Archive | August, 2013

Moscow Musings

19 Aug
St Basil's Cathedral

St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

I am in Russia. Having left Moscow, I am cruising over the vast landmass that lies between Moscow and St Petersburg. I am trying hard to find things to say about Moscow. This is unusual for me because I always have something to say about everything.’ This often works to my detriment, but I don’t let that discourage me or dampen my enthusiasm for free speech.

Moscow is a city that has done well to preserve this country’s glorious pre-communist past in all its sumptuousness, for it is the stately Kremlin with all its treasuries and cathedrals that redeems the otherwise lackluster capital of Russia.

You begin to feel disenchanted almost as soon as you arrive into the country. Elena, Ekatrina, Alexandra our cabin crew (and also the names of almost all the girls in Russia) have smiled at you generously on the flight and shown you perfect hospitality and then abandoned you into the unloving arms of the grumpy immigration officer. He glances suspiciously at your passport and looks disapprovingly at your face a few times before he stamps it and lets you into his country. The taxi you had booked has done a ‘no show’ and the other taxi guy quotes double the asking price. You bargain him down and minutes later you are being driven around in this homicidal taxi by a guy whose flair for stepping on the accelerator leads you to believe that he wanted to be a Formula 1 driver, but couldn’t quite make it because he failed his driving test. This gentleman wears no seat belt, no one else on the roads of Russia does and he speaks no English, no one else in Russia does.

You are unable to explain to him the meaning of ‘slow down’ in any language because he is on an important call on his mobile throughout the drive. You are thinking of all your last wishes and beseeching all your domestic gods, wondering if they can exercise any influence beyond the geographic boundaries of India, because this man is on a mission, to show Lewis Hamilton his rightful place in this world.

You finally arrive at your hotel, which is all that you like and believe to be luxury. Rich tapestry, ornate interiors, lavish drapes, exquisite accents, period art and grandiose chandeliers. The National is well-appointed and overlooks the imposing red square, the Kremlin and St Basil’s cathedral (the very insignia of Moscow with its candy coloured domes spiralling into the sky).

You step out for a stroll after settling in and for the first time in your life, you feel petite. You have longed to be petite since you were introduced to Scarlett O Hara in Gone with the Wind. The universe has finally decided to pay heed to your little desire and sent you to Russia to feel dainty and delicate in this land where women the size of National Football League players strut about defying gravity.

The universe, in all its magnanimity, is not only answering your prayers finally, but also making up for lost years because in Raaashhha (that’s what the locals call it) you find that the girls are not only taller than you but also full-bodied. You remember the lesson on adaptations, your 10-year-old is learning in Science at school. You remember the adipose is there to defend creatures of cold lands from harsh winter. You make a mental note to tell the child to add Raashian girls to her list of species that have adapted and survived due to high body fat along with walruses, penguins and polar bears. You are quietly pleased about your flair for scientific observation and pat your own back about it.

The men in Russia are not only humungous but also insipid looking. Clearly the Commies liked their men, like their buildings, to look square and the brief is still being carried through, years later. For some reason, these men are not only unattractive, but also give the impression of being vacuous. If you were a casting agent, you think to yourself, you would be auditioning them for the role of the peasant who came into the big city to sell a bag of potatoes.

The only man in Moscow, whose body size has failed to impress you, is Lenin. His embalmed corpse lies on display inside the tomb where he looks peaceful and puny inside the hallowed glass case. You are not allowed to pause and take in the sight of him ‘resting’ but are asked to keep moving continuously. Obviously you are not allowed to photograph this great man! While you are indifferent to this news, given that you are not crazy about collecting pictures of dead communists, your heart goes out to the 89,000 Chinese tourists who have waited outside his tomb in their faux pearls and laces to take group photos with his body.

You walk around these quarters of old Moscow, enraptured by the grace and grandeur of its imposing architecture and you realize you are a little lost for the Chinese are nowhere to be seen.

Though your spouse is a pro at map reading and you both are equipped with GPS on your mobiles, you go round and round in circles before you can locate the Armoury Museum. You curse the Russians for not believing in English signage. There is nothing in this city that can make a tourist’s life easier, least of which is their language. To me Russian sounds like someone speaking with marbles in his mouth, and like that person is going to spit on you with all their force once they are done talking.

And what’s with the Russian script? It must have taken a certain degree of warped thinking to take the English script (Latin) and switch half the alphabets around before you can claim it as your own language and call is Russian. What else can explain the fact that their M is the same as the Latin M but their R is the Latin P, their F is somewhat like the O we know with a line running through it and their C is the Latin S? You are reminded of your school days when once you made up a language like that be able to exchange secrets notes with your best friend without getting caught by the teacher. You were 12-years-old at that time and hence too young to realize you were being ridiculous. Russia has had several thousand years to figure out just how idiotic their script is and yet no action. In fact, after reading their distorted script for a week, you are worried if you would ever be able to switch back to reading English again.

The exhibits inside the Armoury Museum leave you gasping. This is the largest collection of gold and silver, emeralds and diamonds that you have ever seen under one roof. Gold dinner sets, diamond gospel covers, precious jewels and diamond studded thrones belonging to Ivan the terrible and Peter the great, Nicholas I and Nicholas ii inside this treasury not only bewitch you with their magnificence but also make you wonder about the pointlessness of material wealth, in the backdrop of Russian Imperialistic history, which is lush with stories of deceit, manipulation and murder.

We want to find the shorter route to GUM, an architecturally famous mall in Moscow built in the early 1800s, but manage to lose our way. The GPS is not working and any attempt to ask for directions from the uniform clad sentries around the Kremlin is met with a grunt. The significance of the sickle and hammer in the old USSR flag has become apparent to you. Right now you wish you had either, to clobber this strange charmless race of people who make no attempt to smile or be helpful.

The most courteous people you have seen anywhere in Moscow so far are the staff of its elegant restaurant Pushkin, who wait on you and serve you with a smile. Your friend who is familiar with Russian food has recommended borsch, a hearty beetroot soup and you are glad for it. This is by far the best experience that you have had over your three days in Moscow and you intend to hold on to it. The flight is about to land and St Petersburg awaits. You have dreamt of this city since you read War and Peace and Anna Karenina and you can barely curb your excitement. Hopefully this birthplace of Lenin and Dostoevsky will not disappoint.

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