04 January 2008

Moscow Believes in Pictures

Apparently I have an artist's temperament when it comes to blogging – I've got plenty to say and plenty of time on my hands, but in the last few days I just haven't felt like writing. So I'm trying to get back into the swing of it by starting with the easiest post format – pictures!

My relationship with Moscow has always been a little complicated. It has a long-standing rivalry with St. Petersburg, my first Russian love: Peter I moved the capital from Moscow to Petersburg in the 1700's. Two hundred years later, the Bolsheviks moved it back and devoted a lot of energy to eroding Petersburg's position in the popular consciousness; by now, the state smear campaign is long gone, but now the two cities have developed a sort of rivalry between their ruling political classes (Putin and his gang are Petersburgers). Even Tolstoy got into the fight, using Moscow – an ancient Russian city that grew up more or less organically – to symbolize the natural and the Slavic, and Petersburg – a younger city planned by Russia's first great Westernizer – to symbolize the artificial and European. Nowadays the rivalry focuses more on Petersburg as a cultural city and Moscow as a commercial one (especially from the pro-Petersburg side; those who prefer Moscow still invoke Tolstoy's stance).

It's true that Moscow is very commercial, and its commerce has developed around the "New Russians;" that is, the post-Communist business elite. Since practically everyone who's riche in Russia is nouveau riche, conspicuous consumption is the order of the day, and it shows – nowhere in the world makes me wish I had money quite the way flashy downtown Moscow does. When you compare it with the historical feel of downtown St. Petersburg – after all, it was the capital for 200 years, so a lot of the events most sacred to students of Russian history played out there – Moscow's bling can start to feel a little culturally bankrupt. Add to that the sheer unmanageable sprawl of it (it's the largest city in Europe), and the less-than-positive associations Westerners tend to have with the Russian government – and the Kremlin is, after all, the heart and soul of Moscow – and it can be a hard city to like. I spent a long time trying hard to like it as much as I like Petersburg. I eventually realized I just couldn't, and then spent a long time hating it with all the fervor that seems to be in fashion among non-Muscovites (both Russian and foreign).

But on the other hand, I've now spent significantly more time in Moscow than Petersburg, and I know the city pretty well. And if you can look past the bling (shield your eyes), the claim of cultural bankruptcy is totally absurd; for Petersburg's Peter and Paul Fortress, Moscow has the Kremlin; for Petersburg's Church on the Spilled Blood or Kazan Cathedral, Moscow has St. Basil's; for Petersburg's Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery, Moscow has Novodevichy Convent; for Petersburg's venerable Hermitage and Russian Museum, Moscow has the equally venerable (if smaller) Tretyakov and Pushkin museums. Arriving in Moscow still doesn't give me the same giddy feeling that arriving in Petersburg does, but with all the fond memories I have there and all the great things I've seen, I've finally grown out of my fashionable anti-Moscow attitude, and I like the city a little more each time I visit.

The other thing that complicates my relationship with Moscow (I promise we're getting to the pictures soon) is that it serves as my gateway in and out of Russia. Russians love to say that Moscow "isn't Russia," and on my way out of the country I tend to agree with that. The lifestyle and pace there are completely different from the rest of the country, in more than just a big city/small town way; getting to Moscow feels like I've already got one foot back in the West. But Moscow changes on my way back into the country – fresh from America, the pure Russianness of the city is what I feel most of all, from the fashions to the smells to the flood of Russian voices, the intonations I recognize even when I can't make out the words. This dual face makes Moscow feel like a portal into another dimension, especially since traveling between the two countries really does feel less like a move from one spot to another on the same globe than like a shift in the nature of reality. (For this effect I blame the disconcerting speed of air travel more than the actual degree of difference between the two cultures, although that's also not insignificant.)

Right, so that's where the pictures (sort of) come in – spending the day in Moscow between my flight from the U.S. and my train back to Taganrog, I took a picture of a New Year's tree. That gave me the idea to write a post about how weird it was to leave the U.S., where the holidays were already kind of winding down, and arrive in Moscow, where the run up to the New Year (the biggest holiday of the year in Russia, bearing more than a passing resemblance to American Christmas) was in full swing. And *that* started me thinking about all the reality-shifting that happens in Moscow.

Anyway, here is the picture:

This is in GUM, a gorgeous, castle-like building on Red Square that used to be the state-run department store but is now an extremely ritzy shopping mall. I spent an hour or two there just wandering and watching the rich buy Burberry and Chanel and Cartier and just be their rich, fur-clad, diamond-studded-cell-phone-bearing selves. Everything was really decked out for New Year's, and they even had a live jazz combo playing, dressed in Santa suits!

The gee-I-actually-do-kinda-like-Moscow part of this post was brought to you by the other way I occupied myself that day. Sandwiched between a long plane ride and a long train ride, I really wanted to spend some time outside, so I went to Kolomenskoye, the 17th-century tsars' country residence on the Moskva river (it's not in the country anymore – you can get there from the downtown in about 15 minutes by subway). It's now a "museum-reserve," so sort of a big park with a lot of old state-protected buildings on it. Kolomenskoye was actually one of the very first places I visited in Moscow, back in the summer of 2006 with Amara on our second or third day in the city, so it was very nostalgia-inducing.

This church was being renovated last time I was in Kolomenskoye, but now its scaffolding is off and it totally dominates the landscape along the ridge by the river. It was completely closed up when I was there, and it's still very, very new-looking, which somehow added to the bleakness of it on this bleak December day – it made it seem not just deserted, but as if it was never used at all.

And those are actually all the pictures I have. I hope you don't feel cheated after reading that whole long post! I guess it turns out that I couldn't get myself to write anything because I had too much to say – so check back soon for something (hopefully) shorter!

(The title of this post is just a silly play on the title of the film Москва слезам не верит, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears.)

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