Behind the Iron Curtain - My Trip to the Soviet Union, Touring Moscow

The next thing I heard was the beeping from my alarm clock. It has one of those annoying electric beeps that grates on your nerves after a beep or two. The clock was on Jason’s side of the table that rested between our beds. Too lazy to get up and turn it off myself, I waited for Jason to become annoyed by the alarm and turn it off himself. Unfortunately, we broke out into an all-out war of apathy that morning neither of us moved for a while. Finally, after about 30 seconds, my annoyance reaching the breaking point, I got up to have a shower.

I don’t know exactly when Jason woke up, he turned the alarm off while I was bathing. At least I knew he was awake. There’s nothing worse than trying to get a roommate out of bed when they don’t want to move. (That’s why I left the alarm on.) But even when I had finished washing some ten minutes later, Jason was still sprawled out on his bed. It looked as if he had actually risen to his feet, only to lose his balance and fall backwards onto his mattress.

After a few minutes of bugging him, Jason finally rose to a semi-vertical position, and proceeded to prepare for the day ahead. We dressed quickly, not wanting to be any later for breakfast than we already were. The previous night’s nonchalance for dinner had passed, and our bodies were adjusting to the new time zone. To put it succinctly, we were hungry. We could even bear to look at fish.

Most of the group had already started eating by the time we arrived, only steps behind Pete and Derek. Despite the aforementioned claim that even fish would have looked appealing, we were ecstatic to find none displayed at the table. Cold cut meat and cheese was neatly arranged on plates, awaiting consumption. Normally, it’s not the kind of thing I would partake of first thing in the morning, but all things considered, it wasn’t that bad. The cheese I particularly liked, it tasted like a combination of mozzarella and cheddar (I’m told it was goat cheese).

The main dish was some sort of quiche, as near as I can tell. It was made of eggs and cheese, that much we could tell, and what appeared to be dates, although I’m not too sure. (I don’t know what it is with Soviets and prunes, but we saw an awful lot of them while we were there.) I ate what I could, not finding the dish all too palatable, eating mostly around the dates. What little I did end up eating gave me gas — of the abdominal variety.

Following our morning repast, we quickly returned to our rooms for supplies: Walkmans, music, cameras, and film the four essential components of any tour. A quickly glance out the window necessitated the bringing of coats and umbrellas. It wasn’t raining, yet, but the weather wasn’t looking too cooperative. (We would see very little sunshine during our stay in Moscow. ) A heavy drizzle had started by the time we ventured outside.

We all filed into our solitary bus, which would ferry us to downtown Moscow. Unfortunately, the bus had too few seats for all 46 of us, even when Greg (grudgingly) let others sit in the rear with him. The buses, like everything else we traveled in, was built in the Soviet Union. The buses were thus moderately comfortable. I certainly wouldn’t want to take a cross-country trip in one of them.

That morning we met our Intourist guide, Marina. I was expecting either some crusty old man, or a very large and loud woman. Marina was the antithesis of every preconception I had. She, like Suzanna, was very beautiful, had a wonderful speaking voice, was a pleasure to be around, and not once did she intimidate anyone. The trip would probably have been a great deal worse if we had a guide that fell into my expectations.

The trip downtown from our floating hotel was about as long as the trip from the airport, and we were still moving in a straight line, down what I believe was Gorky Prospket (I believe “prospekt” is Russian for “street”, although I’m not 100% certain). As we drove, Marina started to fill in some information about Moscow and its history. As the monuments began to appear, Marina directed our attention to each and every one of them. (For the record, it seems that the Soviets don’t erect a monument unless said cenotaph is of major importance.)

The first such monument were huge concrete X’s (but with legs in the X, Y, and Z dimension). They mark the closest the Nazis ever got to downtown Moscow during World War II. If it hadn’t been for the winter, which Hitler hadn’t counted on having to fight through (somehow, Hitler forgot what the Germans had to go through in World War I when dealing with the Russians), Nazi tanks would have probably rolled through Red Square. But the fierce Russian winter, combined with Soviet defensive fanaticism, kept the Nazis at bay until the snow began to fall.

Further along the highway, a large stainless steel sculpture dedicated to Soviet cosmonauts graced the side of the road. It was about 100 feet tall, and shaped like an arc of stylised smoke swooping from the ground skyward, with a rocket at the top.

When we reached the “downtown” (which was still huge), we started passing huge statues of Tolstoy, Marx, Puskin, and several prominent members of the Soviet military. I’ve heard of putting people on a pedestal, but this was ridiculous.

The War Museum appeared moments later. At the front were huge guns and a tank from what looked like World War II. I couldn’t help but remind myself that for all the Soviets tried, they could never dispel the view that the Soviet Union is a militaristic state. Given, they’re not as bad as the United States of America (who will start a fight for no other reason than it gets the President good publicity), but considering the general lack of freedoms that exist in the Soviet Union, a strong military presence tends to give you the shivers.

