Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Russia Letters Two


It is the end of Autumn  and returning to Moscow once more there is the sense that the city is preparing to huddle down in readiness for the  inevitable heavy snows of winter. The first snow has fallen and the city is dusted white. The snow is late in coming after weeks of clear, bright days. The haze from the burning peat fires on Moscow’s outskirts has lifted, the fires quenched no doubt by the recent rains and the freezing night air.  It will not take long before the snow is deep on both roof and street, like icing on a cake. The railings, often highly decorative, that run around roof-lines on city buildings are a testament to the amount of snow that falls.

I suspect that those who live with regular snowfalls are less entranced than those who do not. I have spent enough time in North America, facing knee-high drifts edged with black, slippery sludge to know that snow in Russia will be, as there, best seen from a distance. Apparently one of the worst things about it is that the snow narrows the already seriously over-crowded roads making travel by car  even more of a tedious crawl than it already is. I now know just how close you can get without touching the car next to you. I’m impressed.

But for now the sky beyond the pollution haze is pale blue and clear and the Moskva River flows past with an ease that will be denied it in the months to come. From our room on the 22nd floor of the Swissotel I can see huge barges, loaded with what looks like soil or sand, drifting past in stately procession; tiny boats that look for all the world like hastily constructed toys and almost empty cruise boats in need of a fresh coat of paint. It is not a busy river but it is a well used one, at least until the winter freeze arrives.

It’s easy to imagine Muscovites, stranded in the dirty belch of almost stationary traffic, looking wistfully at the open stretch of free-flowing water. On the other side of the hotel is a canal which follows the same gentle winding of the river through the heart of the crowded city which is home to more than ten million people.

The Moscow skyline which spreads around us in this, the southern part of the city, is a mix of solid, square shouldered apartment blocks, power stations with their belching cooling towers, brightly painted or gilded domes of churches and chapels, and, standing, sentinel, as they stretch into the distance, we can see most of the famous Seven Sisters …. the neo-Gothic towers built by Stalin as part of his dream that Russian architecture should make a statement in the world.

The seven buildings -- the White House (Bely Dom) at the end the Arbat; the Ukraina and Leningradskaya hotels; the residential buildings at Kudrinskaya Ploshchad (Kudrinsky Square), Kotelnicheskaya naberezhnaya (Kotelnicheska Embankment), and Krasniye Vorota; and the impressive Moscow State University on Sparrow Hills -- were constructed when the country lay in ruins, just after World War II. The goal was to create a symbol of Soviet power at the beginning of what came to be defined as the Cold War.

Photo: One of Stalin's Seven Sisters.

Stalin’s original plan, using the milky stone, was to construct one enormous building with a gigantic statue of Lenin sitting on top of it all. For whatever reason he changed his mind Muscovites can only be grateful because the Seven Sisters as they stand, grace the city and define the skyline, and are massive enough as individuals.  Plans for an eighth ‘sister’ never came to pass and the remaining stone was sent to Poland where a building constructed in the Stalin style, ironically, now marks the skyline of Warsaw.

Some say their construction was inspired by news of U.S. president Harry Truman laying the first stone for the United Nations building in New York, but, whatever the motivation, Stalin ordered the skyscrapers to be built in 1947, on the 800th anniversary of Moscow's founding.  Being a hands-on kind of guy, in pretty much every sense, Stalin was actively involved in the design of the buildings and it was he who insisted they have a central tower and spire. The spires are made of metallized glass in order to reflect the sunlight.

There’s a ‘Mordor’ air to these buildings despite the tiered, wedding-cake style of construction. And yet, even with the square-jawed severity of their form, they are gloriously beautiful, rising in a fantasy of pale stone toward a central tower and its glittering spire. At night, with arched galleries and pointed battlements lit, they stand guard across the city; a testament to the fact, that even from the depths of evil great beauty can arise. Perhaps it is this mix that is so quintessentially Russian. Or perhaps it is merely quintessentially human!

