There were some delays getting to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. One involved me forgetting my wallet; one involved giving directions to some hopelessly lost (but attractive) Chinese LED merchants bound, somewhat appropriately, for Elektrozavodskaya. But we eventually arrived at Park P-Body, deepest and shiniest Metro station of them all, to attempt on Friday what we’d failed to do on Tuesday.
There’s a giant obelisk in front of the big crescent-shaped museum building; working under the (as it turned out, erroneous) belief that its height was something to do with war deaths, we tried to work out what tiny fraction of a millimetre each dead Soviet got. (Actually, the needle is 10cm for each day of the Soviet involvement in the war; giving 10cm to each death would get you an obelisk several hundred kilometres tall.)
The basement was, I think, the best part; a U-shaped corridor ringing the “Hall of Memory and Sorrow”, with passages fanning out like a five-pointed star and the figure of the Rodina mourning her fallen son beneath thousands of hanging chains. All around the ring were rooms containing lavish dioramas (which seem to be very popular in Russia) – giant, impossibly detailed paintings of battles, with a little foreground set made of genuine weapons and facsimile trenches; the real-world section was usually a bit dusty and tacky, but the paintings themselves are the sort of huge, epic war-glorifying vistas that could convince a generation of young men to march to their deaths, and the Siege of Leningrad diorama in particular was deliciously detailed and grim.
Besides that, the museum was the sort of solid, heroic stuff you’d expect. Few of the cases held anything we hadn’t seen before at the Central Museum of the Armed Forces (Hitler/Mussolini puppets and weird political cartoons involving submariners and pigs notwithstanding) but the general presentation was considerably better, and most of the captions were duplicated in English. And there was some amazing stuff there, the weapons and set-pieces from so many iconic battles and historical photos; the Russians have not yet turned their museums into politically-correct interactive playpens with shiny feely-good lights and interviews from local drunks about the parish. It’s a Museum, a great big building full of interesting, important artifacts chosen with care by well-informed historians, and that is just as it should be. Off in one wing was an art gallery full of heroic Soviet faces in various styles; in another, an exhibition detailed Nazi forced labour systems in such violently anti-German language that my first reaction was “oh now steady on Ivan, that’s the pot calling the kettle a genocidal lunatic”; all the hating on Germany suddenly made sense when we discovered that the exhibition had been put together by Germans, with German government funding. Again like the CMAF, the centrepiece of the entire museum was a huge triumphal section; an immense sculpture of an idealised warrior, in a high-domed room ringed with bas-reliefs of the Hero Cities and great stone slabs bearing the gold-inlaid names of the motherland’s champions.
I like the USSR’s highest honour. No vulgar flash, no paeans to gods or sovereigns or abstract concepts; none of the noise or clutter or grandiloquence of the Soviet second-bests or the West’s greatest honours. A plain red ribbon, a plain gold star, and the simple title HERO OF THE SOVIET UNION.
On the way out, wandering Park Pobedy in search of the railway gun pictured on the museum site, we found a deeply unpromising-looking outdoor military assortment; as far as we could see, the collection on offer was merely a set of generic field guns and a few banged-up panzers. But we coughed up the 75RU and were richly rewarded; beyond the hill there were two railway guns, an armoured train, a non-armoured train, an artillery park, an air wing, a shock army’s worth of tanks, and a squadron of warships and warship bits, scattered across acres and acres of park in the snow (as with both previous times we found ourselves outside surrounded by materiel).
By now thoroughly footsore from a week of cumulative schlepping, we headed for the Tretyakov; we found the elusive bloody thing eventually, but by the time we did so there was barely an hour of opening left. I’m not against paying 450RU (£10+) for an art gallery, but for one hour’s enjoyment that seemed a little steep, and doing museumy things in a rush is always awful anyway. We agreed to put it on the “next Moscow trip” list, and went to browse the Tret’s official Shopful o’ Arts, coming away with some gorgeous and aggressively reasonable posters. So we went hunting for the Tret Modern and its fabled parks-full-of-unwanted-ex-Soviet-statues, but that, too, turned out to be a bust: a pitch-black garden in which we could not possibly see anything, charging an entry fee. Sitting near the colossally ridiculous and ridiculously colossal statue of Peter the Great surfing the Russian navy, we decided to call it a day and fall back to Vladykino, packing up for the journey home.
The last day was really a half-day, as we were flying back, and the only item we had planned was Izmailovsky Market. Getting there (stopping en route to visit Elektrozavodskaya, not as polished as advertised but still a palace of light) was again somewhat troublesome, because it turned out that there are actually two Izmailovsky stations on the map – Izmailovskaya and Izmailovsky Park – and one of them (predictably, the one we actually wanted) is called Partizanskaya in the real world. Still, we made it eventually, to The Vernissage, a weird commercial fairyland made of wood and ramshackle stalls. Izmailovsky was the most touristy part of Moscow we encountered, full of loud, obnoxious English-speaking voices in contrast to the bleak silence or quiet, sullen Russian that had generally characterised the holiday.
With that, the market was everything we expected, a sprawling cornucopia of Russo-tat, with overpriced hats and Soviet-adorned hipster trash galore, stalls piled high with crafts and clothes and the flotsam and jetsam of a dozen wars. We browsed at length, but all felt that vague disappointment so specific to markets: they’re full of cool stuff, but there’s very little of it you actually want to own, especially at that price. Looking at the endlessly arrayed semi-cool vendor trash, I felt very much a product of Amazon and eBay: unimpressed by things I can just buy off the internet for less, and anyway rather disinterested in owning things, even mementos unless they actually do something useful or fun. Material possessions just aren’t that great, and they take up so much space; maybe my tune will change when I’m rich, fat, insecure and desperate for
anything to cling to mementos of the good years. Bill couldn’t get anyone to sell him a VDV badge, Tom couldn’t find any decent tools for his work (it was all just woodcutting stuff). I found the Mosin-Nagant bolt that Rob asked for, but even after some haggling it was still more than the 700RU left in my pocket, so I spent those roubles on some small gifts for friends and a winter hat. In the end, we bought very little, and chucked our small change at a pathside snack place on the way back to the station, for artery-clogging samosas and meaty pastry blobs.
Then we rolled back to the hotel to pick up our junk and some cheap(er) Aeroexpress tickets, and made one last stomp from the Zarya to Vladykino, one last Metro ride to the terminus. The flight, bracketed by the great long international grind of queues, baggage and passport control (according to Bill, Ottawa > Domodedovo > Heathrow, but airports and their rituals all seem the same to me, generically identical, like red top strip-malls with runways) was as expected; we had an amusing flight attendant who kept trying to get everyone to take more bottles of wine.
([All screens are showing a map of Europe, our plane slowly crossing it.]
“So yeah, this is a good movie.”
“I wonder how it’s going to end?”
“Dunno. Hope there’s a twist.”)
After a week of Moscow, London felt absurdly small and squalid and sweltering, Tube stations insultingly grimy and crude and their trains like grotesque little perambulatory Pringles cans. But we rode one back to Tom’s, and up in his room in the Moscow-time small hours, cracked open my laptop and one of the cheap bottles of Stolichnaya to go through our holiday snaps with and toast to bro-holidays past and future.