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.