The grim, Soviet-era architecture certainly exists, but in central Moscow at least, it represents an occasional glimpse rather than an all-pervading presence. There is so much beautiful architecture in this city and it rarely fails to delight. Stalin’s contributions have been perhaps the most unexpected and I am not surprised that Stalinist architecture is experiencing something of a revival in Russia today. It is, in essence, a brilliant mix of severity and fantasy where rigid form embraces delicate beauty in an expression of creativity that echoes, in more disciplined form, the theological confections which are so much in evidence across Moskva.

I don’t think it is possible to tire of the fairy-tale beauty of Russia’s churches and chapels. No matter how often it is seen, St Basil’s in Red Square, infuses the imagination with fresh wonder. As you walk up to the gates, it rises, neatly fitted between the towers, a perfect image of crafted colour and grace. It looks, for all the world, like some giant’s lolly, set upon the cobbled stones between ‘licks.’ It is not large but it is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world and, like the Taj Mahal in India, once seen, can never be forgotten.

Whether it is the first time or the fifth or even the fiftieth I am sure, St Basil’s brings a slow-drawn breath of wonder to all who come upon it and an involuntary smile at the capacity for magic and beauty which dwells in the human spirit. It is also a reminder that not everything has to make sense, nor does everything need to be practical; it is enough to be merely heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Across the river from our hotel is the Novospassky Monastery, another theological confection, but one that has been sounded on a slightly more restrained note than St Basil’s. The blue domes denote that it is dedicated to Mary and the fact that there are three of them signifies the Holy Trinity. A larger gold dome, both in its colour and its singularity, is symbolic of Jesus. The smaller black dome represents submission and signifies a monastery. The tower that rises, candle-like, high above them all is intricately decorated in green, white and ochre.

It is said to be Moscow’s oldest, founded in the 12th century and has had a few moves in its long life. Ivan the Terrible transferred it to the Kremlin from its original site, where Danilov Monastery now stands, and then in 1490, it was move to its present site by Ivan III, from whence comes the name, New Monastery of the Saviour.

The Tartars leveled the original buildings so these structures only date from the 17th, a mere blip in the ‘eye’ of Russian history. As peaceful as it looks from a distance, and even now, in its generally empty corridors and courtyards, the monastery has had a rich and sometimes sinister history. It served the Bolsheviks as a concentration camp; the Communist secret police, the NKVD, as an archive; housed a furniture factory for a time; and became an alcoholics' rehabilitation centre before finally being returned to the church in 1991.

On bright days there is a sun-dappled peace and serenity to it, which, combined with a faded beauty, belies the misery that is no doubt locked within its stones. Even the pond, which spreads beyond the broad-shouldered battlement walls on the river side of the monastery, is peaceful in its shining stillness; looking more like a place for fishing, as it was for the early monks, than a watery grave, as it became during the purges of the 1930’s when the bodies of foreign Communists were dumped here after being shot.

On grey days, when it huddles behind fine mist and its circling of trees, it looks more ominous. You begin to understand why the Sun has been so often worshipped as a God, throughout history. Sunlight has the power to not only dispel the darkness of night, but the darkest of our thoughts. Black fear has flimsy hold on our imagination when the Sun shines brightly.

Our nearest metro station is Pavlavskeya and we are only two stops from Red Square, at Teatraskaya, on the green line. Compared to the stunning nature of many of Moscow's metro stations, our local is pretty pedestrian. This much of Moscow’s metro has  been mastered  at least, with these names in Cyrillic, imprinted on the brain. The metro, which is more of an underground rail line than a tube, is very fast and has been built, very, very, very far underground, as someone who is not particularly fond of heights, notices immediately. The escalators carry you down into the very depths; further even than the deepest London tube. There’s more than enough time on the way down or way up for lovers to embrace, children to misbehave and people to begin and complete conversations.

