Tuesday, 15 May 2012

MOSCOW - RUSSIA ( Part 2 )

10th - 11th May 2012

Two old chums resurrected for the day
What I hadn't realised until reading some press reports was that there had been quite a lot of 'anti-Putin' demos and even mini-riots in Moscow over the past few days involving a lot of arrests and some injuries. Also lots of demonstrators from other parts of Russia were stopped from entering the city. There is obviously a quite an upswell of dissatisfaction over what is considered a 'grossly flawed' re-election and self-inauguration of Vlad the Lad and the subsequent re-appointment of his little finger-puppet Dmitri as Prime Minister. This 'Mutt and Jeff' act is not going down too well with the Russian public. Personally I saw no evidence of any demos, but it explains the enormous number of police and 'OMOH', which I now recognise as the riot squad equivalent ( OMOH, or OMON in our script, will stand for some impossibly long Russian title ) who blocked off so many streets and had many armoured anti-riot vehicles stationed about the place.  The authorities were taking no chances of losing control, or even allowing demos to take place. It will be interesting to see if this dissatisfaction gathers momentum or has been effectively quashed by a typically Soviet style heavy handed clamp-down.
Apart from that, and it only affected me because I walked so far to no avail not to see much of the parade, my touristing continued.
I set off in good time on the morning of Thursday 10th to visit the third of the communist waxworks lying in state, Comrade Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, ne Ulyanov. I felt, having waved at Ho Chi Minh and Mao, that I should take the opportunity to do the same to this old relic. The notice board proclaimed that he is available to visitors on all days except Tuesdays and Fridays ( when he is given a bit of a re-waxing and a touch up ) between 10.00am and 1.00pm. Imagine my disappointment when, on arriving at the mausoleum at 10.15am, I was told it was f*****g zakrito! "When would it be open again?" I asked. "Nye znayu" was the typical and expected answer from a rather sullen female guard on duty. OK, they were still packing up the stands from the parade but why on earth did they not have the nouse to put up a sign informing tourists of closure dates? Because they are Russian and don't care, that's why! They have a long way to go to get up to speed in dealing with visitors, if indeed they ever want to.

I met up with a friend of my sister, Vera, who is Russian but married to an Englishman with children at school and work in UK. I was entertained to an excellent lunch at the Cafe Margarita by the side of the Patriarchy Ponds ( left ), not far from my hotel. It is a smart residential area which, apparently, features in a well known book called The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. I have not read it or, before now, even heard of it. Sorry, but I have no literary pretensions.

Vera ( right, with extraordinary marble staircase ) then took me to the villa once inhabited, until his death, by Maxim Gorky the revolutionary writer favoured by Stalin. Gorky was installed here with his family after being persuaded to return from voluntary exile in Italy. I must confess to not being an avid reader of any of Comrade Gorky's heavy tomes either. It was most certainly an interesting house/museum, designed and built by a wealthy merchant pre-revolution in an ostentatious 'art-nouveau' style...I was told. It contains Gorky's rooms and belongings much as he left them. Thanks, Vera, for all your hospitality and patient education.

Left: A view of the southern end of the Kremlin wall along the Moscow River. There are lots of boat trips up and down the river which I didn't have time to do. It was soon apparent that, like many large capital cities, you could spend months here and still not visit all the things on offer. I mean I have lived in London and still not visited the Tower of London, or seen The Mousetrap, or been inside Buckingham Palace etc. etc. In fact I suspect tourists manage to do more than residents for whom there is always 'tomorrow'.

The Kremlin is closed to visitors on Thursdays, so on Friday I prepared to devote most of the day to this place. The purchase of tickets is not straightforward, or cheap. It costs R350 just to get inside, plus another R700 to visit the Armoury museum but you have to buy this no more than 45 minutes before three specific entry times, and you pay separately, another R500 if you want to see inside the Jewel Fund museum in the same building. Then you can pay another R500 to go up Ivan the Great Bell Tower, and that is at fixed times also. No cameras allowed inside the Jewel Fund place or the Armoury museum. That makes a total of R2050 ( $70 ) to see what's on offer. I persevered; only here once, after all.

Right: The main public entrance towards Trinity Gate Tower.

Left: Just inside is the enormous glass and concrete State Kremlin Palace, originally built in the 1960s to house Communist Party Congresses. It is now a concert and ballet auditorium. Another Soviet monstrosity.

Right: To the right of that, as you look, is the Arsenal building, surrounded by 80 captured Napoleonic cannon. This building contains some official offices and is out of bounds ( OOB ) to the public. If you stray towards an OOB area a security guard blows a whistle at you. If you are a deaf tourist I am not sure what would happen if you didn't react. Maybe a warning shot...which you might not hear either.

Left: The Tsar cannon, cast in 1586, and which was never fired. The enormous cannon balls ( replicas I suppose ) are too large to fit down the barrel anyway.

Right: The Tsar Bell, cast in 1737 for some Empress or other. It would have weighed in at 202 tonnes, but while being cooled off after casting some water got in and an 11 tonne 'chip' broke off. Consequently it never rang. It is bigger, by far, than that other monster ( 80 tonne? ) bell near Mandalay, Burma, but as it never rang, and is broken, it doesn't count as a bell. A good try, nevertheless.

