Sunday, 13 May 2012

MOSCOW - RUSSIA ( Part 1 )

6th - 9th May 2012

St Basil ( Fawlty's?)  Cathedral
Arrived in Mockba at an interesting if irritating time. It was Vlad the Lad's inauguration on Monday and then rehearsals for the annual Victory Day parade around Red Square on Wednesday, the Soviet celebrated 9th when, in 1945, the Red Army entered Berlin. This caused many 'ulitsas' ( streets ) and other venues to be 'zakrito' ( closed ). Indeed the words 'zakrito' and, when asked when/where/how long the answer was always, 'nye znayu' ( don't know ) became the most repeated words I heard and learnt. Passage of information regarding official goings-on between the 'authorities' and the general public, and indeed tourists, is not considered necessary as far as I could tell. Soviet secrecy prevails. Hey ho; not my problem really except when I wanted to visit something. Talking of the Vlad inauguration, I witnessed several  enormous blacked out stretch limousines in convoy plus large escorts with flags flying whizzing at mach 1 towards the Kremlin down New Arbat, a major road near my hotel. Haven't a clue who was in them; probably Vlad with his little glove-puppet Dmitri, but saw some of the proceedings on TV. What a bunch of spivs, gangsters and dodgy second-hand car salesmen the Russian hierarchy resemble. They are definitely the sort of people who wear belts with their suit trousers. Almost makes me proud to be British ( although most of our ghastly Labour Party members probably wear belts with their suit trousers ).
At 10.00am on day one I was supposed to meet up with a guide to take me on a walking tour of part of the city. I could not meet him at the arranged place because the roads between my hotel and the RV were totally 'zakrito' to pedestrians. The meeting was postponed to 2.00pm by when Vlad's motorcades etc. would have been and gone. We duly met and Ivan, my student guide, took me on a rather cultural tour around streets to the west of the Kremlin ( zakrito ) and Red Square ( zakrito ). The following were encountered on my tour:

Left: We passed this interesting statue of a boatman on the Volga plus swimming horses in running water which features in some fable.

Right: The cathedral of Christ the Saviour, down near the River Moscow, which was pulled down by the Soviets and the site ultimately became an outdoor swimming pool. It was completely rebuilt, from scratch, between 1995 and 2005. It is amazing, to me, how much architectural vandalism was perpetrated by the Soviets but, equally amazing, how much effort has been put into restoring or rebuilding these structures and monuments subsequently.

Left: The Kremlin wall seen looking north-east, having just passed the cathedral above. The public entrance to the Kremlin is, when not 'zakrito', over the Trinity Bridge by the pointy tower to the left of the photo.

Right: Further on at the bottom of Novy Arbat is the Lenin City Library and this statue of Fyodor Dostoyevsky who, if my memory serves correct, was a famous Soviet Olympic gymnast who competed with the brothers Karamazov. He is certainly popular with the pigeons. There was always one sitting on his head ( unless it was a 'growth' and part of the statue ).

Left: And this guy, Mr Chekov, who wrote books and plays such as the blockbuster comedy musical The Seagull. There is a theatre next door to this statue with a seagull motif on it. We also passed statues and monuments built in memory of other famous Russian literary giants such as Pushkin and Tolstoy.  I must confess to not having read any of their great works which I think I might find rather heavy and dull. I am rather more interested in the works of Terry Pratchett ( Discworld ), Alan Coren and Frederick Forsyth.

Right: The seat of the City Mayor...can't remember his name but he was appointed after the last one was sacked for corruption. According to Ivan, my guide, he is doing a good job especially when it comes to Moscow traffic congestion.

Left: We called in at a very smart and elaborately decorated food shop, a sort of mini-Fortnum and Mason equivalent I suppose, but not that expensive. It was the emporium of some wealthy merchant pre-revolution. Nothing particularly special on offer, except for the decor.....

Right: ....and this imitation Faberge 'egg' containing a bottle of vodka selling for R62,000 ( US$ 2100 approx ). No vodka can be worth that...even in a tin egg.

Left:  My guide, Ivan. Many other architectural and cultural gems seen, plus a few notable restaurants. Ivan proved to be a most knowledgeable, enthusiastic and entertaining host who speaks excellent English. He is studying hard at university ( economics and business? ) and going on to do a doctorate. I expect he will be President of Russia in a few years time.

Right: Close to where I was living is Old Arbat Street which is now a pedestrian precinct. It is an amusing place favoured by the young and utterly un-Soviet Russian trendies who enjoy a good night out with plenty of music and drinking establishments. There are bars, cafes and bands as well as street acts ( a la Covent Garden ) and lots of artists doing portraits. A very jolly place and thankfully without the likes of the seriously inebriated British yobsters. I noticed that the Russians do a lot of 'snogging' in public i.e. in all the bars. Even I didn't feel it tactful to take snaps of these 'Public Displays of Affection' ( PDAs ).

Left: Walking on north past the Kremlin complex ( still zakrito ) up Teatralny Prospekt one passes the famous Bolshoi Theatre. I was told that it is quite possible, even on the day, to get a ticket for a ballet or whatever and the normal going price is about $200 or more. Sometimes you are stuck behind a pillar and the view of the stage is rather limited. I was not tempted and anyway there didn't appear to be any light hearted foot-stompin' musicals on the programme

Right: Up a side street towards Red Square (  still zakrito ) was this pub. There seem to be many imitation British 'pubs' around in Russia often featuring a Brit telephone kiosk for some reason. Irish ones too.  I went in and had a third of a pint of Murphys at R200 ( $ 6 ). That's the equivalent of about £12 a pint. Both food and drink are definitely NOT cheap in this town. The cheapest plate of grub, whatever it is, normally comes to about R400 ( $12 ).

