of the consequences. The Kremlin is in the middle, with the Ivan Veliki tower "conspic.", as they say on the Admiralty charts. This picture was taken from the 29th floor of the Swissotel, south-south-east of the Red Square.
This one was taken from the roof of the Foreign Languages Library, one of my favourite places in Moscow. I like it not because of the the Foreign Languages Library, which is old-fashioned and hard to use, but because of, first, the English Language Law Library on the top floor, which is run by Olga Sukhova, a lady who deserves a medal for being one of the most helpful state employees in Russia (or anywhere). Secondly, I like it because of the American Centre on the second floor, run by another very helpful person who deserves credit, Marissa Fushille, from El Paso, Texas. She runs the best English-language lending library in Moscow (with a lot of interesting material on the American legal system), making the British Council (downstairs) look hick and provincial--it is also embarrassingly unfriendly in a wannabe-snooty, "red brick" ex-pat English sort of way. You get the impression that the "Anglo" staff there would be happier in Torremolinos drinking bleedin' Watney's Red Barrel, and moaning about greasy, emaciated dagos with 9" hips...
This the St Basil's and the Saviour's Gate of the Kremlin from the same vantage point. In the background is the Ukraine Hotel
This is Mikhail Frunze, a Romanian revolutionary who became head of the Red Army after achieving many striking successes against the Whites in the Civil War. He subsequently fell out with Stalin and died, apparently of accidental chloroform poisoning, in 1925 while being operated on for stomach cancer. Many believe Stalin engineered the accident. This statue stands opposite a Russian army artillery academy, and when I sat on the bottom step to rest my camera on my knee to take the picture without blurring the picture, the officer on the door of the huge building came down to tell me I was on the "territory" of the Russian Army and that photographing, even pointing away from the building was forbidden. When I said ничего, and carried taking my pictures, he smiled rather sheepishly and walked back up to his place on the door.
Moscow is a very romantic city. This is the metal tree which the authorities fixed to the middle of the (pedestrian) Tretyakov Bridge, next to the statue of Repin (see above), in order to discourage newly-wed Muscovites from attaching symbolic padlocks to the iron-work on the bridge. The custom is to paint the initials or name of the couple on a padlock and fix it to the tree, or bridge, then throw the key into the river, as a symbol of eternal union. Ribbons are attached for fun and show. Presumably, rather than cutting the locks off from time to time, the Moscow city parks department will remove the tree, trash it and install another one, ready for next season' s romantics.
Saturday, 23 June 2007
What is it with cars and girls that brings out the open-roader in a boy? The Blue Elephant restaurant at Barrikadnaya, one of the haunts of the rich, the cool and the casual, sponsors an annual Ladies Rally (Женское Ралли) round the streets of Moscow where any woman with a classic car is invited to show up and put her foot down. I went as representative of Passport magazine (http://www.passportmagazine.ru/), which I am now helping to edit. The food was great, the drink free and abundant and the... well, this is one of the local girls, Светлана Хоркина (Svetlana Khorkina), the world champion gymnast, sandwiched between a Roller and a Jag--lucky Roller; lucky Jag!
If only Stirling Moss had been there in Mercedes 722 with Denis Jenkinson in the navigator's seat, it would have been like the start of the Mille Miglia. As it was, instead of cars "accelerating homicidally along Via Dante" (Douglas Rutherford), we had them accelerating none too cautiously out into the afternoon traffic along the Garden Ring road, which means they were probably doing 70 mp.h. before hitting the underpass below the Arbat. Bemused Militsia-men looked on, and the band played 1930s German jazz of the sort Lord Haw-Haw broadcast during the war. And of course, the champagne never stopped...
And this was Оксана Фёдоровна (Oksana Feodorovna), recent Miss World. Someone remarked that, with legs like hers, she could have driven the car from the boot.
It's hard to imagine cars like this being allowed on the roads in puritanical, virtuous, "law-abiding" Britain...