Last on our trip down Gorky Street before turning off was the famous Bolshoi Theater. In North America, a theatre of such fame would bear a large sign, most likely with bright blinking lights. If Marina had not pointed the building out to us, we’d never have known it was there. There was nothing remarkable about the structure, except for its Doric columns, which of itself wasn’t terribly remarkable, as a few other buildings in the area had them as well.

We then made a right turn into probably the largest intersection I had ever seen in my life. It looked like on of the massive yards used by Ford Canada to store finished vehicles prior to shipping. The only difference here was the lack of vehicles. (This was something that amazed me as a whole throughout our trip the lack of traffic. Living near Toronto, I’m familiar with how bad traffic can get. It was to the point where I expected it. To be driving in a city several times the size and population of Toronto and see almost no vehicular traffic was something of a culture shock.)

So undoubtedly you want to know: Why was that intersection so large? That’s as good a question as any. As near as I can figure, it was so May Day parades had a place to stage their show before replaying it in front of a lot of people.

We sped through the intersection and on around the Kremlin wall. Marina didn’t mention too much about the Kremlin at the time (other than the fact that “kremlin” is the Russian word for “fortress”), mostly because it was on our tourist agenda. As we continued along towards Moscow University, we passed by the “largest outdoor swimming pool in Europe”, which was steaming from the heat of the water and the coolness of the surrounding air. We also saw the site for the Moscow Circus. Unfortunately, it was on tour at the time, so it was one spectacle we would not get to see. (Ironically, the Moscow Circus was visiting Toronto during the time we were in Moscow.)

We finally came to a stop just outside a large important-looking cemetery. According to Marina, many famous Soviets, including high-ranking government officials, military leaders, celebrated writers and composers, and athletes were buried there. I somehow doubted that anyone would find any peasant farmers within. No matter how much the Soviets tried to extol their classless system, hierarchy always worked its way back in.

But we were not here to visit dead people, that would be later. We were here to bolster Russia’s economy. We were taken into a Berioska Shop, which is a hard currency (meaning any currency other than rubles, and preferably US dollars), tourist-only store. Like any tourist-targeted store anywhere else in the world, you could buy things that most locals wouldn’t be caught dead with. It was supposedly the second largest such store in the Soviet Union, with only one larger in Leningrad.

We went into many Berioska Shops, but few (if any) of us realized the significance behind shopping in these stores. The Soviet Union’s economy was state-controlled. Although many economists will suggest that most countries (Canada and the United States included) control their economies, their control is very different. In the Soviet Union, the government sets how strong the ruble is against other currencies in the world, states what price merchants can charge for certain goods and services, provides jobs for nearly every person, and so forth. Nearly every variable of economy is under the Soviet’s control.

So what does this have to do with the Berioska Shops? If you control your internal economy with very little outside influence (unlike the democratic capitalist countries), then you’ll find you have a hard time dealing with “the outside world”. The Berioska Shops are one method the Soviet government used to gain some leverage when dealing with other countries a source of currency the other country would take.

Nevertheless, we would eventually call the Berioska Shops “BS Shops”, or even more informally, “Bullshit Shops”. There was a certain amount of unnecessary sleight of hand that went on in those stores that none of us really liked. I guess that somewhere deep down, we all understood what these stores really stood for.

But at the time, I was highly naive, and didn’t know what I was helping to perpetuate. I was instead looking for souvenirs. This particular BS Shop had a tremendous selection of wares that any Soviet, given the opportunity, would gladly donate a vital organ just to see. (This is based on conversations with Soviets, and with comparisons with Soviet department stores.)

I did not purchase much, except for a small metal bust of Lenin and a stacking doll for my little cousin (once removed). The store had a huge selection of small pins (the Soviets were big on pins) that had neat designs. I didn’t buy any, but would later regret that decision when I turned into a pin collector, like several other people in the group.

As we exited back to the bus so we could continue to Moscow University, I bore witness to the Soviet Union’s policy of “a job for every person”. An older woman, reaching the end of her childbearing years (but looking like she had more than contributed to the national population), sat solemnly at the door, staring down the path leading out to the road. She held a broom in her hand, seemingly waiting for a leaf to dare to fall on her spotless stone walkway.

Arriving at Moscow University a few moments later, we received our first good look at one of the greatest buildings designed in the Stalinistic style. The approach is heavily gothic, based upon art deco or modern design, with a touch of partial insanity for good measure. The main building for the university looked almost painful, though whether that was from the sight of hundreds of small spires sticking out of nearly every edge remains to be resolved.

