Trojan Gold: Last Day in Moscow

My last day in Moscow, I resolved to try one last time to get through Red Square to see St Basil’s. Imagine my surprise when I was actually successful! Better yet, apparently it was the free Thursday (though if it not being free would have reduced the crowds, I’d have been ok with the trade-off).

St Basil’s is a rabbit warren of little chapels, mostly empty on the ground floor. Due to the crowds, I almost missed going upstairs, which would have been a real shame as it was the prettiest part of the cathedral, with frescos and icons from different periods in the different chapels. It also gave a good view south over the city to another of the Seven Sisters.

I then walked to the Pushkin Museum of Art, specifically to see the Trojan Gold room. Walking there took a bit of a detour: Moscow is a city of underpasses, and the route I had chosen had no way to cross the street. I backtracked to the State Library and continued on. Again I was lucky and didn’t have to pay an entrance fee. I went straight to the Troy room.

All that went through my mind when I got there was Keat’s poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”. (Unlike some of my friends, I cannot declaim Homer himself.) The display was pretty spectacular. Most of it is just loops of gold, most exciting for its context. However, the diadems and earrings that Schliemann draped on his wife for the famous photographs were magnificent:


The GULAG: Day Two in Moscow

I really wanted to see the Gulag Museum so headed out in that direction first thing. The museum doesn’t open until 11, however, so I thought it appropriate to start at Lubyanka Square, where so many prisoners started on their trip through the Gulag Archipelago that Solzhenitsyn made famous.

A quick definition for those of you who do not know what the Gulag is. It’s an abbreviation referring to the administration of camps, and the camps referred to were hard labor camps to which political prisoners were sent between 1930 and 1956. Who were political prisoners under Stalin? Anyone and everyone: priests, kulaks (peasants who were thought to be rich – aka not in penury), Germans, Chechens, writers, dissidents, anyone who looked at someone wrong, and the list goes on. The number of people moved in forced migrations and through the camps number around 28 million. Millions of those died from the brutal conditions. Others were shot. Think of the work camps of Hitler being carried out for 26 years and you get an idea.

Lubyanka is an innocuous looking, but huge, building on one side of the square. Its name is synonymous with secret police. It housed the KGB and Lubyanka Prison (a political prison) and now houses the FSB. A little way away from it is a stone, a monument to the victims of terror. A poster shows some of the faces of the 40,000 shot during various periods of terror during Communism. This little monument didn’t seem to get much attention when I was there, but a number of wreaths bear testimony to the fact that there are people who care.

Chillingly, Lubyanka Square is just a few blocks from the lovely building that houses the Bolshoi ballet. Go up the street to the right of the theater, passing designer boutiques, and you’ll come to a narrow entrance way with barbed wire at the end. It’s the Gulag Museum, whose courtyard is set up like in a camp, complete with wooden guard tower.

It’s a three floor museum. Starting on the top, you see a gallery of artwork made by Gulag survivors and a number of personal effects. Each cluster of items belonging to a person has a card next to it detailing that person’s reason for arrest and time served. The bubushka monitoring the room sold me a couple of books about the Gulag that seemed to be local print runs: a book written by two women survivors and another book about resistance in the Gulag.

The ground floor room is currently housing part of the exhibit The Commissar Vanishes, exploring photo manipulation primarily under Stalin. It’s fascinating to see who is cropped or airbrushed away, and the difference in levels of sophistication.

The basement continues the exhibit, but in a venue that looks like a room for Gulag prisoners. To one side is an isolation cell. It is extremely difficult to come out of that museum unmoved.

Next it was back towards the Red Square, to the State Historical Museum. While I think the museum is fine, the English descriptions are outdated or lacking. My biggest issue with the museum, though, was my own fault. I had misread the description and thought there were rooms set up like interiors from different periods, but they were actually just painted in the fashion of those time periods.

I was hoping to head to St Basil’s, but once again Red Square closed as I got there. This was starting to feel personal!

Back to the hotel to rest my feet, then out again to Arbat Street to stroll and watch the street musicians. Arbat ends on a square housing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the buildings known as Stalin’s Seven Sisters buildings, a huge building with neo-gothic embellishments that is surprisingly (ok, to me, I admit bias when it comes to Stalin) attractive. I was happy to see it as I had thought I wouldn’t have any chance to see the Seven Sisters, and while the area around the Kremlin is lovely, it pre-dates Soviet Russia which is of some interest to me.

