Amazing Russia

24 August 2007

Another long haul journey, kicking off with a high speed motorway run to Manchester courtesy of Phil and his RS Focus. He continues to elude the speed cams, despite averaging at least 120 miles per hour along the A6. From Mancs it’s a quick 45 minute hop to Heathrow, and then on to Moscow with the daily BA service.

A bit of aerial confusion sees us diverting to Sheremetyevo airport, before being directed back to Domovedovo airport after approximately half an hour.

All’s well that ends well though and for a change I have no problems at customs. The vast arrival hall is as crowded as a wild west cattle market, and equally confusing. Occasional signage in English leave a trail of clues leading me to baggage claims, and with my bag firmly in hand I venture out into the seething crowd.

“Apparatchik!” a voice calls out. It is Igor, my homey, my wing-man and boy, am I pleased to see him. I met him on a press trip in Switzerland a couple of years ago and he’s the reason I’m in Russia. (He has been bugging me solid for 24 months, so I had to give in at some stage). Like the proverbial Russian Bear, he lumbers up to give me a hug and then tugboats off into the crowd with me bobbing in his wake. The bus journey from Domovedovo takes approximately 20 minutes, and then it’s straight into the bowels of Moscow’s underground Metro system. My god, what an experience. Stalin era art and architecture blends with equal measures of juggernaut runaway trains and stoic desperation here, giving you a small insight into Russian life in the post-Perestroika era.

We have to walk the final couple of kilometers to Igor’s house, a spacious apartment on the thirteenth floor of a modern building rising up right on the edge of an impressive deciduous green belt. It’s not Moscow as I expected and it is a pleasant surprise.

25 August 2007

Igor has put us up in his ‘spare’ flat. It’s not a tsar’s palace but it is more than I could have ever hoped for in an ex-communist stronghold on my first night. We dive in head first missioning onto the Metro under Igor’s furtive gaze, then tramping along the prospects and ‘skayas onto the magnificently overwhelming Red Square.

Nothing quite prepares you (or maybe it’s just me and 44 years of anti ‘Rooi Gevaar’ propaganda kicking in) for the chocolate box moment when you step through the towering arch and onto this cobbled plain drenched in the collective blood, sweat and tears of one of the planet’s most powerful nations. This is history, the past, present and future melded together and you cannot but feel it thrumming in the air.

Look-alikes mimic historic figures and we rub shoulders with the likes of Lenin, Marx, Tsar Nicolas and Stalin, some chillingly real. I take photos of some of these pretend Communists turned Capitalist imposters and it is surreal to see Lenin pocketing the Ruble notes with more than a touch of avaricious entitlement gleaming in his eyes.

I shutter-drive myself past the Museum of Moscow History to the somber marble tomb of Lenin, surreptitiously sneaking a few shots of the soldiers guarding the entrance. A commotion a few minutes later sees a small mob of protesters marching up to the tomb; they’re carrying the hammer and sickle USSR flags and a handful of septuagenarians make impassioned speeches through a megaphone.
Igor comes to the rescue and escorts me and Lize-Marie off to St Basil’s Cathedral, first detouring us through G.U. M., once the materialist shopping paradise for the USSR’s most powerful figures. We don’t buy anything (Moscow now rates as the world’s most expensive city) but rather tramp along the cobblestones to where the gaudy towers of Moscow’s most famous church. Spires, golden crosses, wedding-cake tiers and shimmering turrets etch against the blue of the sky, conspiring to create an image that captured the imagination of every Westerner who could not hope to penetrate beyond the Iron Curtain up to a mere 2 decades ago.

It is a fantastical church, like some vision from a psychedelic fairy tale, and the weirdness of wandering amidst the cacophony of Slavic accents in its shadows is wonderful. By midday I have shot the turrets and towers of St Basil from every conceivable angle, and we decide to tramp across the vast bridge spanning the Moskva River and around the Kremlin. It is a Saturday and dozens of Moscow brides and grooms are tying the proverbial knot in the city’s scenic spots. This adds to the overall unexpectedness of this vast metropolis with its 10 million or so people, imbuing what essentially comes across as a gritty, hard-edged city with a sense of hope and joie de vivre.

