Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Having had a fascination with Russia since immersing myself in my early teens in such melancholic writers as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Sholokhov it came as something of a surprise to find that my first impression of Moscow was of sunshine, butterflies and thistledown.

But then it is summer and even in Russia things have changed. Moscow, the old city, is gorgeous and no photograph compares to the theological confections of spire and dome that comprise the Kremlin and St Basil’s in Red Square and which rise in unexpected blossomings from more mediocre streets.

The churches are being rebuilt in Russia, rising in flowing lines of faith and fantasy; billowing in brilliant colour amongst the grey-spirit solidity of Soviet architecture. There’s a split here that could be defined as Soul and Spirit; mellifluous soul amidst rigid spirit. The battle between head and heart; left brain and right brain; reason and feeling. It is Soul that builds the churches and the almost ‘gingerbread style’ traditional houses and Spirit that took unforgiving Soviet form and constructed the square, the immense, and the frequently bland. But duality is not new for Russians, standing as they have through the centuries with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia.

“The Soviet era was an experiment,” says our translator, Elena. Even as she dismisses those bleak decades she yearns for the order and sense of national pride that they offered. It was bad, she would add, but not all bad. But then nothing ever is and you can only understand why so many Russians look back when you can appreciate what they have lost. At this point in time the most dangerous duality is that between what they were and what they might become. Or is it between what they believed they were and what they wish they were now? All of the above, mixed in with the loss of a dream, something that we find harder to lose than any reality.

There’s almost a sense of shock here which comes from having believed they were one thing, and then, when Russia was opened to the world and the world was opened to Russia, discovering they were something else entirely. They may have gained freedom but they lost in an instant security, certainty and their sense of achievement.

They had believed their society to be the most advanced in the world and when the borders opened and they went out into the world they discovered it was not. For all that was and is First World about Russia, there was more that was Third. It was and remains, I suspect, a shock. They had been lied to; or had they lied to themselves? No doubt both because that is the way of human nature.

Ironically they have something in common with their old enemy and new friend, America, whose people also suffered a similar shock to the collective belief system with 9/11. The American belief was in their safety, their invulnerability and their goodness. They discovered they were neither safe, nor invulnerable and possibly not as good as they believed themselves to be for some people seemed to hate them. Sometimes the greatest distance is between what we believe ourselves to be and what we really are, whether as individual or as nation. Such inconsistency is a part of us all and not particular to Americans or Russians, but is surely more profound in societies that are closed for security reasons, like Russia, or insular for lack of interest or perceived need, like America.

Russians were also deeply shocked to discover that they had been feared by others and they were terrified to find that they were vulnerable.

Interestingly the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, published in 1836 had compared the two nations:

“There are on earth today two great peoples who, having started from different points, seem to be advancing towards the same end; they are the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. They both grew up in darkness; and whilst Europeans were busy elsewhere, they suddenly placed themselves in the forefront of nations, and the world learned at almost the same time of their births and their greatness.
“All other nations seem, more or less, to have reached the limits nature has assigned to them and within which they now need only to remain, but those two are still growing … America is struggling against obstacles of nature; Russia against men ….. The principle means of action for the one is liberty; for the other servitude.”

Tocqueville believed reluctantly in the inevitable victory of the American model, although, some 170 years later, while no-one can deny that he was right, the two nations may well have more in common than they know. It’s a psychological maxim that we tend to condemn most passionately that which we deny in ourselves. Not that Russians these days seem to have any animosity toward America in particular or the West in general. They just want to feel proud of themselves again which hardly makes them much different to anyone else.

And given how powerful an impact the relationship between America and Russia had upon us all during the Cold War years, particularly for my generation which grew up during that time, it is not surprising to find myself pondering it now that I have spent time in both countries. When you look at what we were told, at what we believed and at what we feared, it is almost bizarre to be somewhere so ordinary and so normal. They always were of course, normal, at the individual level, just as those in the West were. It was government and ideology that turned us all into enemies. And then, just as easily, we were friends. No doubt we could all just as easily be enemies again, but I wonder. Enemies are more easily made in ignorance and none of us are as ignorant nor as innocent as we were. And, in a world of instant communication it only becomes harder to be so. Communication, as ever, is the key to understanding.

Listening to my first Russian lesson I am struck by how many of the words are the same as English. And, like English they seem happy to ‘steal’ or ‘borrow’ words as needed. I also find French, Portugese and Italian words which mark it out as another Latinate language. The big difference is the Cyrillic alphabet and that is only a matter of memorizing. Language is everything and particularly in Russia where, unlike much of Europe there is little English spoken by anyone older than thirty. But that too is changing.

Summer in Moscow is delightful with warm, clear days and mild evenings. The blankets that sit in piles in the restaurants are most likely destined for the shoulders of skimpily clad young women should the nights turn cool but are available to all if needed. The young women here are gorgeous; tall, slender and brightly dressed, they hover on impossibly high and potentially deadly heels. More often than not they are at the side of older men; loose of jowl, pot of belly and plump of wallet.

