You’ve been warned by the title of this post!
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:
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.
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.
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.