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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Moscow at a Sensitive Time

The first thing everyone thinks when they hear that we just got back from Russia is "Why did you decide to visit Russia in the midst of an international crisis!?" Well, the reason is we've had a standing invitation for the last 2 years to visit our close friends Jonathan and Robyn there. They've been working for the US government in Moscow, and they're about to leave.  If we didn't go soon, we'd probably never go.  We decided to wait until after the Sochi Olympics, partly from concern about attacks.  Little did we know that, after we bought our tickets, Russia would stir up Ukraine and bring tensions with the west to their highest levels since the cold war.  So, we had our concerns going into the whole thing.  Would we be able to get visas?  Would they let us leave?  Would there be locals who knew we were American and resented us?  Etc., etc.  But, here we are, safely home, and feeling relieved.  On the other hand, hard-working US government employees will continue working and living there for the foreseeable future.

So, we took the two-and-a-half hour flight from Paris, where the cherry trees, tulip trees, daffodils, and tulips had already bloomed, to Moscow, where there was not a green leaf in sight and the tiny areas where there might have been something like grass looked black.  The highest temperature we had for the several days we were there was 45 degrees.  Yes, winter lasts longer in Moscow.

Upon our arrival, it didn't take long for it to hit me just how little Russian I know.  It's not even easy to say "hello" in Russian!  So, we had a guide for the first couple of places we visited.  We started with the Kremlin, meaning "fortress."  Memories of Napoleon's attacks and the Nazi's attacks are still fresh here.  They even have a collection of around 100 cannons abandoned by Napoleon in 1812.  

I was surprised to find several impressive historic churches inside the walls of the Kremlin.  Though many churches were destroyed by the communists, others were preserved as "museums", or simply used as warehouses or government offices.  In the photo below, cadets on drills pass among tourists and churches on the Kremlin grounds.

We were fortunate during our visit, because there was an event being held at the Church of the Annunciation, led by the Patriarch of Russia.  As part of the ceremony, they had children sing some songs, and released about 100 doves.  The patriarch's wardrobe formed a link between now and past centuries, because inside the churches, we saw many sacred paintings known as "icons", depicting various patriarchs from hundreds of years ago, all wearing the same head-dress.

Fifteenth century icon showing Peter of Moscow wearing a similar head-dress.

Most of us westerners aren't too familiar with the hierarchy of the Eastern Orthodox church.  I had heard of "the Patriarch" before, but I thought a Patriarch was like the pope of the Catholic church.  Instead, there are about 10 patriarchs, one for each region with great historical significance to the Orthodox church.  There is no single supreme leader like the pope.

Of course we had take the opportunity to go to the Bolshoi while in Moscow.  We saw The Enchantress, with a score by Tchaikovsky.  I actually enjoyed it, both for the story and the music.

After we'd ridden the metro with our friends a few times, we felt confident enough to give ourselves a tour of some of the famous Moscow Metro stops.  We unintentionally ended up doing the tour at rush hour, so it was packed - in the train cars, in the halls, on the escalators.  This seemed stressful at first, and we considered cutting the tour short, but everyone was so calm and considerate that we quickly felt comfortable.  Even though huge crowds had to crowd onto every escalator, it was no problem.  Everyone was patient and considerate as we all quietly shuffled one step at a time together, until we reached that escalator. Each stop is different, many with chandeliers, mosaics, stained glass, or other art on the walls and ceilings.

The most amazing thing about the Moscow Metro is how incredibly efficient it is.  We never had to wait more than a minute for a train.  This leaves no slack in the system for breakdowns, accidents, or other delays, so all drivers are tested for drugs every single time they come to work.  Another really great thing about it is the circle line. Unlike any other metro I've seen, there is a circle line that connects all the other lines, like a beltway around a city.

Below is a statue in front of Saint Basil's cathedral, which sits in Red Square, in front of the Kremlin.  That sky ruins the photo, but it IS what you should expect to see if you visit Moscow!  There are actually nine different churches within the cathedral, each with its own dome.  The statue commemorates a Russian victory in 1612.

Not far from Red Square, but across the river, a church destroyed by the communists, and rebuilt recently with "donations" "requested" by Vladimir Putin.  We got luckier on the weather this time.

Next post, Saint Petersburg.

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