Not staying around very long (just long enough to take a few pictures), we proceeded towards the river. There we got good look at the Moskva River valley as it wound through the city. Trees lined both sides of the river, which was no more than 15 metres deep at that point. Across the river (looking towards the Kremlin) was Lenin Stadium, which would be host to the first hard rock concert (organized by the Make A Difference Foundation) held in the Soviet Union only two or three weeks later. Unfortunately, the weather was too dismal to obtain any decent photographs. What pictures we did take were limited in their scope due to the heavy mist and light rain that persisted nearly the entire time we were in Moscow.

It was standing at the edge of the Mosvka that we began to break the rules. In our information sessions prior to departure, we were told that the Soviets did not take kindly to people (foreign or domestic) taking pictures of certain things. This stemmed from their military’s paranoia. (And people thought that the military wasn’t a huge influence?) The rules forbade snapping pictures of any bridges, planes, airports, trains, railway stations, subways, subway stations, or anything having to do with the military. (I guess they were afraid that we might all turn out to be spies for the supersecret Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), or as they’re more commonly known in Canada, the “We’ve got an intelligence agency? Bwahahahahahahaha!” Agency. Two bridges in near proximity to our outlook quickly fell victim to several cameras.

As we were snapping pictures of the bridges, we noticed a rather peculiar white structure to the right, about 300 metres away. It took a moment for someone to figure out what it was: a ski jump. Yes, there’s a ski jump in downtown Moscow. (Those gold-winning athletes need to practice somehow.) We stood there, waiting for someone to take a ride down the run. Eventually, someone shot down the incline, and flew into the river. The trees obscured our view, so we don’t know how well he (or she) did.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890702.15
Day 3
This morning, we traveled to the centre of town and viewed many of the historical sites including Red Square (especially Lenin’s Tomb) and the Moscow University. Our trip down Gorky Street also showed us several statues and important places including the Bolshoi Theater, founded in 1776. We also saw the Moscow Circus complex and the largest outdoor pool in Europe.

Leaving the University, we drove back over the Moskva towards Red Square. (Incidentally, “red” is Russian for “beautiful”.) We were to visit the most important person in the Soviet Union. His schedule permitted a visitation, and from what I understand, it didn’t take much coaxing from Intourist or EF to arrange an introduction, albeit a brief one. Of course, there are rarely any objections from a dead man.

The Soviet Union, officially, is an atheist state. This stems from Marxist theory that religion is an opiate for the masses. (Depriving them of that opiate would, at least from Marx’s point of view, make a better citizen. I’m an atheist, but I’ve never understood what Marx was trying to prove remove religion, and you remove many people’s sense of purpose as well as their hopes and dreams.) Since Vladimir Illyich Ulanov based all his theories on Marxism, the Soviet Union became an atheist state.

Ironic that the man who brought in Marxism would himself be elevated to the position of deity upon his death. When Vladimir Illyich Ulanov (or as he preferred to be known, Lenin) died in 1924, the Soviets built a massive stone mausoleum in Red Square, next to the Kremlin wall. Inside, they buried their revered leader, and paid continuous homage to him to this day.

Lenin Mausoleum, 2 July 1989

The mausoleum is built from deep red granite blocks, stacked in a three-tiered pyramid. (I need not bother make mention of the references to practice of mummifying Egyptian pharaohs and burying them in thousands of tonnes of stone.) The building doubled as a podium and grandstand for the government and military leaders during the May Day parades.

Upon arrival, we were instructed to make sure our knees were covered. (We were told this before we left, but some of us had opted to wear shorts anyway, and put pants on as necessary.) It still struck me as very odd how a godless nation would hold a single person with such reverence that they would even take a religious practice from the Catholics (covering of the knees when in places of worship) and applying to their dead leader. But complain, we didn’t. We were also told to leave our cameras behind. It seemed the Soviets weren’t too keen on photographs inside the burial chamber.

The lineup was surprisingly short, only about a hundred or so people ahead of us. The poor weather that day seemed to be on our side it kept the throngs of people away. Normally, so we understood, there would be thousands of people waiting to get a glimpse at Lenin lying in state. Instead of having to wait hours, we only had to wait about 10 minutes.

The line moved through a checkpoint, where guards made sure that no-one was carrying any kind of photographic equipment. Passing through that, we continued to inch our way towards the tomb, continually chatting as we shuffled ahead. We paid little attention to the Museum of Natural History to our left, or Red Square, or Gum, or St. Basil’s Cathedral, or the Kremlin. I don’t even remember what it was we were talking about. But before we knew it, we had turned 90 degrees to our right, and were looking right at the front door to Lenin’s final resting place.

We fell almost perfectly silent as we slowly approached the entrance. The doorway was immense: nearly three metres tall and about two metres wide. Two massive stainless steel doors were flanked by two equally massive Soviet soldiers. Like the British Honour Guard, these men were utterly motionless (it was debatable if they even breathed), staring directly forward. They brandished rifles, which we assumed were loaded.

