The full sentence in the title is ‘And why is it, thought Lara, that my fate is to see everything and take it so much to heart?’ Pasternak’s Lara, of course in Dr Zhivago. My father first saw David Lean’s masterpiece film of the book that he had read some time before, in a tiny cinema in Andermatt (Swiss Alps) in February 1966. He reported that his nose and his toes were cold throughout. He was wearing gloves and a bobble hat. I was only 5 at the time so I didn’t see it until much later in the comfort of our drawing room and was I captivated. The book I read soon after. The story set the bar for the Russia that I wanted to find. The politics, the literature, the love, the soul. I waited what, had I been told I must, at the age I was then, would have seemed an impossible time to visit for the first time (for I am quite determined to go again and see far, far more of this vast and extraordinary place) and she didn’t disappoint. Not even slightly. I loved the people, as I knew I would. I love their relationship to art and dance and literature and science and intellect. It is quite captivating. Their frankness, their ability to feel to the depths of their soul and not be ashamed of feeling so. To be able to laugh and cry willingly. It is quite beautiful and at odds with the image of the stony faced, ice-eyed KGB torturer of cliché. We went and we scratched the surface and we returned home a little changed. As you always should be when you have seen something and taken it to heart.
Here are my best bits – each one a character in the little story of my stay:
And some of me enjoying my favourite bits:
PS: At lunch in the summer with local friends back home, we were assaulted with a barrage of the most appalling and misinformed propaganda gleaned from stories on the internet. Drivel it all was but the venom with which it was thrown at us left us breathless with rage. Politics is politics the world over and the globe is an increasingly small place but to tar a population with a filthy brush based on no more that what you have read is quite quite wrong. In any language.
You may remember that we spent some time in Moscow and St Petersburg earlier this year and this is the penultimate part of the story. Part 12a because I just can’t rid myself of silly supersticions and I am wholly triskaidekaphobic (that’s afraid of 13s before you look it up). Part 14 will follow hot on its heels and then my first Russian odyssey will be neatly parcelled off. The tardy nature of this last but one is not entirely due to inefficiency or laziness. I felt that my timing needed to be a teeny bit diplomatic since, as will be revealed, some might have felt it inflammatory had I posted it earlier. They may still but I can’t help that.
You might also remember that we were in Moscow for the May Day celebrations and that I noted these are not in any way a show of military force as they had been under the old guard but rather a celebration of the worker and an opportunity for demonstrators to demonstrate about whatever they feel they need to demonstrate in Red Square. However, May 9th (Victory Day) is another matter and we were priviliged to watch several rehearsals for the Military Parade as it processed past our hotel in readiness for what, as it transpired, eclipsed the parades of recent years.
That Mr Putin used the opportunity to demonstrate his country’s strength and to leave the world in no doubt of how strong she is was not a small surprise given the caning he and Russia were, at that moment, taking on the world stage. A stage full of those who will always throw a rock when facing a glass house. Those who will invade and interfere at the drop of their own hat but who flew into a frenzy of screeching disapproval when The Bear roared. It seemed to me that many had not even looked at the facts nor examined the history books. The invasion and annexing of Crimea was inevitable. It should have been included in Russia when the USSR was broken up but had been parcelled into Ukraine in 1954 because Mr Khrushchev was Ukrainian. That Ukraine has been a sorry and angry mess for 20 years is surely an unmissable fact. I try to be Apolitical on this blog but surely reason dictates that what Russia did was not more nor less than her Cold War foe the United States of America has done on a regular basis whilst The Bear slept. And why on earth does it have to naturally extrapolate that this means that Russia is set to take over the world? Really? Nonsense. I believe it is blather and nonsense.
So we watched the immense cavalcade of tanks and armoured vehicles rehearse the route that went past our hotel more than once. No one stopped us from taking pictures. The police were happy for us to stand and watch and many did – both citizens and visitors stopped to enjoy the free floor show.
