Red Square

Trip Start May 28, 2008
Trip End Aug 26, 2008

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Flag of Russian Federation  , Central Russia,
Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Tomb of Lenin

The dramatic use of lighting, solemnity, and grim faced Russian guards sets the stage for the viewing of Vladimir Lenin, the father of communism. This was actually our second attempt for a glimpse at his remains, we had tried to see Lenin the day before but, we arrived too late and they had already closed the queue, he is a very popular tourist attraction. I'm sure that was never what was intended but really that is what has happened, although most standing in line spoke Russian. One might wonder why you would even want to see something so macabre. Here are a few of my own reasons:

1) We didn't get to see Ho Chi Minh or Chairman Mao tombs, and it was something I was interested in seeing. Both Minh and Mao are both shipped to Russia for corpse maintenance yearly and so to see the prototype of the corpse preserving process would be fascinating.

2) This was the man who wrote the book that created a country that was 'the other side' of the arms race. I grew up in the 80's and the possibility of total annihilation through nuclear war was always a constant threat. USSR vs. USA, the red threat, etc.

3) I am a bit strange and find things on the morbid side of life interesting.

So, after standing in a long queue for about an hour (with a group of smelly tourist standing in front of us-deodorant is your friend-really it is!) , with our daypack checked in another building (which included the camera- no picture taking or videotaping is allowed! ), we first viewed the Kremlin Wall Necropolis which overlooks the Red Square. There are several Soviet leaders buried here which includes Joseph Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, about 200 soldiers of the revolution, and several cosmonauts, including Yuri Gagarin and the victims of the Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 11 disasters. Unfortunately, all of the names are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, so I am unable to identify anyone, except Stalin.

We were then herded over to Lenin's actual tomb, which I thought to be a truly architecturally beautiful. A square building set with contrasting dark and light marble. The soldiers guarding his tomb point you down a series of steps that gradually become darker and darker until you are in absolute pitch blackness, the last few steps are found by toe touch alone. I was careful at this point don't want to stumble and embarrass myself in front of the grim faced Russian guards, who incidentally wear absolutely fabulous hats and shiny tall black boots. They are dressed all in black, as well, so at first glance; all you can see is their disembodied heads floating in a pool of black. Eerie! I could still make out the big guns they carried- I don't think that I will ever get used to seeing armed guards with automatic weapons.

After a long dark tunnel, you enter a room and your eyes instantly focus on the face of Lenin, which is spot lit with an excessively bright light. He is in a dark suit and laid out on a black sheet (which adds to the effect). I thought his appearance was very waxy looking, (paraffin is in the process to keep Lenin fresh) but he looks pretty decent for a man that died in 1924.

You slowly circle him and then you quickly are ushered out into the courtyard. That is it; it was almost as if Disney set the whole thing up-like in the Hall of Presidents. Great use of stage lighting, all that was missing was solemn music to set the mood.
On a interesting note: He (along with Ho Chi Minh and Chairman Mao) did not want to displayed like this, in fact, Lenin wished to be buried next his mother in St. Petersburg, Lenin's widow wanted his body buried there as well, however, Stalin decided not to honor his wishes for what he felt was the good of the state. Stalin himself was on display here as well after his own demise, until it was decided during a time of 'De-Stalinization' of the party to remove his corpse and bury it at the Kremlin Necropolis.

An interesting story that I found on the internet was that when it time to physically remove Stalin's body from viewing, a devoted Bolshevik woman, Dora Abramovna Lazurkina stood up and said:
"My heart is always full of Lenin. Comrades, I could survive the most difficult moments only because I carried Lenin in my heart, and always consulted him on what to do. Yesterday I consulted him. He was standing there before me as if he were alive, and he said: "It is unpleasant to be next to Stalin, who did so much harm to the party."
This little preplanned speech was then followed by reading a decree ordering the removal of Stalin's remains. So really this was what Lenin wanted!

