Friday, April 26, 2013

Russia, Day 2

We woke up really early in order to catch the 8:12 train to the city of Vladimir so we could get a bus from there to the town of Suzdal.  Each of these places are in what is called the Golden Ring; a ring of villages and towns that surrounds Moscow.  We got to the train station on time, if only the ticket machine would have operated correctly as it was supposed to; it ate Tom's card and by the time we got it back we had three minutes to buy the ticket and then run to the right platform.  We missed the train, but there was another, at a different station, in four hours.  Instead of getting upset, Tom just decided to show me a bit of Moscow while we waited. 

We got on the metro and headed for Red Square.  When we got out of the station Tom pointed to a Russian Orthodox Church; I promptly wet myself with excitement (I later found out that this was the oldest church in Moscow).  We started walking thru the streets; me asking Tom question after question, and he politely resisting the urge to strange me for excess enthusiasm while answering my questions (in case you don't know, Tom is basically an expert on Russia, having two MAs in Russian Studies and is working on a similar PhD).  As we were walking I looked at a building on my right, taking in its neo-classical splendour (I am not big on neo-classical architecture) before swinging my gaze to the left where I saw St Basil's Cathedral, just coming out of now where.  As Emily and I say, I was 'bitch-slapped by history'. 
Red Square.
The oldest church in Moscow.
Me and St Basil's.  It was so exciting to see it for the first time.
The eternal flame of the unknown soldier.
There is no way to describe how truly amazing it is to realize you have just wondered onto one of the most recognizable and historically important areas in the world.  To my left was St Basil's Cathedral, in front of me the tomb of Lenin in front of the red walls of the Moscow Kremlin and to the right a history museum (ok, the last one is comparatively boring, but it is gorgeous).
The Iberian Gate.  The tradition is you stand on this spot and throw a coin over your shoulder to make a wish.  Old people and poor people stand around, grabbing the coins as they hit the ground.
This is a statue of the Soviet Commander of the Red Army during World War Two. His horse is stamping on a swastika and the Third Reich Eagle.
I really wanted to visit Lenin’s tomb but Tom had warned me that it had been covered in a blue bubble-like thing for a few weeks before my visit.  While I was there the bubble came down, but the tomb was not open, as the government was preparing for the annual May Day parade and government officials stand on the viewing platform on top of the mausoleum during the parade. 
This is Stalin's monument behind Lenin's tomb.  After his death, Stalin laid in state with Lenin for three years, before the government start their de-Stalinization campaign, when his body was moved here, in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.  
Lenin's tomb.
Me, my beard and Lenin's tomb.
At the opposite end of Red Square is Kazan Cathedral, a reconstruction of a cathedral built in the 1630s to mark the end of the city’s occupation by Polish forces.  The original was destroyed on the orders of Stalin in 1936.  Walking into an Orthodox cathedral can be a sensory overload, especially if you are used to the competitive austerity of Western churches.  Before anything else gets you, the sweet, warm smell of dozens of beeswax candles enters your nose.  If you visit during a service, which can last three hours or more, the singing of the priests can be a welcoming substitution for the city noises outside.  Next comes the visual punch of so many things. The gold leaf covering many of the objects; the towering Iconostasis, holding dozens of precious icons; numerous candles flickering before painstakingly produced icons spread throughout the room; the somewhat unnerving visual of an old woman, head covered in a scarf, crossing herself three times before getting on her knees on the hard, stone floor and staying there for longer than I know I could; another person on their knees in front of an icon, praying in a whispered voice; the paintings which start on the floor and cover ever interior surface, up to the ceiling; the image of Jesus at the top of the central dome, facing east.  In short, it was amazing to experience.  
An icon on the back of Kazan Cathedral.
Kazan Cathedral.
After I recovered from my shock, took some photos and walked around a bit more, we went to get some breakfast at a 1920's, 'American' bar.  The food was good.  I have a cheese pancake thing that was delicious and I want to try to make at home.
Apparently, this is what French people eat for breakfast.  I wonder if the French are aware of this.
Tom then took me to the Vysokopetrovsky Monastery (The Monastery of St Peter).  This is an early sixteenth century monastery that went thru many changes in the seventeenth century when maternal relatives of Czar Peter the Great decided to make it their familial burial spot.  The Monastery was closed in 1926 but was give back to the church in 1992.   The grounds contain seven separate churches.  We went into what I think was the main church during a service.  It seemed very modern on the inside, making it hard to believe just how old it is.  Outside we saw a small, circular, red church that seemed to be closed.  As Tom was translating the sign in front of the church for me an old woman came running up, apparently apologizing, and opened the doors for us.  It turns out that this, the smallest and oldest church in the complex, is the cathedral of St Peter, around which the monastery was founded and eventually grew.
The interior of the Monastery of St Peter.
A priest and another man walking through the monastery.  
This is the Cathedral of St Peter, around which the monastery was founded.  
Cathedral bells.
One of the churches inside the monastery.
A tombstone from the monastery with Old Church Slavonic inscriptions.
We then took a quick detour to see the Moscow Arts Theatre, one of the most historically important theatres in the world.  It was here that Konstantin Stanislavski developed his acting method, and it was here where Antov Chekov premiered most, if not all, of his plays.
Me at the Moscow Arts Theatre.
By this time we needed to get to the station to get our train tickets.  We eventually found the correct ticket office at the station (I see no reason why there had to be so many different offices), and Tom introduced me to Russian Customer Service.  It is shit. 