On our last morning we went shopping for souvenirs. It was a challenging journey because Red Square and its surrounds were entirely closed off and Police guarded every attempt to exit the Metro within hundreds of yards. It was May 9th. After a convoluted agility test in Metro hopping we managed to find Old Arbat the street which Sergey (he of the Dukely perfect English) had recommended. It should be noted that the day before we had gone to Izmailovsky Market where you will find the best bargains but sadly May is too early in the year and the market was no-where to be seen … we strolled in a ghost park where the mothballed fairground was just being unwrapped and not even the kiosk was open for business … the birds and squirrels, eager for a treat were disappointed. Sergey had also recommended a particular shop so we walked past all other possibilities (and this is the Piccadilly Circus of Moscow in that it is tourist nick-nack central) and headed purposefully into the shop of the name he had carefully written on a piece of paper the night before at dinner. It quickly became apparent that Sergey has never in his life set foot inside a souvenir shop in his city, let alone this two floored monstrosity. In fairness that is hardly surprising – I don’t frequent the aforementioned purveyors of Beefeaters, Union Jacks and Royal Family memorabilia in London and wouldn’t know which were good, which bad and which horrid. As we stepped through the door we were cast back in time to the communist regime and confronted with a shop assistant (all on her own in this monolyth of a store) who had not caught up with Glasnost in any way or blinked at all in the sunlight of the new-born glossy Moscow that now surrounded her throwback-to-the-fifties-in-no-way-that-was-good shop. No matter how cheerily we smiled her face didn’t flicker, her unblinking ice-cool exterior never once waivered with even a passing nod to warmth. We beat a hasty retreat clutching a tiny bag of overpriced trinkets – naturally, being English, we were far to polite to just say good day and walk out. As we walked back up the street passing another and another and another shop we decided to brave the last one and, baiting our collective breath for another freezing were greeted with two funny charming smiling young girls who made far more money than Iron Icicle Babushka from our visit. Our purchases included a hat of fox-furred deliciousness which, I am shallow enough to admit, made my trip complete. We strolled back to the Metro in bright warm sunshine, me insistent on wearing the hat and doing a little light modelling for the camera en route.
Back at Pushkinskaya we hurried past the underground boutiques (there are scores of them – tiny little shops selling everything from dumplings to diva handbags) eager to grab brunch at our beloved Paul one last time. A freezing wind bit us as we ascended the stairs and as we alighted on Tverskaya we were blown back by a blizzard.
In 15 minutes Moscow had gone from summer to winter – it was like walking out of the wardrobe into Narnia except that there was no forest, no strange mythical creatures but rather tanks and armoured vehicles splendidly processing through the snow. It was a fitting end to a fabulous stay. Russia came in from the cold just over two decades ago. The world put her back there in the Spring. I say look in the mirror, Baby – you might not feel comfortable with the reflection.
PS: There is an old joke from The Second World War that Russian tanks have only one gear – forward and that they are fuelled by vodka – I have no idea if this is true but can state with authority that they work in all weathers ….
If you walk everywhere in Moscow, however sunny the day or take a bus (trolley or otherwise) or a taxi all the time you are missing what in some ways is her biggest treat. It’s not her oldest and its certainly not her most expensive (on your pocket) but come to Moscow and miss out on the Metro and in my view you have missed the heart of the city. When we arrived we took the metro from Bellarusskaya to Tverskaya (though the stunningly beautiful Mayakovskaya is actually closer to our hotel it turns out) and I was literally stopped in my tracks. Despite leaving home at 05:00, despite the normal wear and tear of a 4 hour flight, despite being overwhelmed by trying to dredge the grey cells for some grain of the Russian I had learned all those years ago in school, the Russian I had read I instantly woke up and, I am sure, gawped like a simpleton at that first station. Talking to Sergey we quickly understood that this was not unique. In fact there are multiple stunning stations in Moscow. A little history research revealed that work commenced in 1934 on the first line (Red of course) followed by Dark Blue, Dark Green and Brown (the circle or ring line as it is ubiquetously known). All the lines have proper names but are generally coloquially referred to by their colour. They are like underground palaces with beautiful embellisment – here stained glass, there mosaics, there again stucco but look again and you see that these artworks are homages to the workers. They celebrate soldiers and sailors and airmen but also railworkers, guards, fieldworkers. The women are as revered as the men. Family is celebrated. They are, in my view works of exquisite beauty and further enhanced by their expansive nature – the tunnels wider than I, as a London Tube user these past several decades am used to by a factor of at least 3 or 4.