Left: An interesting place to visit, but not economical to shop in, is the vast GUM store on the east side of Red Square. It has lots of 'designer' fashion and gizmo stores in three long three story high 'malls'. Magnificent architecture and all the top stuff on offer, at extortionate prices.

Right: Inside the GUM store; one of the three parallel malls. Very upmarket. I went in here to get something fixed on my computer which they! I was impressed.

On to the Victory Day celebrations. As said, the Ruskies celebrate above all else their glorious victory over Nazi Germany in WW2 in 1945. They have reason to do so because, largely thanks to Marshall Zhukov, and absolutely no thanks to Joe Stalin ( who was flapping madly at the time ), they saw off what might have been, and nearly was, a conquering German army which at one point was within 40 kms of Moscow. The problem as I see it with these celebrations is that they don't encompass any other military campaigns. The Russians like to celebrate victories and wish to forget their military failures. Considering the average age of the youngest soldier in 1945 is now about 84, there will not be many left soon to remember those days.

Lots of old comrades were seen walking around with all their medals, sometimes armour-plated chest-fulls of them. They didn't all appear to be as old as 84 to me. I think we in UK do better to 'remember' rather than 'celebrate' our military campaigns. Both the victories and, especially, the many military catastrophes for which we are equally renowned, and the soldiers who lost their lives therein.

Right: Even the youngsters dressed up for the occasion. I left the hotel at 8.30am to find a decent place to watch a bit of the parade which was due to arrive in Red Square at 10.00am. I had been told ( by an American Boeing aircraft engineer in a bar earlier...working on the B787s due to be delivered soon ) the thing came down Tverskaya Street, leading onto Red Square where it was, understandably, a ticket only performance. I duly followed lots of Russian families with their children armed with flags to wave and flowers to present to the veterans and soldiers in the parade. We were turned back at every road and side street. It was all zakrito. There must have been tens of thousands of police manning multiple barriers to prevent the public from getting near. OK, the Ruskies have suffered serious terrorist attacks in Moscow but I couldn't help feel that the authorities were treating their public with an arrogant contempt in not letting them near and worse, not bothering to tell anyone what was going on. They ( the Russian public ) asked the guards manning the barricades where they should go to watch. The answer was always an unsmiling shrug of the shoulders and "nye znayu". They, the Russian tax-payers, are presumably sponsoring this performance after all. They seemed to accept this rebuff with accustomed resignation.
Amongst others, after walking around and being turned away for about an hour, I eventually arrived back at the barriers along Arbat. We could stand in ranks here, waiting for what nobody seemed to know, with rather scruffy and shambolic police lining the road to keep us back. There were normal police with big hats and many what looked to me like riot police wearing an extremely naff blue and grey camouflage pattern combat suit plus baseball caps. Some had 'police' on the back of their jackets and some 'OMOH'. I have yet to discover what the OMOH stands for. They even succeeded in making the latest British military 'banana republic' outfit look vaguely respectful. These police thought nothing of wandering around in the middle of the road smoking cigarettes. I think, even nowadays, this sort of behaviour, in public, in a British police or military force would result in an enforced double-march to the guardroom. I was not impressed! Sometime just before 10.00am a few enormous black limos with flags flying went from right to left at great speed towards Red Square.

Left: At 11.00am a convoy of armoured vehicles approached from left to right. The police stamped out their cigarettes. This was, presumably, the military armour returning to wherever from Red Square.

Right: They started with Armoured Personnel Carriers ( APCs ). Some of the 'heads up' personnel in the vehicles were taking photos of the crowd and waving. Not very 'parade-like' behaviour. I suppose they were off-duty by now.

Left: Followed by tanks and self-propelled artillery pieces. I've long ago lost touch with what military hardware the Russians have in their arsenal. All the vehicles looked remarkably clean...and none belched black smoke or broke down. They deserve credit for that!

Right: Plus rockets.

Left:.....and bigger rockets.....

Right: ......and even bigger rockets.....

The whole thing was over by 11.20am. Then a fleet of orange coloured water spraying road sweepers, 30 of them, emerged from somewhere and proceeded to spray and sweep along the road. Anyone left along the side of the road ( i.e. me ) got their trousers, from the knee downwards, drenched. Not impressed again.

Towards evening Red Square and environs became less zakrito although there were still lots of security checks and baggage screening check-points in evidence on various streets. In fact there were food stalls plus music ( of the epic military Soviet victory genre ), Vera Lynne equivalents and groups such as this 'patriotic' choir ( left ) singing loudly over mega-watt loudspeakers all around the centre.

There was certainly a festive air about the place and still many ( right ) were dressed up in their WW2 finery.

Left: Even kindly old Joe Stalin made a temporary come-back. This young lad was probably whisked off to a gulag soon afterwards.

Right: The Square was reopened and was busy with locals having their photos taken with soldiers.

Left: The stands were still in place and almost concealed Lenin's mausoleum up against the Kremlin wall. If you remember, in the old days, the grim-faced Soviet hierarchy used to stand on top of this mausoleum to review the parade. No longer, although the red, white and blue stands looked a bit cheap and nasty to my eyes.

Right: The principle entrance to Red Square, the Resurrection Gate. The original was built in 1680 and knocked down by Stalin in 1931 because it impeded the entrance for big parades. Incredibly, it was completely rebuilt in 1995 as an exact replica of the original.

I hadn't realised that the Moscow city flag features St George and the Dragon. I haven't a clue why we English adopted George as our Patron Saint let alone Moscow!

More to come from Mockba because its a big place and there is much to see and do here. I will only be able to tickle the surface. In the meanwhile recovering from the parades, listening to the bands and hoping that things are not so 'zakrito' for my remaining time here.

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