First off, before even getting to the service, I need to mention the lines.  People do not seem to line up in one definitive line or group of lines, like you would expect.  They are more like clusters of people, each trying to cut in front of the person in front of them.  I got in one line only to have a man in another come up and tell me that he had a spot in that line, as well as the spot he was standing in in another line. Apparently you are allowed to 'leave your aura' in another line, as Eddie Izzard so eloquently puts it. Then you have the babushkas that will just cut you in line, walking up to the front of the line like they are trying to read something and then push you out of the way when it is your turn.  It is so infuriating.  If I could have spoken Russian I am sure I would have gone mental at the people.

Now, once you get to the front of the line you have to deal with a very pissy person who seems to think that you are wasting their time by asking the to do the work they are paid to do.  I acknowledge that not everyone must be like this, but from what I experienced and what I have been told by Tom, who has spent more time in Russia than anyone else I know, this type of rudeness is rampant.  I am guessing it must partially be a mind set held over from Soviet times, when job security meant you could be horrible at your job and as a person and still not get fired. 

The woman who was selling us our tickets was as pleasant as a...well...she was a bitch, that is the best way to put it.  There was a sign on the window saying that she was going on break from 11.45-12.00.  We finished buying our tickets at 11.40 but she refused to sell tickets to the woman after us because she thought it might eat into her break time.  At one point, according to my translator (Tom), she stabbed the sign with her finger and said to the woman 'Can't you read?'
We eventually got on our train, armed with coke, water and Russian fast food.  We had a little compartment car for us and two other people.  It was like those old movies where one side of the train car was a hallway and the rest was the compartments.  We spent most of the trip outside the compartment in the hallway, looking out the window and talking about Russia, history, random stuff, and how sad it was to see the abandoned towns as the train sped by.
The hallway in our train.
A shot of the rail line in Moscow.
We passed innumerable small towns that were nearly desolate.  It is easy to see how people in these towns could miss their lives under Soviet rule.  Many towns were centred around one government-run industry, and once that industry was privatized, the town died, partially or completely destroying the livelihoods of the people who were dependent on the work.  At one point we passed a row of abandoned, gutted and falling down, simple wooden houses.  At the end of the row was a single house; barely standing up, but obviously still lived in.  In the garden was a small vegetable patch and laundry hanging out to dry on a line strung between a dead and a living tree.  A little old woman was sitting alone on a plank of wood placed between two stumps, a colourful scarf tied around her head.  As the train sped by she looked up, slowly getting to her feet, her head following the train as it went by.  It was kind of sad. 

