Since I was young, perhaps 15 or 16, I have had an affinity for Russia. The wide area of the Earth on which it stretches, its vast diversity yet uniformity, its long, twisted, and tumultuous history spoke to a young radical demanded to be explored. When I first read about the Trans-Siberian Railroad I was captivated and longed to conduct trains along its thousands of kilometers of tracks through some of the world’s roughest and most beautiful terrain. It was the essence of adventure. Being young and seeking purpose and adventure together, it was a dream of mine.
It was not only the railroad that called me, but the political history. I was enamored with leaders, from Peter the Great to Vladimir Lenin, and I saw Russian history as an example of the dialectic meandering its way through the great expanse of that kingdom, empire, republic, socialist union, and federation. Its language, foreign and familiar, sounded just odd enough to be unique, but close enough to be conquerable. I longed for the day that I could say “zdryastivistye” and have it understood.
As any young socialist radical, the Russian revolution, with its propaganda, victory, and triumph over both bourgeois capitalism and fascism, was something out of a fantasy. Yet it was real, tangible, and able to be seen, to be felt, to be touched. I dreamt of the day I would be able to do so.
But as I grew older I learned more, read more, and came to realize the true meaning of the dialectic in that it doesn’t simply move freely and uniformly toward progress, but instead twists, turns, sinks, and swims when and where it can. The possibility of riding the train to Siberia and back receded further and further from possible, until disillusionment, financial inhibition, and local ambition cooled my red-hot desire. Still, my interest in Russian history did not wane. So obsessed had I become with Russian history from 1900 to 2000 that I wore a Soviet Army jacket as my winter coat during long Minnesota winters. I took every class I could about the place, and wrote a thesis on its bureaucracy during those transformative years. For more than half my life Russia has been ever present, whether in my own dreams, my books, the news, or the butt of some “if you don’t like America you can move to…” joke. But during that whole time, I had never visited this land of obsession.
But in 2018, my wife, who was herself experiencing what I had nearly a decade and a half prior, found a chance to go and made the decision for me so I couldn’t say no. A dormant dream re-appeared and the opportunity had to be taken, so in March of that year, while Russia slowly emerged from its annual deep freeze and as it prepared to again “elect” its second longest serving modern leader after Joseph Stalin, we set forth to see the place for ourselves. It would change us both.
Arrival in Moscow and a Bucket List Checked Off
Moscow is 4,800 miles and 10 hours flying time from Washington D.C. where we currently live. Having flown internationally before, this was something for which I was well prepared and no surprises presented themselves, besides an Eight-part Russian TV series on Trotsky available on the little screens in the seats. Immigration was simple and it was there – at the passport counter in front of a beautiful young woman officer – where I first was able to utter the greeting for which I had waited 17 years to test. A small smile later, having given away my accent with my passport, that little book had a Russian Federation stamp and we were off to the capital city chosen by the Bolsheviks to avoid German capture, and therefore defeat, in the Great War they sought to end.
There is an express train from Sheremetyevo airport to Belarus train station (the stations in Russia are named for the destination they serve, making it quite easy to find your place and station) and a short ride later we stepped out of that beautiful station into the cold. As I placed my hood over my head, a sight I had longed to see for so long appeared. At the apex of the station a large hammer and sickle shown proudly and made me feel as though the last 25 years never happened.
We had planned to spend only one day in Moscow before venturing to St. Petersburg and then returning later. For the tourist and student of 20th century communism alike, one of the things that Moscow has the almost no other place has is the embalmed body of one of its greatest leaders still on display. Near the Kremlin wall in Red Square is Lenin’s mausoleum. This was, for me, a bucket list item: to see with my own eyes Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov alias Lenin.
To get to Lenin’s mausoleum we took the Metro from the train station. The Moscow metro is two things at once: the most efficient way to get from point a to point b, but also a site to see in and of itself. The 5 line, which follows the inner beltway encircling the city, is a marvel of Soviet engineering and art. The escalators zoom down and up, the walls, ceiling, and arches were all a canvass for Soviet artists. The trains arrive every 2 minutes or so, a far cry from the Metro in my own country’s capital city. Capitalism can’t win everything.
