This morning I worked a while to try to stay up to
date with office work. About 11:30 we took a cab to the Kutafia Tower of the
Kremlin. We wandered along the Manezhnaya Square, the large square named for
the Moscow Manège (French word!) or
indoor riding academy. The Soviets used it for art expositions and it was there
that Khrushchev berated artists for promoting “degenerate art.”
We found an Italian themed-cafeteria and had a light lunch, overlooking
the former river-bed of the Neglinnaya River, now reduced to a surface trickle.
The shallow bed is decorated with fountains and fairytale characters. It is a
favorite cool place during summer heat. After lunch I had a closer look at the
statue of Marshal Zhukov in a very heroic pose, and a closer look at the Romanovsky
Obelisk, honoring the dynasty. It's near the Arsenal Tower, and the Ruins monument to the defeat of the French after the destruction of Moscow. The original Romanovsly Obelisk was destroyed by the Bolsheviks,
but a replica replaced it in 2013.
Farther down is a 2014 statue honoring Alexander I, the Czar who finally
defeated Napoleon and his invasion of 1812.
At 2:00 we met back at the Kutafia Tower to begin our 90
minute guided tour of the Moscow subway, which has some of the most ornate
station decorations of all subways. Our guide was a cheerful young woman who
spoke good English. Our tour group was composed of a young couple from Bulgaria,
a family of three from Chicago, two older sisters from India, and a young Canadian
We paid our tickets and headed off down the stairs to a
station right by the gardens we’d been exploring. I’ve used subways (aka metro
systems) in a number of cities such as Paris, London, Prague, Brussels, Hong
Kong, Berlin, Rome, Oslo, and Warsaw, but I couldn’t remember one with such
deep tunnels. The guide told us the deepest is 86 meters (276 feet)
underground. That’s all impressive, but there is a negative that impresses too.
Almost all the signage is only in Russian and in Cyrillic text.
Most metros systems have the local language and English
indicated. I supposed the Russians have been slow to want to use a language
seen as that of enemies, or at least adversaries. But it makes navigating the
metro a chore, especially with a less than perfect grasp of Cyrillic (more on
that in a bit). There now English along with Russian on the line maps inside
the cards, but not in the stations themselves. They have put helpful exit
arrows on the floor in stations (with the word exit
), so at least we could find our way out, but not easily from
one line to another.
The metro was a Soviet-era construction, the first line
opened in 1935, so the stations promote communist ideology: union among the
soviet republics, united workers improving the collective, fighting the great
patriotic war against Nazi Germany, happy fulfilled children and so on. That
said, the stations are truly beautiful. We visited about nine stations in 90
minutes taking trains on various lines from one to another, with time for
explanation and photos.
Toward the end we had an adventure. The mother and son from
Chicago and the Bulgarian man missed a turn following the guide and group and
disappeared. The guide asked the rest of us to stay by a heroic statue of
Belorussian partisans, while she went to look for them. The Chicagoan texted
his missing family, Mrs. Bulgarian did the same.
I suggested they photograph the
statue near us and send the photo so the missing could show it to people to
receive special directions (i.e. pointing). Compared to other European nations,
very few Russians speak English. The guide was gone for a quarter of an hour.
Text communication was established, but they couldn’t read the signage. And
when they did finally arrive at the station, they still had to find us.
Finally they found their way back to us, and we continued on
our way, visiting one more station, the Art-Deco Mayakovskaya, before the tour ended. The guide pointed out
the huge blast doors around the station, a vestige of the cold war when it was
planned for the metro stations to act as bomb shelters in the event of a
nuclear or I suppose other) exchange with the West. Probably at the same time
Americans were doing duck and cover drills. The extant metro stations in 1941 did
serve as shelters when the Germans were bombing Moscow, just at the London tube
stations served as shelters during the Battle of Britain, and the Berlin U-Bahn
did the same when that city was
pounded by bombs and artillery.
