Ja budu borscht!*

*I’ll have the borscht!

The Moscow city government, anticipating the soccer World Cup, is providing me welcome help in deploying my 120 word Russian vocabulary. Beyond sporadic transliterations of essential signs, they are also encouraging businesses to be more English aware. It is a work in progress: While the SIM card shop is fully fluent “How nice to see a babushka smiling, ours are so grumpy”, the ticket booth at the local metro stop which cheerily announces ‘We speak English!’ seems to rely on a random loiterer rather than an actual employee to provide the service.

Down on the platforms the signs for which train goes where have not yet been attended to, so each word must be attacked syllable by painful syllable, while dodging the crowds. Luckily trains come literally every minute, so mistakes made are easily undone. And what trains! Or more accurately, what stations! Determined to distract the proletariat from their daily grind some inspired comrade (it may even have been Stalin himself) decreed every station be festooned in decorative excess. So Komsomolskaya is frothy French Baroque, Kievskaya is patriotic mosaics dripping with gilt and Pobedy Park  an art deco extravaganza. I spend a satisfying afternoon checking out the top 20 for the cost of a single ticket ($1) after the sun went in and the temperature dropped down below -20° again.





Park Pobedy


Eyes on the Prize.

Yesterday morning’s blue skies had tout Moscow outside to celebrate (February prior clocked only 6 minutes of sunshine, 2 fewer than January), while all of military Russia – enormous commandos in arctic camouflage and no gloves and dumpy Cossacks in furry boots and big moustaches converged on Red Square to celebrate ‘Defense of the Fatherland’. Strangely and to my acute disappointment no-one, not even Katrina my nice young lady (NYL) guide for the ‘hidden Moscow’ walking tour had any idea (or interest in) where the military parade would be. It turned out to be a private party down at the tomb of the unknown soldier, however Putin was on hand to address a meager political rally. Evidently the attendees had been bussed in and they sloped off for ice-cream at the earliest opportunity (all the liquor stores had been closed).


Putin is not managing to rally the faithful on this occasion.

Hidden Moscow was mostly electric substations designed to resemble libraries and concert theatres (another Stalinist brainwave) and culminated with an apartment building that had been moved several hundred meters to widen the road, thereby preventing insurrections being plotted in the erstwhile narrow lanes. It must be noted that the apartment building in question was more than 5 stories high and appeared to be built of solid stone. The move was accomplished clandestinely at night with the residents in bed and the utilities (including gas) still on. Apparently they woke up oblivious, having been purposely given the wrong date for the adventure.


The apartment building in question. Don’t ask me how.

My afternoon ‘Communist Moscow’ walking tour also touted moving massive buildings (in this case City Hall) as one of the highlights of the soviet era in, but the true highlight of the tour itself had to be the NYL (Marina) presenting the line for McDonald’s at its opening in the 80s (at 30,000 at least 28,000 more than Putin pulled earlier) as evidence for how Russians have been tricked by the West (can’t disagree with that). Low points (of both the Soviets and the tour) being the Lubyanka prison – examined only from a distance; what sounded suspiciously like the beginning of Stalin’s rehabilitation “He won the war”, an uncomfortably robust defense of Putin “By keeping our borders safe he allows us to concentrate on our internal problems” and an all-to-familiar perspective on the US elections “Trump is better for us than Clinton would have been” – all rather eyebrow-raising from a history graduate student. She was so enthusiastic it seemed churlish to bring up Crimea, Ukraine and fake news. I was not at all surprised to be  directed to a faux Soviet style café afterwards, nor that the café was packed.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_42d4Apparently City Hall was moved 30 meters in 30 seconds (or was it 300 meters). In any case more haste less speed made a big crack in the top floor (since papered over).


Marina and her ‘trainee’ Sergey, who provided the raised eyebrow accompaniment to Marina’s more surprising analyses of Russian history. Note the worker thinking on the job. As Sergey pointed out, he wouldn’t have lasted long in the Stalinist era.

:Users:karinameiri:Pictures:Photos Library.photoslibrary:resources:proxies:derivatives:42:00:42c3:UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_42c3.jpgThe borscht nevertheless was delicious.

IMG_2889However I had the gulag museum to myself.


No lines today. Lenin, like Ho Chi Min last year, is being refurbished.


2018: The Golden Road to Samarkand

This trip has been in my mind for more than 50 years. Fittingly then, it officially begins within a few miles of the freezing bedroom in which it was conceived by a restless teen obsessed with the doughty Victorian explorers and febrile poets, yet completely oblivious to the astonishing purpleness of their writing. Fittingly too, it is borne witness by my dear friend Pam, a partner in those teenage dreams, who herself has led a well-traveled life, but who, as a geographer, objects strongly to the notion that the Silk Road begins on a wind-swept beach in Northern England.

‘Away, for we are ready to a man!
Our camels sniff the evening and are glad.
Lead on, O Master of the Caravan,
Lead on the Merchant-Princes of Baghdad.

Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand’.