We stepped between the doors and entered the upper atrium. The inside was built of the same red granite that adorned the outside. We turned to our left and descended down a short staircase, running perpendicularly to the doorway. The stairs were slick from the mist and rain, and sixty-some-odd years of wear (remember that thousands of people visited Lenin nearly every day). The architects seemed to have neglected handrails. Another guard was positioned at a small landing at the end of the first staircase.

At the landing, we turned to our right to proceed down another set of stairs, much longer than the first, not to mention colder. With every step down, the temperature dropped. It was becoming more unclear as to whether the pants were a sign of respect, or to keep you from freezing to death.

At the bottom of the stairs, we again turned to the right and passed through another (albeit much smaller) set of stainless steel doors. Looking through the doorway, we saw a stone pedestal (made of the same red granite), upon which sat a wood and glass casket. The pedestal sat in the middle of the room, but rested against the rear wall. A series of velvet ropes and stanchions separated we pedestrians from the final resting place of the founder of the Soviet Union.

We walked around the pedestal at a distance of about a metre or so. But we couldn’t stop to look we had to gaze with silent awe (or ‘ugh’, depending on your point of view) while walking through the small antechamber. The only sound in the room was our feet shuffling across the floor (a sound that must have had the Soviet guards’ nerves on edge after about thirty seconds), and the odd cough.

The chamber runs chills down your spine. If the sight of an embalmed body doesn’t get to you, the air conditioning does. It’s cold in there, and ceiling vents constantly blow cold air into the room. The ceiling itself is rather interesting, because it’s shaped in such a way that makes the room look larger than it actually is. (You can draw allusions to the life of a certain prominent Soviet if you wish.)

It’s not exactly what I would call a Disneyesque sight. To allow Comrade Lenin to be on display for sixty-some-odd years, the Soviets had to take some — liberties — to make sure he’d survive. Rather, to make sure his likeness would survive. The result is the removal of most of Lenin’s body, and replacing it with wax. (They didn’t tell us this while we were on the tour, I learned it about a year later from CNN.) It certainly explains his waxy complexion.

At the other side of the chamber was a staircase that mirrored the one we came down. The only difference was that at the top of the staircase, we exited through the side of the building instead of through the front. We all sighed a bit of relief, and immediately started exchanging our opinions of Lenin’s Tomb. (Though in all honesty, part of the reason we started chatting as merely for the sake of chatting, which hadn’t been permitted inside.)

The path was a kind of “Walk of Fame”, where many of the most prominent and famous Soviets were buried. (The reader will note that this is a form of hierarchical classification your ordinary farming peasant would not be found here.) Former Soviet Premiers (including Stalin, who originally had himself entombed with Lenin, but was later removed after the truth of his reign of terror came to light) were buried in the ground between Lenin’s Tomb and the Kremlin wall. I could identify which grave was which by the statue placed over top most useful because I hadn’t yet figured out how the Cyrillic alphabet.

We rounded a patch of grass after the last Soviet premier, and turned around to face the Kremlin wall. In the wall were more graves, containing the cremated remains of high-ranking military officers, Soviet heroes (from several walks of life, I would assume), and some of the early Soviet cosmonauts. Having a deep interest with space exploration, I wanted to find Yuri Gagarin’s plaque. Unfortunately, I had no idea how his name was spelled in Cyrillic.

We took our time walking down the wall, some of us not really caring what we were looking at, the rest of us squinting at the letters, as if the narrowed view might magically distort the letters enough so we could figure out who was buried in front of us.

Exiting back into Red Square proper, we took notice of the massive stonework parade ground. At the “north” (the directions are purely guesses, I didn’t have a compass to set my direction, and there were no shadows to tell me otherwise) end of Red Square was the dark red Museum of Natural History. We never saw anyone go into the bleak-looking structure, so I think it was safe to assume it was either closed, or not operating. On the east side was the massive Gum (pronounced “goom”) department store. The south end was graced by the multicoloured and multipatterned onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. (According to legend, when Ivan the Terrible saw the finished structure, he declared it so beautiful that he ordered the architects’ eyes put out so they could not build anything more beautiful.) The west side was dominated by the Kremlin’s east wall.

St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, 2 July 1989

Our bus was waiting for us at the south end of Red Square, in a designated parking zone. Those of us who were finished with looking at dead people decided to venture towards our bus and claim seats before everyone else did. On the way we took picture of Red Square, Lenin’s Tomb, and the outside of St. Basil’s Cathedral. (Unfortunately, we never got to see the inside, which I would have liked.)

We hopped across the somewhat busy street on the south end of Red Square and started searching for our bus. Then someone noticed something that we hadn’t expected to see in the Soviet Union: a Baskin & Robbin’s Ice Cream parlour. We trotted off in search of rocky road and tutti frutti. But as luck would have it, as soon as we entered the realm of the familiar, someone else from our bus appeared to promptly declared that we were going back for lunch.

