hey, clown, we’re gonna put you in the ground

[22:02:59] Anna: i served nick and louis reynolds in spar today
[22:03:04] Anna: and louis is so loud
[22:03:07] Anna: charming but loud
[22:03:09] Brosencrantz: he is a bit
[22:03:09] Anna: i sat next to him in my seminar on monday
[22:03:17] Anna: and i left deaf in my right ear
[22:03:20] Brosencrantz: I may be responsible for getting him excited though
[22:03:32] Brosencrantz: you know those like flat trolleys for moving big crates around?
[22:03:36] Anna: yes, nick did say he’d just seen you
[22:03:38] Anna: yes
[22:03:54] Brosencrantz: we were using one for moving out the last of toby’s shit
[22:04:17] Brosencrantz: and we had to return it to the history department after
[22:04:19] Brosencrantz: and er
[22:04:27] Brosencrantz: louis got on it and I pushed him around while he pretended to be a tank commander
[22:04:58] Brosencrantz: there are those ramps outside the mason lounge
[22:05:02] Brosencrantz: dr b heard “TO THE RHINE” from his fourth floor office
[22:05:52] Brosencrantz: so um
[22:05:53] Brosencrantz: my fault
[22:06:06] Anna: THIS IS WHY I LOVE YOU

[17:14:13] Hovercraft: so russian numbers are mostly pretty logical
[17:15:13] Hovercraft: 23 is “dvadsat’ tree”, where dvadsat’ is like “two-ten” and tree is obviously three
[17:15:16] Hovercraft: so similar to english
[17:15:31] Hovercraft: and all the teens follow the same pattern, including eleven and twelve
[17:15:36] Hovercraft: which are freak numbers in english
[17:15:41] Hovercraft: but then 40 is sorok
[17:15:49] Hovercraft: which doesn’t follow the pattern at all
[17:15:55] Hovercraft: WHY
[17:18:30] Hovercraft: According to the most common version, the word comes from the term “bundle of fur skins” (sables, martens, etc..), Which accounted for the title number, represented the standard unit measures, trade and storage of these skins. Skins wrapped in tissue, “Forty” (a word akin to the word ” shirt “, from the ancient” sorochka “Old Slavic” srachitsa “asshole, asshole) [1] .
[17:18:31] Hovercraft: WHAT THE FUCK

sang like a sparrow in the pouring rain

Back to tiny, dingy, not-nearly-enough-marble-Lenins-around England, and things are going well; fears that academics would seriously mind my disappearance were allayed with a hearty “Welcome back! How’d the invasion of Russia go? Did you leave it as you found it?” in my first seminar back. Should’ve bought them souvenirs.

My first essay mark of the year (an unassessed about battle tactics in the Peninsular War) has come back – 68%, annoyingly short of the First I want will have come hell or high water want. But only 2% short, and one of the two problems with it (a poor footnoting practice that no other tutor has gigged me for in the last two years) is easily dealt with; the lack of specificity will be harder, though I think I can work on it. Dissertation wise, the thesis I really needed for my research has finally come through from the British Library, so I’m seriously getting to grips with that and hope to have an introduction and possibly chapter done for the week; so far, so good, though several of the sources I need will either have to be bought at considerable expense or visited in a library somewhere. But I was going to have to do a research trip to London at some point anyway, and if the sources are in Leeds I am totally happy with doing the Royal Armouries again.

Last weekend was spent visiting my doppelganger (a friend through Siz, who is disturbingly like me in practically every respect save for being a foot shorter and a lady) at her stable in Tonbridge. As she was laid up from a horse-related injury, we happily squandered the weekend lazing around munching popcorn and watching Venture Bros and Generation Kill. It’s very nice just chilling in someone’s company without feeling any obligation to do or be anything. The only cloud was that I managed to leave my flask behind, but I made do while it was in the post (accompanied by some sublime flapjack) – ‘making do’ included bringing a mug and teabag to my special subject lecture/seminar and begging some boiling water off Dr Snape. (Who gave us all teacakes that lecture; I’ve said “our academics are cool” before and you can be damn sure I’m going to be saying it again.)

You may recall [oh god has it really been] two years ago, me getting into a flat panic about my first ever piece of serious uni work. My first-year flatmate went through the exact same thing over her first essay this week. So I sat down with her, reassured her of the non-worthlessness of everything and helped cut 3k words down to 2k; there is a pleasing circle-of-life aspect to this. (Now, I am the master.) Besides that, Mason is crawling with wannabe RAs intriguing for votes and handing out sweets door-to-door in some surreal reverse Halloween.

