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The border officer looks at me suspiciously. He takes my passport and checks the visa and looks at my photograph. He looks back and forth at the picture and myself. Red stars as well as sickle and hammer symbols shining on his dark green uniform don't give any doubt where I am. People start queuing in my line. After the third or fourth cycle he asks that I take my cap off. I do as instructed at the same time feeling as I was in some kind of a spy movie. Two more looks later and a stamp in my passport and I'm in Russia.
Sheremetevo airport in Khimki town based 19 kilometres northwest of central Moscow is as any other airport would be. I'm starting my second journey through this country but it's different this time. My being here is based on a spontaneous decision I made in August on attending Leningrad's concert in Saint Perersburg. St. Peter's is the bands home town from which they originated thus seeing them play there would be something special (and awesome!) I though to myself when making the step to book the tickets.To give you some context, Gruppirovka Leningrad is a famous Russian rock, ska and punk band (14 members in total) led by charismatic Sergey "Shnur" Shnurov. I was on their concert during Woodstock Festival Poland where they appeared before a 800 000 crowd in 2013 .The experience and energy under the stage was extraordinary. Shnurov said once that: "Our songs are just about the good sides of life, vodka and girls that is.". That is surely one thing that makes them appealing to the crowds in some way.
Anyway, here I was with my friends whose decision to come was also rather spontaneous. We were to come to Moscow for a few days, take a train to Saint Petersburg, take our time there, see the concert, come back to Moscow and take a plane back to Warsaw, Poland. Simple.
My first trip in Russia was connected with a trans-siberian journey through Russia, Mongolia and China back in 2014. I got fascinated by the vastness of the country, people and culture. Certain aspects such as the unarticulated freedom and openness of people resonated with me to great extent. There were no extreme regulations that I knew from the Western Europe treating people as very fragile beings and offering many safety nets for them not to hurt themselves. In Russia it was more straightforward and intuition based. There were other regulations in place (sometimes more extreme) or indirect (i.e. corruption) yet not influencing daily life as I experienced it. I experienced the country throughout it's vastness, met various social classes from builders, through gold diggers, the young generation, people who were escaping the war in Luhansk in Ukraine to elders living on Olkhon Island on the Baikal lake. They were the poor, those making-ends meet and the middle-class. I appreciated their dedication to family and curiosity for us. It was all fascinating. At that point some things started to show already.
That was take one.
In a conversation I had lately with my friend about Russia he said that: "Russia is like a drug that you subconsciously take, are not aware of it and spread in other places". That made me think. I caught myself drugged. Not totally but to a certain and valid extent. I started to see things too vividly and did not apply criticism where I ought to, to stay conscious. During my previous visit I noticed few things yet did not extrapolate them on the whole experience. I've read a number of books but was treating them as distant although they were good reportages, not fiction. This time, I started to connect the dots and name things.
Russia can be interpreted as anarchy. It gives you the superficial freedom, it provides you with tolerable ignorance that I misinterpreted at the very beginning. It was exhilarating I can tell you. It gave you false assumptions. It could be so strong that you don't see through it, you don't see the downsides, the actual lack of freedom and people being trapped in their own minds and emotions in an endless unilateral relation with their country.
Russia cannot be taken without a shot of vodka.
Of course, it's not only a black and white picture but... sometimes it really is. Relationships or acquaintanceships are often made with alcohol. There are some examples of that not being true yet I experienced alcohol as the main bonding vehicle used in conversations, meetings, going through hardships. The last was with Gregori that I met on a train two years ago. He was escaping with his family from Luhansk and was drinking from early morning till late at night. If you don't drink you're an informant, a cast away. Same was in Poland a decade or two ago. People start smiling and breaking the ice mostly when they are under the influence. They put aside their masks which they wear daily and start being who they really are or, at least, get rid of the fear or any other things blocking them. This is universal all over the world yet in the cultures that struggle with something I found that most profound. Thus the bans for alcohol (Norway, Sweden), thus the addiction (Russia). The drinking part can be entertaining for a tourist or a foreigner from a country outside of the Soviet block. The patterns you see don't entangle you right from the start when you are young (as you don't live there) and therefore show the shallow side of the picture.