Metal ‘marriage trees’ bloom one of the arch bridges in the ‘south of Moscow’ area; these are essentially steel frames where the newlyweds congregate to symbolically join their lives together for better or worse. The take a lock with their names inscribed on it, lock it onto one of the metal branches and then toss it into the murk of the turgid Moskva. And when you see the bravado of the grooms and beaming faces of their young brides, you can’t help but hope that their love will find a way to survive the many challenges facing them and a reborn Mother Russia.

We’re starving by now and LM and I manage to coax Igor into a local restaurant; the Cyrillic still plays havoc with my recognition factor, but I think it’s called ‘Grabli’ and we sink a couple of ‘White Bear’ beers, accompanied by sashlik (basically sosaties, or meat on a stick) and potatoes. Russian food is wholesome rather than gourmet and I cannot see a Russki chef dethroning any of the current crop of culinary kings just yet.

Our final big fish to fry for the day is the magnificent Church of Christ the Saviour. The glittering copper domes and marble columns of this incredible feat of architecture rise up beyond the broad sweep of the Moskva like some latter-day Slavic Taj Mahal, and if it does not leave you speechless, you are surely without soul. Bridal couples again dot the grounds of the church and I wind my way through scatterings of celebrations as I tramp around this landmark in utter awe. It is unthinkable that this church was converted to an indoor swimming pool during the Soviet era, and that it is only during recent decades that this national treasure was returned to its former glory.

We dine at Igor’s home under the watchful eyes of his wife Giala and daughter Aliona. There is a huge cultural gulf between my life and Igor’s when it comes to domestic responsibilities. Real Russian men don’t do dishes or help in the kitchen (or maybe they do when the guests have left?). Be that as it may, we have an excellent meal before trundling back to our flat with full stomachs.

26 August 2007

The Novodievitchi Monastery tops our list of things to do today and we don’t waste any time getting there. Igor has had enough of walking with the “Energiser Bunny” as he calls me, and flags down an unofficial taxi to ease the running around between metro stations. This is quite a common thing to do in Russia; you gesture in the direction of passing cars and, if someone is not in a hurry to get wherever they’re heading, they’ll stop and take you where you want to be.

There’s obviously a bit of negotiation involved in the process and in this case Igor strikes a bargain with an affable Armenian to get us to the church on time. The ‘church’ in question is not just a blip on the religious radar here though, and rates as one of Russia’s most significant World Heritage sites. The towering belfry tower and imposing clutch of churches date back to the 16th and 17th century, spanning generations of tsarist rule before slipping into somnambulance during the soviet crackdown on religious expression.
The expansive cemetery reads like a who’s who of Russian has-beens with literary greats such as Chekhov and Gogol sharing space with power-crazed personalities ranging from war heroes to Politburo pundits. Boris Yeltsin, newly interred, rests in peace (we assume) not far removed from Raisa Gorbachev and any number of other luminaries, their lights now permanently dimmed.

On the way back into the centre of Moscow, Igor detours us into some of the jaw-dropping metro stations. The opulence of these public art spaces show a fair bit of wear and tear, but that does little to take the edge off the gut-thumping impression they make on you as you step from the rollicking lurch of the underground express.
Chandeliers, intricate brass carvings and expansive mosaics adorn the roofs and walls of Mayakovsloaya and all other stations, and I stand and gape in awe as the crush of rush hour tumults past me on all sides. Russian girls flaunt their assets, or asses and cleavages if you prefer me to be more direct, in designer garb often leaving little to the imagination; teenagers range the full gamut from skate-boy punk to computer-geek, most of them plugged into iPods, MP3 phones or Cyrillic Harry Potter tomes; Babushka (Bababochka) grandmothers shuffle with stooped shoulders through their final years on this mortal coil; a diverse pot-pourri of Armenians, Khazaks, Uzbeks and Ukranians just get on with their everyday lives as they wrestle a living out of the melting of cultures that Russia has become.