Filming completed on the two GTV productions I got bit parts in; when the episodes go online, I may post links if they’re not terminally embarrassing (chances are low). I went to see a student production of Trainspotting (starring a chap I know from school) which was very good and very grim, though there’s a very strange dissonance when you facebook-stalk the cast after the fact and see people who you only know as a violent, threatening Scots psycho frolicking in happy-hipster duds or playing ukuleles. The future is so weird.

Redbrick won a Guardian Student Media Award for Best Website! While I’m very hesitant to claim any responsibility for that – pretty much everything I did on the site, Chris H came along and did better – the (mostly unspoken) consensus is that our coverage of the Birmingham riots was what put us on the radar, and I was part of the team that pulled that through. Also on the society front, Tea Society had their AGM this week; the committee were unanimously re-elected and the one contested position was a very close-run thing. All in all a thoroughly civilised affair with nice cups of tea everywhere. Law for Non-Law Society are tooling up for our Christmas Networking gig, inviting lawyers and attempting publicity everywhere.

It’s coming to me now that this really is the beginning of the end; that I’ve got, essentially, one term left at university before real life comes. And that’s vaguely terrifying.

paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than with you and me

[01:47:37] Hovercraft: how is Ø pronounced in danish anyway?
[01:47:57] Brosencrantz: it’s a sort of “euh” sound
[01:48:18] Brosencrantz: oeutoft
[01:48:25] Brosencrantz: but short
[01:48:48] Hovercraft: goddamn them and their multiple different vowel forms
[01:48:53] Hovercraft: how dare they remove ambiguity
[01:48:53] Brosencrantz: da
[01:48:59] Brosencrantz: I know
[01:49:01] Brosencrantz: it’s fucking sick
[01:50:11] Hovercraft: it’s been scientifically proven that 100% of the beauty of english lies in the fact that you haven’t a goddamn clue how to pronounce a particular vowel in any word a priori
[01:50:40] Brosencrantz: that doesn’t sound like science to me
[01:50:49] Hovercraft: I said a priori
[01:50:51] Hovercraft: that’s latin
[01:50:52] Hovercraft: LATIN
[01:50:56] Hovercraft: AKA SCIENCE
[01:50:59] Brosencrantz: LATIN IS THE LANGUAGE OF THE CHURCH
[01:51:00] Brosencrantz: NOT SCIENCE
[01:51:04] Brosencrantz: PAPIST
[01:51:11] Hovercraft: LATIN WAS THE LINGUA FRANCA OF SCIENCE FOR CENTURIES
[01:51:20] Brosencrantz: WHILE SCIENCE WAS A COCKPUPPET FOR THE POPE
[01:51:50] Hovercraft: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_priori_(languages) fuck
[01:52:14] Hovercraft: Examples of a priori languages include Ro, Solresol, Mirad, Klingon, and Na’vi.
[01:52:20] Hovercraft: kill everything

shaggy hat story

Phone call to Ben, who constantly needles me re hats and TF2.
“Mr M! Are you responsible for the parcel that greeted me today?”
“Er… not that I know of!”
“It’s a hat.”
“No, that wasn’t me.”
“It’s a pretty good hat. Not cheap. I thought it might have been you, given endless TF2-related hat shenanigans.”
“Yeah. I rather wish it was me now. Damn, beaten to the hat-trolling.”

Phone call to my littlest brother.
“Bro, did you send me a hat?”
“Er. What?”
“A hat came in the post for me today. No return address, no inkling of who it’s from. It’s a really snazzy hat, but… I’m just confused.”
“Wasn’t me.”
“Damn. I ask because there was a small mistake on the address, which is the same as in an address I gave you before. Who’ve you been giving my address to?”
“Only Lene…”
“Doesn’t seem her style; she sends me My Little Pony instead.”
“Sorry bro, no idea. I can say it was me if you like?”
“Thanks for the offer, but no. Aight. Love to famille.”

Tweet Philip (who is the first man I think of when I think of classy hats.)
Me: Mr Reeve, were you the source of a rather nice (dapper!) present that arrived on my doorstep today?
Philip: I don’t think so… but maybe I should take the credit anyway. What was it?
Me: A hat. If it’s not you I am plumb out of ideas.
Philip: You have a mystery hat benefactor! That’s cool! Or possibly creepy. Oh, and ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ as you youngsters say.
Me: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8641285/ihavenoidea.jpg It’s too small for my comically oversized bonce, so perhaps I shall exchange it for a larger one…
Me: ..when I work out WHY ON EARTH I HAVE BEEN SENT A HAT.

