April 6, 2012 Russia.
Holy moly. As we were flying in I raised my window shade and saw below….well, it looked like something from a sci-fi film. I don’t want to be disparaging. It’s just that I’ve never seen anything like it. We were high enough that cars would have been flea sized, but low enough that I could clearly see the architecture of these tall, thin, long, very very long, almost plate-like buildings, which bent and angled into wings and sections. OK, this is not easy to describe, that was terrible. Let’s try this: You take a bunch of yellowish dominos, make them 3 times as tall as they usually are, and you stand them up next to each other in a line. Some you just line up four or five side by side, others you line them up and then turn the corner and keep going, once, maybe twice, maybe three times, randomly. You make groups of these very close to each other. Sometimes you stand them in an arc just for fun. Now, you do this maybe 5,000 times, with no detectable pattern, stretching in every direction as far as you can see. Make sure that all color is muted and make the air hazy. Actually, I could save us both some time and just show you this photo I took from the plane. It sort of conveys the desolation I felt, but not really. I was awestruck. It looked so, well, 1960 Soviet, but only in the worst way. As we continued our descent, I was really wondering where I was taking myself. So, I’m happy to report that since I arrived here five days ago I have seen much that can only be described as shockingly beautiful, things I have never seen before and will never forget now.
I was collected outside of baggage by my friend and Texas neighbor Ann-Tyler and escorted by train back into town, right into the center, only blocks from Red Square and the Kremlin. She and her husband Brian and their three young daughters, who I’m crazy about, live in what would have to be considered a very desirable flat on the ninth floor of a large apartment building. Real estate in this town is beyond expensive. It’s don’t-even-ask expensive, and so almost everyone rents. Every Christmas, and every summer, the Family Konradi spend back in Wimberley, right across the road from my place, in their other home, a place so appealing that frankly, I don’t know how anyone could easily leave it behind even for a long weekend. But they have a fascinating life here, the girls are busy with all the sort of things that kids are busy with elsewhere, there is a large social network of Russians and ex-Pats from all over the place, and life rocks right along. The following day Ann-Tyler had arranged a guided tour for me of the Kremlin, or at least a portion of it called the Armory Museum. There was a second tour also scheduled with the same guide, of the church or something, but as we will see, by the time I had seen the Armory I was so beat up from a combo of jetlag, fatigue and brain frazzle from the contents of that place that I had to decline the rest of the tour, giving the nice lady a half day off with pay. Let me remember to tell you that the Kremlin, far from being the giant gray hulking building I had always imagined, is actually a fortress of sorts, behind the walls of which are scattered many giant gray hulking buildings, as well as churches I suppose, and grand old structures like the Armory, and all sorts of government stuff. Kremlin means ‘fortress’ or something like it. Remember, I’m just an American tourist, so if you really want to know about this stuff, look it up or come over here yourself. I’m just telling you what I see and how it looks to me. The Kremlin wall runs right down the right hand side of Red Square, as you face it. Upon approach from the street you must pass through a large gate, and when you do, the first thing you spot is St. Basil’s Church down on the far end, and it’s pretty incredible.
As we were walking toward St Basil’s, we saw over to our left, behind a low single chain barrier, a couple tough looking guards casually standing in front of the open door of a slick low slung entrance into something mysterious. Ann-Tyler tells me it’s the Tomb of Lenin, and that this is the first time she has ever seen it open without a mile-long line stretching from it. We decide we should go in. The guards explain that even though we could just step right over the low slung chain, we must instead go back to the beginning of this chain and enter there. The chain ran all the way back to the entry house where the big gate was. OK, what the hell, it’s Dead Lenin, we’ll do it. Eventually having to leave Red Square entirely and enter through another gate, we arrived back where we started, only a few feet inside the chain. Along the way we passed the gravestones of famous dead Soviets, including Stalin, Andropov, Kruschev, well, all the past bosses, the big generals, stone after stone. Just inside the forbidding door with a stair leading down into darkness, the grim silent guard signed for us to be quiet and for me to take my stocking cap off, which we immediately did. And down the short stairs we went, till we turned a corner into a dim room lit by red lights with a large raised glass case in the middle. You were not allowed to get close of course, or even stop and stand, even though there were no other viewers behind us. We circled the old boy as slowly as we could, and yes, sure enough, Dead Lenin it was. He has been sealed in wax. He looks very much like a Madame Tussaud fake, with one hand clenched almost in a fist and the other open and restful, still sprting the famous black beard, goatee style, and wearing a suit which is apparently changed every three years. They say Lenin wished to be buried, and presumably still does so, and yet, here it is, 80 something years later, and still he lies there. Back in 99 that crazy old sot Yeltsin was talking about burying him finally but it turns out that he was probably just trying to stir up trouble, hopefully even a Communist riot or two, so that he could call off the election that was going to remove him from power. Be that as it may, I have to say that those few minutes rank right up there with the strangest things I have seen in all my years.
I notice that this thing is getting long already, and I’ve only covered the first half of my first full day in Moscow. Let’s try to pick up the pace for chrissake.
Soon after, at the appointed time, we found the tour guide waiting for me in the Armory, and Ann-Tyler left me in her care, having seen this museum plenty of times herself already. As soon as we started it dawned on me that we were inside one of the greatest collections of Royal artifacts on the planet. This wasn’t your typical history collection of armor, crowns, gowns, robes, carriages, weapons, dishes, gold, silver, diamond encrusted everything. This was all of the best of those things probably ever gathered together, and I’m saying I’ve seen the Crown Jewels in England and this beat the pantaloons off that. It seemed like every time we finished up with one glass case of something or other, I’d turn around and gasp at what was to come. They have one room there filled with royal carriages, as I mentioned. Imagine, from the Disney cartoon, Cinderella’s grand coach (I know, I know, but stay with me)…..These were that but blown up and exaggerated beyond belief. There were maybe a dozen or so, though I’m spitballing, and the first was far beyond any I’ve ever seen, and each successive one was exponentially greater than the last. In another hall were items such as Catherine the Great’s favorite duds, Peter the Great’s (they were all great I guess) handmade, homemade boots, Ivan the Terrible’s spanking implements (made that up) and so much gaudy and way over the top, as in, over the moon, stuff that you can’t help getting queasy about it. Especially when you consider what the regular folks were doing through all this, through crushing poverty and freezing winters. I finally laid down on a bench, exposed my throat and begged to be released. It was fantastic. I was finished.