Moscow Finale

Saturday, October 06, 2018
Moscow, Russian Federation
In the course of celebrity grave hopping at Novodevichy the previous afternoon, we had stopped in front of the grave of Mikhail Bulgakov, the eminent Russian satirist, writer and playwright best known for the novel The Master and Margarita. That novel was written between 1928 and 1940 during Stalin’s regime and the story concerns a visit by the devil to the officially atheistic Soviet Union. When V revealed that he had read the book and recalled that the first part of the book was set in Moscow (where Satan appears at Patriarch Ponds), the guide who was showing us around enthusiastically told us that he lived in the neighborhood where this particular pond was located (near Mayakovskaya metro station) and recommended that we check it out. What’s more, it was just one metro stop away from our hotel at Belarusskaya! That is how Patriarch Ponds (and the Mayakovskaya vicinity) bubbled up to the top of the list for our final day in the city.
Mayakovskaya metro station makes it to every ‘Top N beautiful metro stations in Moscow’ list and on seeing its modern, Art Deco design, we could see why. Not only is it among the more beautiful stations, it is also among the city's most historic. In 1941 Stalin celebrated the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution here while the Nazis were raining bombs above. This scene was later depicted in the mosaics in the center of its ceiling domes. We exited the metro into the Garden Ring, the circular ring-road avenue around central Moscow. (The particular section here is name Bolsyaha Sadovaya Ulitsa). Since it was still early on a Saturday morning, traffic was relatively light and  few people were up and about as we made our way to the Patriarch Ponds, about a kilometer from the station.
It had rained overnight and the walkway around the perimeter of the pond was slushy in parts - but that did not keep us from getting to its edge. Barring a couple of runners and people walking their dogs, we had very little company as we circumambulated the pond. In addition to a sign explaining the Pond’s relationship to Bulgakov’s book, along the path there are a series of interesting sculptures of anthropomorphicized animals. These evidently are based on characters that feature in some Russian children’s fables, but that was completely lost on us. A couple of ducks were sunning themselves on a floating platform in the center of the pond and held our attention  for a little while.  
Having satisfied ourselves that we had seen all that the pond had to offer, we slowly zig-zagged our way through the quiet neighborhood streets. It appeared to be an affluent area with high-end houses, nice shops and restaurants. Walking around we were happy to just soak  a few ‘slice of life’ moments in the city - the local church, people getting coffee at their local cafe, some walking their dog and so on. We eventually emerged at Tsverskaya St, one of the main arterial streets in Moscow that runs all the way from Belarusskaya to the historic center and Red Square. We noted that public buses were plying fairly frequently and checked out the electronic display at a nearby bus stop.  Not only did it provide accurate information on the arrival of buses, it also showed all relevant metro connection information from the closest metro. Moscow also has bicycle sharing system run by the city called Velobike and an array of these bright green bikes stood just outside the metro entrance. Before we hopped back on the metro, we stopped to see the statue Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was also a poet and playwright, and after whom several streets and stations both in Moscow and St. Petersburg are named. He was a prominent figure of Russia’s Futurist movement that advocated modernization and cultural rejuvenation.
From Mayakovskaya metro, we headed southeast on the Green line to Kolomenskaya station. Our destination was Kolomenskoye , a sprawling country estate that was much loved by the tsars and now turned into an open-air Historical and Architectural Museum and Natural Reserve. A tree-lined path from the metro station leads to the main entrance where a large map shows where the historical buildings are located in this vast 390 hectare park. A short walk takes you to the heart of the museum reserve, the so-called Tsar’s Courtyard and you enter through the Palace Gates.
In front is a a small hill topped by the majestic Church of the Ascension, considered a unique gem of ancient Russian architecture listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. It was erected by Basil III in 1532 to celebrate the birth of his son Grand Prince Vasily Ivanovich in the village of Kolomenskoe. Years later, he made history as Ivan the Terrible.  As the first tent-roofed church to be built in stone, it was unique in its architectural style. The church is encircled by a covered arch gallery and features decorations typical of the 16th century.  The spacious halls of other historic (restored) structures that dot the courtyard now permanent exhibitions of arts, crafts, household items and display architectural details from the tsar’s estate and neighboring villages.
