Nov 16, 2014

Слепые вожди пьяных (Photo collection: Moscow in autumn)

Moscow, the beating heart of Russia's great and peculiar civilization!

Begin at Red Square, the center of medieval Muscovy, and take an hour's stroll through nine hundred years of history.  From the medieval cobblestone between the onion domes and fortress walls, walk any direction to the Russian Empire, stopping to marvel at Old Europe's grand hotels and monuments to culture and commerce. But don't look backwards for too long - Moscow certainly never does. Instead choose a new direction - descend twenty stories underground into the marble palaces of Stalin's metro, and emerge under his stately and imposing skyscrapers.  Or look above you to the grid of trolley cables and holiday lights, follow it along iconic boulevards and river-walks, past world-renowned concert halls and film studios, all under the gaze of bronze and marble heroes of labor, art, science and exploration.  Just be sure to lower your gaze occasionally - otherwise you may miss a spontaneous performance of ballet:

If you can't relish life in Moscow, you were never alive to begin with.

At least that's what I hear.  Moscow probably is spectacular, but like you I've only read about it, and mostly on this blog.  Me, I've been sitting in self-imposed isolation for three months, hunched over my desk, neither working nor relaxing, listening to my neck crackle like damp firewood every time I turn to the clock to see if it's bedtime.  My life is so empty that to document it now would turn this blog into every other blog, and I hate blogs.  The most interesting thing that's happened to me since I got here was E. coli, but even that's become routine (incidentally, stay tuned for my post on local fare).  If something happens you'll be the first to know, but in the mean time, please enjoy this tour in photographs.


As a famous Russian proverb has it, God is very high and the tsar is very far away.  This proverb did not originate in Moscow.  In Moscow, the tsar is standing right behind you, making sure you don't take photographs inside the metro.  A few examples:

In the provinces, sometimes rooms get stuffy.  Most Russians, like most Americans, resolve this problem with their wits, i.e. by opening a window.  In Moscow, the problem is resolved with state power.  By each window in the reading room of the National Library, they've posted this document - roughly translated, it's the "schedule for airing out the room."

Intervals of roughly 3 hours, for 15 minutes each time - eat your heart out, OSHA.

Another example:  In the provinces, like in America, there are handicap parking spaces for the disabled.  If you get caught parking in one without permission, the state will fine you to discourage further abuse of the privilege.  In Moscow they make damn sure you don't park in the handicap spot in the first place:

Most surprising of all, at least to me, is the outward sobriety of the city.  The authorities have cracked down on public drunkenness, with the unfortunate side effect of reining in private drunkenness, too. Only stores above a certain size can sell alcohol and only during certain hours; you can't drink openly on the street (not to mention on the bus); even bars discourage you from drinking:

"Excessive consumption of alcohol is harmful to your health."  In the provinces, you aren't required to post that - they already know.  

So in addition to being grand and lively, the city is safe, orderly, and predictable - a showcase of Russia's best efforts in all spheres. This is not to say the Moscow is a Potemkin Village or somehow artificial - the showcase is largely for internal consumption, and Russian citizens from Crimea to Kamchatka take pride in their (outrageously distant) capital.  They all know the major sites and streets, they all watch Moscow's news, and in the Soviet period, all trains across all eleven time zones ran on Moscow time.  Of course, the regions wouldn't mind some of Moscow's wealth and wellbeing, and the glitz and glamour does isolate the center from its periphery.  People in Irkutsk know how Moscow lives, but Muscovites know far less about Irkutsk - the blind leading the drunk.

To me, Moscow has so far been an adjustment, and at times, a disappointment, in that it differs so dramatically from the other Russian cities I've come to love.  Sure, you still get the occasional unfortunately-named cafe

and the same difficulties with English grammar,

but something still feels off, at least for now.  This was evident as soon as I got here.

Upon arriving in Moscow, my most urgent task was to find a banya, or Russian bath/sauna, that I could frequent during my year here.  In both Irkutsk and Maikop, locals operated banyas that one could rent out for the night with friends, or drop in to, to have a steam, a snow-bath, a liter of vodka, a spell of vertigo and a fistfight.  I had assumed that this was a central feature of Russian life everywhere, and thus pursued a career in Russian studies.  It appears now that I acted too hastily - in Moscow, most banyas are either far outside the city in people's private dachas, or in the center, lavishly decorated and priced for the Soviet elite (or now, the new rich).  Try to guess, for instance, which of these two banyas I frequented in Maikop, and which one I can't afford in Moscow:


In my desperation and disbelief, I asked all of my acquaintances here, but their answers were always the same - "this isn't Irkutsk," "this isn't Maikop," or one time, "this isn't America."  Indeed.  I might have added, "this isn't Russia," but I already know that game.  In truth, Russia contains multitudes, but Moscow so far has fallen a bit short of my romantic, blog-distorted memories of Irkutsk and Maikop.  Fortunately, my visa is valid until May, and my impressions, like the city itself, are under constant renovation.

In the mean time, there is plenty to look at.

The following (and final) pictures are a means to coerce myself into blogging further, even if my life stays dull.  Moscow, in addition to its spectacular built environment, is dotted with equally spectacular parks, former gentry estates, and other well-curated green space.  The theme of this post was Moscow in autumn.  I will try to return to these same spots, some of the above but all of these below, during the winter and during the spring, to document the city's seasonal transformations. These are from a park near my apartment (click on any pictures, but especially these, for full-size versions).