The Russians seem to agonise about this ‘informal’, if not formal, prostitution but a brief study of the nation’s literary classics suggests it is not at all new. Protecting Russian womanhood may be a cry that comes from right-wing youths but it is no more than a convenient peg upon which to hang the ‘hat’ of disappointment and disaffection. It’s a ‘one size fits all hat’ in a way when you see the old men and women begging in the streets. Many of the men walk with heavily medaled chests; the army it seems does not look after its own in Russia. The women have no such medals to display but they seem to smile more. In a country where repression has been a way of life for centuries it is uplifting and perhaps not surprising, to find that women, the most repressed of all, have found a way to smile through the worst times. There are more round-faced cheerful babushkas than stern-browed Soviet-style martinets. But perhaps that too was propaganda.

We are staying at the Hotel Budapest; assigned a room in the far reaches of its corridored depths that is bigger and more tastelessly decorated than I expected. We have two rooms in fact; the sort of space that begs instant forgiveness for just about everything else. The bedroom is circular with a print of Nefertiri hanging over the bed and another of the boy-king, Tutankhamen, facing us. The windows are high and hung with elaborate curtains whose Napoleonic style is brought smartly down to earth by the use of cheap, synthetic gold fabric. With more cheap gold fabric on the bed, a somewhat obese couch and desk chair in brown leather and a fake tree by the door we have the scene set to satisfy a variety of tastes, or perhaps none.

The tree, as I will come to discover, is a symbol of the Russian love for pot plants. It is fake because it must be, but elsewhere, on countless window sills and cupboard tops and in numerous stair wells, foyers, offices and rooms, no matter how derelict the surroundings, will be found veritable jungles of pot plants, carefully watered and trimmed; a promise, no doubt, through the brief white days and long dark nights of winter that there is life, there is growth, there is green.

Here at the Hotel Budapest there is no restaurant and so breakfast is delivered to the room on a tray. A breakfast list is agreed to upon checking in and that is what we get, day in and day out. We have a clear plastic box containing slices of cheese and ham or salami, depending upon one’s choice of meat, and on top sit two slices of very dry white bread. Toast is not really a Russian concept it seems although of course it is available in the big hotels. Elsewhere we will find that if we order toast we will get bread fried in butter. It’s nice enough but not quite the same. Along with our dry bread we get a jam-filled croissant, which, according to the package, will last for seven days. One small bite is enough; it tastes seven months old as it is. We have a kettle and have brought our own tea and Vegemite so breakfast at the Budapest generally runs to a cup of tea and one slice of dry bread and Vegemite.

This is probably the worst food I will experience in Russia and generally restaurants in Moscow are excellent. They run to London prices but the food is generally better and most places have Australian wine; good Australian wine too, not the lolly-water that is sold in much of Europe and the US because, so they say, it has been developed to meet local ‘tastes.’

One of our favourite restaurants while we are here is The Gallery, which is on the roof of the Hotel Ararat and which affords a fabulous view of Moscow, particularly at night. At this time of year it gets dark about ten. On my first night in Moscow we are sitting outside at 11.30 having a late, and for me, somewhat jetlagged, but delightful supper. It is interesting to look down on the buildings either side, most of which have ornate ‘fences’ surrounding the roof; no doubt to hold the snow in place so it does not make a deadly fall into the street below. Imagining a snow covered Moscow in minus 40 is harder to do on this almost tropical night.

Beyond the Hotel Budapest, which falls into the roomy but quaint category, there are some fabulous hotels in Moscow. This is a vibrant city which, with its architectural beauty and energy is set to become one of the world’s best. There is class here. It may have been buried for decades but it did not take long to re-emerge. Perhaps, as the Russians themselves say, they are patient. The Soviet era was a time of waiting.

The Kremlin, which we visit on Sunday, appears smaller than I expected and has none of the malevolence in reality that clung to it through the perceptions, and fantasies, of the Cold War years. The word ‘kremlin’ simply means ‘fortification’ or ‘citadel’ in Russian and many cities in Russia have their own kremlins. The word is thought to derive from either the ancient Greek word Kremn or kremnos, meaning a steep hill above a ravine, or the Slavonic term kremnik, meaning thick coniferous forest. This latter explanation has substance given that this was the material from which the original forts were constructed. Well, it was the material from which pretty much everything was constructed and a lot still is given the amount of timber in this country.

As well as being home to the Russian president and the seat of his administration, the Kremlin is the historical and spiritual heart of Moscow. You can feel that. There are plenty of overseas tourists but lots of Russian tourists as well. The Kremlin stands on Borovitsky Hill, where the Moscow and Neglinaya Rivers meet. The Hill is named after the pine forests (bor in Russian) that used to cover it and which still stretch across so much of this vast land.