Left: The Ivan the Great Bell Tower. There are tours at set times ( R500 ) which take you up to the top and from where you can get great photos of the Kremlin, I was told.  On the day I visited it was zakrito. I didn't bother to ask why, or when it would be open. A pointless exercise, as I have come to realise.
Getting information about anything in this city as a non-Russian speaker is not easy unless, I suppose, you are on an official guided tour. There are relatively few locals or officials willing or able to speak English, no tourist information desks about the place or notices indicating anything other than 'zakrito', and often not even that. The only noticeable communication is via whistles to keep you on the approved route ( unless you are deaf, that is ).

Right: The other side of Cathedral Square which contained several ornate and golden be-domed churches. These were free of charge to enter, which in itself made them fairly unique.

Left: The entrance to the Great Kremlin Palace ( as opposed to the State Kremlin Palace mentioned earlier ) which is now the official residence of the President and used for State Visits and Receptions ( i.e. Vlad's inauguration bash...oceans of the finest champagne and tons of lobster and caviar etc. for invited cronies including Silvio Berlusconi and many other wealthy gangsters no doubt ). OOB to the public.

Right: The Senate building which, I was told, contains the Offices of the President, although I thought he had his office in a totally different building; the White House. No doubt someone will correct me. The building to the right is, I think, what was The Supreme Soviet. Is it their equivalent of Parliament? In any event it covers a large area and the outside wall is just a facade with trompe l'oeil windows and decorations. All OOB.

Left: The Poteshny Palace, just inside the main Trinity entrance, is where Mr Stalin lived when in Town.

I made a point of visiting the Jewel Fund Exhibition. It is quite amazing, with some enormous diamonds, the biggest emerald in the world, extravagant Imperial jewellery and crowns, vast chunks of gold and platinum. I suppose it is the equivalent of the Crown Jewels and Royal Insignia in the Tower of London with much added bling.
I then went into the Armoury Museum. Again, this is quite a spectacular collection of imperial artefacts, clothes, ancient weaponry, precious tableware and valuable official gifts from heads of state. It includes the collection of the extraordinary Faberge eggs which Tsar and Tsarina traditionally exchanged as gifts at Easter. They have to be seen to be believed. There is amongst all the precious stuff on display vast quantities of silverware. Some of the pieces, silver and gold table decorations, are so enormous ( 6 ft high, or taller in many cases ) and elaborate that they make the sort of silverware with which we proudly used to decorate our Regimental Dinner table look like baubles out of a Christmas cracker. There are even enormous silver flagons and plates presented to the Tsar of the day by Charles 11 of England. It really is quite a jaw-dropping collection. No photos allowed, so you will have to go and see it all for yourself.

Right: After all this I went up the outside wall of the Kremlin to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where burns an 'eternal' flame and is guarded by reasonably well turned out soldiers.

Left: They perform their 'changing the guard' ceremony on the hour every hour. It has a resemblance to that performance the American Marines do at Arlington Cemetery, without sunglasses. Not bad drill, but nothing that would impress a British guardsman.

Right: ...and the old guard goose-stepping off at the end. I thought their boots could do with a bit more polish.

Left: Red Square was getting back to normal. The stands were being taken down and Lenin's mausoleum was again revealed ( if still zakrito ).

Right: Looking down the Square from the main entrance to Basil's Cathedral at t'other end. GUM department store on the left, Kremlin on the right.
Talking of which, does anyone know what happened to the great Rev Basil Pratt? He was a star Padre who threw a mighty left hook. Not a vicar to be messed with, I seem to remember from personal painful experience. Muscular Christianity at it's best.

Left: Several characters were dressed up in 'traditional' garb with the intention, I suppose, of having their photos taken next to some obliging passer by, for a fee. I'm not entirely sure who they were trying to represent and I didn't get close enough to ask....and they probably wouldn't speak English anyway. Was this one Marie-Antoinette, one of the Tsarinas or maybe Dolly Parton.

Right: ...and these two were supposed to be standing outside a souvenir/gift shop but they had snuck away for a crafty fag.
Talking of impersonators, I went to a bar in which there was a chap who looked the spitting image of Lenin. He was dressed up accordingly and playing on it. He was giving impassioned speeches and taking several drinks of vodka off sympathetic and amused listeners. It was just a matter of time; his speeches became less and less coherent, and he eventually succumbed. When I left Lenin was slumped unconscious over a table. It reminded me of the late, great Michael Bentine doing his 'Bessarabian Ambassador' MC routine....and if you haven't heard that you should look it up onYouTube.

Left: These kiosks were everywhere; on railway platforms and streets. They were notable, to me, because they all had just a tiny hatch/window through which you had to make your purchase. For someone who doesn't speak Ruski it made selecting and explaining to the Babushka inside what you wanted very difficult. They must have become the norm when everyone stole anything that wasn't shut away.

Right: Just north of the Red Square/Kremlin area and up past the Bolshoi Theatre is this place; The Lubyanka, on Lubyaskaya Place. This was the HQ building of the KGB and to which, in Stalin's days, a visit was not something that you particularly looked forward to. It was often a one way journey. It is now, presumably, the HQ of whatever has replaced the KGB. When I got there it was, as far as I could tell, zakrito. They were probably all out trying to arrest anti-Putin demonstrators.
Not long enough, perhaps, spent in Moscow but other places to get to. I enjoyed my visit here and it was all very educational. I suspect I saw the place at an unusual time because of the inauguration, Victory Parade and the shenanigans involving the nervous authorities and so many things being 'zakrito'. Definitely a city worth visiting.
Onwards and upwards to St Petersburg.

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