Moscow’s grand finale is the Pan-Russian Expo Centre near VDNKh, and the brute impact of this indescribable place hits you like a roundhouse blow after the bell has gone. The statues and monuments here were constructed at the height of Stalin’s might and I teeter like punch-drunk prize fighter at the gargantuan scope and size of the obelisks, pavilions, towers and statues.

Lenin’s granite brow crags in the afternoon light, gazing in eternal idealism over the heads of the throngs of ordinary Russians and tourists streaming in through the victory arches. Vast gardens unfold in all directions and, behind him, white marble columns soar to create an expansive white-pillared Parthenon crested with statues of farmers, soldiers, mothers and labourers representing the ideal of a Communist Utopia. Topping it all is the ubiquitous hammer and sickle, and a glittering star on a golden column around 30m high.
Stop gawping – there’s more to come. Once you manage to eventually tear yourself away from the undeniable power radiating from this monument, the spectacle of this heavyweight world power thumps home. Hard. Sixteen golden statues representing the diverse republics of the USSR tower within a gigantic fountain, individual pavilions in vernacular styles showcase the traditions and cultures of this collection of states; and amidst all of this there are thousands of Muscovites doing their damndest to have some fun in the Soviet sun.

Kids queue for rides on anything from dromedary camels and replica Ladas to Heath Robinson ferris wheels knocked together from throwaway wood. An elephant lumbers from canvas confines of a circus tent, the original Sputnik rocket hangs suspended in mid air from a crane, and Aeroflot aircraft slowly rust to pieces while the Russian nation goes capitalist in a big way.

There is no denying that materialism is the new religion here within the scrapyard of Communist ideals and it is plainly obvious, even to an outsider like myself that the equilibrium between want and need is way out of kilter. Black Bentleys ooze through the crowds and the Nuevo Riche step forth in their Manolo Blahniks and Prada, never deigning to stoop to making eye contact with the proletariat ebb and flow surrounding their jealously guarded space.

Much of the gains of the new ruling class are considered ill-gotten gains by the working class, but there is also a stoic acceptance that these latter-day oligarchs have earned the right to live their lives to whatever excess they deem necessary.

27 August 2007

Our final day in Moscow and our plan was to do the tour inside the Kremlin, but the weather is too good not be outside. So we head to Kolomenskaye, another of Moscow’s religious World Heritage sites, instead. Once a summer residence for the tsars around five and six centuries ago, the tranquil gardens harbour a selection of breathtaking churches, including one of the oldest wooden structures in Russia. This ancient building is unfortunately undergoing extensive renovation, but there are more than enough other attractions to keep us occupied.

We picnic on honey mead and blinis, a type of traditional Russian pancake with cottage cheese and honey, in the shade of some trees, then Metro back into Moscow for a final wander before sadly having to say goodbye to Igor and his family.

He escorts us to Moscow station where we plan to catch the train to St Petersburg, running the interference of the Cyrillic gauntlet one last time. Two German tourists sharing our coupe weather his bluster as he barges onto the carriage, nervously clutching their belongings while Igor arranges everything to his liking. A big bear hug from the man with the golden heart later, and we’re steaming north to St Petersburg, the seat of the Russian monarchy situated on the shimmering Gulf of Finland.

28 August 2007
Our traveling companions prove to be a rather strange couple; they are two middle aged brothers traveling together. The older one seems to suffer from some weird syndrome, where he repeats the final phrase of the conversation in German before letting rip with a satisfied snort. (… auf Sud-Afrika?” snort! “Sehr gut, ja”. Snort.) He finally goes to sleep after squirreling away all his treasures under his pillow, muttering the occasional guttural phrase while wheezing away.

