Back in Europe - Moscow

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
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Trip End Oct 11, 2006


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Monday, August 28, 2006

MOSCOW, RUSSIA

After more than two weeks and 10,000 miles from Japan, I finally made it to Europe, and to one of the most expensive cities in the world: Moscow. If I had not visited the countryside of Russia, I would have been fooled into believing that Moscow represented the Russian standard of living. Wide boulevards, majestic neoclassical buildings, stylish cafes and restaurants, green manicured parks, and sidewalks full of fashionably-dressed pedestrians were the first images to greet me upon arriving in the capital of the world's largest country. Like other major capital cities, Moscow was immense. With more than 10 million residents, of whom 50% originated elsewhere, Moscow was the largest city in Russia. This was the place that Russians regarded as the center of their political, financial, and cultural lifestyles, a magnet attracting people from former Soviet republics and eastern European countries in great numbers.

Walking around the city, I noticed that the composition of the Muscovites was diverse - Central Asian/Turkish faces mixing in a sea of Slavic-Caucasian pedestrians, a few Asians walking alongside Cubans and Angolans, and a smaller number of Indians strolling on the streets. The Muscovites were very proud of their history and short period as a superpower. Behind the impressive tall neoclassical buildings, however, I could still see a country in economic decline. How this country once was an adversary superpower of the US was inconceivable. The people in Moscow, overall, lived in poverty. Outside the fancy downtown district were dilapidated housing projects and ghettos, beggars inside subway stations, and run-down stores. The Iron Curtain must have been very thick, for it shielded my vision of how people actually were living under Communist rule.

My traveling companions and I decided to tour the city together. After checking in at Akademicheskaya Hotel near Lenin Prospekt Blvd, we tested the Metro out. The subway system would be a great challenge for anyone not familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet. All the signs were entirely in Russian without any English translations. The confusing aspect about navigating through the subway, first opened in 1935, was determining the direction of the train as well as finding out how to transfer from one line to the other. The signs were not straight-forward. Finding someone with an English-speaking aptitude in Moscow was also a challenge, but I enjoyed immersing myself in the linguistic world of Russian. This city's mass transit system was not very friendly to tourists. At least in Beijing and Tokyo, all the subway/train signs had English translations, so it would be very hard to get lost. Moscow was an exception. Perhaps it was the Russians' feeling that their language belonged to a once powerful empire, so it deserved to be learned by foreigners.

The Metro stations in Moscow were very beautiful. Each station had a museum-like atmosphere with intricate frescoes, ornate designs, or baroque ceilings. However, it was forbidden to take pictures inside a Metro station unless one would like to pay a 200 Rouble fine. Underground at the entrance of the stations were many small stands selling pirated DVDs or CDs. Just like in Beijing, one could find cheap poorly-copied Hollywood movies everywhere.

The presence of American capitalism was everywhere. From McDonald's to TGI Friday's to Sbarro's, the city of Moscow was invaded by American restaurants, banks, and businesses. The entrepreneurial spirit of Uncle Sam also made the US Dollar very desirable in this city. Transactions of very high value were usually quoted in US dollars rather than roubles. There was a popular saying in Russian, "Dollars are for saving, roubles are for spending." With the devaluation of the rouble and the fledgling Russian economy, many industries and private citizens were hoarding the dollar for future rainy days.