I ventured out one more time to see Red Square at night. I’d heard its ethereal. I think I must disagree with that assessment. Maybe I went too early, and the weather was really nice and warm so people were out in droves, but the GUM building had stadium lighting and there were lots of crowds. My assessment: pretty, but not that different from the day. I could imagine it being ethereal at 2am in the snow, however.












The Kremlin

Tuesday, my first full day in Moscow, was the day for visiting the Kremlin. The Kremlin itself is a cluster of historic cathedrals around the Cathedral Square, several government buildings including what I think is the upper house of Russian government, a garden which we couldn’t go into (perhaps because it was too close to the government buildings), the building called the Armory which houses a museum containing Imperial treasures, and the walls and towers surrounding them. The cathedrals are covered with frescos inside, which I personally find more appealing than the iconostasis (wall of icons). Perhaps because it’s Moscow, or perhaps because it’s such a big tourist destination, or perhaps because these churches are pretty much now museums, they didn’t insist on women covering their heads in the churches (an important sign of respect in Russian Orthodox churches). I did, however, and felt quite silly being the only person doing so until some Russian women came in and also used shawls to cover their heads.

Anyway, here are some pictures of the Kremlin and the Cathedral Square, including the obligatory awkward self pictures to prove I’m really seeing these sights.








I hadn’t originally bought an Armory ticket because they cost twice that of the Kremlin and I didn’t really care about seeing silver plates. Then I realized ten Faberge eggs are there, so I caved in and went. Only seven, sadly, were on display. The one celebrating the completion of the Trans-Siberian was one of the missing ones, but there were still some lovely eggs (and some less lovely as I thought them overly ornate). My favorites include one that is covered in enamel clover leafs and a gold egg that is a clock/vase with flowers.

I also greatly enjoyed the display of coronation gowns and mantles from the early 18th through the 19th centuries. One of the 19th century ones had such a tiny waist that I have to wonder whether that empress actually deformed her rib cage with how tightly her corset was laced.

After the Armory, it was time to head to Red Square! As soon as I got there, they started clearing it and cordoning it off. Perfect timing! At least I got some photos minus the crowds.

I hung around for quite awhile, thinking maybe I’d see Putin (aka a car with shaded windows). Nope, just three cars with their roofs down and with a soldier standing in each one as they drove in a procession…that was literally driving in circles. Strange. I think they may actually have been trying to block off the square to prevent demonstrations about the embezzlement trial of a main opposition figure and anti-corruption blogger, Navalny. There is a lot of concern in Russia that this is completely politically motivated and fabricated, as local investigators had closed the investigation through lack of evidence, according to the Moscow Times.

After the Red Square, I checked out GUM, a pretty white 19th century building on one side of the square that is essentially a designer mall (they call it department store) today but was, in Soviet times, notorious for long lines and few items on the shelves.





Made It to Moscow

On Monday, I headed to Moscow. I had used the same British travel agency (Real Russia) who had done my visa sponsorship and booked my Trans-Siberian tickets. Highly recommended!

For this leg of the trip, I had an e-ticket, so I didn’t need to exchange it for a paper ticket as I had my Trans-Sib ones. Yay, one incomprehensible interaction avoided! (Although in all fairness, so many more people speak English in St Petersburg and Moscow than elsewhere in the country.)

I had booked the high-speed Sapsan so as to avoid another overnight train. Apparently the engine is made by Siemens – I kept seeing ads on tv for Russian Railways talking about their working with Siemens and another company I can’t remember. Anyway, the Sapsan to me (not being terribly interested in trains) looks like other high speed European trains inside and out. But for those of you who are train nuts, here’s a picture


I will mention that I am proud of myself for being able to put my backpackers backpack on the overhead shelf without help. I’m a big believer in not packing more than you can carry/manage yourself provided you are young and healthy and not moving somewhere, but it’s not easy to practice what you preach when you’re traveling for months at a time and you have the wimpy upper body strength that I have.

I took the metro to the stop the hotel had listed, found a map outside it, and figured out where I was going. I walked along, realizing with delight that the red building to one side was probably the Kremlin, that really was a brief glimpse of St Basil’s, and the historic center of Moscow is much prettier than I’d have thought, with a number of neo-classical buildings. I’d been expecting something, well, something Soviet, I guess, massive and without frills.