Photo: Komsomolovskeya metro is one of the many glorious metro stations in Moscow.

The metro stations are also enormous, most of them built in the style of underground palaces, although these days they present shabbier faces to the world. They are, however, still beautiful despite the grime which dresses the intricately carved marble and dusts the decorations made from semi-precious stones. The trains are also somewhat worn and tired looking but they are fast and efficient, transporting  millions of  people, across two hundred kilometers of track, every day.

People doze, read, or stare into the middle distance as the trains thunder through enormous tunnels, rattling and crashing along the rails  at steady speed. There seem to be fewer of the endlessly leggy Russian beauties underground, but then this is closer to Russian reality and for most of these people, the world of five-star hotels and fancy restaurants remains only in the imagination. But everyone looks healthy and well-fed, although I am reminded that this is Autumn, and these are faces that have not yet forgotten summer. Perhaps they grow more pallid as winter progresses.

I am fascinated with the shoes that are lined up in front of me. The Russians love pointy toes and with the women, the point is inevitably stretched. So much so that some of them look positively lethal. I reckon you could kill someone just as easily with the pointed toes as you could with the stiletto heels. So much for forcing us all to struggle with plastic knives on airline flights when Russian women in a bad mood are clearly a clear and present danger. The rush hour crush must be a nightmare although I guess there’s plenty of ‘toe’ to be stepped on before you actually reach a  real one!

Podiatrists must make a fortune, unless the obsession with pointy-toed shoes is slipped off when the wedding ring is slipped on and the women begin the inevitable ‘morph’ into babuschkadom. I still can’t work out how these ridiculously slender, incredibly tall and phenomenally beautiful Russian women turn into pink-cheeked, butterball babuschkas. When I asked a Russian friend how this happened he said: ‘Those ones don’t.’

‘But where are they?’I replied. He shrugged in the way that Russian men have. Maybe they all end up as mail-order brides and only the shorter, plumper, plainer ones stay around to become babuschkas. This could be my kind of country!


Winter is also great for the goddess bodied women of the world; there’s nothing that can’t be neatly buttoned up in a coat. By Russian standards it isn’t even really cold yet, but the coats are buttoned and the furs are out and my, my, the furs are gorgeous. Even plain women look divine in fur. Or maybe the fur is such a distraction that everything becomes something of a visually enticing blur. Or maybe the genetic memory switch is flicked and we are attracted because, quite simply, none of us would be here if our ancestors had not worn fur ‘coats.’ Not if any of your ancestors came from this part of the world that is.

And men wear fur coats too, and fur hats. It's winter wear in a place which gets extremely cold and there's a lot less political correctness in Russia and a great deal more pragmatism from what I can see.

But, looks aside, there’s another reason why fur is so popular here and that because you only have to put one on, even if it is a test run and you can’t afford to buy it, for reasons of economics or political correctness, to know that it is warmer than anything. Beyond the practicalities it is a delight to the senses.  
Interestingly, the world’s biggest fur producers are the ever so pragmatic Danes and the ever so fiscally conscious Americans. The ever so politically correct Canadians are in there as well.  Much of the fur used these days is farmed although some wild fur is still available from a number of countries including the US, Canada, Russia, China and, gulp, that parody, sorry, paragon, of virtue, New Zealand.

I can’t see the difference between farming animals for fur, food or footwear given that in every instance they end up dead. Sure minks are cute, but so are lambs and rabbits. More importantly, I think, is how animals are treated in the process and if it’s any consolation, a farmed mink gets a much, much, much better life than does a farmed chicken, or pig for that matter. And mink, like rabbits, have been more often than not classed as vermin.

Why, you may ask, do minks and other furry animals get it so good? Because contented, well-fed, healthy animals produce the best fur. As someone who has long believed it was unwise to eat the flesh of miserable animals or birds because, well, it can’t be very good for you, I can only say it seems logical to assume that if unhappy animals produce inferior fur then they also produce inferior meat. The difference is that it is easy to see the damage done with cruel fur farming practices in a way that it is not with cruel food farming practices.