The center of Moscow was the Kremlin. In 6th grade I remembered a picture of the red Kremlin wall and studying about Russian history in my Social Studies class. It was surreal that I was going inside the fortress of this "Evil Empire" at one time declared by Ronald Reagan. First settled in the 11th century, the Kremlin once was a triangular fortified wall encasing the small town of Moskva. During the Cold War, it became the headquarter of the Supreme Soviet Secretary-Generals. Now one could easily tour it with a designated Russian guide. Our guide's name was Valeriya, and she spoke perfect English. Sporting trendy sunglasses, she seemed more like an all-American girl from Hollywood than from Russia. The most beautiful experience of the Kremlin was entering Archangel Michael's Cathedral and hearing the melodic, sweet chant of a group of Russian Orthodox friars. As they sang out a medieval, Gregorian chant, my eyes wandered around the church like a movie camera filming a documentary. It was perfect. Surrounded by the reverberating harmony of the friars, my eyes scanned the mysterious Byzantine frescoes of the saints adorning the cathedral wall. The penetrating eyes of the saints, the bright halos around their heads, their fragile hands raised in the air, the sweet smile of the Virgin Mary - all had more meaning with the 12th century music flowing through my ears. As I looked around the cathedral, I noticed a row of golden caskets, 53 total, that held the remains of all the czars up to Peter the Great. Now they were silent boxes carrying the once powerful voices of history. It was so beautiful. The Gregorian chant crescendoed as my eyes fixed on a huge Orthodox golden cross in the center of the church. Then the music stopped, and I was transported 1000 years to the present.

Visiting Lenin's Mausoleum was another unforgettable experience. After waiting in a long line, I had to put my camera and electronics in a storage area for 60 Roubles. Then the long march across Red Square began. Lenin's tomb was situated in the middle of the 500m x 150m cobbled Red Square. Upon entering the granite pyramidal structure, I noticed there were many guards with solemn faces inside. The black granite interior of the mausoleum was very dimly lit. I thought I was walking around in a haunted house, for once in a while, there were guards with invisible bodies lurking in the shadows. After turning many sharp corners and almost tripping on the unmarked black steps in a dimly-lit black room, I finally saw some light. There it was, inside a glass coffin was the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin, who had been on display since his death in 1927. Above him was an opaque, circular glass ceiling allowing some natural light inside. A few hot lamps were casting bright light on his body, giving it an eerie aura. His stature was not so large. His face was taut like a wax mask, and his black suit seemed untouched by the ravages of time. All through the viewing, the strain of silence made the experience very uncanny and supernatural. While staring at his body so peaceful in repose, I could not help thinking about the revolution he led, which became an experiment in utter failure of the Communist system in Russia.

The other beautiful experience I encountered was attending a Russian Orthodox service right on Red Square. Across from the State History Museum was a small church. While passing it on my way to GUM (the flagship department store of the former Soviet Union), I heard sweet chants emanating through the fenestrated walls. I curiously poked my head inside and notice a priest all dressed in a turquoise colored silk robe with golden embroideries. There were also some babushkas and elderly Russian men standing inside the main prayer hall, bowing their heads many times to the religious chants. In Russian churches, one could not find any benches anywhere, for the service usually was done while standing. All women were also required to cover their heads in a Russian church. In the corner behind a decorative wooden curtain was a group of five to six singers all huddled next to a microphone. Their angelic voices harmoniously resounded to the priest's melodic chant. The sweet smell of incense, the bright, intricate chandelier suspended from the ceiling, the Byzantine frescoes on the walls, the solemn Gregorian chants - all were a delight to the spiritual experience one should not miss upon visiting Russia.

Unlike what I had read about the rudeness of Muscovites, I was probably fortunate to encounter many nice people on the street. It was probably because of my Russian communication ability that changed my interaction experience with the Russian people. They were all curious to understand where and why I had studied Russian. Also when finding out that I came from America, they sighed with a longing desire to visit the US one day. When asked where they would like to go to in America, some typical responses were to go window shopping on Fifth Avenue, to see the bright lights of Las Vegas, to visit Beverly Hills and Disneyland. Most of these probably were dreams for the Muscovites, for many would not be able to afford the luxury of visiting neighboring European countries, much less stepping foot in a distant country in the Far West.

My stay in Moscow would end on Wednesday night (Aug 30), as I would take the overnight 7 hour train to St. Petersburg, which lay 600 km away. What was awaiting me in the "Venice of the North" would only be an exciting anticipation...
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