Text my cousin, who’s one of the few remaining people who know my uni address.
Me: Alright, I can’t think of why you would have, but did you send me a hat?
Joey: Er, no, i definitely didn’t. What sort of hat? Secret admirer maybe?
Me: Pork pie hat. Black wool. Well classy. Arrived anonymously. Deeply confused.
Joey: Wow, that is very strange. Sounds good tho. Hand written address?
Me: No, has been bought through some internet company.
Joey: Even weirder. Your bio bro? Mum? Does it fit?
Me: No no and not really :( my head is too big.

Hit my middle brother up on facebook chat.
Me: did you send me a hat?
Me: I can’t think of why you might have but I’ve kind of exhausted the reasonable possibilities at this point
Olly: Umm… When?
Olly: I don’t think I did…
Me: Today. Arrived on my doorstep. It’s a cool hat but I AM SO CONFUSED.
Olly: umm… sure it’s for you?
Olly: I’ve not sent you one
Me: it’s addressed to me
Olly: umm, interesting
Olly: :\ No idea!
Me: hum
Me: oh well
Me: cheers
Olly: I want a hat now
Me: MINE
Olly: what kind of hat?
Olly: Maybe you have a secret admirer?
Me: http://www.hatsandcaps.co.uk/Jaxon-Hats-Pork-Pie-Hat-P135065/ this kind of hat
Me: what kind of secret admirer sends you a fucking hat
Me: …and knows my address
Olly: that’s not a bad hat…
Olly: Maybe it’s a TF2 related joke?
Me: that’s what I thought, but I phoned up the chap I would expect that joke from and he denied all involvement
Olly: ah…
Olly: absolutely no idea then!
Me: that makes five of us
Me: so far

Me: bro
Me: forgive me if this is something of a left field question
James: …right
James: continue
Me: did you send me a hat?
James: did you receive an anonymous hat?
Me: yes
James: well, i hate to disappoint, but it wasn’t me
Me: well I’m just terminally confused now
James: …what kind of hat was it?
Me: http://www.hatsandcaps.co.uk/Jaxon-Hats-Pork-Pie-Hat-P135065/
James: that exact hat?
Me: da
James: maybe it’s someone who wishes to see your style evolve
James: equally, it could be an assassin’s calling card
James: don’t sleep
Me: ordinarily that wouldn’t be a problem, but I left my flask in kent at the weekend and have been criminally undercaffeinated since
Me: hum
James: you’re fucked m8
Me: it’s a hat not a goddamn letter bomb bro
James: it has a hidden camera
James: it’s covered with syphilis
James: there’s a needle inside with HIV blood
Me: there’s probably some perfectly innocuous reason for this, like someone asked me to post something to them, and I’ve forgotten about the whole affair with my retarded sieve memory
Me: oh
Me: wait
Me: yeah
Me: that’s it
Me: well done me
Me: yeah it’s for a friend who can’t get things posted to their country
Me: I am middlemanning
Me: right
James: aah
Me: better take this to the post office

Poyekhali!

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.

it takes more courage to retreat than to advance

Unlike most other Moscow attractions, the Central Museum of the Armed Forces has a jolly nice little map on their site telling you how to get there, which we followed faithfully, and after a brief jaunt along Selezneveskaya Street, with lots of trams rumbling about, were rather perturbed to find that an entirely new metro station (Dostoevskaya) had been built right next to the museum since that map had been uploaded.

Oh well.

The biggest difference between Russian military museums and British ones is that the Russians remember that they actually won. The CMAF isn’t just a great annotated assortment of Soviet and Russian military junk – though it’s definitely that, with a huge park of tanks outside and a pronounced WW2 bent – it’s a museum of victory, with that famous banner that once flew over the Reichstag (surrounded by captured Nazi weapons and standards liberally scattered with iron crosses) at the centre of the collection. As soon as you enter the museum, you are greeted by an enormous mosaic of heroic, sculpted Soviet soldiers celebrating their triumph. (Alright, so there’s a giant scowling Lenin head just in front of it, and off to the side, there’s a statue of some soldiers kissing, but the mosaic is what catches the eye.)