There are other countries in the world that drink even more than the Russians do. They might even have a bigger problem with it. To my mind, the intention with which you are drinking answers the question about the ability to cope with your emotions. My friend that I was referring to in the beginning also mentioned that people overanalyse the country whereas things that happen are really simple and straightforward. I don't have enough experience to reply to that but it does ring a bell somewhere.
Leningrad's satire on people, situations, patters reflects on that. A pissed off corporate office worker quitting his job on the spur of the moment and finding people that did alike uniting around large portions of vodka in "В Питере - пить" (en. drinking in St. Peter's) and doing some crazy stuff is a response to that. These things really happen although they are deliberately exaggerated achieving a satirical vibe in the video clip. The superficial man-woman relations based on the latter looking for a wealthy husband in "Экспонат" (en. exhibit) with the lyrics like:
"Seryoga took me to the exhibition of Van Gogh.
There were lots of pretty girls and nerves like rope.
But I wasn't one "do not touch," I let it be known from the doorstep:
At the exhibition of Van Gogh, I'm the main exhibit!"
On the other hand the practicality of people and their necessity to adjust and make something out of nothing in scarce times or just out of being poor is admirable and, I think, forgotten in Western cultures, replaced by more hedonistic values at times. There are many additional reasons for that but, in that light, the popularity of Kulbin TV channel (over 1,5 mln subscribers) on Youtube does not surprise. There the author shows different ways to combine ordinary things or how to apply them anew or just do something entertaining. Some are bizarre like combining a knife used in jungle with an electrical paralyser while others really useful like home made alarm, cooling stand under your laptop and others.
One of the reasons Leningrad resonates with people is because it covers real life situations that are universal. Many of these situations you can see or experience in Moscow if you have the chance and time.
Looking at the above, I need to emphasise that there are some changes visible. Many young families don't carry the burden of patriarchate where the man was the head of the family and had the final say. I always admired women in Russia in terms how they cope with everyday life where they have to be responsible for their home, husband, children. Many of them needed to be wiser, smarter and work harder then their partners. Not to mention the psychological aspects of this situation. On the other hand, man could not show any emotion as this would negatively influence their position in a relationship or a group. Thus, again, at times alcohol might have come in handy to cope with the inner struggle. This is becoming more and more liberal.
First of all, what needs to be stated is that Moscow is not Russia. I tell this to myself and heard it from locals. Moscow can be enchanting with it's boldness, megalomania, extremes that appear as if from nowhere, the tempo of living. You can see parts of the country reflected in Moscow yet the whole picture is far from truth and cannot be a generalisation. It resembles the dreams and urges of the communist era with some modern advancements like elements of free economy. It is a very interesting mix of wealth, beauty, ugliness, overstatement, poverty, openness, ignorance and tradition mixed with a strong social class division. Andrzej, with whom I was travelling, also noticed that Russia has not entered the stage of ripe commercialism. It's a fact that there are not many billboards shouting at you with a suggestion for the next thing to buy. It certainly is a refreshing sight when compared to the ostentatious West.
The very best of Moscow you can see from the rooftop of Central Children's Store on Lubyanka. Almost a romantic scenery encompassing beautifully restored buildings of the Kremlin, GUM (more later in the article), Saint Basil's Cathedral and few more. I could stay there and stare for hours and if I had a rooftop like this I would never want to change my apartment. The city centre is one of the jewels of Moscow.
And in Moscow, many things are huge - directly and indirectly. Either with their size or the effect they may have on people and their egos. Many of those are the remains of decisions of communist leaders as Joseph Stalin. Let me give you a few examples.