And a Cord! The only two cars that had to be pushed was the Volga and one of the Jaguars. This whale-like machine went as smooth as the cocktails which came out at 6, between the return of the cars and the prize-giving, but before the dinner and the other band.
In the middle of it all, a magician appeared. He had an amazing bag of tricks from which he drew, amongst many other things, some money which he could change from singles into tens at the flick of an uncovered finger. Coins would appear in his hand, without any handkerchiefs or other devices to conceal the sleight-of-hand. Then they would disappear, as if by magic! I saw it all at a range of five feet or so. Tanya was as fascinated as I was, and got even closer. For some reason, it made us laugh, the simple absurdity of what we saw with our own eyes, yet could not believe, rationally.
And finally, as evening faded into night, one cocktail succeeded another and the light of the westering sun seemed to glow in the hair of ladies...
Saturday, 9 June 2007
Tanya and I went to the Venice of the North for a weekend in early June, to see the White Nights. This, being 9 June, is within a fortnight of being as "white" as it gets. This was 1 a.m: midnight "true", just before the bridges were raised to let the service boats move. This is the Winter Palace, now the Hermitage Museum, one of the largest in the world and so crowded in summer that it is best avoided, as we discovered the following morning. But you can enjoy yourself just wandering round the city which has a much more European atmosphere than Moscow, which in some respects still seems to carry the shades of socialism and Muscovy in its wrinkles, crevasses and echoing переходы. Petersburg was simply fun, as I hope the next picture shows.
A whole yacht race going on in front of the Winter Palace, with the Church of the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Alexander II was murdered in 1881 (the year the Napier Commission on crofting was established in Scotland), in the background of this shot. Alexander II was the Tsar who emancipated the serfs of Russia in 1861. The church was built in the neo-traditional style of Russian architecture which became popular in the late-imperial age, mirroring the contemporaneous Gothic revival in Britain (also late-ish-imperial). In my opinion, it stands in relation to St Basil's in Red Square (see above) rather as St Pancras Station does in relation to King's College Chapel in Cambridge, only without the element of creative adaptation. But Russians seem to like it. It is thought that Alexander was murdered because he moderated the pace of reform from what he had set early in his reign. This did not please the pale, moping, "Dostoevsky"-style intelligentsia, few of whom had any stake in political stability. Their outsiderdom was partly a result of the way in which state had agglomerated all power to itself in the early modern era (after the Mongol conquest) and only grudgingly relinquished small aspects of that control in the modern era. The Crimean War (1853-6) showed just how weak an autocratic and therefore technologically-backward state was in comparison with the semi-liberal and rapidly-industrialising powers of western Europe. Alexander II decided to liberalise his Empire and try, thereby, to unlock its enormous potential. When this resulted in assasination, his son, Alexander III, reverted to reaction. This policy was continued by his son, Nicholas II, who was unable to prevent the drift to war, then revolution, in the early 20th century. He and his whole family were shot in the cellar of a house in Ekaterinburg in the Urals in July 1918 when White forces were approaching and threatening to liberate them. Their corpses were thrown down a mineshaft. King Knut's attempt to resist the ocean tide met with less tragic consequences than the Romanov crusade against their own people.
We went to Kronstadt, the previously closed island ten miles off St Petersburg which used to be one of the Soviet Navy's main bases, and still has many Russian naval ships. It is a fascinating place, time-travel Soviet-style, with everything which the Red matelot might have wanted, including rather nice blocks of flats, a huge church converted into a museum and elegant gardens, only slightly trampled by the feet of the heedless proles--and now their successors, the baggy-shorted consumers with iPlugs in their ears. The whole environment was designed in order to keep the run-silent run-deep crew happy by giving them confidence that their families were being better looked-after than the rest of Soviet society. Now the isolation is not needed and a ten-mile-long causeway links the island with the north shore of the Gulf of Finland. A tunnel is being built to link it with the south shore. Part of the aim is to prevent tidal surges which could easily drown St Petersburg, and regularly floods the city as it is. For some hydro-geographic reason which I could not understand, there is no fear of the waters coming in south of the island, where there is to be no causeway, just a tunnel. We visited Robert Leitch, famous Russian website administrator, and son of Bert Leitch of Mull, the man who threatened on television to shoot next eagle he saw taking a lamb of his. Разумниц! Who needs so many eagles anyway? But Rob, who has lived in Petersburg for four years now, had never visited the island and was unaware that it was open. Doing so is therefore a rare experience, which I can highly recommend for those with a curiosity about the "touch and feel" of history.
