Time and Motion Day 2Tue 05 Feb
It’s really good if you like history
“Red Square – Lenin’s Mausoleum”
Red Square was closed for the Spasskaya Tower International Military Music Festival. Ditto Lenin’s Mausoleum.
Vast tents – not at all like the Yurts of the Gobi desert. These tents were marketing marquees for the purveyors of brass instruments and military uniforms. Behind them, obscuring the Kremlin were the towers of scaffolding for the festival’s audience, oceanic posters and some stripy onion domes. I couldn’t see much past the surge of tourists mostly Japanese and Chinese and very brand conscious, and a procession of the Brentwood Imperial Youth Band, a traditional marching band based in Brentwood, Essex, and founded in 1990.
It was at this point I realized I was a small human being on a teeming planet being shunted around tourist destinations. I asked my guide, Tatiana, what the Kremlin’s 1812 museum was like.
“Boring,” she said. “Don’t go there.”
According to Trip Advisor I discover – too late – that “it’s really good ... if you like history”, which I do.
“We Russians aren’t interested in history,” Tatiana said. “Only in moving forward.” History of tsardom was wiped out under Stalin, then he was rewritten under Khruschev.
The most impressive sight in Moscow I had so far seen was the unblemished face it presents to the world. There was simply no litter anywhere, and nothing looked old.
“Moscow is Putin’s showpiece,” an American realtor told me. “It’s where the money goes to show the rest of the world how Russia’s doing.” Dick was in Moscow to set up an office selling Miami real estate to oligarchs. He told me that the city’s landmarks are rejuvenated every five years. Pavements are kept hospital-standard clean by 24-hour workers. I felt an awe that I was later to feel on my journey through Siberia. In the steppe it was the sense of a divinity at work in an otherworldly, majestic landscape.
“God is on high and the Tsar is far off,” they used to say. In Moscow he was sitting behind a desk in the Kremlin.
I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the monumental scale of Moscow, the arrhythmic spasms of guided walking tours. I was getting depressed. I felt I was executing a gigantic task of stone masonry. It was not art or architecture. It was hard labour. So I asked Tatiana to take me underground.
Here was regulated movement, celebration of the ordinary, and space for all. Here in sunless vaults I marvelled at the swathes of unblemished, polished platforms. Under diffused and subtle lighting, clutches of commuters stood and chatted like old friends. A girl in a pink dress sat in an alcove framed in marble statuary. Here was bygone, burnished steel and tactile veined marble. And one train every minute, without fail, like clockwork. I sat on the Koltsevaya line, speeding through mosaic and stained glass and soaking up the soul food of History.
The subway continued to distract me with visions of the past. The kiosks sold real things for real people. Corsets, bras, shoes, key-rings, antiquarian books. I stopped in my tracks. This was my kind of shop. The stallholder was elderly, large and shambolic, dressed in a dirty vest and sagging shorts. His stock was a cross between mouldy hoardings and antique vellum. The leather-tooled spines of books, rolls of manuscripts and lithographs were stacked high in the window. Inside there was room only for a wall of shelves, a chair and a till. He had the Collected Writings of Ruskin in English. He had a hand-tinted cartoon of Felice Orsini’s assassination attempt on Napoleon III. Speech bubbles were coming out of the mouth of Orsini. I desperately wanted a closer look but to do so meant unravelling piles of ancient Cyrillic tomes, and the old man was quoting thousands of rubles.
Like the 1812 museum, I can’t stop thinking about that print.
eccentric ruble millionaires
“Levsha Flea Market, Новоподрезково metro + bus to Novoshodnenskoe Highway 166 N. The Levsha Flea Market is located some 20km north of Moscow and will probably take up to four hours to visit properly, and I will ask your guide to give you directions.”
Tatiana had never heard of the Levsha, but after some patient googling she told me to take the metro from Teatronaly station, next to the Bolshoi and opposite Tsum department store, and then a bus to a field off a highway somewhere.
Muscovite traders don’t haggle. They know the price of things – who doesn’t – it’s all on eBay – and they simply refuse to budge. Apart from that, I loved the flea market. I loved the hour-long bus journey to get there through acres of concrete and grassland and shopping malls and nothingness. I loved the ticket collector from Nizhny Novgorod who smiled and laughed and google translated the bus timetable for my return journey. The bus was a small coach that had seen many years of service. My fellow passengers were silent and unsmiling. Not many Russians smile unbidden, I had noticed, and I had not yet met one who laughed. The ticket collector was an exception. A cuddly, dyed-blonde, impish woman, she had the kind of warmth that would have invited me into her home if it were feasible, and urged me to eat all her food and wash away all my cares because she had all the time in the world. She hugged me when I got off her bus.
I loved the flea market because it was sprawling and scruffy. It had grit, surprises and characters, collectors and hoarders, revolvers and samovars, oil lamps and down-and-outs who were probably eccentric ruble millionaires. That was the thing about the flea market. I just didn’t know what I would find there.
Article by Lilian Pizzichini