Russia Day 9


On the train in the morning, Olga tells us another Russian joke:

Q: What should we do if the Americans launch a massive nuclear attack?

A: Wrap yourself in a white sheet, and crawl very, very quietly to the graveyard.

Q: But why must we crawl quietly?

A: So as not to start a panic.

The train is actually more luxurious than the sleeper train we traveled on in Italy. However, there are no straps or railings to prevent you from rolling off the upper bunk beds, and I don’t get much sleep. The fourth passenger in our compartment is a quiet Russian girl.

The railway station in Moscow is an exact copy of the one in Leningrad, but labeled “Leningrad” instead of “Moscow”. Similarly, three other stations in the vicinity are built to look just like the ones their trains go to. In between the stations there’s a sea of people milling around, trying to sell things, and yelling at each other.

Metro tickets are made of translucent neon green plastic. They used to be metal, but the currency devalued so fast that people apparently began hoarding them, melting them down, and selling the scrap metal for more than the cost of the tokens.

The Metro map is circular with diagonal lines, quite the coolest I’ve seen in any city. We take the train to Red Square.

At this point I’m not feeling too good. Olga’s been feeding us plenty by Russian standards, but my overactive metabolism has been burning it off, and I feel weak, tired, and sometimes dizzy. At least my digestion is just about coping with the temporary return of meat to my diet, unlike XQ’s.

Red Square is neither red, nor square; the “Red” part is from the Russian for “beautiful”. “Kremlin” just means “fortress”, so one should really talk about “The Moscow Kremlin”. Lenin’s mausoleum is still there, big and red and low and boxy.

Most of the square is closed off; apparently there’s a meeting going on in the Parliament building. St Basil’s is closed, so I don’t get to see inside it. We walk across the bridge a bit to see the Kremlin from the river.

We go into ГУМ (GUM), formerly the state department store. Now it’s full of expensive Western boutique stores selling things people don’t need, for hard currency only—stuff like Бзнетон (Benneton) and Yves San Laurent. Millions of people are on the poverty line, but at least you can pay $100 for a sweater.

There are also small Russian shops scattered amongst the chain stores; they too stock a variety of Western goods. I see one store selling ЛЕГО (LEGO); at least that has some value.

We go inside the Kremlin and look around. There are the usual onion-domed church buildings, the parliament building, and a nasty looking Soviet government building. Lots of American tourists are are here, doing what they do best.

Next we head for the old Jewish quarter of Moscow. It used to be lively, full of people and market stalls, but now it seems to be fairly dead. Olga says it’s the same everywhere—there are no Russian tourists any more, just the Westerners who can afford to travel and are prepared to put up with the bureaucratic paperwork.

We cross over to the main entry road, which was demolished and rebuilt to look impressive as you drive into the city. There are large Soviet tower blocks and concrete department stores along its length. XQ says there used to be many bookstalls. Now, there are kiosks selling jeans, cassette tapes, food, drink, and anything belonging to the Soviet Union that wasn’t nailed down. The books that remain are trashy pulp novels and the Russian version of Penthouse, rather than poetry and literature.

We decide to buy Olga lunch. Somehow she never got to eat pizza while visiting us, so we take her to Пэцца Хат. I eat until I’m completely stuffed. When we leave, I feel bouncy and full of energy once more. The clouds have cleared, and the sun has come out.

We get the train to Zagorsk, which houses an ancient monastery. Walking from the station, we get to the observation point on the hilltop overlooking a valley. On the far side is a dazzling spread of onion-domed churches and other buildings. Some have gold roofs, some are deep blue with gold stars. We go there and look around inside.

An Orthodox service is going on in the church with the blue dome with gold stars. We look inside. The room is full of candles and incense; there are icons everywhere. It’s dark, and there’s a monotone chanting. It’s hard to believe this religion has anything in common with the Church of England.

We go to a small hard currency café and buy tea, then return to Moscow by train.

Back in Moscow, in the station, we see an old drunk lying in a pool of liquid. He has apparently just been beaten up by a policeman, and several women are berating the policeman. The old man tries to get up onto his feet, and the policeman kicks him viciously in the chest. He falls backwards, and his head hits the stone floor of the station with a sickening crack. We don’t stay around to see what happens next.

We visit the Moscow University district, and see the much-derided “wedding cake” building. The Soviet Union apparently built a number of them during the Stalinist era.

On the train back to St Petersburg that evening, I sleep better for some reason.