26 January 2016

Russian winter

For the second time, I extended my Moscow visit by a day, on this occasion so that I could see some of the sights. Unfortunately, two days in the preceding week that had to be devoted to obtaining the necessary visa meant that I really didn't have the time I needed to enjoy myself in Moscow, but as I was booked on an evening flight I had little choice - I suppose I could have found a convenient place to hang out with wifi and got on with some work ...

I began the day with some work, and a late-ish breakfast. I thought about going to the minus-second floor of the Petr I and using the pool and fitness room (and I bet there is a sauna too) but that was as far as it went. I packed my bags and left them in the hotel's baggage room to collect about 3.30pm, which I reckoned would give me plenty of time to get to the airport to check in for my 6.15 flight - how did I work that out, I wonder?

Bolshoi Theatre
Lubyanka
My first goal was Red Square, as the whole purpose of staying for a Monday (as opposed to arriving early on a Friday for some sightseeing) was to go to Lenin's Mausoleum, which I had established is closed on Fridays. So I crossed Revolution Square, marvelling at how slippery Russian snow isn't compared with English stuff, and then found a way through some charming back streets and old buildings to Nicolskaya, a street of designer shops that puts Regent Street to shame, and which takes you to Red Square (between that cathedral of consumerism GUM and the rebuilt Kazan Cathedral, which apparently had been destroyed in Stalin's time).


Revolution Square

Kazan Cathedral
 Red Square has a sort of Christmas Market going on. Of course Russian Christmas is later than ours, but even so it was surprising to see so many Christmas trees and other seasonal stuff still in evidence - but someone explained to me that it is not uncommon to visit someone as late as March and find their home still decorated for Christmas: and if Christmas was arbitrarily set in the darkest time of the year, to provide an excuse for something to lighten the mood, you can understand why Russians might wish to string it out as long as possible. Daria had said I might like to visit the Christmasa market - but it didn't look exactly bustling, and seemed from outside more like an amusement park than what I understand by the expression - reminiscent of Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, the very idea of which appalls me.

Red Square was cordoned off behind a crowd barrier, and two militia men were examining people's bags before allowing them through. I had no bag, and they didn't need to check what was in the cavernous pockets of my ski jacket, so I walked through and across the cobblestones, marvelling at who and what must have passed over them in the past. Of course they might be recent cobblestones, but even so - do they easily take the weight of one of those new Russian tanks, the sort that broke down during rehearsals for last year's May Day parade?

The Mausoleum was, of course, closed. It evidently does not open on Mondays either. When it does open, there is a three-hour window which is why I'd turned up shortly after ten, but if it's closed all day that doesn't actually help does it? When I am in Moscow I feel the history all around me, but I don't seem to be able to get close to some of it.

Eschewing the State Historical Museum (which I must go to one day) and the museum of the war of 1812 (ditto), I headed for Tverskaya, thinking I was looking for no 8 which turned out to house a bookshop in one window of which was a display dedicated to what seemed to be a new biography of Visotskiy - a guitar (the guitar? I doubt it, though I probably saw that at the Taganka theatre five years ago) leaning against a chair, a microphone on a stand, and a bookcase piled high with copies of the book. But perhaps it was merely that today happened to be his birthday - a fact that had escaped me until Ruslan pointed it out, after I was back home.

I consulted the scrap of paper on which I had noted down the important information for my day at large in Moscow, and found that I had overshot - I should have stopped at number 6. Lonely Planet told me I was looking for a nondescript security door in the courtyard. At the entrance, a car trying to gain access despite the "no entry" signs was involved in a standoff with a much larger commercial vehicle attempting to come out, so I walked through the jam and there to the left was just the door I was looking for, beneath a sign reading (in Cyrillic) Transylvania, accompanied by a stylised illustration of a vampire bat.