The post-war military stuff (with the tanks gradually becoming more boring, the planes becoming boring and then suddenly cool again) had lots of fancy Russian small-arms and the remains of Gary Powers’ crashed U-2 spy plane as well as cases devoted to the VDV; the pre-war stuff included a number of wonderful murals and dioramas of the (Russian) Civil War, and one of those little horse and cart jobbies with a machine gun. Out behind the museum building, under a grey sky that turned to snow as soon as we went outside, there was the expected artillery park, tank brigade, fleet of armoured cars, wing of jet fighters/bombers and pile of v-launch ballistic missiles, plus an armoured train and a collection of interesting marine weapons (such as a depth-charge lobber and a small warship.) The whole collection was behind a simple iron fence, within fifty metres of a children’s playground. That would be a cool place to grow up.

The Metro will get a post all of its own because it’s amazing and warrants one, but suffice to say that the new Dostoevskaya station (it’s part of a recent extension) is absurdly beautiful. We went to its equally new and equally stunning sister at Mariyna Roshcha before changing to the circle line, changing again at Prospekt Mira and rolling up to VDNKh.

VDNKh (vey-dey-en-khai to Russians and Bill, vuh-doonk to cool people) was one of the things we’d been looking forward to most: it’s an immense, surreal, semi-abandoned exhibition park, a sort of Soviet Crystal Palace/World’s Fair built on an obscene scale. Outside the park, the Monument to the Conquerors of Space swoops skyward and the great “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” shines stainlessly with the glare of banks of spotlights, and within the triumphal gate the grounds are lined with pavilions built by all the Socialist Republics to show off their wealth and grandeur. The Space Pavilion was perhaps the most amazing of them all, a beautifully engineered hall as big as St Paul’s Cathedral, with a Vostok rocket hanging on its launch gantry outside.

Now bad hip-hop blares from speakers zip-tied to hammer-and-sickle-adorned streetlamps and hawkers try vainly to draw punters to their lean-to dives or carny attractions, but more than anything the place feels empty; not abandoned, but so vast and so thinly populated that you can feel alone. The pavilions are now either home to clutches of small, squalid businesses or just falling down completely; the Space Pavilion is almost deserted, with a few stalls selling flower seeds and garden equipment huddled inside it at one end. Even after dark, with the whole park lit up and Ostankino Tower standing cloud-high underneath an aurora of its own creation, I couldn’t quite imagine the place when it had been great. VDNKh isn’t dead – there are plenty of sad little fairgroundy businesses scratching a living at its fringes. Every so often there’s an attempt to revitalise it and some huge structure is built or renovated, and a few hopeful capitalists still use its huge pavilions for actually exhibiting, but it will never be filled in the same way. It, more than anything else, makes post-Soviet Russia seem like a child wearing its parents’ clothes.

Hungry, we stopped at a stall selling blinis (crepes/pancakes). Unable to really read the menu, Bill and Tom plumped for the most expensive “Tsar Blini” (turned out to be ersatz caviar) while I picked a 75RU one at random (turned out to be jam) and a couple of mystery pastries from the stall next to it (one was meat, one was a sort of tasty Russian sauerkraut.) Thoroughly footsore, we wandered the park a bit more and took a closer look at Worker and Kolkhoz Woman and the Monument to the Conquerors of Space before going on the Metro-exploring trip we’d been mulling since ever.

I think, looking back, VDNKh might eclipse Monino as my favourite memory of the holiday; it is fabulous and decrepit, triumphant and mournful in equal measure, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Next: The Museum of the Great Patriotic War and the Tretyakov (sort of.)

a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth

On Wednesday morning we overslept, rousing ourselves only when it was twenty minutes before the end of breakfast, and filled up on buffet in a sleepy daze. Fortunately, once we finally got outside, it turns out that Moscow in November is a wakeup as subtly effective as being beaten with a pillowcase full of ice cubes.

Top priority was Lenin. However, due to some odd notions of being able to store our bags in the State Historical Museum cloakroom, and a number of inconvenient fences, we ended up going around the museum building about three times before finally reaching the mausoleum. But given the ridiculous grandeur surrounding us (and the street attractions, including a couple of chaps dressed as streltsy and a tubby woman with a megaphone heckling everyone in Russian) we weren’t too troubled. For those unaware, Red Square is neither red nor a square; it’s a huge, vaguely rectangular expanse between the Kremlin wall and a vast building that’s nowadays used for shops, with the majestic State Museum building at one end and the ridiculous, unbelievable St Basil’s Cathedral at the other, both bracketed by enough space on either side to drive a fleet of tanks through (and they have). If the Kremlin is a little too fairytale to look like a fortress, St Basil’s is full on Mushroom Kingdom trippy-insanity, an enormous, loopy conglomerate of randomly designed towers and rainbow-coloured cupolas. Lenin’s mausoleum is the only restrained building there, a blocky little Lego-looking thing of black and red marble surrounded by chain fences and unsmiling guards.