The city offers a huge selection of bars, pubs, budget and very expensive restaurants. One of the latter is Pushkin where you can hear live music and order dishes with prices rising up to 4000-5000 roubels (62 dollars) or more per dish. It makes you feel as in XIX century or so with the service doing whatever they can to create the impression of exquisite service. Fun-fact is that the place does not have a long living tradition and was developed in the last two decades while it's designed to resemble something else.
You can substitute Pushkin with something more modern like Zhiguli (ru. Жигули, photos below) on Novy Arbat street with prices going as high as in Pushkin complemented with the famous Zhiguli beer that is brewed there with retro images of Russia presented on the cans. The beer is famous but not a fantastic craft beer in my opinion. I've had better. Still, you can have a taste - there is a lot to choose from. If you just want to drink beer in this place - go to the canteen that is on the right after entering the venue. It's much cheaper then the restaurant. In general, Zhiguli is a notable brand of Soviet beer. It's origins go to 1881 where it was established under another name by Austrian entrepreneur and later (1934) was renamed to Zhigulevskoye Beer. As Wikipedia informs: "During the Soviet era, at times it was virtually the only beer brand you could find anywhere in the country. At the peak of its popularity it was made in more than 700 breweries around the country, and it practically became a generic name for beer.".
Russian underground is one of it's kind. Some stations (like Revolution Square, Kurskaya, Komsomolskaya, Novoslobodskaya, Belorusskaya, Mayakovskaya, Teatralnaya) have been lavishly (as for USSR) decorated and are still in operation. Soviet symbols, paintings, ornaments, Lenin's busts and more. They are most present on line 5 stations. The line is going in circles so if you miss something - don't worry just jump on another train.
The general experience of the whole metro system is Soviet-like. Itstarts with heavy set of two doors that are always hard to push and bounce right back to hit the next person. The moving stairs you enter right afterwards are efficient and quick. You have to hurry and jump on and off. There are women in booths watching the the cameras to refrain people from any suspicious actions. When you're on the platform you will notice that the train approaches with great speed and it doesn't care much about the people standing. The announcements on the stations are loud - as loud as the metro itself. There are no elevators on many station (didn't see them on any but I did not see all the stations) as well. The system is efficient and, just as at Soviet times, it does not care much about the individual. It's designated for the masses. There is no you or me. There is "us" as in "crowd that needs to be managed". You loose your identity and become average for the sake of using the system.
What's interesting is that each time you enter a metro station you have to go through a gate. Similar to those on the airport that check for any illegal things that you might have on yourself. There are also security guards nearby. Yet, the gates beep all the time and nothing happens. Many times the guards don't even look at people. The whole performance is probably just to give you a false sense of security.
When taking a stroll, everywhere you look, whether it is close-by or in far distance, you can see the characteristic skyscrapers. The one below is called Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building in Tagansky District. It was the tallest tesidential building in the World between 1952—1964. It's one of the "Stalin's high-rises" (ru. Сталинские высотки) that were all developed and completed by 1952. Nicknamed by the Western world as "Seven Sisters" and being a mix of Russian Baroque and Gothic styles. The full list consists of Hotel Ukraina, the above mentioned Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building, the Kudrinskaya Square Building, the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya Hotel, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the main building of the Moscow State University, and the Red Gates Administrative Building.
I would say that, probably, Lomonosov Moscow State University is the most elaborate example of the all high-rises due to the way it's lit during the night. It is also used to conduct some impressive 4D visualisations during various festivals. In Poland we have one (and only one) similar building in Warsaw that was a gift from the Soviet Union called the Palace of Science and Culture. It's based right in the city centre and still holds as the tallest one in Poland. It's also hated by some as a symbol of the communist times and loved by others and something unique and distinguishable on the skyscraper scene.
Streets - Novy Arbat
In between the old and new runs Novy Arbat Avenue - west from Arbat Square on the Boulevard Ring to Novoarbatsky Bridge. The avenue lights up little by little as the sun goes down. And it's not only the lights on shops or billboards (there are none) but especially those located on numerous blocks of flats. The illumination changes colours, directions and tempo as if it was dancing and begging for your attention or creating a sense of modernity. One building after another. One story after another from the first one to the 26th.
