Jan 5. State power day. Woo! Filled with a late breakfast (usually the broiled potatoes Ryan had made, long-overdue Honey Nut Cheerios with milk and OJ–simple delights I hadn’t had in months), I arrived at Kremlin walls just after 12 noon, where the line to see Lenin’s Mausoleum (free) was being told that they probably wouldn’t make it that day (the attraction closing at 1 p.m.). Since no one else seemed to believe the police officers saying so, I stayed in line and did make it within the last 20 minutes.

After the baggage check (40 rub.) and metal detectors, you walk along a bush- and grave-lined walkway along the Kremlin wall next to Red Square, occasionally seeing a name that pops out: Khruschev (USSR premier), Gagarin (first man in space), Stalin (had about 30% of the country killed). The path leads around the front of the monument, where you walk into the mostly dark, black granite structure labeled “LENIN.” The guard shushes anyone talking and with an aggressive flare of the eye, tells you to get your hands out of your pockets and to take off your hat. You walk down the stares, passing more guards saying “SHH!” with their fingers in front of their lips

And then boom. There he is.

Little waxy Lenin, just creepin’-out, lying there under a soft light in red and black velvet. You notice 1) he’s short, 2) has gross fingernails, 3) looks just like all the statues, 4) he invented dictatorial communism, and then you’re ushered out from the underground cavern, your life not really that changed, but just slightly more creeped out.

I’d planned to hang around Alexandrovskii Sad (garden) and wait to see the half-hourly changing of the guards at the monument of the unknown soldier, but it was cold, and there was construction. I had seen it in September anyways. I continued on to the little kiosk where you buy tickets into the Kremlin museums.

A long, long line protruded out of one of the doors, and a small group of people huddled around the second door. I decided to check out the huddle/second door. Apparently, it was more of an exit, but despite my mistake, I noticed that a few people had made the same one and were just kind of mooching around waiting for a break in the action to cut the huge line. Hey, it’s Russia, I think. Why not?

My abhorrent sin of cutting about 100 people is somewhat lessened by the fact that the majority of them probably wanted tickets to the Armory (the national treasures type of museum, entrance costing about 3 times the price of a ticket to just the Kremlin grounds and churches, doubled for non-citizens), which wouldn’t go on sale for another half hour.

So amidst people shouting this to each other and jockeying in and out of this and that division of the line-becoming-a-large-huddle, I slid up to the counter, asked for a student ticket, and (with the help of my university ID with no “Citizenship” field) was taken for a Russian citizen at the Kremlin’s front gates. Ahh. . . validation! Take THAT! Irkutsk State Univ. teachers who gave me less than A’s this semester. . . !

To bypass a big group entering, a police officer let me in through the “business entrance” (in the fast lane to success in Russian politics apparently. . . but no bribes involved here). I walked around a bit, saw the two symbols of Russia’s bragged-about bigness, the Tsar Cannon, only shot once (when ejecting the False Dmitri’s head back to Poland in the 16th century), and the Tsar Bell, only “rung” once (when it fell and a huge chunk broke off). Went through the different churches, the ex-cathedral, the ex-Patriarchic Palace, realizing that this was kind of the equivalent of the National Mall and Vatican in one.

Big Russian guys like big Russian bells

My handy guidebook, again, let me in on the fun facts: late-comers to the inaugural party of the newly completed Patriarchal Palace were handed a baseless goblet full of wine to be drained on the spot (idea for senior year?); Nikon had a window put in over the main chapel from his personal chambers to spy out of to make sure that his divisive reforms were being followed; Napoleon parked his horses in another church there when he invaded a burning Moscow in 1914; Rublev’s brush touched many of the church walls I passed; I was treading next to/on the remnants of various Orthodox saints and Russian tsars.

I retired for the day after a snack at Sophie’s apartment and some photo editing back at home.