I opened the door (there was a notice, incomprehensible to me, in Russian on it, but as I couldn't do what it told me, if indeed it told  me to do something, I took the risk that it wasn't anything serious) and found myself at the top of a flight of stairs leading down to a Soviet-style cash desk behind which sat a Soviet-style impassive woman. Russians, particularly those who grew up in the Soviet Union, strike me as a very impassive people. Beneath the surface they are warm and friendly, but they seem to have acquired an outer persona which gives nothing away and allows nothing in. It is not hard to understand why.

Passing a rack of what seem to be music-related postcards - no Mashina Vremeni, but the Putin-supporting Valeriya was in evidence - I descended into the shop. It comprised several rooms, crammed with CDs and vinyl from floor to ceiling. Below the shelves along the walls were drawers which, when pulled out, were also filled with CDs. I have never seen a record shop like it.

I quickly found the Visotskiy section, but my brain was suffering a bit of Cyrillic overload and I didn't pause long to examine the CDs. Thinking to explore the rest of the shop, and to find some Mashina Vremeni CDs, I wandered through rooms devoted to several different types of Metal, blues, rock-and-roll, jazz, another genre that evidently includes Cliff Richard because there was a boxed set of his works, and much more. The classical section, perhaps just as well, appeared to be closed, with a chair blocking the doorway. Steve Hillage caught my eye, and Kevin Coyne and Siren, then a whole section of King Crimson alongside The Beatles and the Rolling Stones (Crimso might find that rather flattering). And in the far corner, filed away (I think) alphabetically, the first four Stackridge albums - the American CDs. Amazing. I thought about taking a photo to prove it, but refrained. In any event, to enhance the Soviet-style shopping experience, one of the assistants was following me. He might not have worried about photography, but I didn't want to get into an argument which would be made immensely more complicated by mutual incomprehension.

Instead, I asked him whether he spoke English - my most-used piece of Russian, of course. His response suggested that he thinks he does, a little, but he was wrong: my Russian is better. "Mashina Vremeni?" I ask him, and he leads me back to the cash desk. It turns out that Russia's most successful rock band is filed away just across the gangway from Russia's most popular bard - indeed, at one time at least, her most popular man, of any calling.

My new acquaintance started pulling out Mashina Vremeni CDs and placing them, for my perusal or perhaps for me just to buy, on the cash desk. Before long there were about 20, and I notice that this doesn't even include Reki i Mosti. Then he started producing Andrei Makarevich's solo work - and, who knows, given time he might have got onto Margulis's and Kutikov's solo albums too. I looked politely though the second pile of about 20 CDs, then consulted the price list. Each CD carries a code number, like greetings cards in English shops, so I had to match them against a list on the wall. The range was extraordinary. Some of the classic MV CDs - Part Time Commander of the Earth, Good Slow Music - were about the full price you'd find in a London record shop, although allowing for the cut-price rouble that's actually about twice London prices (I wonder how much they were on sale for at the Palladium in December, when I didn't even get to see the merchandise stand?). Mashiny ne parkovat was 750 roubles, which seemed about right, so I chose it - and it opens with one of my favourite songs. As for what else is on it, the album-art Cyrillic script is particularly hard to decipher, so I took my chances with it. The cashier rings it up before I can communicate that I haven't finished yet: but as I was the only customer in the shop, I guessed it was not a problem.

Then on to Vladimir Visotskiy. I wanted some help, but my shadow had gone: when he reappeared I was holding a double CD of VV's war songs, and he managed to convey to me that this might not be what I was looking for. (I had spotted the word "воина".) But what did I want? I've since learnt that Gorbachov authorised the release of a complete edition of VV's recordings, which appeared in 20 volumes, and there appeared to be many if not all of them here. I could have done with a "greatest hits", but there didn't appear to be one. I ended up with a single CD entitled "monologues" (the opening track being a song I know - "я знаю", I tell him - and love) - live, with lengthy spoken introductions which I will struggle with for a long time - and a double the title of which translates as "on the big wagon" (something that the artist never was, it now occurs to me). The prices were very reasonable, so I added them for less than the price of one Mashina Vremeni album.