My hotel was only a 10 or 15 minute walk away from the metro, and they were able to give me a room on the top floor. I could see the Kremlin and what I later realized was one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters buildings from my room:



I’ll put in a quick plug for my hotel, the City Center Courtyard Marriott. It was in many ways the nicest Courtyard I have ever stayed at (despite being a business hotel, and despite my great fondness for my Courtyard in Irkutsk) and the location is amazing. I’m just glad I booked it with points, as I think it might have been over $500 a night if you include the breakfast I got for free because of my status. Moscow really is the most expensive city I’ve stayed in – I spent more on food and museums than anticipated, even compared to Tokyo.

Sailing Ships, Politics, and Dosteovsky: Day 5 in St Petersburg

Remember the nice Russian women who spoke English and were on the train with me when I got on in Irkutsk? Well, Natasha really did mean her invitation to come check out the ship she crews on, the Mir. It’s a large sailing ship used as a training ship for the merchant marine cadets. (I just checked and it even has its own wiki page, so google it to see lovely pictures until I can get mine…groan…off of my camera finally.)

Aasa and I headed out to the quay where the ship is moored, next to an old submarine that’s now a museum and by a lovely Russian Orthodox Church. We managed surprisingly to get there right on time, and were wondering what to do to hail the ship as neither of us wanted to pass the “no entry” sign at the bottom of the ladder even though we had an invitation. Shouting “ahoy” seemed appropriate for a sailing ship yet also extremely embarrassing. Luckily for my dignity, one of the crew members came out on deck and we called up to him to ask for Natasha.

We then were lucky enough to get an hour tour of the ship. You have an idea that the ship is big when standing on her deck, but it just didn’t really sink in how big (capacity for 200 people) until we got to go all around it. We saw the officers’ dining area, the crew’s dining area, and the captain’s (which made me feel like I was in a Horatio Hornblower novel of the Napoleonic wars). We saw where they store the sails. Since the crew member who repairs their sails was there, we got to see the cuff-like device they use as a thimble to get the huge needles through the fabric of the sails. We went down into the warmth and noise of the engine room (which made me feel like I was in a movie set.) We saw the navigational bridge and got to try out a sextant, which was incredible.

After our tour, we sat in the crew’s lounge and had tea. Unfortunately, Natasha got called away to lead a school tour. Since it was a busy Sunday, we left.

We stopped for lunch and then headed over to the Museum of Political History. The museum apparently acts as a concert venue on Sunday afternoons, so we couldn’t see all of the exhibits, but as we were both pretty tired we didn’t mind too much. We started out looking at an exhibit of documents and photographs (and a few artifacts like uniforms) from the Russian Civil War. The English language guides were extensive. The highlights were the room that was Lenin’s office and the room next to it which was also a recreated office. We could see the balcony where Lenin would address the crowds.

We then ran upstairs to a one room exhibit on the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the title of the exhibit indicated that it would address whether the collapse was natural or a “criminal conspiracy”, it was really just an exhibit of (interesting) political posters and an outline of the events leading up to the collapse. Not that I think the collapse was a criminal conspiracy, but I was hoping to learn more about various schools of thought in Russia and how they viewed the collapse. What I got out of that was at least the museum curators view the collapse the way we do in the West.

The last part of the museum was what we had come for, so it was unfortunate that it was on the end of the route. I was exhausted, so I only took a twenty minute walk-through. This part of the museum had displays (photos, articles of daily living, documents) on the Stalin period through Brezhnev. The most interesting display to me was the nook that was set up to look like a samizdat writing/publishing room. (Samizdat was the underground publishing movement under Communism.)

I wanted to take a look at Dosteovsky’s
neighborhood on my way back so I detoured a few blocks to see the street he lived on and a couple of houses where Raskolnikov might have lived. (I already posted pictures of those and the WordPress app even uploaded it in duplicate so you can enjoy it to your hearts’ content.)

Following Peter the Great: Day Four in St Petersburg

Saturday was our day to be Peter-centric in Peter’s city. We took the metro out to Peter and Paul Fortress, the original fortifications built as St Petersburg became a city. You get a great view of the other side of the river from the fortress.