You may gather, I’m with the Russians on this one, where the focus is  more on not freezing to death than the question of making use of fur from cute animals. There’s a reason why Russians wear those funny-looking fur hats and it’s called survival ….. or, making sure your ears don’t turn black and drop off.

We were seriously grateful for our funny fur hats the other night when we walked across the road to an Argentinian restaurant we had visited previously with a Russian colleague. Well, we did not walk across the road but under it, the ten and twelve lanes of traffic on the major Moscow roads, necessitating underpasses if anyone is to go anywhere and survive the experience. Sadly, there are too many  Russian pedestrians who do not.

On our first visit to Le Gaucho we stopped at a bar around the corner for a drink. It was decorated to look like an underground mine, and, on a Thursday night, was packed to the rafters in the same way that London pubs are crammed in the hours between finishing work and heading for the tube. The conversations may have been in Russian but the rest of it looked pretty much the same.

The Argentinian restaurant is a popular place every night of the week it seems and unless you have a booking, there can be a long, long wait with nothing much to do but drink vodka. The menu is, as one would expect, pretty much meat, meat and more meat, in that South American way. But they did have nice bread and good salad to go with it.

The gourmet platter, which was ordered for us the first time we went, was pretty much what it said on the menu: Guts and udder.  It took me a while to identify the udder as the calamari like slices threaded onto a skewer. The kidney, liver, tongue and sweetbread looked just as they did when they started out in the now extinct animal, except for the charred stamp of the barbecue hotplate.

It was interesting, it was novel and it was pretty much tasty but we did not finish it. On the second visit, ordering for ourselves, we decided that one serve of assorted offal is probably enough, and so we opted for steak, only to find that what we got was …… you guessed it, Guts again! Either my finger slipped when pointing to the menu or it’s a joke the kitchen likes to play on crazy foreigners.

Despite the fact that there were enough staff around with more than passable English we decided to take what we had been given and get on with eating it …. perhaps with a little extra salt, something that is easy to do in Russia because here, the salt shaker is always the one with the two, three or four holes, while pepper, is in the pot with one hole.

It’s a trivial observation but it fascinates me all the same. No doubt when you inhabit the ‘skirts’ of the Arctic salted food is something of a staple, or at least was, and the taste for salt that much greater.

Needless to say the vodka we drank, while perched up at the bar, waiting for a table, and an excellent bottle of Penfolds 389 with the meal, made even the Guts Gourmet Platter more enticing that it may have otherwise been second time around. I’m beginning to see the attractions of vodka! You may need guts to drink vodka but you definitely need vodka to eat guts.

It’s an amazing world. There we are, in an Argentinian restaurant, in the middle of Moscow, drinking Australian wine and eating Argentinian, and yes, Australian meat. The Argentinians, who are serious about their meat, clearly consider Aussie meat to be the next best thing. Russian beef, so I have read, is stringy!

What is good here though is fish.  Sturgeon, something of a national fish for all sorts of reasons that caviar-lovers understand, has a texture akin to pork and a mild taste in fish terms.  It is traditionally served boiled and is absolutely delicious, served in firm, meaty slices with vegetables. 

The caviar is of course wonderful and much cheaper than elsewhere. Although over-fishing  and poaching now have the sturgeon under threat and caviar may well go the way of such ancient delicacies as char-grilled mammoth ears if something is not done. I know which would be the greater loss and the more reprehensible given that mammoths were done in by an ‘act of nature’  (in other words God’s fault) and the sturgeon face the threat of being done in by  human acts AGAINST nature deriving from greed on the part of those with power and desperation on the part of those without power.(In other words, our fault)

But the evil twins of desperation and greed have long been with us and remain so, in too many respects, in Russia today, as the locals will tell you even if you don’t ask.  Hopefully though there are better days ahead, both for fish and humans.


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