This is what I took away from this experience:
ˇ The Russians are still very serious about Lenin
ˇ Russians are better at queuing people up than any other
ˇ I don't like being ushered anywhere
ˇ Lenin was an extremely short man
ˇ The people who designed Lenin's tomb had a flair for the dramatic
ˇ I wished I had seen Ho Chi Minh and Mao- to compare workmanship

Red Square Babushkas

There is a spot near the northern entrance to Red Square in red where the Kilometer Zero marker is set into the ground. All distances are measured from this point, meaning if something is 3000 miles away from Moscow, this is the point where the measuring begins. We saw tourists tossing coins over their shoulders (I suppose for luck) and for each coin tossed there was a group of elderly Russian ladies ('Babushkas'- Russian for Grandmother) there to catch it in the air or chase after it over the cobbled pavement. It was a funny and sad sight to see.

The state of the economy in Russia has left their elderly behind, with no support and their promised pensions as gone as the hammer and sickle. So they are reduced to this and unfortunately, begging. I was blown away when I saw one elderly lady slap another hard across the face for a coin that apparently she felt belonged to her. The slappee didn't even acknowledge the slap or the slapper and went on to collect more coins. Quite a spectacle!

- Laura

Russia made us jump through a lot of hoops to visit here. We had to obtain invitation letters from within Russia (supplied by our travel agent here), supply our itinerary to the government, pay hefty visa fees, and register with the government upon entering the country (we paid a third party to do this for us so we could avoid the hassle). If we stay anywhere longer than three days, we are required to re-register. We were also advised to carry copies of all our tickets and travel documents to prove where we have been and when so as to avoid a shakedown from rogue police officers looking to make a buck on "visa infractions". No trouble with the police, but we've followed instructions just in case.

Soviet bureaucracy and security procedures seem alive and well, as we are again reminded when we reach Kreml (the Krelim). This fortress at the heart of Tsarist and Soviet governance for centuries requires us to queue for security screening, queue for fortress admission tickets, pay to leave my daypack in a bagcheck (where it is x-rayed), queue again for entry to the Armory and Diamond Collections, check our umbrella and camera before entry to the Diamond collection, and go through another security screening before viewing the state jewels from the Tsarist periods.

State security isn't limited to the Kremlin, as we discover on our visits to the local supermarket. Shoplifting must be big here, as everyone is required to use lockers for their handbags at the entrance to the store. The security agent in suit follows us around the store, alternately checking on me and Laura before settling into a role as her new shadow. He stands elbow to elbow with her as she uses a book to translate the Cyrillic text on one bottle, box, or can after another. This was not an isolated event, as our return visit the next day prompts the same close scrutiny and shadow-security... until Laura asks him point blank if he wants to help her shop. This wasn't his intention, so he retreated to the lobby area and glared instead.

The Russians come across as a very serious people, and I have to admit that I appreciate that at some level. I've been accused of being too serious most of my life, and I feel a little at home here in a strange way. I certainly appreciate the intellectual aspects of Russian society - I've never seen so many bookshops still thriving amidst such a literate and intelligent population. At the Lenningradsky train station I counted no fewer than five booksellers doing a brisk business to keep Russian travelers engaged during their travels. Pulp novels and newsstands abound, but one shop even had a whole wall devoted just to classics. This was a welcome sight indeed in contrast to the huge declines in book sales, book diversity in publishing and retail, and general readership in the USA.

On our way to a nice vegetarian café we passed by the Lubyanka, which was interesting if a bit unsettling. This was the unmarked and greatly feared building that housed the headquarters of each incarnation of the secret police in the Soviet Union - including the the Checka, MVD, NKVD, and the KGB. This is where people were summarily detained, interrogated, tortured, and in many cases executed. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the statue of a figure prominent in state security was torn down from the square out front marking the symbolic end of an era. This used to be an insurance company building, but it is remembered most for the KGB years. I don't know where or how this agency operates now, but they have been renamed yet again to FSB and undoubtedly their work continues elsewhere in a modified incarnation.

It is impressive to stroll around Red Square to see the place I'd only seen in pictures as child during the cold war. I remember the vivid shows of strength as missiles and military forces were paraded through to show the world Soviet strength on important holidays (a practice revived in recent years as U.S. influence creeps further into Eastern Europe - still viewed as Russian-influenced territory). Red Square today is packed with tourists, shops, museums, cafes, and (at least while we were there) lively DJs and techno music.