There’s a legend that while hunting in the forest a group of boyars, Russian nobles, saw a huge two-headed bird swoop down on a boar and carry it off to the top of what was to become Borovitsky Hill. That night the boyars, no doubt after a few nightcaps of vodka, dreamt of a city of tents, spires and golden domes and resolved upon awakening to build a town upon the hill. I’m beginning to wonder how much of the almost fantasy architecture, which is so quintessentially Russian, is vodka induced but given how whimsically wonderful it is, one can hardly care how it was brought into being.

The historical view is much less colourful and claims that the Kremlin was founded by Prince Yury Dolgoruky, who built the first wooden fort on the hill in 1147AD, although archeologists now believe the site may have been inhabited as long ago as 500BC.

But more than anything this is a place of worship. Christians have prayed here for more than eight centuries and no doubt the pagans were here before then. The early stone churches built here were demolished in the 1470’s to construct what we see today. It is impressive for its beauty if small in its nature. There is an intimacy to these chapels though, each one intricately decorated and painted within an inch of its life and always with a super-size Jesus looking down from the ceiling. Most interesting though are the ‘mandalas,’ celtic-like decorations, painted at floor level, that are, the guide says, drawn from the pre-christian era; the goddess is at base, supporting the high-flying patriarchal religion. It was ever thus.

Out in the courtyard soldiers walk past carrying birds of prey; hawks, falcons, even an eagle. But, unlike the newly instituted changing of the guard, this is not for mere show. It seems the freshly painted gold domes were too much of an attraction for the pigeons. When attempts to dissuade them by mildly ‘electrifying’ the domes proved fruitless(in fact, adaptable as pigeons clearly are, they seemed to grow to like the buzz ), the powers that be, and there are lots of them in the Kremlin, decided to resort to more traditional methods. Most birds, pigeons included, while prepared to engage in a battle of wills with electrics, will not come within cooee of a bird of prey. The Kremlin domes therefore are now pristine! No shitting from a great height on this place!

But back to the changing of the guard. Almost 90 years after it was killed off, along with the Romanov dynasty and the country’s last Tsar, Moscow has its changing of the guard back. There’s one story that this was the idea of tourism heavies in Moscow and another that President Putin, having seen such spectacles in London and Washington, was determined that Russia could do as well if not better. Personally I find such things a tad boring and would have liked to have seen a few colourful Cossacks thrown into the phalanx of infantrymen and cavalrymen. But in this new world, Ukraine, from whence the Cossacks pretty much came, is another country and they longer have a place here. But it’s all harmless and sure beats missile parades in Red Square.
And Red Square, huge as it is, also seems smaller than I expected. But I was growing up through the scariest bits of the Cold war, and tend to be impressionable and prone to flights of imagination at the best of times, so perhaps my impressions and perceptions were not mature. The smaller we are the bigger the world looks; the more fearful we are (or are encouraged to be) the greater the danger appears.

St Basil’s looks almost doll-like sitting as it does at the far end as one enters through the tower gates. But today Red Square is closed off. Not that anything seems to be happening; it is just closed. Perhaps a whim, someone important visiting Lenin’s Tomb or St Basil’s…. who knows. The barriers are up and so we go to have lunch in an Italian restaurant in the Gum Gallery which overlooks Red Square. It’s blinis and caviar, Italian style. The blini comes as a crepe but I learn later that blini just means pancake, whatever size it may be.

Gum is the old State Department Store, with its fabulous ornate neo-Russian façade, it stretches almost the entire length of the eastern side of the Square. Built between 1890 and 1893 by Alexander Pomerantsev, it’s an interesting combination of elements of what is called Russian medieval ecclesiastical architecture and an elegant steel framework and glass roof. It’s the sort of thing that one sees in the great turn of the century train stations of Paris and London.

It’s a very stylish shopping gallery and while it is not one that is of much use to your average Russian, for the moment anyway, it is a sign of where Russia is heading. Despite the unemployment and unpaid salaries there are no longer queues for food in Moscow and no sign of the ubiquitous string bag which was carried at all times in case there was something to buy.

After four days in Moscow I am climbing into the belly of a Ural Airlines plane. These former military planes have been done over and re-fitted for passenger use and because they don’t carry cargo you climb up steps into what would be the cargo hold, deposit your hand luggage and then climb more steps into the cabin. It’s a one class airline but in this case it is a spacious economy, made even more so by the fact that it is half empty.

It’s my first time in a Tupolev and as it rises lightly into the sky, it reminds me of the fat, grey birds in the park outside the Kremlin. . It takes an hour for the stewards to come through with water or juice and another twenty minutes before lunch and something more interesting to drink. The lunch, by airline standards is actually not bad. Things happen slowly in Russia, as they do in much of the world. It is a reminder of one of the greatest strengths of the West; people are motivated by self interest and good salaries and job satisfaction give both purpose and meaning, two things that work toward efficiency and high standards.

Next stop Yekaterinburg, some two hours east from Moscow on the Asian side of the Ural Mountains. And from there a one and a half hour drive to the mine at Malaysheva.