Moscow and Beyond
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow
We entered the Moscow area around Klin (a town where Tchaikovsky once lived) and saw the road turn first into the Tverskaya shosse freeway, and then into the elegant Tverskaya ulitsa. This is where most of the name brand stores congregate in Moscow.
Russia, it seems, is full of odd traffic rules, and at each intersection the ways you can or cannot turn are different. As a result, we had to do a few circles and one u-turn to get to our hotel. Russian street maps, which are similarly confusing, diagram major intersections as to which way you must go into and out of them, without a lot of logic. It made me wonder if there is a Russian translation of the American phrase "You can't get there from here!" It is also nearly impossible to drive for any length of time without getting some kind of traffic ticket, which is paid in cash, on the spot. I suspect that the cash doesn't find its way into the public treasury. I'll self-drive in any EU country, but I'd throw a fit and be clapped in irons if I had to drive with any frequency in Russia.
Contrary to the imagination of many Americans, Moscow is not all "Soviet apartments." Frankly, even "Soviet apartments" could look worse than they do. With a few big city exceptions, the apartments are longer than they are wide, and the spaces between them are filled with leafy trees during the four months of the year that there are leaves. It's certainly not the nicest housing, but not Le Corbusier and windy plazas either. And in some places they've opened up the ground floor to retail.
Stalinist architecture does have a bit of class to it. The Federal Triangle in Washington DC and other New Deal buildings have a similar flavor. The really tacky stuff is from the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras.
There are seven huge structures from Stalin's era in Moscow that look like a cross between the Tower of Babel and a wedding cake. There was going to be an eighth, the biggest of all, on the present-day site of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, but it was never built. A viewpoint near Moscow University appears designed to have had its grande allee focus on the nonexistent eighth structure. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, originally built in the 1880s in delayed celebration of Russia's victory over Napoleon and later destroyed by Stalin, was rebuilt in the post-communist 1990s, with some corporate sponsorships, including McDonalds! It is once again a Moscow landmark.
It occurred to me that Tchaikovsky had written the 1812 Overture about the time of the cathedral's original construction, and I wondered if perhaps he had written it for the dedication of the church. Lo, I was right.
Prior to the construction of the new Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and following the demise of Stalin's plans for an eighth massive structure, the site was made into a swimming pool. It occurred to me that the Communists must have had a thing about churches and swimming pools. There was a Lutheran church in St. Petersburg that had been converted into an indoor swimming pool, and when they converted it back into a church in the '90s, they left the bleacher-style benches on the side as pews. I thought they were missing a bet if they wanted to be "seeker friendly"; maybe they could leave the pool and put a pulpit over it and a swim-up Eucharist altar! Is that any crazier than a drive-in church?
We had to pay to go into the Kremlin proper, and security was tight. What you see now are three "cathedrals," one for baptizing royalty, another for weddings, and another for burials, all three of course restored; and a large museum of jewelry, clothing, and other treasures of the czars.
On one side of the Kremlin is a huge open space, the famous Red Square. No tanks in it at the moment, although on some holiday they did parade through recently. It's not quite as easy to maneuver large missiles through there as it used to be, however, since they recently replaced some gates and one of the churches they had taken down.
At the other end of the square is the famous and often photographed and painted St. Basil's. The surface of the square curves convexly toward the church, so when you first see it from the other end of Red Square you can't see the bottom of it, and it looks like a heavenly apparition. It's actually an assemblage of seven or eight little "churches" on different levels, all richly decorated. Walking through it is a bit like walking through the Haunted House at Disneyland without any fire marshals.
One other observation: the word "church," much to the disgust of typical American evangelicals, means "church building," not "society of people serving God."
We had the opportunity to see a Russian circus, which is one of the arts in which the Russians have distinguished themselves. There were wonderful high wire acts and some animals (but no elephant as far as I could remember) and some comic routines. It was more like our traditional American circus than the Cirque de Soleil model. It also occurred to me that this was either the popular version of ballet, another fine art which Russians have made their own. Or maybe ballet is the highbrow version of circus!