Just outside the Palace Gate is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, built in the mid-17th century as the tsar’s family chapel to commemorate the liberation from the Poles. It is still an active church and we were able to climb up the steep staircase into the main church area to see the 'miraculous Reigning Icon of the Mother of God’ and an  astonishingly expressive wooden sculpture of the 'Dungeoned' Christ.
Apart from the architectural and historical monuments, this well-groomed park with its tidy paths was perfect for walking so we headed down hill toward the Moskva river that we could see from a distance. There was a nice promenade along the river’s edge and we joined other families and joggers enjoying both the cool air and the golden colors of fall among the trees that lined the embankment. We eventually retraced our way to the Kolomenskaya metro and back into the historical center.
The threat of rain returned and to get ourselves out of the drizzle and get some lunch, we ducked into a nearby Teremok, a popular fast-food chain in Russia that primarily specializes in traditional Russian dishes like borscht (beet soup), bliny (crepe), vareniki (dumplings).  Luckily for us, it offers vegetarian versions of them as well. Being lunch time, it was busy and we only got seats at the high table along the window, but it gave us a chance to sit and observe the street life outside. Just outside the window we watched an old man with somewhat ragged clothes sitting on the street bench with a stack of books. They looked like used books and the pile was held together by a string.  An elderly lady with a shopping bag came along and looked inquiringly at the pile. She paused, thumbed through a few that he extracted from the stack, read a few pages of some and before we were done with the meal, money and books changed hands. 
The imposing size and the gleaming golden domes of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior dominates the skyline of central Moscow. The opulence inside is said to match the outside and it is known for frescos covering the interior dome and galleries that depict scenes from the War of 1812. 
As we approached it we discovered it was off-limits for visitors that day. Evidently an important religious relic was on display and the church was open only to the faithful.  The streets surrounding the church were barricaded to regulate entry through a single gate. Going around the church we realized this must be an extraordinary occasion. The queue snaked out well beyond the church and on to a bridge over the Moskva river. One side of the bridge was cordoned off and uniformed young men were in charge of crowed control. Groups of people were held in a series of corrals and as each batch in front advanced, the ones behind were allowed to move forward and occupy that space. There were people of all ages and backgrounds and despite the cold and rain they were huddled together, quiet and uncomplaining, all unified in their devotion. The crowds and queues was reminiscent of  Tirupathi, a popular temple in South India, but without the chaos or the noise.
It was only later that we learned more about the extraordinary story behind this church. The contemporary cathedral sits on the site of an earlier and similar church of the same name built in the 19th century to commemorate Russia’s 1812 victory over Napoleon. The original was singled out by the Soviet government for destruction and in 1931. During Stalin’s orgy of explosive secularism it was blown to pieces to make way for a proposed Palace of Soviets, one of the most influential pieces of architecture never to be built.
The design approved by Stalin would have stood over 400 meters high, with a vast statue of Lenin at its peak. Although it was never built, the blueprint was nonetheless the forefather of the Seven Sisters which we talked about in an earlier blog. Only the foundations had been laid when the Second World War brought an abrupt end to such an ambitious project, and Stalin's successor, Nikita Khruschev, had no stomach for such grandiose displays of hubris. 
The project was abandoned, and the site turned over to become an open-air swimming pool, the largest in the world, which was kept at a temperature of 27°C all year round.  The swimming pool created its own micro-climate.  A shroud of thick fog blanketed it in winter and is alleged to have provided cover to a number of gruesome murders among the swimmers.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the significance of the site was reaffirmed and a multi-million dollar reconstruction project loosely based on the original design but with modern building materials and amenities was completed in 1997 - just in time to celebrate Moscow's 850th birthday. 