I failed to see the reason to waste over an hour of driving simply to eat lunch at our hotel. Particularly when we were dreading to see a plate of fish before us at the other end. We were happily surprised to find not fish, but a plate of bread and a bowl of soup awaiting us. (We would learn that meals in the Soviet Union are very structured. Breakfasts were usually cold meats and cheeses, an egg dish, prune juice, and buns. Lunch was a bowl of soup, some sort of a meat dish, and dessert. Dinner (or supper, depending on what you call it) was a fish appetizer, followed by a large piece of beef.) We rarely learned what the soup was, but I was wary of borscht. Beets I and have never gotten along, and the thought of eating beet soup was not at all appealing to me.

As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, we usually had a dessert with lunch. More often than not, it was a small dish of ice cream. Or to be a little more specific, iced cream. What’s the difference? If you’ve ever had Russian ice cream, you’d know what I mean. North American ice cream, even the gourmet varieties, are made from milk. There’s nothing wrong with that (unless you’re lactose intolerant), but it makes for (believe it or not) a somewhat harsh texture. Soviet iced cream is made with real cream. There’s only one flavour (I think it was vanilla), but to date I have never had such good ice cream.

We came to expect it ever day after a while, and it got to the point where Jason and I would start reciting a short portion of a sketch Eddie Murphy did on his album “Delirious”. Everyday, as the ice cream cart approached, Jason and I would repeat Eddie’s “Ice Cream Man” routine, imitating the ice cream truck’s jingle in particular.

Finishing our lunch, we were directed back to the bus for another long trip downtown, back to the Kremlin. (Again, for the record, I fail to see why we had to come all the way back to our hotel for a meal we could have just as easily had downtown — or brought with us, for that matter.)

Arriving again at the largest intersection in the known galaxy, the driver turned away from the Kremlin and started looping in and around various side streets before appearing across from one of the Kremlin’s entrances, known as the Trinity Gate. There are only two other portals through the massive red brick walls.

It’s hard not to be awed at the construction of the Kremlin wall. True, it would never repel today’s kind of military force, but in its day there was no better protective barrier. The walls varied in thickness from two feet to nearly thirty feet. There was no cannonball that could penetrate such a defensive measure. The walls were also very tall, about 15 metres or so. A daunting obstruction if there ever was one.

We had been joined by a second guide, who would remain with us only for the Kremlin tour. There were a lot of tourists running through the fortress, all of them in groups (I have a sneaky suspicion that the Soviets don’t take kindly to individuals running amuck). To be able to learn anything, we needed to be able to hear our guide. Marina, as gifted as she was in tourism, was not loud enough to be heard over the other groups inside. The second guide allowed the group two split in two.

Crossing through to the other side of the Trinity Gate, we found ourselves staring at the Palace of Congresses. This was where the Politburo did their dirty work. (Quick political lesson: The Politburo is an assembly of representatives from all over the Soviet Union, who make the laws and decide the future of the nation. So in this respect the Politburo is just like the Canadian and British Parliaments, or the American House of Congress. The only difference is that there is no second validating government body, such as a Senate or House of Lords. For a long time, representatives were chosen by the government. In more recent years, the process used democratic voting.

Across the roadway / walkway (whatever you called it, a narrow paved section of the grounds set aside primarily for pedestrian traffic) from the Palace of the Congresses was the Armoury. This was a remnant of the gunpowder and cannonball days of yore, readily deduced by the huge pile of narrow bore cannons laid in front of the building. We would enter neither building, but we did get a good look at both.

Not much further down the path was yet another cannon. But this one stood on its own. That was obvious when you saw the sheer size of the thing. It’s said to be the largest cannon (breech fired) in the world. The breech (the hole in the cannon the ball is shot through) was over a metre in diametre. You could stand little kids inside it. The mere sight of the cannon was terrifying. Of course, that was the whole idea. You see, the cannon never fired a shot. The cannonballs built for the monstrosity were so large, there was no way to easily lift the balls into the breech. Chances are that even if you did load the cannonball, it would either go nowhere when fired, or the cannon would explode.

But that doesn’t mean the cannon didn’t defend against the attacking Mongol Hordes. Indeed, the cannon is reputed to have saved Moscow from a certain sacking. When the Muscovites (who were mostly living in the Kremlin’s ancient (and much smaller) walls) saw the encroaching Mongols, they wheeled the cannon (probably with a great deal of effort) to the city’s gates. The Mongols, seeing the massive gun, turned and ran.