It is much like other fortresses with ramparts and such. Near the center is the cathedral. Sadly, the outside was undergoing renovations, but the inside was pretty and interesting. Aasa and I spent awhile deciphering the ornate Cyrillic lettering to try to figure out whose Romanov grave is whose. (We didn’t, at least for most of them.) The effort made us hungry, so we walked over to a restaurant by Peter the Great’s cabin. I enjoyed duck risotto and great conversation.

As the ticket office for the cabin was momentarily closed, we walked a few blocks over to see the cruiser Aurora, which is quite impressive. I can see where it made a good piece of Soviet propaganda. We didn’t bother to wait in line to board it, however, as we were anxious to see the Peter’s Cabin Museum.

This is one of the most interesting historical site museums I’ve seen. It is actually the entire furnished cabin that Peter the Great lived in (for all of three weeks) as the Peter and Paul Fortress was being built, and is therefore the first building in St Petersburg. Peter declared it a museum about 15 or 20 years later, which is either a comment on how he viewed himself or how he viewed St Petersburg – I’m guessing the former. And then they built a building around it to preserve it, which is a little odd and quite clever.

Sightseeing, as always, taking longer than expected, we had to postpone visiting the Museum of Political History to the following day so we could run some errands before the ballet. Alas, my conversation was not sufficient to prevent all toothache, so we headed to Stockman’s on Nevsky Prospect to buy a home remedy (cloves) and some bread, cheese and salami for dinner. Then it was a mad rush back to the hotel to eat and change and head to the Mariinski Theater.

We saw La Bayadere, with some updates to the original Petipa choreography. The third act was especially amazing with one of those huge scenes of the corps de ballet in white classical tutus taking up the whole stage like in Swan Lake. We also saw a male soloist in the second act whose leaps to my non-connoisseur but mildly knowledgeable eye seemed to have the same grace and “ballon” as the principal dancer. I wouldn’t be surprised if he rises to become a principal.

The theater itself is gorgeous. Interestingly, it doesn’t have seats, but actual chairs, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a theater before. We were in the third row of the first circle (essentially a third floor seat) and since there is no incline to the balconies, this last row was raised on specially built boxes with little indentations for the chair legs. They also let you rent opera glasses at the coat check, which meant I could see the expressions on the dancers’ faces.

One cost of the charming gold angels and embellishments on the walls of the theater is that part of one obstructed a small part of the view from one of our seats. I was pretty upset as I had tried really hard to get good seats. The good news was that we had a great view other than that – the theater is not so big that you’re far away from the stage in the circle boxes where we were. It was a lovely end to the evening.

Picture: view of St Nicholas with the Mariinski in the background seen on our walk home from the metro



My Conversation Cures Tooth Aches: Day Three in St Petersburg

No really, just ask Aasa. My conversation helped distract her from the tooth ache that plagued her trip, poor thing. Apparently my conversation skills are just that good.

I suspect things like the Hermitage also helped, if I’m quite honest. How could it not distract?

We walked to the Hermitage, getting great views of the Neva, St Isaac’s, and of course the Winter Palace.


At the Hermitage, we went to check out the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art as planned. There is a painting by Matisse of red dancers on a blue background that reproductions don’t do justice to. You can see the tension and the movement of the dancers quite clearly, despite what looks almost like primitive figures. It’s a powerful, stunning painting – one of my favorites from their collection.

We also took a look at some of my favorite State Rooms. As we were heading back from one wing, we heard men’s voices mixing in harmony. Somehow there was a small male A Capella group singing while we were there and we had managed to time our visit so that we heard them. Serendipitous!

I’m not sure how it happened, but we ended up staying at the Hermitage longer than planned. (Surprise!) That was pretty much our touring day, as we went out for a very late lunch/early dinner at a place around the corner from the Hermitage. This place has a cabaret at night, and we made grandiose plans to go see the cabaret that we never followed through on because we were so tired from touring. Instead, we went shopping so we had food for breakfast and could try Russian sparkling wine in the coziness of our hotel room, with our poor sore feet raised!

How Big Is the Hermitage?

My second day in St Petersburg, I spent most of the day in the Hermitage Museum, using the first day of my two day pass. My goal: to check out the Italian Renaissance and Spanish paintings, alongside some of the State Rooms, so that when I went back the next day with my friend Aasa, we could go to the Impressionist/Post-Impressionist floor.