Jan 6. Last minute Moscow: Authors and Church (Orthodox). I started my last full day in Moscow with big plans, all of which, and more, I accomplished. Sophie and I met at Le Pain Quotidienne, a European chain with 90-ruble and very filling oatmeal (and free WiFi), had our breakfast over our computer screens. Her friend/soccer teammate Natasha stopped by to pick up an English soccer jersey Sophie had bought for her while in Oxford for Christmas.

I stopped off at the Byelorusskaya station next door to buy my return train ticket to Irkutsk (the 22nd to 25th of January. . . I walked out of the station shell-shocked at the fact that, again, I’d be stuck on a train for 80 some odd hours with only my books, Internet-less computer, and some sure-to-be strange enough neighbors).

My first sight to see was the Tolstoy (Lev’s, not his son Andrei’s) house. It was a quiet little place with interesting Russian and English descriptions of the history, function, facts-of-interest, &c. of each room. Most of the visitors were senior-aged tourists who probably loved Russian classics in the Anglicized-up Garnett translations, but fittingly so, as the house was as European as any, and it could serve as a model of any would-be writer’s residence: Romantic-era décor, leather-clad studies, piano, portraits, the whole nine yards.

The upstairs entertaining room was my favorite, housing the chess-set Tolstoy played on with Chekhov there, as well as the piano on which Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov and others performed for the Tolstoy family. A little factoid I’d picked up through a report for piano lessons a few years back was that it was in fact his performance on that piano that was one of two or three performances eliciting negative criticism (that is, of Tolstoy’s) that plunged Rachmaninov into the depressive stupor of his early career. So seeing that piano was especially neat for me. The adjoining room was where Tolstoy spent his last hours.

From there, it was a long-enough walk through poorly cleaned sidewalks to the Novodevichy Cemetery and Monastery. I’d seen plenty of churches by that time, so I just wandered around the gray and peaceful, tree-shaded cemetery in the lightly falling snow, seeing the graves of Chekhov, Gogol, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Yeltsin, among others. Lots of Petrov’s.

Over the walls of the cemetery, I checked off my next stop ahead of time because I could see the looming palace of a multi-towered skyscraper that MGU (Moscow State University) is, which I had also planned on just seeing it from the outside.

Sophie and I met up again later in the afternoon to do some final sights together before theatre and church. Oh. Right. It was Russian Christmas Eve, but the fact I’m just now remembering it shows just about to what extent it’s significant outside of the religous sector. I think there were people with kids who were going to see a performance of the Nutcracker on Ice at the stadium between MGU and the cemetery I was at.

Our pre-theatre itinerary included a stop at Bulgakov’s apartment-museum (author of Master and Margarita, an eery fantasy from Stalin’s time not printed in Russia for decades after its completion, one of my favorites in Russian lit), out of which he based most of the action of Master; walking past Patriarch’s Pond, where the strange characters of the novel meet; seeing the Ryabushinsky (Russian industrialist of the 1890s) Mansion, better known for its art nouveaux design and for its other tenant, author Maksim Gorky (it was closed for the holidays, however); and walking past Andrei Tolstoy’s (Lev’s son, also a writer) flat.

After a reading/internet stop in the MacKafé (do they have these in America? It’s McDonald’s fair attempt at getting in on the Starbucks scene), Sophie and I made it to the Moscow Dramaturgical Theatre, named for Pushkin, around 6:30 for our 7 p.m. showing of Gogol’s The Inspector General (Russian: Revizor). The play, undoubtedly to be included in a short list of plot archetypes for the farce genre, is genius as it is.

The performance was entertaining, a good pick for one of the Russian Silver Age classics, though the slighter irony of Gogol’s wordplay and satire of mid-1800s life was mostly lost on us in the play’s original Russian: I hadn’t read it in its entirety either in English or Russian, though I’ve seen the Wishbone episode! Nonetheless, since the acting was good enough and the artistic presentation more than a curtain, stage, and set, though all a bit rough around the edges, we enjoyed ourselves. The farce: under-performing town is going to be inspected, an unknown visitor is taken for the Inspector General, he makes the most of his newfound status, the town finds out they’ve been cheated right after he leaves with their money, and just as the curtains are about to close, the herald comes in bearing news that the Inspector General, in fact, has come.