I sleep all right, but LM does not have the best night, and St Petersburg is rather grim and grey when we disembark at Moskovski station. Igor has given us a whole list of dos and don’ts and a good thing too, as our lift to the hotel has not arrived.

The best option is to try our technique with the private taxis and Lize-Marie manages to snare one on her third try. A quick zip through the traffic gets us to Hotel Abajur, our base for the next few days.

The rooms are not ready for check-in, so we set off in search of a coffee, which proves to be less of a challenge than it would have been in Moscow. English is spoken (and in many cases severely mangled, garroted and gutted) by many people here in St Petersburg, and we soon have a couple of steaming Americanos going for us. With our hotel right in the centre of town, there must be a couple of hundred significant historical sites within easy walking distance and the only real challenge is where to start.
Why not right at the top then? The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is 5 minutes away, so we amble up to gawk like all the other tourists. And gawk-worthy it is. Turrets, towers and spires soar above the canal, and the mosaic inlays on the outside walls are detailed and breathtakingly striking. We go inside and I’m absolutely stupefied, to borrow a phrase from good old Roald Dahl. The walls and ceilings of the church soar multiple stories high and just about every square inch is covered in intricate mosaics depicting the various stages of Christ’s life. It is probably impossible to capture the scope of it all on camera, but I give it my best shot anyway.

Then we amble along the canals to take in the sites before ducking into El Barrio Restaurant to escape a sudden shower. St Petersburg is relatively expensive, but our meal is good and doesn’t do too much damage to our wallets. LM is keen to head to bed, but I got the address of a great rock club and decide to venture into the night.

The signage is still impossible to decipher, with Cs, Ps, Rs and Ys popping up in the most unlikely places amidst jumbles of upside-down Ns, Ss and Es. Plus there’s a whack of downright confusing characters lurking within the Cyrillic alphabet and overtime I try to read a word it sounds as if I’m sucking gnocchi up my nose. The pronunciation’s not so bad and once you’ve heard a phrase you can just about hack it.

The area I’m walking through becomes progressively dodgier, but I fortunately spot a blond girl packing a mean-looking axe and legs that could incite a man to seriously reconsider his marriage vows. Apparently I’m on the right track if I’m heading for Money Honey, St P’s oldest rock-a-billy/punk club. “Zjust zay Mari sent you”, she rasps. She also tells me she smokes 30 cigarettes a day because she wants to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and that anytime soon she aims to be famous. She disappears into the night with a gravelly Zdrasvitye, leaving behind the merest traces of vodka and girl sweat.

I reach the club and brave the KGB look-alike bouncers who stop just short of a full body cavity search, and step through the door into a room blue with smoke and populated with bit-part characters from a Hunter S Thompson novel. A biker, seemingly held together by tattoos and body piercings, lumbers in my direction and for a split second I’m not sure whether I should run for the door or just quietly piss in my pants. Fortunately Molotov Dog, or whatever his name may be, is more interested in another mug of vodka than in ripping out my guts, and I survive to timidly order a beer from the barmaid (not sure, but chances are she could be Molotov’s sister, or younger brother in drag).

There’s no fucking way I’m sitting down, because the seats might belong to a scary Russki, so I hang furtively in a shadowy corner of the bar, trying hard to look inconspicuous and just tough enough not to fuck with. My ruse apparently works and I decide to finish my beer and duck while the going is good and I’m still able to use all my limbs. And then the music stars, and I realize that this place is right on the Money, Honey. The band is a rag-tag bunch of retro-punks, slotted somewhere in between Bon Jovi and Sid vicious, but they have axes to grind and know how to do it. The lead singer is a scrawny dude by the name of Ctane, but once on stage he transforms into a whirling dervish of a werewolf, growling and snarling to the howl of guitars.