Carrying our large backpack full of clothes and supplies we stood in line to walk along the wall of the Kremlin which acts as a mass grave and memorial to communists the world over, from Americans like John Reed and Big Bill Haywood, to former Soviet leaders, such as Brezhnev and of course Stalin (on whose grave I would gladly dance but who had a spile of roses nearly 3 feet high). But the crown jewel – despite the wishes of the man himself – is Lenin who, unlike the others, is not under ground but encased in glass and looking better than he did the day he died almost a century ago.
The guards at the mausoleum forced us through quickly, despite there being few people present, and so my time to reflect was short. But there I was, in a place I had dreamed I would someday be, without the time to savor it, and far from the idealism of my youth.Anyway, I smiled knowing that I had done something I had always wanted, and looked over at my wife, still brimming with such idealism, and we smiled at each other. Despite being born halfway across the world, we had found solidarity in something and we stood together looking at a man who had, in imperfect ways no doubt, lived the very ideas that hold us together and fan the flames of our love. It was, in short, a precious moment I will retain forever.
We walked out of the mausoleum and past more martyrs of a former corrupted system, and stepped towards the edifice of an even crueler past. St. Basil’s, imposing yet inviting, smaller then I had expected but just as colorful, was open to guests – both believers and not – having not been reconsecrated after the fall of the wall. We went inside and looked upon the icons of each chapel. However, not able to read Cyrillic, much less the old style don’t inscribed by devoted followers of centuries past, it got old fast.
As we exited, the GUM, a massive mall that makes up one side of the square welcomed us in from the cold and we sought some food. Exploring the place a bit, we sat dismayed, feeling as though this decadent place told all one needed to know about just how far the red star had dipped below the horizon. It made me wonder if it could ever rise again with some new dawn, but I haven’t lost the last shred of my idealism…not yet.
We left the GUM and took the Metro to the hotel. Now a Hilton (of course) the building is one of the seven sisters, seven Stalinist era art deco skyscrapers which dot the Moscow skyline. The place we stayed had always been a hotel, designed to impress both foreign and internal dignitaries in a vain attempt to convince them that Soviet Russia was as advanced, luxurious, and prosperous as her friends and foes. She certainly had more of the latter than the former.
There is a Russian joke that it’s entirely possible a Russian was born in St. Petersburg, went to school in Petrograd, got married in Leningrad and died in St. Petersburg without ever having moved. The city with a ruler’s name sits atop the bones of centuries of common Russians. These poor souls were either pounded into the swamp to make the place, or murdered to maintain and overthrow regimes, or thrust into the meatgrinder of Nazi sieges.
We took a train to the old capital of the Empire and the scene of Ten Days That Shook the World and met our host at Moscow Station who gave us a map and directed us to the apartment we had secured. The metro in the old city was not as ornate as in the new capital, but it was as fast, and in no time we walked towards our building – a brutalist monstrosity that looked no different than several others on the block, all surrounding a little school placed in the middle of connected walking paths. The apartment was warm and cozy, and in a short while I was sound asleep, ready for the next days activities.
Near our apartment was Victory Square, a large plaza set in Moscow street which paid homage with its Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad during the what we call World War II but Russians call the Great Patriotic War. I had seen the tall spire that marks the spot, but as we approached the monument, a chorus greeted us and sang a triumphal, yet somber tune as eternal flames swayed in the cold wind. Underneath was a museum with artifacts from the siege telling the heroic story of those years and reveling in the victory that would put it all to an end.
A bit energized, we walked down the street to the old House of Soviets, one of the few buildings that still has a statue of Lenin in front. We stood for a second in the cold, feeling a bit transported back to when you may hear the people call each other tavarish and hope to align reality with ideology. But alas, the time for that had ended, so we stood, the single admirers of the man still laying in his glass casket hundred of miles away.
The Metro took us downtown and as we stepped off we were greeted by the Kazan Cathedral with its rounded collonade and snow filled courtyard. Inside we saw an alter of gold and a line of former official atheists making crosses on their chest. From that scene we walked to the Admiralty Building and, having gotten slightly acclimated to the cold, sat on a bench and enjoyed sandwiches we made from bread and cheese bought from a small grocery near our apartment the night before.