A few steps from the cannon was yet another example of ancient Russian ingenuity: the Tsar Bell (otherwise known as, the King of Bells). Like it’s military counterpart, the Tsar Bell was reputed to be the largest in the world. It weighed in at over 20 tonnes (I’m assuming Metric tonnes, though it could just as easily have been Imperial tons either way it was a heavy bugger), and at its base was wider than most people are tall. But despite its credentials, like its military counterpart, the Tsar Bell was never used.

During the casting of the massive bell, the molten metal was allowed to cool too quickly. As a result, a two tonne chunk fell out of the side. We didn’t notice the hole until we walked around to view the opposite side of the bell. The hole was large enough to fit almost anyone in our group standing up. The bell was so large, the Russians never bothered to move it from the place it was forged.

We turned right at the bell, and moved into Cathedral Square, an aptly named location. There are seven cathedrals and churches in the Kremlin, all located in the Cathedral Square area. I know what you’re thinking: Why are there seven churches in the middle of the governmental centre of an officially atheist state? Sounds rather hypocritical, doesn’t it?

I didn’t know what to make of it either. All the buildings were in perfect condition, although none were in working order. Stalin had taken the issue of atheism to point of destroying any building of religious origin. For some reason, he had spared these seven. (He had also spared St. Basil’s Cathedral, but then again you don’t destroy internationally-known national symbols for theological ideals.)

One factor that might had led to the sparing of the churches from the wrecking ball is history. Russians are obsessive about history. They’re almost as fanatical as the Americans. (Americans are insanely fanatical about history because it gives them a place in the world. Remove the Great Tales of the American Past, and suddenly the United States doesn’t sound all that special.) The buildings held some sort of significance for the Soviets, I suppose. It’s the only thing I can think of that might explain why buildings such as that were left behind.

As we entered the square, I pulled out my camera for a quick picture. Just as I snapped the shot, the seemingly permanent clouds parted for a brief moment, just long enough to leave a distinctive lens flare across the photograph. Apply all the religious notions you like, such as God making his presence known by shedding light on a house of worship inside a godless nation. I just liked the picture.

Cathedral of the Assumption, Kremlin, 2 July 1989

We entered one of them, the Cathedral of the Assumption. It was an unremarkable building, at least from the outside. There wasn’t much going in the way of architectural uniqueness. But on its interior was a new reason to study languages, just so you could find the right words to describe its beauty.

Nearly every single square centimetre of space was painted with imagery. The columns that rose in the middle of the room were adorned with delicate drawings of important scenes from the Bible. But the walls, pillars, or ceiling could come close to the grandeur of the iconostasis. This was a an entire wall of detailed and exquisite oil paintings of all the Apostles, with Jesus Christ in the very middle, above the doorway to the priest’s chambers. The paintings were framed with gold borders, and rose from just below eye level all the way to the top of the 10 metre ceiling.

This concluded our stay inside the Kremlin. We started towards one of the exits, passing by various unnamed buildings (one of which was painted a rather interesting deep yellow, with the letters “CCCP” across the top). As we traipsed along the road that ran between the Kremlin and the Moskva River, I took it upon myself to take a picture of Suzanna for posterity.

Immediately she dove into defensive mode, and blocked all my attempts and pleading for a snapshot. I was completely dumbfounded by her behaviour. I knew that many people didn’t like their pictures taken, but mostly due to self-consciousness. Suzanna had nothing to be self-conscious about. But nevertheless, she insisted. This led me to utter the following:

“You’re going to get nailed at least a dozen times before this trip is over.”

This is a valid comment. Human nature loves a roadblock, and adores tearing it to shreds. Declare you don’t want your picture taken, and within moments you’ll hear a hundred shutters snap. It’s something to do with the need to break with authority (which occurred in abundance on this trip). Ain’t humanity weird?

At any rate, Jason decided to jump upon my rather open choice of words, responding with: “That’s disgusting!”

Naive little me took a moment to figure out what the devil Jason was talking about. “What are you talking about?” I babbled, not realizing my mistake. He just looked at me and grinned. Like I said, naive little me. Two years later, I would have probably meant Jason’s connotation. But for then, I simply replied: “That’s sick! You have a sick mind, Jason!”

“Thank you!”

“You’re welcome.”

That tirade over, we boarded our solitary bus and returned to the Dmitri Furmanov for dinner. We (the young’uns of the group) worried about what was awaiting us. We knew what it would be. It was only our second dinner in the Soviet Union, yet we already had a pattern set for our meals. Most of us were dreading it, the rest just tried to ignore it.

I didn’t eat fish for over a month after I got home.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental
The Kremlin is an area which was a lot larger than I thought. There are 7 churches, including the oldest church in Russia (not the Soviet Union itself, just the republic of Russia), founded in the 1300’s. It is rather small (called the Cathedral of the Assumption) and almost every square inch is painted. Outside, there is the King of Bells, which weighs over 20 tons. There is also the largest cannon in the world, but neither have ever been used. All the towers have names, including the gates. On our way back for dinner, I noticed how you find a Metro station … they are all marked with a big “M”.