The pedestrian bridge Patriarshy most (bridge) offers a fantastic view of not just the cathedral but also the Kremlin towers at a distance. We crossed over into Bolotny Island on the south side of the bridge traversing through former factory buildings that now house an art and entertainment cluster.  
A small detour took us to Bolotnaya ploshchad, the scene of anti-Putin protests in 2012. We were here to find Dom na Naberezhnoy, a prestigious residential building during Soviet times, but became on of Moscow’s most infamous addresses during Stalin’s purges. A small museum tells the story of the house's most prominent inhabitants.  In the early 1920s, prominent Bolsheviks proudly moved into what was a new modern building built with the best and latest amenities for housing the new elite. But slowly many started disappearing from their flats almost every night during Stalin’s purges. The walls around the building are adorned with numerous plaques commemorating its famous residents. The guidebook offered a tip - if the year of death is 1937 or 1938, it is most likely that the person was executed during the most brutal wave of terror.  
We crossed  Maly Kammany most to the Zamoskvorechie district and walked south along the long pedestrian embankment taking in views of the river.  The promenade features wave themed street architecture with Scandinavian-style wood elements punctuated by  beautiful fountains and flowerbeds.
A colossal sculpture of Peter the Great (almost 100m tall) dominates the view. it was erected in 1997 to commemorate 300 years of  Russian Navy.  The statue is controversial two reasons - first on aesthetics grounds (it is on several Ugly Statues list) and local pride (why honor Peter the Great who moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg). Regardless it makes for a memorable Moscow icon. 
From the embankment, we entered the Art Muzeon Sculpture Park, an art museum and history lesson all in one. Among the creative art sculptures that dot the grounds, It houses a motley collection of Soviet stone sculptures - several of Lenin, Stalin, Sverdlow and Brezhnev - that were ripped from their pedestals in the post-1991 anti-Soviet wave.
Craving for coffee, we found a kiosk brewing a gourmet blend in front of the New Tretyakov Gallery.   It is premier venue that showcases avant-garde Russian artists ( Kandinsky, Chagall et. al) but with neither the time nor inclination to go indoors when the sun was shining we skipped it in favor of continuing along the embankment. Interestingly enough there was an outdoor art market where less famous everyday artists had their works on display and for sale. 
A passage under Krymsky most, crosses the Garden Ring and leads into Gorky Park, officially the Central Park of Rest and Culture. It is a park used mostly by locals and not a tourist attraction as such. Laid out in 1928, this was the first park of its kind, and the prototype for hundreds of others across the Soviet Union. Part of the park consists of formal gardens and woodland and there are a number of old buildings and summer houses on the grounds.. There are also rides and rollercoasters for children in another part of the park. Having been on our feet all day, it provided an opportunity for us to rest our feet for a little while before we exited out of the imposing formal entrance portal, and came upon an area that seemed popular among the young skateboarding and selfie-taking demographic. 
We finally rewarded ourselves to some mini sweet treats at Chokolade, a chain of restaurants that we had noticed around town before taking the metro back from Oktoberskaya metro. Reviewing dinner options around Belorusskya, we discovered the presence of Jagganath, a vegetarian restaurant on Tsersakay Ulitsa, just  a short walk away from our hotel. As the might name suggest, it was a Hare-Krishna restaurant and natural food store, but Russian style, which suited us just fine. The patrons were mostly local and the dishes (some with India names, but little evidence of Indian spices) seemed popular with the patrons.
Before wrapping up for the day, we popped into the Belorusskya Train Terminal (not to be confused with the Belorusskya metro station) to familiarize ourselves with the location of AeroExpress, which we intended to take the next morning to get to the airport. The pastel green Belorusskaya station was beautifully illuminated at night and we took some night pictures outside. It would be the last train station we would see on this three week Trans-Mongolian-Siberian journey that was punctuated by several memorable train stations and train journeys.  On cue, a fiery pink sunset perfectly complemented our contemplative mood on our last day in this magnificent city.
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2019-06-17