Five things I forgot about Moscow

I’ve finally become adept at the strategies necessary to fully milk British Airways of their frequent flyer miles – it’ll be from London into China via Almaty by way of Moscow ($127) and out of China to London via Hong Kong by way of Helsinki ($100). And so to Moscow, where the smell of coal in the evening air elicits a Proustian punch in the gut. Sadly though, Proust then leaves me in the lurch, to re-learn the hard way.

  1. That the male Muscovites who feel compelled to seize one’s luggage and run it up the nearest flight of stairs are not generally concerned about one’s own intentions re: those stairs.
  2. That the babushkas milling at the Metro exits are not there to provide directions and so, when asked, will recoil in horror and let loose the evil eye.
  3. It is possible to reach anywhere by Metro within 15 minutes but only if (a) on the correct train and (b) it is going in the right direction.
  4. That the trams are pristine and look very appealing but at the first intersection they will abruptly veer to the left and proceed express to a hospital in the suburbs.
  5. Google Translate cannot charm art museums into discretionary senior discounts.

Which takes care of the first morning.

Who knows where I ended up, but here is ‘Pub Boston’. I didn’t go in.

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Still the ‘light jazz’ at the Metro, when I finally found it, was very cheery. His mom was working the crowd, collecting donations.

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The bowels of Moscow

The first sight of our guide-to-be, Maxim, casts immediate doubt on the notion that ‘Bunker 42’ will be a nice Stalin-era re-enactment equivalent to our local ‘Plimoth Plantation’ as I have so eagerly anticipated. With a haircut and voice to match the head-to-toe military ensemble it is hard to imagine him changing into jeans and going home to eat chips in front of the TV, like the performers at PP presumably do.

Maxim totally looks (and acts) the part. But how much of an act is it?

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Originally the actual Soviet nuclear command center, Bunker 42 – 18 long flights of decaying concrete steps beneath street level – is the single decommissioned example from a warren of bunkers in the bowels of Moscow still in use by the current iteration of the KGB – which Maxim tries to reassure us is merely a bureaucratic arm of government (on reflection, this is probably true).

Eight more floors to go

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Bunker 42. Presumably 1-41 (at least) are lurking somewhere else.

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Apparently the poor sods who actually built it were told they were expanding the Metro system.

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Luckily for him Stalin died before it was finished and Kruschev sensibly declined KGB invitations to visit. Btw, would he really have had a picture of Lenin on the wall?

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Its pièce de resistance is the command console replete with evidently fully functional Cold-War era computers, flashing lights and all. Maxim even invites a couple of volunteers to participate in a ‘nuclear launch’ and we are treated to a full-on surround-sound simulation of the whole shebang with visuals courtesy of a histrionic Soviet propaganda film (absolutely no photos please). It would all be agreeably hokey except here we are in the bowels of the earth next to an actual nuclear bomb (presumably also decommissioned, but who knows with these guys) and a table full of ICBM models, with Maxim fondling the most current version. It is all rather unnerving.

Apparently they were all sitting here during the Cuban missile crisis just waiting for the codes. The red button on the right hand side does the job.

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And here is an actual atomic bomb, hopefully disarmed, but looking suspiciously intact.

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Even the East German (who’s presumably heard it all before) is totally creeped out, let alone the phalanx of Netherlanders who make a pell-mell dash up the stairs at the earliest opportunity. In honor of my advanced years Maxim invites me to ride up with him in the elevator. Since it was last serviced pre-Perestroika we have plenty time for a chat (if I imagined he’d break open the metaphorical bag of chips I’m wrong)

M: Where you from?

Me: Well I live in the US.

M: I was in US, for a few years, New York.

Me: Studying?

M: No.

M: So what about Russia?

Me: Well I’ve been reading a book* that says Russia is a Mafia State (the thesis of the book is that the current Russian state cannot be considered classically totalitarian since it exists primarily to facilitate kleptocracy).

M: Yes, like US. And so what about Kennedy?  He killed because he too good relations with Russians (I make careful note of the phrasing and try to parse out what he really meant later).

M: And what about Crimea?

Me: Well if you’re so worried about border security I think you’d better get out of Crimea.

M: But Crimea is so small. Never mind, is Russian joke.

Me: Oh.

M: We love our Tsar and we are not a democracy. I hope we will never become one.

Me: Oh. And where are you from Maxim?

M: Ukraine. When it was part of the motherland.

The doors open.

*‘The future is history; how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia’ by Masha Gessen. Readable, but using activists as the hook turns it into too much insider baseball, 3 stars.

Even more social realism

Off to the New Tretyakov Gallery, which Google maps failed at so miserably at last year. While my 3 day unlimited Metro pass ($5) will handily underwrite all transport errors, I manage to cruise in in under 15 minutes, a whole 30 minutes early. But not alone. The plaza in front is an ocean of pensioners stamping their snow boots grumpily where they expected the snow to be (it isn’t and won’t be despite the forecast). But they are on to something – it takes the Tretyakov folk a full 45 minutes to decide whether to use entrance 1 or 3 for tickets, necessitating much shuffling back and forth and even more convivial complaining that this is presumably a decision they have not been suddenly faced with today.

The snowy side of the new Tretyakov, the pensioners are grumpily milling at the front.

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Inside, the definitive collection of Soviet era art, including a fair selection that had to be dug out of attics once Stalin was no longer around to offer critiques via a bullet in the head.  Totally absorbing how Russian art so rigorously reflects the trajectory of society in a way that European and American art, with their emphasis on genre rather than context, does not. Not surprising then that we pensioners are outnumbered by swathes of elementary school kids crouched in rapt attention in front of notable works. (Less obvious is why one of the most popular is a drab rendition of still life with cabbage. Another Russian joke or impenetrable metaphor? or maybe the ability to recognize cabbage is a critical social skill. In any case I couldn’t even get near it for a snap.

Some random favorites from the collection

Gotta have a genuine social realism number

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The gulag room

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Shortly after this portrait was finished, the subject (another artist), got a bullet in the head critique from Stalin.

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Another apprehensive artist looking understandably reluctant to pose.

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The 90s were a whole other thing. They seem to be over. This time I didn’t see a single person drinking, in the streets or otherwise.

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Funny, never saw any Putin satire

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In the walkway to the Metro, the wannabes. Technically superb but sales might be better if they copied something interesting.

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In the evening another Proustian moment at the opera: Nabucco was the first I ever saw performed when I was 16, in Llandudno of all places, by the Welsh National when they used to do their summer rounds. Even through a Proustian filter it is  handily eclipsed by this Novaya theatre version – an electric even transcendant performance despite the manager having to appear on stage beforehand and apologize profusely for a Latvian coup d’etat in the cast (I think).

I don’t know whether the sold-out crowd was as surprised as me that they staged it as a fascist-led deportation of Jews set in the 1930s (the 80s was probably a bridge too far). Still the audience stays in its seats and at the end applauds the chorus as enthusiastically as the principals.

Somehow that seems immensely important. At this time. In this place.

A $12 seat at the Novaya opera.

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