These stations, this metro is vast. It is deep, the escalators seem to go on and on and they are rapid, to cope with the 7-9million people who travel on the system every day. The trains (lovely rather retro looking and practical rather than luxurious) flash into the stations every 2 minutes at peak times and the longest wait we had was maybe 4 minutes at midnight which seemed a long way north of reasonable.
Like their ballet dancers, the Muscovite train drivers are point perfect. Many platforms have yellow arrows which if you stand on one will absolutely guarantee that you are by a door when the train stops. A male voice announces your arrival – the line, the station and immediately afterwards the next station, a female voice tells you when the train is departing, to mind the doors and where it is going next. And do mind the doors – they are heavy and they slam shut – I would not risk a last minute jump onto a Moscow Metro as so many do on the London Tube.
I shan’t harp on as though I am an expert, my experience is simply that, my experience. I would urge you to go and see for yourself. But I will share with you my favourite vignette. We had alighted by mistake at Ploshchad Revolyutsii and were trying to make it look as though we intended to be there. Taking pictures of the stunning bronzes, Two Brains was well disguised. I was standing, obviously foreign and effecting nonchalance in the way that only makes you look more self-conscious when my attention was drawn by people walking and without stopping nor even hesitating as they passed a bronze of a watchman and his dog each one polished the dogs nose. All of them. The very old, the middle aged, the young, the obviously well-heeled, the obviously less-so, every one stroked his nose. His very shiney nose from all that polishing. Then a father and his possibly 20 month old baby and babushka stopped. The infant wide eyed as first granny then daddy dutifully petted the dog. Then, held aloft, the child tentatively reached out, hands quivering, a look for half wonder-half terror in his young eyes he stroked the nose and then beamed and beamed and beamed as nothing tangible happened to him except that his daddy squozed him and nuzzled him and granny kissed him – because now he too will have the good luck that I have since discovered is imparted by this dog (or actually any one of four dogs all identical one on each platform and one each on either side of the main corridor). Did I stroke his nose? What do you think?
To me, and I have no documented evidence to bear this out, it is just my feeling having experienced these underground monoliths and read about their history, the metro was built, of course to ferry the workers, but as beauteous as can be so the workers were reminded as they went about their day that they were valued, celebrated, equal. These were Palaces for the People.
St Petersburg also has a stunning network of underground stations – smaller but still breathtaking. Theirs, though have firmly closing doors on the platforms so that the trains are isolated until stationary. A reflection on the number of bodies under trains according to one Muscovite friend. I guess we will see the idea adopted across the world (as we have on the Jubilee Line in London) before too long.
PS: A rather welcome echo of the old-regime is that you can travel anywhere on the network for a single price (30 rubles which translates today to 50 British pence, 63 French centimes or 87 US cents) meaning that if you live in the cheaper suburbs and work in the centre you are not paying a larger chunk of your wages in travel than those who can afford to live in the more expensive middle. Fair fares!
Today is the last day in Moscow before a speedy trip to St Petersburg. It is also May 1st which is Workers Day and under the old regime was the day when the ballistic might of USSR was paraded in Red Square for the world to marvel at and it’s people to salute. These days May 1st is still a holiday – in fact Russians see it as the start of summer, but the parade in Red Square is a simplified affair with no tanks (those will be put through their paces on Victory Day (May 9th) – the day that Russia remembers her WW2 dead – all 20 million of them). I wake and look out of the window to see many happy people walking back to the metro with red white and blue balloons and patriotic flags. It feels a little like a day in London when a Royal has a birthday or gets married.