After Kronstadt, we went to Peterhof (as it was originally named by Peter the Great who built it, or Petrodvorets as it used to be called in Slavophile, Soviet times). This is the most extraordinarily extravagant summer house on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland. It is a triumph of conspicuous consumption or, as the Admiralty charts might say, "consumption conspic." The place was swamped by visitors and not really worth visiting in the height of the tourist season, like the Hermitage. But the golden statues in the grounds were impressive, even if it was not always clear, as in this one, exactly who is having sex with whom.
Wednesday, 6 June 2007
I went up to the northern suburbs of Moscow, sort of Neasden-ish area but less cultured-looking, to see the Moscow Times and came upon this, the lovely Church of Faith, Hope, Love and Their Mother Sophia (at least that is how I translated the name!). The Orthodox Church, which embodies an unworldly faith in what I really think is profound wisdom, has been one of the conduits of cultural history in Russia since the middle ages. One recent aspect of that cultural history, if "cultural" is the right word, is the Soviet tradition of officiousness, rudeness and contempt for the public. If you want a bit of time-travel back to the cleaner, simpler world when the proletariat were in charge, go into a church. You will have old ladies bustling about telling you not to do this, not to sit there, not to take photographs and so on. When you point out that they are selling photographs, the walnut-shaped shrew with the headscarf on will get angry in a peculiarly shrivelled, nasty sort of way. When you ask, why? the hatred for reason and equality will boil within your benighted babushka almost visibly. Both the Orthodox and the Victorious Proletariat believe(d) in absolute authority--which is possibly why they didn't get on. Like Stalin (see next section below), Orthodoxy has produced many spectacular buildings, but almost as many horrible people.
In a church, even the artists can be awkward. This painter, working on an image for public display(!), said I should not take a photograph. I ignored him, of course, as I ignore every Russian-Soviet knee-jerk нельзя (it is forbidden). Few people seem unduly bothered when I do. It is just a habit, an unpleasant one, but no more than a habit. It is the ones who take it seriously who worry me, but they tend to be elderly, poor and bitter-looking, as if the defeat of the proletariat was the result of trickery rather than the complete practical absurdity of the expectation that the meek might actually inherit the earth. In this respect, I think Kim Philby (see below) got it about right when he surveyed his options after the crimes of Stalin became known. He said that he faced the alternatives of either sticking it out in the hope that wiser counsels would one day prevail or (I am quoting from memory) "becoming a querulous outcast of the Muggeridge, Koestler, Crankshaw variety, forever railing against a God that had failed me. That seemed a ghastly fate."
This was another нельзя, but your fearless correspondent just looked squarely at the нельзяист and said, in English, "May the holy Mother of God keep you from the sin of covetousness, especially with regard to other people's pixels." Often I have found jokes baffle Russians. Though they have a tremendous sense of humour, many do not like a lot of what seems funny to Britons. For example, the Borat film is universally disliked. It is thought cheap, racist and contemptuous. I do not know anyone in Britain who does not think it hilarious. I got a serious ticking off from Tanya, for example, after we emerged from the enormous church in the Peter and Paul fortress in St Petersburg and I had said a few times, not very loudly, as I walked past the immense line of people queueing to get into what I thought was a not very interesting building, "Бога нет." These are the famous words which Gagarin is supposed to have uttered from Vostok, as he circled the earth for the first time. It means, "There is no God." He had been up "in heaven" and was in a position to settle the intractable, one thousand nine hundred and sixty one-year old controversy for the first time. Tanya was not amused. Well, I could understand that. But I was not amused when she said she seriously expected me to desist from such jokes in the future.