Two of our co-spectators, though, had some issues. About half-way through the first act, there was a disturbance on the balcony above us (we were on the first balcony): Sophie and I couldn’t catch all of what was being said, but we very distinctly heard the shouted complaint, “But I can’t see anything!” as it sounded like the gentleman was being escorted from the now cackling-at-him-not-the-show theatre.

And that wasn’t all. As Sophie and I had read-up on the Wikipedia article in the McD’s beforehand, part of the play’s significance was that there was purposefully no human love in the play, and it’s two female characters, married, are nothing but players in the social game.

So, as the fake Inspector General and the mayor’s single daughter are feigning the necessary, minimal courtship before their marriage, they held hands and kind of crossed legs or something playful like that. Several seats over, a decrepit old lady shouted out, “There’s none of that in Gogol! None of it!” to which the theatre, again surprised at the night’s strange interruptions, chuckled. There was a small and pointless struggle to escort her from her seat at first. A few minutes later, I looked back over, as the curtain behind her now empty seat was swinging. A regular part of Moscow theatre? Sophie says no.

After the play, Sophie and I hung out at her apartment for a bit before leaving for the midnight Christmas liturgy at an Orthodox church not too far from her. We went early as advised. The staircases inside and out were lined with short, sweetly smelling evergreen trees, the crypt and the main church were mostly dark and candle lit, and the fresh nativity scene and the gold of the icons were beautiful in the reflected light. It seemed that the only thing happening beforehand was people waiting in lines to confess to various priests stationed around the church, or alternatively, people were saying prayers to the multitude of different icons or were venerating the Nativity.

At midnight, the bells in the towers above, along with the bells of the towers of churches all over the city, began ringing, and sounding through the walls of the church, didn’t cease for minutes. The small liturgical bells were heard behind the iconostasis in the sanctuary; some people, now shoulder to shoulder in the near darkness, shuffled around to turn towards the front, others remained gazing upon whichever icon to which they were nearest. The priest began to say (chant) the liturgy as the batushka (pastor-type figure) processed around the church, now in reverent waves of deep bows and signs of the cross, as he incensed the main icons, passing right between Sophie and I, who had remained in silence for the past 30-40 minutes. The choir began with one melody, soon joined with two other lines of harmony, peacefully celebrating the birth of Christ (rozhdestvo khristovym).

Not wanting to have to pay for a taxi once the service would end around 3 a.m., we slipped out onto the street, singing our favorite Christmas vigil tunes all the way home, mostly relieved that though the Orthodox Christmas still had two liturgical weeks left in it, the evergreens and ornaments of the season would soon be coming down.

Jan 7. Christmas at the airport, ‘Home Alone’ style. So I packed my bags, lay down for a few hours of sleep, and then got up mid-morning to make my last breakfast, polish up the kitchen, and get me to the train station to the airport, this time Domededovo. Sophie and I met in the metro to exchange books as well as change for rubles 50 euros she’d received for Christmas that I could use in Germany. We said our goodbye-until-the-21st as she got off at her station, going back to work (internship).

On the 45-minute train ride to the airport, I dug out my copy of Pamuk’s Snow that I never finished, and fittingly so, as the now near-blizzard conditions would seep in through my window and tickling my face every minute or two.

Though leaving Russia for my week in Mongolia also counts as a border crossing, leaving the country from Moscow, even though only for two weeks, somehow seemed more significant. I’m sure it had more to do with the fact that I wasn’t just leaving the country, but Russia’s sphere of (not?) influence, and leaving for places more Anglo- than Russo-centric. Hooray.


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