The road itself was part of Stalin's Master Plan all the way back to the 1935. Due to the II World War the project did not commence until 1950's. The roads were going right through the old, narrow streets and alleys of the Arbat District. A story I heard was that back in the days this street was occupied with many interesting old buildings that were torn down and replaced by the monstrosities present today. There can be a grain of truth in that as in the corners or tucked somewhere in between the blocks of flats lie the wooden Lermontov Memorial House, Church of Simeon Stylites and some of the buildings at the Northern side of New Arbat Avenue. There are elements of the avenue that are done in a quite modern manner. Slick benches that run for dozens of meters, the trees and the thin lamps. It pleases the eye. If not only the surroundings... Scorpions in their hit "Wind of change" sung:
"I follow the Moskva Down to Gorky Park
Listening to the wind of change
The wind of change blows straight into the face of time,
Like a stormwind that will ring the freedom bell for peace of mind.
Let your balalaika sing
What my guitar wants to say"
Walking down Novy Arbat and listening to the lyrics might take in time to the arising change, the new order that's just around the corner. You can see the the communist architecture with the new, modern, post-communism parts popping out here and there. It in the distance in the form of, perhaps, the Moscow International Business Center. The band visited Moscow in 1989 when the country was on the verge of the transformation - the end of the Cold War and the end of the Soviet Union.
State Department Store
If you take a bus to Kremlin from Novy Arbat street you will change your perspective 180 degrees. Before you've seen a communist behemoth and now you're experiencing the heritage of a longer descent. At least certainly during the winter. You've got the flagship GUM (ru. Главный универсальный магазин) which is the State Department Store. Lit with thousands of lightbulbs opposite a market, trees with season's baubles and a large decorated tree. Yes, it's the festive season right next to Kremlin. The building itself it quite unusual. All social classes mix here. From the lowest class woman that buys an expensive tea in a decorated tin box as a gift for her friends up to the oligarchs who can choose almost from the most famous and expensive brandsWhen. The department store itself tries to please it's guests with various decorations. First when I visited the place it was presenting various cars being part of Russian automotive thought. This time there were typical, yet done with taste, festive decorations.
The history of the store is most interesting (source - Wikipedia):
"Catherine II of Russia commissioned Giacomo Quarenghi, a Neoclassical architect from Italy, to design a huge trade center along the east side of Red Square. The existing structure was built to replace the previous trading rows that had been designed by Joseph Bove after the 1812 Fire of Moscow.
By the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the building contained some 1,200 stores. After the Revolution, the GUM was nationalised. During the NEPperiod (1921–28), GUM as a State Department Store operated as a model retail enterprise for consumers throughout Russia regardless of class, gender, and ethnicity. GUM's stores were used to further Bolshevik goals of rebuilding private enterprise along socialist lines and "democratizing consumption for workers and peasants nationwide". In the end, GUM's efforts to build communism through consumerism were unsuccessful and arguably "only succeeded in alienating consumers from state stores and instituting a culture of complaint and entitlement".
GUM continued to be used as a department store until Joseph Stalin converted it into office space in 1928 for the committee in charge of his first Five Year Plan. After the suicide of Stalin's wife Nadezhda in 1932, the GUM was used briefly to display her body.
After reopening as a department store in 1953, the GUM became one of the few stores in the Soviet Union that did not have shortages of consumer goods, and the queues of shoppers were long, often extending entirely across Red Square. At the end of the Soviet era, GUM was partially, then fully privatized."
When you enter the building you feel you are experiencing something quite unique. That being said, I found only few places where I could buy a gift or something for myself as a souvenir. I don't mean knick-knacks. I mean something valuable and worthwhile. The rest of the shops are rather related to clothes but do check for yourself prior visiting if there is anything for you as you can spend there quite a bit of time. If you treat this purely as fun or something interesting on your tour around Moscow it will be also a good choice.