And I suppose that when you don't really know what you're buying, so long as it's the right artist it doesn't matter which CDs you choose.

I walked back to Teatralnaya and, with one change, headed to Shabalovskaya, one stop further out from Oktyabrskaya with which I had become so familiar. It's not really very far from downtown Moscow - the next station is Leninsky Prospekt, which is still pretty central - but the feel is very different. This is definitely suburban Moscow, all blocks of flats and ordinary, day-to-day shops rather than offices and public buildings. Lonely Planet told me to head south on Shabalovka, but street names were again hard to find - strange, because usually in Moscow there are plenty - then take the first right. It said five minutes, I think, but perhaps the snow made me slower: however, soon I found myself outside the formidable and clearly ancient brick walls of the Donskoy (no, spellchecker, not Donkey) monastery. I had to walk round much of the wall, past crumbling brick towers, before I reached the entrance, and the passage leading into the monastery was covered with a fantastic array of frescoes and script. How do they survive in this climate?

Inside the fortified walls, it's like a religious city. Monasteries were clearly much more than religious houses in medieval Russia. The Donskoy commanded a major route into the city, at a time (1591) when there was a real danger of invasion - not that Russia has ever really been free from the danger of invasion, or actual invasions. There's a cathedral, and as if that isn't enough there's also the New (or Great) Cathedral - and all this in an enclosed space in suburban Moscow! I passed a grocery shop - продукты - and it looked as if the monks are the producers not the customers.

As I was here to see a grave, I sought out the burial plots - and there are several. (I later learned that there are also a couple of large pits containing the cremated remains of victims of Stalin's purges.) Consulting a sign which directs visitors to the graves of famous people (conveniently arranged so that I had to stand in a snowdrift, although it turned out that the same plan is posted in each different plot so I didn't actually have to look at this one), I discovered that the one I am looking for is not mentioned. In fact, few dates from the 20th century appeared in the long list. So I walked around, relishing the tranquillity of the place, and marvelling at the way the pathways have been cleared only for part of their length, so I found myself having to plodge through deep snow from time to time.

Still I couldn't find my goal, and I had expected it to be pretty prominent. I asked a lady in a fur coat (well, most of the ladies I saw were in fur coats, and so were many of the men). "Sorry", she replied, with a rather Gallic shrug, taking me somewhat aback - Natalia's advice about not asking babushkas for directions because they would be unlikely to speak English being not disproved but certainly shown to be valid only up to a point. So I approached the uniformed man in the glass booth in the middle of the compound - it occurs to me that there are glass booths containing a uniformed person all over the place in Moscow, on the street, at the bottom of escalators on the Metro, and evidently in monasteries. In answer to my opening gambit he admitted to no knowledge of English, but at the mention of a name he indicated with hand gestures that I should either go round to the back of the Great Cathedral, passing it on the right hand side: or alternatively that I should go through it, which seemed less likely.

I met my fur-clad interlocutor again, and with hand signals, shrugs and odd words indicate that I have received directions, and off I went. In no time I spot what I am looking for, distinguished only by the photograph of the occupant and the extra space around it.
Solzhenitsyn's grave
 The notice I had seen near the entrance was only in Russian, so I had not been able to ascertain whether it meant that photography was permitted or forbidden, but the word не did not appear and there was no line through the illustration of a camera so I thought a photograph would be allowed. Anyway there was no-one watching - as far as I could tell ...

After that I headed off to the Metro station again, nodding gratefully as I passed the glass booth, the occupant of which acknowledged my thanks. I added an extra change to my journey to Arbatskaya, because I got off the first train at Oktyabrskaya and had to catch the next one to go an additional stop - or so I thought, though looking now at the Metro map I can't work out how I made the journey. Having already visited Moscow's best record shop, I wanted to go to its best bookshop, despite the fact that it would be full of things that I would not be able to understand very much. Dom Knigi was easily found on Novie Arbat, opposite Tarantino, the restaurant I'd been to with the students last year, and turned out to be a wonderful bookshop like big English ones - not at all the Soviet-style shopping experience I'd had earlier or seen in Russian Language and People on the BBC back in 1980, and with which I'd once been familiar at Foyle's.