I am not sure if this is true of al trains in Russia, but Tom warned me that the bathrooms empty directly onto the tracks.  I learned this when I asked him why they had not opened the bathrooms about half an hour after leaving the station; apparently they don't want too much poo on the tracks in Moscow.  So, if you are ever lost in Russia, do not walk on the train tracks. 

When we arrived in Vladimir I was given another shining example of Russian manners.  As we got to the ticket window to buy our bus ticket (after waiting patiently in line for ten minutes) an older woman ran up and pushed Tom out of the way, pushing his money out of the little receptacle (the woman selling the ticket had already begun doing our order) and throwing her money in.  Tom moved aside slightly and said 'You're welcome.'  She left, and we got our tickets.

Tom and all of his friends have said that these ‘babs’ (short for babushkas) are the devil incarnate.  They act nice, feeble and lovely, and then they hit you with their canes, push you out of the way and treat you like scrum.

We arrived in Suzdal, checked into our hotel, and went for a walk before getting dinner.  We arrived later than we had hoped to we were trying to see as much of the town as we could.  We went to a monastery briefly, but the churches were closed and we left, walking further into town.  We entered another monastery and ran into two women who we had passed in the first monastery.  They started talking to Tom, asking who we were and where we were from.  When they found out I study cathedrals they asked if we want to go see the tomb of the wife of Czar Vasili III.  Sure.  Why not? 
It turned out they were psychiatrist in town for a conference.  One of them knew one of the nuns in the monastery and arranged for us to go see the tomb.  We were let back in the monastery by one of the nuns, who took us into the basement of one of the two churches.  She explained that this is not usually open to the public, and said that I am probably the first American to ever see the tombs and Tom is probably the first Brit.  We entered the windowless basement, painted white, and saw fifteen to twenty, white sarcophaguses; each one held the remains of a member of the Czar's family.  In 1913, on the eve of the Russian revolution, Czar Nicolas II came to this basement church to pray, surrounded by his ancestors.  The nun explained that the Czarina, Sophia, was sent to this monastery by her husband Czar Vasili III in order to take a new wife.  This is the first time this had ever happened in Russian history.  This angered the head of the Russian Church, and he cursed the Czar and his yet to be born heir.  It worked; the Czar's heir was Ivan the Terrible.
The monastery where St Sophia lived.
Monastery cat
The winter church.
The winter church again.
The winter church.  The small door in the wall is the entrance to the basement with the graves of the Czar's family
Sophia lived in the monastery until her death seventeen years later.  After she died people began to pray near her grave.  Soon miracles were attributed to her and she became a saint.  He body was exhumed sometime around 1993 and placed in a glass sarcophagus in the main church above.    
The nun explained that they have two churches, one used from Christmas to Easter and one from Easter to Christmas.  She took us up into the summer church to see Sophia's relics (covered in velvet and under glass) and to show us some other icons, including one called the three-handed Madonna, showing Mary holding the baby Jesus with three hands, commemorating a miracle when she re-grew the hand on a man who had it chopped off. 
Tom said we couldn't go for a carriage ride.  I still don;t understand why not.
I really liked the look of this old wooden sled.
As an additional surprise, the women told Tom that the monastery also operates an orphanage on the grounds.  This was particularly interesting as Tom’s PhD topic is Russian orphanages.  We said goodbye to the nun and the women who arranged for the visit and then went to find something to eat.
Russian food is not known for its vegetarian-friendly nature.  Many of the restaurants in the town offered no vegetarian food aside from a plate of pickles, or salted cucumbers.  We eventually settled on a place called SALMON AND COFFEE; no joke, that really is what it is called.  It was a Japanese place that was not too bad.  It turns out they actually had a vegetarian menu, which brings me to my advice for vegetarian travellers: COME TO RUSSIA DURING ORTHODOX LENT; SINCE THE CHURCH DOES NOT WANT PEOPLE TO EAT MEAT DURNG LENT, MANY RESTARAUNTS HAVE A VEGETARIAN MENU!!!!!!!

That was out day; full of surprises.

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