A historical flashback in Moscow
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By Ground Safety Program Integration Specialist Kerry Fischman
Growing up in the age of the Cold War and the monthly air raid drills, my wife and I never imagined that one day we would be able to visit Russia, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and a country that had instilled so much fear in us as children. My wife had loved the movie "Dr. Zhivago" (cue "Lara's Theme") and thought it would be interesting to visit during a Russian winter. However, saner minds prevailed, and we chose August of 2011 to visit Moscow.
In order to visit Russia, we needed to obtain a visa. In addition to the appropriate paperwork, the visa required a letter of "sponsorship," which our hotel was able to provide for us. To make life simple, we used a visa service in Washington, D.C.
Once we arrived at our hotel and freshened up, our first "must-see" was Red Square. As children of the 1950s, we would see TV newsreels showing the armies on parade marching into this massive square with tanks and missiles. All around were imposing red brick buildings and at the far end was this colorful cathedral. Fast forward to the 21st century, and here we were. We walked through an archway that, during the Soviet era, had been destroyed to make room for the military equipment but now had been rebuilt. We emerged into Red Square and, instead of marching armies and tanks, there were families strolling with their children. We stood and just slowly turned in each direction to take it all in. The far end of the square is dominated by St. Basil's Cathedral, with its multi-colored, onion-like domes. Two other sides contain various buildings of the Kremlin and the State Museum. On another side is GUM, the large department store. During the days of the old U.S.S.R., newsreels would show lines of people lined up outside to get their bread or food allowance for that day/week. Today, the building houses stores like Prada, Louis Vuitton, an upscale food market and ice cream stands. It's a complete 180-degree turn from what it had been. But, more than just a building housing three floors of stores in which to spend your money, the building is very beautiful with a ceiling made of steel and glass. After meandering through this late 18th century architectural beauty, we walked back out sun into Red Square, still full of families strolling in the late afternoon.
Throughout our stay, we would walk the short 10 minutes from our hotel to Red Square – just to take in the historical relevance. A bit of background information: Red Square does not get its name from the pigment in the bricks of the buildings in the square, nor from a euphemism for communism, but rather from a Russian word that means both "red" and "beautiful" – in reference to a small area around St. Basil's and parts of the Kremlin.
The British have Parliament. The Unites States have Capitol Hill. The Russians have the Kremlin. The name "Kremlin" means fortress inside a city. The Kremlin is made of cathedrals, palaces, office buildings and the residence of the president of Russia. It is walled off from the city, but many of the palaces and cathedrals are open for touring. One can tour some of the buildings (not the governmental ones) on their own, but we wanted more in-depth knowledge of what we would be seeing, so we arranged through our hotel for a private guide. Our guide took us through cathedrals and museums that displayed masterpieces of Russian art, Russian icon paintings, gilt frescoes and all things connected to the Russian royal family. Of particular interest were the world-famous Faberge eggs. A series of Easter eggs were created by Fabergé for the Russian imperial family from 1885 to 1916. The Faberge egg is fashioned out of gold and other precious materials and decorated with jewels. The outer "shell" can be opened on many of them to reveal a surprise inside. The surprises range from a perfect miniature replica of the Coronation carriage - that took 15 months to make working 16-hour days - to a mechanical swan and an ivory elephant, to a heart-shaped frame on an easel with 11 miniature portraits of members of the imperial family.
Just outside, near the Kremlin Wall, is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Just like the American Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Arlington Cemetery, it is guarded with dignity by the Russian military.
Steps away from Red Square sits the famous Bolshoi Theatre, home to the world-famous ballet, theatre and opera companies – but, due to renovation during our visit to Moscow, the theatre was closed and we were unable to attend a performance there. Although we could not enter, we admired the grand sculptures of the four flying horses that sit atop the theatre and imagined the majesty of hearing a performance of Tchaikovsky.
Moscow is more than the red brick facade buildings, the onion-domed cathedrals and the block style of architecture from the Soviet era – it also has beautiful boulevards that are lined with 19th century mansions. Over the years, one boulevard, Ulitsa Arbat, fell out of favor and was neglected, but in the 1980s it became pedestrianized, and now it is home to trendy restaurants, art galleries, shops and street performers. The mansions are pastel colored – pale green next to pink next to sunny yellow, making this boulevard come to life and a perfect area to stroll.
Every major city of the world has its underground subway system and, of course, Moscow has one as well. But what makes the subway system in Moscow unique is that several of its underground stations are very ornate. The first metro stations were conceived as magnificent showcases of Soviet success. The Ploschad Revolyutsi station boasts 76 bronze statues, while Mayakovskaya station has beautiful mosaics, Komsomolskaya contains marble walls and chandeliers,Novoslobodskaya has amazing stained glass and is very ornate, and Novokuznetskaya contains historical themes. For the price of one metro ticket, you can take a tour of these stations simply by changing subway trains, all underground without surfacing.
Not only are the metro stations works of art, but the Novodevichy Cemetery is like walking through a sculpture park. Don't think of this as a mournful place, but rather one that has a "park-like ambience." As you enter the cemetery, which is dotted with small chapels and large sculpted monuments, you are struck by the ornateness of the gravestones. Reading the names of those who are buried here is like reading a list of the who's who in Russian culture and politics. Anton Chekhov, Raisa Gorbachev, Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin are buried here, along with notable scientists, musicians, poets and playwrights.
Although English is spoken widely throughout Moscow, one thing we needed to do was decipher the Cyrillic alphabet. While it does resemble the English alphabet, many letters are "turned around." For us, especially while in the Metro, we would go letter by letter… regular A, backwards C, then backward R, followed by an O with an I in it – it was not only a cultural experience but a linguistic one as well.
Moscow amazed us – giving us reminders of the bleakness of the Cold War era and then surprising us with the colorful streets full of upscale shopping. Many times, we had surreal experiences with our personal flashbacks to the "duck and cover" days while we were walking Red Square. It was an experience, to say the least.