When we finally got to see him (sans bags, sans phones, sans cameras, sans everything), we descended marble steps into quiet blackness; the place has been perfectly pitched to inspire silent reverence. There he was, lying in a glass tank, tiny and plastic-looking, wrapped in black velvet and bathed in rosy light so that he looked like an expensive chocolate in a shop window. Seeing him was more than worth the hassle.

(“So, there’s Brezhnev, there’s Kalinin… and hah, there’s Papa Joe. He seems to have more flowers than anyone else.”
“There was this cool Superman miniseries about if he was Soviet instead of Ameri-
“We are standing at Stalin’s grave and all you can talk about is fucking Superman?”)

The State Museum (250 roubles) contained A (near-) Complete History of Russia, finishing in Tsarist times and starting from before the evolution of man. It had all the artefacts. All of them. I was very sorry we left the camera in the (finally located!) cloakroom; but I gawked at a thousand muskets and maps and arrowheads and fancy uniforms and strange, ancient bronze things; most rooms had at least one case devoted to the East, full of yatagans and mirror-armour and spice traders with unsettlingly thin taches. Items of particular interest included Vereshchagins and an eight-metre canoe carved from some enormous log, and it was of course all in the usual beautiful, solid and built-on-a-wildly-different-scale Russian architecture.

St Basil’s wanted another 250 roubles to get in, and we reckoned that once you’ve seen the insides of all the Kremlin orthodox cathedrals you’ve pretty much seen them all, so we gave it a pass and edged past building works and a van full of soldiers trying and failing to hide behind curtains, finding an unexpected (free) archaeology museum down a side street and spending ten enjoyable minutes looking at even more ancient Muscovite remains. Past a street of cathedrals, with something huge and demolished being picked over by machines beyond their onion-domes, and through bare, desolate Soviet parks populated only by fluffy sparrows, we came to the old KGB headquarters at Lubyanka, followed by the Bolshoi Theatre, both the casus belli for much pointing and photographing. They don’t make things like this at home; and even if they did, they’d be a quarter the size.

Having looped back round to Red Square, we bought a couple of burgers at the McDonalds there in tribute to the triumph of capitalism, and ate them watching the guards change at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, feeding our fries to yet more sparrows. (I’ve missed them at home in the last few years; where have all the sparrows gone?)

After that, we tried the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, on the basis that even if it was shut or wanted a fee it’s a pretty spectacular building from the outside. The present cathedral is unusual in that it’s brand new: the original was torn down by the Communists in order to build an immense “Palace of the Soviets” which was eventually cancelled by WW2 (afterwards, Stalin had the Seven Sisters built instead, and Krushchev had a gigantic open-air swimming pool [!?!] placed on the cathedral’s remains.) So the new cathedral, a mostly-faithful copy of the old with bronze reinterpretations, was built from private donations in the nineties, and it’s stunning. As with Metro stations, it’s just nice to see new things being built properly and tastefully; the closest parallel I can think of is Coventry Cathedral (which is still a bit clumsy from the outside). The cathedral is white marble, bronze, gold and (of course) vast; it’s got that very Moscow combination of expensive materials, inspired design, proper build quality and genuine care lavished upon it, and is crammed with Orthodox murals and icons as shining and beautiful as the day they were made, without the centuries of entropy that all the Kremlin’s classics have clearly endured. Outside stands a monumental statue of Tsar Alexander II, whose two-headed eagle medallion is lifted by the wind and clanks rhythmically against his great bronze chest.

We crossed the footbridge that sticks out from the cathedral’s foundations, being blown about by the wind across the river, watching the spotlights on the Kremlin slant up into the gentle rain and the traffic glitter off the titanic (and I’m seriously going to run out of synonyms for “big” in a minute; Moscow is like that) statue of Peter the Great over the river. Then a wander through warehouse-districts-turned-nightclubs in the built up areas south of the river, hunting a metro station that turned out to be Polyanka, and back to the hotel for a dinner of borscht and dumplings.

Next: VDNKh and the Central Armed Forces Museum.