Molotov Dog lurches to the stage, but his brain seems to slip out of gear halfway across the floor, where he loudly remonstrates with a brick pillar. The rest of the regulars at Money Honey are less intimidating, but cover the full gamut from interplanetary alien to a Billy Ray Cyrus clone (yup, he was the two-hit wonder with the mullet). The dancing ranges from folksy, twinkle-toe moves that would not be out of place at a line-dancing session, to brain-curdling head banging. I try hard not to stare, instead concentrating on my pronunciation of Russian beer brands.

The guys from the Barbulators (that’s the name of the band I hope to figure out what it means before I peg) wander over to order a beer and we start chatting. Three sets later and I’m hanging with their groupies, sinking obscene amounts of Stolichnaya and generally laying the foundation for an earth-shattering hangover.

OK, so that’s not totally truthful. Ctane and his buddies turn out to be regular guys, with kids and wives nogal, so I’m drinking with Missus Barbulator. The bit about the hangover is true, but I do manage to negotiate a rather trippy route back to Abuja around 3 am without incident.

29 August 2007

Waste of a day. I’m suffering with a pounding headache and outside it is wet and cold, so I wimp out of the morning walk, instead writing my journal and downloading the hundreds of images I’ve shot so far. I refrain from succumbing to an afternoon siesta though, and instead go in search of Lize-Marie along the many byways of St Petersburg. Along the way I end up buying a range of off items, including a Mummi Troll CD, the Pink Floyd “The Wall” DVD, a Viva la Revolution peak and a number of communist era trinkets and postcards. The wheel is turning, but it is clear that the hamster is decidedly dead.

We eat at “The Idiot” restaurant that evening. The interior and ambience is good, but the food is average and I cannot see a modern-day Drostoyevski ordering a second round of borst here.

30 August 2007

Our best day in St Petersburg by far. Despite the forecast of rain the day dawns with blue skies and fluffy clouds and LM and I head down to the Nera River to catch a boat to Peterhof. This is the jewel in the glittering crown of this “Venice of the North” and the palaces of the great King Peter I are a sight to behold.

Not the Gardens of Versailles, nor in fact, any of the other seats of European monarchy, can hold a candle to the glorious rapture of fountains, hedgerows, streams, lawns and floral abandon unfolding in unbounded beauty around the Grand Palace and surrounding pavilions, buildings and hermitages. Gold-plated turrets, sumptuous waterspouts, a myriad of monuments and statues of incalculable value rise up amidst an emerald embrace of immaculate gardenscape, creating something everyone on this planet should see at least once in their lifetime.

The Orangerie, Catherine’s Batiment, The Hermitage, the Marley Palace, The golden Hill Cascade; I’m sure Keith Kirsten would have shot off in his pants. Although the sun plays cat and mouse behind the clouds, I get some gorgeous photos before heading back to the city. A 4 hour exploration eventually leads us to the delectable (KABkas) Cavkes or ‘Caucasian’ Café, where we dine on flattened chicken spiced, in true Georgian tradition with dill and garlic. Fantastic food and a great end to our penultimate day in the city.

31 August 2007

Right, so it is Zdrast vitye to Russia, goodbye to the heartland of the great communist dream, the place where the Great cold War fermented and burnt in all its fury. And then fizzled out, sputtering like a candle within a tempestuous Siberian blizzard. Somehow I think that the flame that this visit sparked inside my heart will last for a long time to come, just like the hardy people walking the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg will survive all the vagaries of the new reality sweeping the Motherland.

It is one last wild ride as we blast past the concrete skeletons lining the outskirts of St P in a stuffed-up taxi. The driver looks like a hired gun in a crap B-grade movie, but he gets us to the airport well on time. I suspect LM is rather pleased to get rid of her unstructured cannonball tourism brother, but it is not long before she meets up with me again. In fact, she’s flying from France 8 am tomorrow and will be joining me and the Williams family in Lyme Regis for 3 days. Bonus!! For me anyway – she might have a completely different idea though.