By the time the tour ended we needed to fight the traffic
back to our hotel. There were taxis waiting, at the station where we emerged, so
I went to the first in line and handed the driver the business card of our
hotel. He handed me a laminated plastic card explaining that the fare was so much
per kilometer, but in any case not less than 900 rubles. I had never paid that
much, so I said nyet, spasiba, and
walked away. Another taxi driver chased after me and said with a big smile “your
price, your price!” I immediately gave him my, more than fair, price. The smile
disappeared and he said no. So I changed my data setting to temporarily accept roaming
(I have a block of data I can use abroad each month) and got on the Uber
platform. Entering the destination, I received a price quote of under 400
rubles. Once I agreed a taxi appeared a few minutes later, and I would like to
say sped us back to the hotel, but
that would not be accurate in Moscow traffic.
While I’m on this topic, I’ve been amazed to see how
inexpensive taxi fares are in Moscow. A 20-30 minute ride to/from the hotel is
about $5-6. I’m now using the Uber app exclusively because it provides the
driver with our destination (in Russian), I know in advance how much it will
cost (up front pricing) and I don’t have to use cash, the charge goes on a card
of my choosing.
Back at the hotel we quickly changed, bought a bottle of
French wine at a nearby shop (located by Google maps) and we caught another
taxi out to the beautiful Pokrovsky Hills area. This is an upscale, forested
area where many diplomatic personnel are lodged alongside wealthy Russians.
There is an excellent English language school very nearby, serving the children
of diplomats, not all of whom use English as their home language. Many
diplomats from other nations have their children attend such schools so that
they can attain native proficiency in the language of Shakespeare.
We identified ourselves at the front gate of the community,
and were allowed in to be dropped at the Irions’ townhouse. Mrs. Irion and her daughter
gave us the grand tour of a very spacious townhome, although rather bare now.
All their personal effects have already been shipped, only the basic furniture
and other necessities belonging to the State Department that will remain after
they leave are still there. Under such stressful circumstances, it was brave
and hospitable of them to invite us for dinner. We laughed about not having a
table cloth and having to use red party cups. I joked that I was OK with that,
but please no beer pong (to be clear, I try to stay “culturally” aware, but I’ve
never played that!).
We sat and talked about their situation, their upcoming
move, the change in schools, the challenges they’ve encountered in Russian
during the last 14 months. About an hour after we arrived Mr. Irion arrived. We
moved fairly quickly to the table for a delicious meal: salad and French
cheeses with baguette, followed by a choice of spaghetti or rice, with
We talked travel in Europe, places they would like to visit
and housing challenges. It appears their next posting will be Germany but no
papers have yet been signed, so it could still be elsewhere. We talked about
the possibility, actually probability that their phones, and perhaps home
computers are bugged. Old KGB habits die hard. It’s possible even the house is
bugged and our conversation might be under monitoring. Just in case, I stated,
very enthusiastically, that I really loved the Russian Federation….
I told a few old Cold War jokes I remembered from our years
in Europe. One of them was:
A reporter asks an American, a Soviet, a Pole and an Israeli:
Excuse me, what is your opinion of the meat shortage?
The American asks: What’s “shortage”?
The Soviet asks: What’s
The Pole asks: What’s “meat”?
The Israeli asks: What’s “Excuse me”? (No offense to our Israeli friends, this joke appeared
in the Jerusalem Post!).
I must admit I got it a little wrong from memory!
Another, of which there are several versions:
An American finds himself in American hell, and sees the
usual tortures — fire, brimstone, etc. A Soviet finds himself in Soviet hell,
but doesn't see any fire or brimstone. In fact, it's rather level and grey. He
sees a woman with a clipboard, and asks, "Where is all the fire and
brimstone?" To which the woman replies, "My apologies, citizen, the
brimstone has not been delivered yet."
In any event we talked and laughed about many things, and had
I hope an encouraging and uplifting time for everyone.
We had ice cream for dessert and shortly thereafter it was
time for us to leave. They have many things to do, and we didn’t want to keep
them up too late.
We called a taxi and walked down to meet him at the gate. He
spoke fairly good English, the first we’ve had with that level of proficiency.
The drive back went smoothly and quickly.