Following our evening meal of formerly aquatic life, baked ground grass seeds, and roasted carcass of a member of the bovine family (don’t meals sound so much more appealing when you spell them out?), we were informed of our evening activities. Earlier in the day, Suzanna and Marina had said they would try to get tickets to the Bolshoi. However, even for foreigners with hard currency, even those precious pieces of Soviet culture were hard to come by. In lieu of more “highbrow” entertainment, Marina suggested we visit Arbat Street.

What’s Arbat Street? I didn’t know either at the time, but I would soon find out. It was apparently a pedestrian mall, about a mile or so in length, and a big centre of Moscow’s night life. So those of us who were interested (which was most of us), grabbed our cameras and followed Suzanna and Marina away from the river, through the garden (past the building we all thought was supposed to be our hotel), across the prospekt, and into another group of trees.

A few moments later, we arrived at a small building. It was the Moscow Metro their subway system. The ride costs a mere 5 kopecks (about 10 cents Canadian, by the exchange rate at the time), a far cry from the $1.10 the TTC (Toronto Transit Corporation) charged. Ah, the joys of a state-controlled transportation system.

The subways in Moscow are deep, and exactly how deep is one of those well-kept state secrets. (Where did I learn that? It’s amazing the things you learn while researching essays–) In addition to being used as bomb shelters, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear that people weren’t the only things moved around down there.

The station was nothing spectacular. I was disappointed. We had heard much about the Moscow Metro stations, how they resembled French palaces, with high vaulted ceilings, mosaics, gold leaf, and huge chandeliers. But these fancy stations were only in the central portion of the Metro system.

The Metro system is laid out in a kind of dart board format. The very centre of the system (which isn’t a single point, but a cluster of several stations that merge nearly every line) is within spitting distance of the Kremlin. A huge circle ran around the city, about two-thirds of the distance from the downtown core to our station out in what we North Americans would call the suburbs. This was the Garden Circle route, connecting all the radial lines.

But we were headed downtown. The train was not particularly large, though it was long enough to fit probably a few hundred people with ease. The train was also very loud. Unlike cities like Montreal, where the trains run on rubber tires, or even Toronto where the utmost care is kept in keeping the noise to a minimum, the Moscow Metro is ear-bleedingly loud. The screech from the wheels was enough to bring any Metro novice to their knees.

And hot. I don’t know what its from, but the Metro was uncomfortably warm. There was nearly no ventilation to speak of, save for a couple of open windows (which certainly didn’t help with respect to all the noise). Most certainly there was no air conditioning. You had to sweat it out for the entire trip.

About a half hour after boarding the train, we arrived at a station right next to the Bolshoi Theatre. I assumed that if we had gone to the Bolshoi that evening, we probably would still have taken the Metro. But the Bolshoi wasn’t on the menu that evening. We marched right by the theatre, and north (at least, I think it was north) towards the mysterious Arbat Street.

Suzanna led us through a maze of overpasses and underpasses, crossing major road after major road. Before long, we could see streams of people entering a narrow street, blocked to traffic by large concrete blocks. It was (what was becoming) the infamous Arbat Street.

As we set foot onto the pedestrian mall, we could see far up the wide alley, packed wall-to-wall with people enjoying the warm summer night. Laughter, yelling, perhaps even the odd scream, all of it was indistinguishable from any similar street in North America, such as Spark Street in Ottawa. The road was only a mile or so in length, but the sheer number of people in the short distance was astounding.

Things got interesting the second we were recognized as tourists. (This was something some of us honestly tried to avoid we wanted to be observers from within, not treated as outsiders. It was a naive thing for us to think, especially when we know that we can spy the tourists at home with little effort.) Almost immediately, Jason was approached by a trader, who asked the following (and I swear I am not making this up):

“Would you like to trade your jacket, your shirt, your pants, your shoes?”

There was a millisecond pause before everyone in our group within earshot burst out laughing. In retrospect, I feel a little sorry, we must have come across as being rather snobbish, but it was so hard to resist. The sentence above isn’t quite correct it’s grammatically correct, but it doesn’t quite match the intonation the man had used. He never paused.

Jason declined the offer. The man did not approach any of the rest of us.

Arbat Street was an interesting showcase of Perestroika and Glastnost the “openness” policies Premier Gorbachev had been promoting for a couple of years. In the heady days of Chernyenko and his predecessors, Arbat Street would likely have been your ordinary road, or perhaps an open air market. But with political reigns loosened, the people were freer to speak their mind, and step out to have more fun.

