“Nothing in Moscow goes according to plan.” These were the words of John Smith, a representative for the American Councils for Teachers of Russian who has lived in Moscow for the better part of the last two decades, today at the Red Square upon receiving the news that our visit to Lenin’s mausoleum would be delayed due to a military graduation ceremony.
He recounted a day fifteen years ago, when one of Moscow’s busiest streets became one-way overnight. John and thousands of other motorists were blindsided by the change, which turned Moscow into a citywide gridlock. John said he followed all of Moscow’s news stations at the time and didn’t hear a single warning in advance of the change. “You need to develop patience and a sense of humor to live here,” he told us.
After showing us some historic buildings in the area, John led us to a nearby mall, where we decided to split up for 45 min before re-attempting to enter Lenin’s mausoleum. In addition to three stories of fashionable retail stores, the mall, centered in the middle of old Moscow, also contains a Soviet-era throwback store named “Store 1,” which attempts to recreate the experience of visiting a Soviet-era state-owned grocery store. There was also a newly finished “Historic Bathroom,” which is apparently supposed to be a detail-conscious reproduction of a Soviet-era communal bathroom. I can’t confirm whether this was in fact the case, as I didn’t need to use the toilet; and even if I did, I would’ve gone elsewhere, since they charged the equivalent of two dollars to use the toilet and ten dollars to take a shower! Ignoring the issue of the outrageous cost, who really cares to take a shower in a public bathroom anyway? To anyone interested in visiting the mall, there is a free bathroom on the third floor.
All of this led me to wonder about the nature of Russia’s current relation to her Soviet past, which seems to be very complex and which I am hardly qualified to speak about yet. On the one hand graduation ceremonies on the Red Square still mean something (though likely something different than before), statues and inscriptions of Lenin are still displayed everywhere one turns. On the other hand, stores such as “Store 1,” which exploits Russia’s Soviet past, seem to indicate that Russia’s former identity has been severed and desiccated by her relatively newly adopted capitalism. I was able to watch the end of the graduation ceremony with my friend Chase from a window on the second floor of the mall. As we walked away, I asked Chase if our visit to Lenin’s tomb was paid for. “Surely not,” he replied. “That would be a tragically ironic affront to Lenin and his life’s purpose if they charged to see his corpse.” I agreed but said I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case.
We checked back with the guards at Red Square, who informed us that there wouldn’t be any visits to Lenin’s tomb that day. Our group would have to come back next Saturday. So much for that plan. We began walking toward the spot where we were supposed to meet the tour bus that would take us around moscow. When we reached the rendevous point, our driver was nowhere in sight. John called him and found out the driver was running late. Changing our course to somewhere closer to the driver, we walked over a bridge with a stunning view of the Moscow river and the Kremlin. The bridge took us to “Swamp Square,” a small island consisting of a beautiful, lush park.
Entering the park, the then visibly flustered John ended a phone call and asked us sit down on a low stone hedge to give us our next cultural lesson. It’s all too common, he explained, for Muscovites to shirk all blame for their mistakes. “Even if they are at fault, they will put the blame on you. It’s what makes doing business in Moscow so difficult.” John had just canceled our arranged bus tour after the driver failed to show up a full hour after our scheduled time. The driver’s response to John’s vexation was to suggest that it was John’s fault for making the appointment at 11 am instead of noon.
The day was not a loss, however. Living in Moscow for the last 15 years, not to mention marrying a native Muscovite, has made John a de facto tour guide himself. Determined to take the mishaps in stride, he showed us around Swamp Square. “This is the site where the recent political demonstrations that ended in a small riot and minor police brutality took place,” he told us. I could see why the park would make for an ideal site for political demonstration: it’s within view of the Kremlin, the political heart of Russia for the last century, yet it rests on an island of its own, with a lush park ideal for youth and counterculture gatherings.
“But I didn’t bring you here to show you the sites of the demonstrations,” John clarified. He wanted to show us a statue given to the park by Russian-American sculptor Mihail Shemyakin. The statue, titled, “Children Are the Victims of Adult Vices,” features a cast of strange creatures arranged in a semi-cirle around two bronze children wearing blindfolds, playing innocently with each other. Around this center stand 12 granite representations of evils Shemyakin found particularly threatening to children. Beneath each figure is an English and Russian title: Drug Addiction, Prostitution, Theft, Alcoholism, Irresponsible Science, Ignorance, Indifference, Propaganda, Sadism, For Those Without Memory, Child Labor, Poverty, and War.
Beyond my affinity for the artist’s aesthetic, which represents dark, perverse subjects with the imagination and mysticism of a child (similar to Guillermo del Torro’s film, “Pan’s Labryinth”), it was Shemyakin’s direct and sincere ethical message that moved me most of all. Whereas some art works addressing topical issues come off as overly moralizing, Shemyakin’s piece was directed not at any specific issue but at a general human problem that touches us all. He reminds us that the way we live our lives will invariably affect (and possibly threaten) the children of the next generation (regardless of whether they’re ours or someone else’s), because we make the world they will be brought into.
John Smith also told us that this park is among the most popular wedding sites in Moscow–two of the others being Sparrow Hills, on the grounds of Moscow State University, and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As we walked through the park, I spotted a bride and groom being photographed alongside their friends. As John Smith had just mentioned the spots popularity for weddings, I felt lucky to be witnessing it, like a safari goer spotting an animal in its natural habitat. I soon found out that when John Smith said “a popular spot for weddings,” he meant REALLY popular.
As we prepared to leave the island from a different bridge, we noticed a great commotion at its foot. Euro club music was blasting as we pushed our way through the crowd. Three tall, awkwardly sex-efied Russian women were handing out Nissan stickers (such marketing is commonplace in Moscow.) We made our way to the bridge, where the sounds of traditional Russian music, performed by an accordionist and singer, began to overtake the club music. On the bridge I saw, at least, three more pairs of brides and grooms. With everyone taking photos and singing merrily, I didn’t feel the least bit indecent about taking photos of the celebration myself.
John pointed out to us the rows of red, violet, and pink hued metal “trees” lining the bridge. These trees are made of metal locks that newly married couples add to the branches on their wedding days in honor of their unions. I was reminded of another Russian wedding tradition that I learned about through Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.” On a couple’s wedding night, after the ceremony, guests will frequently shout “Gorka!,” which literally means “Bitter!” and to which the bride and groom can only respond by kissing each other in order to “make it sweet.”
Later in the evening I went to study at the first McDonald’s built in Russia, located on Tchverskya street, with two friends. It’s HUGE and has a separate café—this is a good thing, as I find the smell of roasting coffee preferable to the smell of frying burgers when I’m studying. “This is the McDonald’s McDonald’s wants to show you in the commercials,” I told them. It was Saturday night and the place was full of attractive looking young people. As I watched them eat burgers, I could only infer that it must be the constant walking Muscovites do that keeps them looking more attractive than McDonald’s American patrons.
That’s all for now. I’m really gonna work on doing shorter posts. Jeez, I’ve still got to tell y’all about my trip to the Kremlin and its cathedrals as well as my Russian professor Ludmila Zaharovma.
Note 1: All photos were taken by me Sat, July 14 except for the photo of “Children are the Victims of Adults’ Vices.” I couldn’t get a good wide-shot of that one.