Last but not least, on the list, is Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure. 2500 000 visitors on weekends and holidays, a huge Ice Rink (below visible only a small part of it), a public Observatory, a huge portal that's a symbolic entrance to the park and resembles triumphal arch, open-air cinema, several museums, a monastery, a church, Prince Nikita Yurievich Trubetskoy’s hunting lodge, several ponds, a green house, dozens of restaurants and more. It's, again, huge. It was opened in 1928 and today is covering the space of 300 acres (120 ha).
The park was named after Maxim Gorky who was a Russian and Soviet writer, a founder of the socialist realism literary method and a political activist. "Wind of Change", which references Gorky Park, was written by Scorpions after a stroll here.
The Ice Rink that you see on the photograph has many twists and turns with dozens of pavilions at which you can stop-by and have a coffee or eat something. It has miles of ice lit from below in different colours. As Moscow Times describes it:
"Gorky's "rink" is a maze of paths, roundabouts and cul-de-sacs with plenty of space to show off your moves, or simply enjoy watching experienced Russian skaters show you how it is done. This is one of the largest and brightest all-weather ice rinks in Europe. It covers 18,000 square meters of the park's pedestrian pathways and can comfortably host four thousand skaters at one time. The rink itself takes on the role of a light show after dark, with over 33,000 adjustable LED lights installed under the ice. At the center of the main pathway intersection is a massive light installation composed of 400 light boxes."
Having spent few days in Moscow it was time to depart to Saint Petersburg. The primary destination of the journey. We were going by train but not a typical one. Red Arrow (No 002A) is a train that departs every day at 23:55. Historically, it was designated to run between the two major cities of Russia and provide transportation for the Communist party officials at times of the Soviet Union. It's first journey was on July 9th in 1931. From that day on it is in constant operation apart from the period between 1941 and 1943 due to the Siege of Leningrad (former name for Saint Petersburg). In the 1960's the train has been painted bright red (colours of communism in Russia) and "The Hymn to the Great City" was introduced on it's arrival and departure from platform of the Moscow Station in Saint Petersburg. This hymn was later adopted as the official hymn of the city of Petersburg in 2003.
The train leaves both cities at 23:55 every day. It runs from Leningrad Station (23:55) in Moscow to Moscow Station in Saint Petersburg (7:56). The duration of the journey is exactly 8h 01m. You can adjust your watch while travelling Russian railways as they are always on time. Red Arrow it is a trademark, so to say, of the Russian Railways (RZD) thus it's to be of the utmost comfort and experience. Probably because of that there is no platzkart class with 52 berths in one compartment and the lowest class is the 2nd class called kupe (we picked this one). Each carriage has attendants in special formal attire being of assistance when you need them. There is a breakfast included in the price of the ticket but you can also order some additional meals or use the restaurant carriage. There are also two other classes available - the SV and Lux.
The experience is one of a kind and surely worth a try. I was always pleased and positively surprised with the service and discipline on all trains I was using under RZD including several on the trans-siberian route. This time it was no different.
Moscow. It was good to see you again. You always had something interesting hidden, something wild waiting in unexpected places. You were overwhelming at times. I had to pause and digest. Reflect twice. Yet, you still fascinate. Again, I met interesting people with vivid stories. That's why I love staying in hostels where you can talk in an international environment, exchange ideas as well as meet locals, spend time together. I re-evaluated my impressions but they did not alter completely. They did to a point. This time was different but I'll surely be back for more as my fascination hasn't ceased to exist, it matured and steered in a certain direction.
Hello, Saint Petersburg! The cultural capital of Russia, the home of Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, the great Hermitage museum and dozens of bridges. Before visiting you I wasn't knowing to how great extent we will get along and how much you will surprise me... More about the architecture, people, quirky situations and interesting conversations and, most importantly, the concert itself in the next piece.
To be continued... Read part two here.