Along either side of the road were street preachers (something that was unheard of in the atheist state until religious freedoms were returned), lecturers, philosophers, and the like. I couldn’t understand a word that they were saying, but judging by the number of people who were listening to them, I could only assume that the speeches were at the very least interesting, and probably controversial. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear that the speakers were making political statements against the government, even calling for a return to the Czarist regimes.

Because of the lateness of the evening (I think it was around 19:00 or so, but I wasn’t paying attention to the time), most of the shops and retail spaces were closed for the evening. It was a shame, we

(NOTE: This paragraph is currently undergoing rewrite. The rest of this log remains in an unedited form. Hopefully, I’ll be able to update this soon.)

We ventured our way to the other end, taking our time, seeing what there was along the way. Glastnost and Perestroika were paying off. All over the place were speakers and philosophers. Now I had no idea what the they were saying, but I had a funny feeling that Stalin wouldn’t have liked it.

When we reached the other end, we ran into a few others who were trying to get into a Soviet dance club. They weren’t having a lot of luck. Jason wanted to go in, but I pointed out that it would take forever. Three others in the line, Laila, John and Paul all agreed too. Greg however, wasn’t going to give up. The five of us decided we would head back to our hotel. But we opted not to go back down Arbat, as it now had even more people than before. So we hooked around the end and went down a parallel road.

At least we thought it was parallel. Correction, I thought it was parallel. For some stupid reason, I took the liberty of guiding us through a city I had never been to before. I thought I knew where I was going. The road I had though was parallel was actually perpendicular. Warning, warning, danger, danger!

We walked for about two miles before we got to a street that we knew was parallel to Arbat, Marx Prospekt. The only reason that we knew the road was Marx Prospekt was that Laila remembered it from our tour that morning. If it were not for her, we could still be wandering around Moscow. At this point, I was labeled as an idiot (one of many labels that I would receive on this trip) and we stopped to collect our bearings. We also took a picture of “Students Lost in Moscow”. Then we headed down Marx Prospekt.

We found something rather surprising along our walk. Well, we thought it was surprising. We turned a corner, trying to get our bearing, when we found salvation. We found McDonald’s. At first, Jason and I yelled “FOOD!” and began to run towards the Golden Arches, until we noticed that it was only the sign letting us know that it was the future site of the first McDonald’s in Moscow. The building wouldn’t open for another nine months. So we all took a picture of it and continued on.

Site of the first McDonald's in the Soviet Union, 2 July 1989

Not long after finding the McDonald’s sign, we finally got to the station. Almost. It was across one of the six lane roads. And we had no way of getting over there. There were no crossings to be seen. Moscow is an interesting place, huge roads that could be classified as highways in Canada, but no way to get to the other side (where’s a chicken when you need one?). Everyone but me, charged across the road on the count of three, and got stopped by a cop on the other side. I got stopped even before I left.

I ended up sprinting down the road to the next crossunder (I was “told” by watching the hand signs from the cop on the other side). Thank God for O.T.H.S. gym teachers who made us sprint the mile. The others met me on the other side a couple minutes later. They told me that the cop had bawled them out in Russian, and that they had to bite their tongues to keep from laughing at him. The cop probably took personal pleasure in doing so, and is probably still talking about it.

We finally got back on the subway, got on the proper train (fortunately) and began the long journey back up. It was only after a year that I really thought of the consequences of that night. We could have been lost for good. That is a big city, and it took me a week to pick up the alphabet. I still shudder at the thought.

When we got back to our station, we tried to make a beeline for the hotel. But we got stopped by some rather large Soviet men, who wanted to sell us vodka and other things. We thought they were KGB. They spoke perfect English and scared the shit out of us. We split as fast as we could.

As we approached the hotel, we found two of our group who hadn’t gone downtown, Kelly Hogan and Jen. Both of them were drunk out of their minds. Little did we know that this was only the beginning of the booze.

Before we signed in for the night (something KB made us do every night), Jason went outside to do some trading. The guys at the boat were rip off artists. We liked the ones downtown better. But Jason had his mind set on getting a hat. And he did.

He came whipping in the room, threw the hat in the fridge (it still wasn’t working) and jumped in bed, mumbling about something. It turned out that two cops were coming down the pier when he bought the hat. We were told that paying for things was a no-no, and Jason was shitting bricks. So was I. I didn’t want to get arrested as an accomplice. When I went down to sign ourselves in, there were no cops in the halls. They hadn’t seen it, I guess.

Observer’s Log: Second Supplemental
If you haven’t already noticed, I watch a lot of Star Trek, which is why my journal entries look like this. We had an interesting time in Moscow tonight. We took the Metro down went up a street called Arbat (which was about 2 miles long at least) which was solely for pedestrians. Then we got lost. That was fun to say the least. Fortunately, one of us was able to figure out where we were. Some of us (not me) got nailed by the traffic cops (the ones who make you cross at the specific areas).