Unable to be missed was the gorgeous St. Issac’s Cathedral that would impress and awe even the most ardent atheist with its ornate imagery, massive dome, and symmetrical layout. Inside the church, also now a mere museum, under its exquisite dome were children engrossed in painting some small part of the church, to greater and lesser success. While we enjoyed artwork adorning the walls and ceiling that would rival Michelangelo, I couldn’t help wonder what similar talent was expressing itself on the floor underneath.
Just outside the church stands the Bronze Horseman, a tribute to the city’s founder and namesake, Peter the Great. But we couldn’t stay long as the wind blowing off the river slapped us with its cold and demanded that we move along and the buildings then offered us shelter from nature. That was until we approached the main square in front of the infamous Winter Palace. The square played host to the final breaths of so many souls, that I felt somewhat jealous as I saw mine condense as it passed out of my mouth and reach up towards to the top of the Alexander Column.
We stepped inside the imperial palace-turned-museum and walked it’s halls admiring art from antiquity to modernity, from Tsarism to “managed democracy”, and being wowed by the extravagance of absolute monarchy. However, knowing what that extravagance ultimately bought, I couldn’t help but reminisce about what seeing that splendor must have meant to sailors, soldiers, peasants, and workers as they stormed it on that early October morning in 1917.
The final stop of the day was at the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II who was killed by anarchist grenades in a bid to make the regime feel a bit of the pain of the average Russian of the time. The church, neglected for decades, stood as a reminder of the attempted and failed forced atheism of Soviet rule. Though also not re-consecrated, the church of Christ the Savior on Spilled Blood is an ode to Putin’s revival of the old Russian church replete with black robed bearded men flinging incense in ridiculous ritual to an absent father, son, and ghost.
A full day of sightseeing behind us, we retired back to our little Soviet flat to re-energize for the next day which promised to also recharge our radical batteries. A stroll through the halls of Russian political history and a glimpse out of famous balcony windows would prove much more complex and contradictory, just the thing that would make old Marx smile.
With every intention of getting up early and visiting important sites on the other side of the river, we sleep well into the morning – emphasis on well. It wasn’t until late into the morning that we finally bundled up and left, but having become well acquainted with Russian metros, we knew just how to get where we wanted to be. Where we wanted to be was the museum of political history. Created soon after the revolution the museum, part of which is inside the Kschessinska Mansion, it races the history of modern Russia from the Decembrist revolt of 1825 to Putin’s New Year’s Eve speech, his first as president of the Russian Federation.
We spent more time at this museum that we had intended. Partially because it took us nearly twenty minutes just to get our coats in coat check as a throng of prepubescent Russian school children cajoled and annoyed one another. Some things are the same everywhere. But the real reason was the sheer amount of amazing stories they told, the artifacts which brought it to life, and the honesty with which the information was delivered. There were acknowledgements of the achievements of Stalinism, but a reminder of the costs – in human lives and shattered hopes and dreams of a better future.
But for Alka it was something totally different. My first learning about Bolshevism and Russia’s revolutionary trajectory from 1905 on made Lenin and Trotsky, and Bolshevism itself, an ideal. Here, these people, men and women, had achieved this incredible thing under the harshest of circumstances and had really tried to build something amazing from the decay and indignity of tsarism only to find their project twisted and mangled by Stalin, Hitler, and the West. As I have learned more about this revolutionary past my admiration generally remains, but the veneration, hero-worship, and tendency to paper over the crimes of our idols, has waned. I can sit comfortably in judgment of Russian Bolshevism and its consequences. I think it has much to teach – not just in what revolutionaries should do, but also what they shouldn’t.
But Alka was in a different place. Not one where reason is chucked out the window in favor of ecstasy, but where real possibilities, and victories, so few and far between for modern leftism, are things to bathe in the glory of, to bespectacled stand in awe of what truly is possible. But facts seldom allow for this kind of exuberance, and the museum of political history in St. Petersburg Russia told the facts. It explained the brutality of revolution and counter-revolution. It spoke of the great leap forward Russia took in 1905 and 1917, and what those kinds of leaps demand in flesh, idealism, and indeed hope. I can’t speak for her, but I could see as we proceeded into Lenin’s room and the balcony on which he explained in April 1917, the need to stand firm, to not capitulate in the face of imminent victory, but also about the violence that steadfastness can produce and how little able, or willing, our comrades where to stop the worst excesses.