Our time touring the sights in and near the Kremlin over two days allowed us to see some fascinating areas we never imaging seeing - the collection of beautiful Orthodox churches built by the Tsars, the Senate building (closed to the public - home of the Russian President), the Armory, The Diamond Fund collections, and the Secret Gardens. The Secret Garden is lovely, and very thought provoking as you imaging the leaders of the Soviet state taking their walks here inside this tranquil setting within the Kremlin.

I was less enthusiastic about the outside of Lenin's tomb than Laura, but was impressed by the setting inside the black marble halls, steps, and increasing darkness silhouetting the pale faces of the guards dressed in black. Outside I was impressed with the Kremlin necropolis containing the graves of Andropov, Stalin, and other state leaders. Stalin is known almost universally for harsh treatment of opponents and subjects, and his status here has fallen continuously since his death, but we still read an opinion poll in which Russians have chosen him as the most influential Russian of the last century. Very interesting, but I suppose that just underscores an obvious disconnect between power and ethics.

The concentration of human wealth in the hands of the Tsars can truly be understood by visiting the Armory and the jewel collections. The Armory has an outstanding selection of clothing, armor, thrones, crowns, and carriages from the royal family. The carriages are beyond belief, as you realize that you are looking at fistfuls of real diamonds along the roof lines, decorating the interior ceilings, or creating the shimmering Romonav crest on the doors.

The diamond collection is really a trust of the crown jewels of Russia, and a real delight. Sure there are the huge diamonds, emeralds, and rubies that would choke a horse but it is the craftsmanship of the pieces which is so remarkable. The diamond coronation crown of Catherine the Great is breathtaking, as thousands of diamonds and other jewels just appear to hover delicately in space above an interior of red velvet visible in the background.

In Moscow we finally succumbed to our need for English language guidebooks to make the most of our time in Russia and our upcoming whirlwind tour around Europe. Moscow is a big city with anything you might want, and we had no trouble locating a lovely little English bookshop for expats... although a visit to their travel section did add a few kilos to our backpacks.

The Moscow metro stations are noteworthy for their elegance and opulence. There are many with chandeliers, marble, and extensive artworks depicting Soviet pride, power, propaganda, and history. Some of them are like walking into a new cold war museum, albeit with the red carpet treatment. The same cannot be said of the metro railway cars, which would look perfectly at home in the Bronx.

Like other American tourists, I have a natural curiosity about Soviet-era CCCP/USSR souvenirs which the local street vendors and market stalls are delighted to satisfy. Soviet markings are still all over the place on public buildings and monuments, but there is now something of a booming market in Soviet-kitsch. I did pick up a couple of old soviet-era pins from Mongolia, and although CCCP and hammer/sickle are emblazoned on hats, T's, and just about everything else, I limit myself to the metal travel cups that were once issued in the Soviet army and are now sold as tourist tat next to Red square. I used to carry this kind of travel cup as a child, and a CCCP replacement will do just fine.

I've been collecting odd playing cards from various places (in China I found the infamous 'IRAQ's Most Wanted' deck issued to U.S. soldiers in Iraq) but I couldn't find any cards with CCCP, USSR, or hammer/sickle anywhere in Moscow. I remarked that perhaps it was considered in poor taste to put these emblems of Soviet superpower on a deck of cards, but then Laura pointed out the McLenin t-shirts with Vladimir Lenin and McDonald's arches so I suppose not much is sacred in the new economy here.

The state collapse has left some Russians very rich, many Russians well off, and many Russians left out in the cold without state pensions or social supports that used to exist. They've jumped directly to a Robber-Barron phase of sorts, as the handful of Oligarchs have been on hand to scoop up privatized industries long under state control. This small group of men looks set to acquire over a hundred more business that were state controlled just this month, if I read the local newspaper article correctly. They are also having some success in an effort to force out the westerner installed by British Petroleum to oversee their joint ventures in Russia. Crime is very high, cost of living is extremely high, and it may be some decades before things reach a new economic equilibrium.

- Demian

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