Fiction was on the first floor (or second floor, in Russia) and there I found banks of paperback editions of classic literature. I didn't want Воина и Мир, which is long enough in translation, or Доктор Живаго even though the author's near-namesake was very much on my mind... Again I struggled with Cyrillic alphabetical order, before realising that finding Tolstoy (dead easy: many very fat books to look for) then working back would easily lead me to what I wanted.

The illustration on the cover identified Cancer Ward for me. The Gulag Archipelago was in a different section. The First Circle I could spot easily. But I still had to go to another bookcase altogether before I came across a copy of Один день Ивана Денисовича - only 165 roubles, and it contains four other stories too including Matryona's House which I remembered reading long ago. I might stand a chance of getting through something of that size in Russian, and anyway it makes a fantastic and very reasonably-priced souvenir and it's nice to have bought it in what was the top bookshop in the Soviet Union, even though that state disappeared so long ago.

Old Arbat is a part of Moscow I'd wanted to see - I remember a scene from Доктор Живаго being set there, perhaps in this very (extraordinary) building.
But Arbat Street itself is about as authentic as Oxford Street. Fortunately touristy souvenirs were something I wanted, so I spent some of my remaining roubles on scarves and some more on fridge magnets for my colleagues - an exercise in British irony, aided by the Russian variety which has caused the creation of a range of fridge magnets depicting their president in various guises (one in typically macho pose with the slogan, if I have understood correctly, "make my day" in Russian), and more showing Lenin or Stalin. I selected five, and the assistant pointed out that their special offer meant I could have another for nothing, or another 100 roubles (which is not very much more than nothing), so I picked up one showing Yuri Gagarin, placed it with Putin, Stalin and Lenin in the basket she had brought for my selection, and said "поехали!". To my delight she laughed. It is immensely satisfying successfully to make a joke in a foreign language.

I regained the Peter I by about 3.30, having returned to Arbatskaya metro station thinking to take the blue line to Biblioteka Imeni Lenina (Lenin's Library) and there changing to the red line. Well, I did that, but without having to take the blue line at all. Both stations (and more!) formed what in London would be considered a single station, connected underground, so all I had to do was follow the signs and walk. And to think that when we dined at Tarantino I followed Tim's directions to Smolenskaya, changing from red to blue at Biblioteca Imeni Lenina to get there, then walked back a long way!

In other circumstances (less snow) I might have walked back to the hotel and enjoyed Alexandrovsky Sad, but gardens are not at their best when snow-covered so the Metro to Teatralnaya/Okhotny Ryad/Ploshad Revolutsii (another multiple station) was the better choice. I collected my bags, used the facilities and headed back to the triple Metro station. My bag had to go through a scanner at the insistence of a bunch of very friendly security guards - you don't get them like this in other countries, I'm sure - and then I arrived at Paveletskaya where it seemed the aeroexpress has recently departed and it would be 20-something minutes before the next one. It never struck me that I should check train times to the airport - I assumed they'd be every ten or fifteen minutes. I occupied the time with a cup of coffee (Americano, having learned a lesson about cappuccino with UHT milk at the Tretyakov's café on Friday) and a muffin, having eaten nothing since breakfast. By the time we reached Domodedovo I had less than an hour before the flight was due to leave - fortunately with so few people able, or wanting, to travel between Moscow and London, check-in, passport control and security were almost deserted.
Paveletskiy Voksal. Somehow the typeface is just right.

On the plane I completed the FT weekend crossword before we reached Kaliningrad, including making up a hand-drawn grid.


Here's a pertinent song by Hungary's most successful rock group (yes, really), Omega:

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