Here the orange street cleaning lorries are out in force as they ever are but last night they put in an extra spritz to make sure the streets were perfect for this morning and now that the event is dissipating they are again putting in an extra turn to restore the city to its default pristine condition. Actually, people here don’t lend to litter but the odd thing that slips out of a hand or a sleeve does not stay on the floor for long and neither does the muck naturally created by so many beefing cars on its mega-highways.
Two Brains sleeps on whilst I watch (the street not the sleeper), do a little work and potter in our home suite home. Eventually the husband wakes and we wander up to the patisserie for lunch – it is heaving with ladies lunching as respite from the rigours of shopping and customers coming in to buy the exquisite cakes and chocolates to accompany festive suppers later in the evening.
Afterwards we take the Circle Line to experience each of the splendiferous stations our theory being that this holiday day will make them quiet and easy to photograph without the visual disturbance of too many people. Ignorance is not always bliss and in fact the subway is very very crowded. We manage 6 out of 12 before aborting at Bellarusskaya and walking back the mile or so to the hotel, on the way passing John Lennon looking happy enough to be Back in the USSR.
Edward, who was Two Brains first PhD students and now one of his senior staff is joining us for supper. We had planned to take him to the Armenian restaurant but he has other ideas. Armed efficiently with a guide-book (we are both chancers and tend to fall on things rather than plan as you may have gathered) he has two choices for us – one a Russian Restaurant, the other Georgian. I enter into the spirit of this novelty called organisation and enthusiastically choose Georgian (which was on my list of must-do’s before we arrived here). We stride up Tverskaya almost back to Bellarusskaya before Edward realises we are going the wrong way. Marching back, I feel rather as though I am parading which is apt given the day. Past the hotel and my sore feet are screaming for mercy but none shall be granted. The increasingly determined Edward (who incidentally is extremely slender and looks as though a sweet zephyr would blow him over) refuses to relent and is rewarded finally with the golden prize – the restaurant his guide has told us gets their award for best in the city. It’s terribly busy and the waitress is terribly direct ‘No – don’t have that it is horrible, have this …. you must drink Georgian wine and the double cheese bread would be what you want’. The net result is a glass of white wine for me that looks and tastes like very dry sherry and is easily as strong – I resort to the teeniest sips (visualising Hinge and Bracket in order to achieve this alien restraint) to combat the belt between the eyes as I take my first swiggette, horizontal on a busy restaurant floor in downtown Moscow not being a look I favour. The much better starter is not much better or rather if our own choice was worse then I wouldn’t have eaten it, and the bread is not the Khachapuri I expected but more like a white pizza. Notwithstanding all those things and the fact that we have had to sit in the smokng part of the restaurant and that the enormous pizza imposter is placed next to Two Brains who can’t tolerate the smell of cooked cheese, we have a lovely meal. Back at the hotel and Edward kindly points out the cashpoint and in-house bank which we have both failed to notice for almost a week …. he is kind about the fact that we have been chasing down Sperbank which is the only Russian Bank which will accept the 6-digit pin of Two Brains’ US cards (and yes, we do insist on giggling like naughty children as we call it Sperm-Bank) but it is clear that despite the fact that we arrived 3 full days before him, Edward is infinitely more sensible than we are, more prepared and more observant. He is also tremendously kind and offers to keep our superfluous luggage in his room so that we can take just what we need for our weekend excursion – therefore we hastily pack for tomorrows departure to St Petersburg …. I am preparing for cultural gluttony and unfortunately have slight indigestion.
PS: I haven’t lot the plot completely. I do know where I am in the world and I do know that Ray Charles was singing about Georgia USA but I love the song and the title seems to fit