You enter the Hermitage through a central staircase (also called the Jordan or Ambassador Staircase), which is simply magnificent. It’s all white and gold paint. I then proceeded through a number of State Rooms, including the small throne room (for those intimate occasions) and the large throne room (when one wants to impress). I took a brief detour through some Russian culture rooms, which include Nicholas II’s library. I decided I want that room – it’s fantastic.

On my way to the Italian gallery, I passed through my favorite room in the palace: the Pavilion room, which currently houses the Peacock Clock. It’s another white and gold room, with a Moorish theme, so there are balconies and arches. It’s absolutely breathtaking – I could get used to living in a room like that!

I’m not going to describe all the museum galleries. Suffice it to say, the Hermitage (as you no doubt know already) is one of the greats like the Met or the Louvre. They have a room of Titians that is great, and a big, grand room full of Spanish art (primarily de Ribera and Murillo) that is breathtaking.

I thought I was covering a lot of ground when I made it through the State Rooms pretty quickly. Of course, the State Rooms mostly don’t have art in them and only make up a quarter of the second floor. It took me considerably longer to get through the Italian gallery! Before I knew it, it was mid-afternoon and I started thinking about heading back to the hotel to meet up with my friend.

But before I did so, I stopped in an adjacent Hermitage exhibit called the Winter Palace of Peter I. This building doesn’t really exist anymore as Catherine the Great built a theater over it, but they have rebuilt several rooms amongst the archeological remains and furnished them as they would have looked in Peter’s time. More impressively (as in impressive-creepy), they have a life-size wax figure of Peter the Great made from death wax casts of his face and hands and using his actual hair. I think he would have been very disapproving of my insane desire to giggle when I saw it (him?).

I wended my weary way home, where my friend Aasa had arrived. I’m very lucky to have her able to join me for my stay in St Petersburg. We’ve known each other for a long time and always seem to pick up our friendship where we left off, despite living on different continents.

I Heart St Petersburg

I arrived in St Petersburg and made it to the hotel without getting lost! Yes, it’s true! I love subway systems – they tend to actually make sense and even have maps to help you navigate them. And when I emerged from the subway and was looking around to see which way was west (since I was on the right street for once and just needed a compass point), a nice young man asked if I needed help with directions. Did I mention I love St Petersburg?

I’ve been trying to put a finger on where St Petersburg reminds me of. The first day I arrived, I had a free afternoon, so I just walked around for hours admiring the city and getting acclimated. It definitely feels more European than Russian, and also has a big city feel that I guess I missed these past couple of weeks. The wide, planned streets lined with historic facades reminds me of Paris, although in most ways this city is nothing like Paris. The canals might be like Amsterdam (if I had been to Amsterdam I could tell you better). It has a Northern European feel with a Russian flavor – and I guess comparisons in many ways are silly as it is clearly, indubitably St Petersburg, with a flavor all its own.

I walked first to a gorgeous synagogue about ten minutes from the hotel, called the Grand Choral Synagogue. A few blocks down the way, I completely geeked out in a balletomane way because I saw the Mariinksi Theater, in full green and white splendor. There was much internal squealing.

Then off to the Neva River, not quite as pretty as possible with all the construction but I suppose construction is a necessary part of life. Just like all this mud is a necessary part of spring…

The Neva is a very wide river, dwarfing the golden domes and stately buildings that line it by its very size. I walked down the embankment towards the golden dome of St Isaac’s, seeing the Bronze Horseman statue (the emblem of the city, a statue of Peter the Great about which Pushkin wrote a famous poem) which stands in front of it.

I continued past the grand buildings of the Admiralty to a green and white and gold concoction which turned out to be the Winter Palace portion of the Hermitage Museum complex. I went around to the Palace Square in front, picturing angry hordes mobbing the Winter Palace in 1917, and headed out towards Nevsky Prospect. I have to say the Palace Square is impressive, fronting the Winter Palace and with the curving arms of the Staff Buildings along the other side. There’s a lot of empty space and gracious, simple lines (not including the Rocco Winter Palace).

I ate an early dinner/late lunch of beef stroganoff not far from the Stroganoff Palace (strange thought!) and called it a day.