We kept going through the museum, and got to a great presentation about the haphazard, unforseen, and socially devastating the events of 1989-1993 were in Russia and the Warsaw Pact. Where finally a match between possibility and reality re-emerged, kept dormant in the cold conflict that when heated burned red hot in everywhere but where the fire remained stoked, it was snuffed out and mangled, left open for Vladimir Vladimirovich to step in and rule. Just a few days after our visit to the museum, he would seek to challenge Stalin as Russia’s longest serving modern leader in a farcical presidential election and indeed hoping for a grave behind Lenin with a rose pile just slightly higher than Comrade Joe.
It seems that every building in Russia has a cafe, and the museum didn’t disappoint, so we stopped in and talked about how we were feeling, about the demoralization and frustration with the whole 20th century socialist experience. How could they have let it happen like that? What were they thinking? Why did they do this? Why didn’t they do that? What the hell, man?! The dialectic demands these questions be asked and attempted to be answered. Left unanswered the unscrupulous, the kniving, the savvy can sneak in and usurp even the greatest of ideals.
Just a short trolley ride away is Finland station, where Lenin returned in April of 1917 to take the room in the mansion and to give speeches from its balcony. Out front of the station still stands a statue of Lenin, his hand still pointing out as if to say, “Don’t give up, you still have a world to win. Go forth and do your revolution!” On the way to the station we passed over a bridge next to the Aurora, the famous naval ship that signaled the start of the October revolution with a blank firing of its giant deck guns.
Less physically and more emotionally, the day was exhausting. After eating at an ISKON inspired vegetarian restaurant, we made our way back to the apartment to prepare for our train ride back to Moscow. We continued talking and trying to parse out what conclusion had come to us, and what one’s we had to reject. For the rest of the trip, these questions would linger and make each hammer and sickle, each tribute to Lenin (which are everywhere) bittersweet in a way they hadn’t been before then.
It was hard to sleep, but eventually my mind cooled enough to press pause, and when whatever synapse has to fire to press play again did indeed fire, it was back to Moscow station, find the traincar, find the seat and retrace the same bit of track we had traveled just a few days, but an important few days, ago.
Back in the USS…er…Moscow
After a brief bite to eat when took a cab to our apartment in Moscow. Yet another small apartment in a giant apartment building set among countless other enormous structures, it was anything unique, but it was newer and nice. We put down our things and headed out to the famous Arbat street. There we had two goals, to pick up something from a local store for a Russian friend of ours and find some old Soviet stuff. I have been an avid collector of soviet kitsch, like banners, pins, hats, and the like. I figured no one would really want this stuff and we could get a deal. We stopped in a little shop and in a back room there was a small room, the size of a half bathroom, full of all kinds of the stuff I wanted. We spent far too long, and far too much buying things like medals, pins, hats, and banners. But hey, the guy needed some business and we were happy to give it.
From Arbat street we took a cab, a ridiculously-expensive-for-no-good-reason cab, to the Fallen Monument Park, where old soviet statues went from public showcases of the builders of socialism, to the relics of a by-gone, and goodbye, era. The sun was dipping over the horizon but still hit the massive Peter the Great monument on its own island on the river, and the cold really started in earnest. We made quickly for the warm metro and back to Red Square.
By the time we emerged from down below the sun was gone and the area was lit by the nearby buildings. Behind us was the Russian white house – not presidential residence like the in the US – but their capitol building – the Duma. I am sure if I had looked closer and during they day I may have seen remnants of the damage caused by Russian tanks as the shelled the building during the 1993 crisis, but at night all scars are covered by repairs and lights – no harm no foul. Nearby the Duma is the gorgeous Bolshoi Theater. We took in the view of the opera house from across the street where the large monument to Karl Marx is buried. Having recently visited Marx’s grave in England, the monument in moscow is appropriately reminiscent. We snuck into the GUM quickly to escape the cold. It seemed clear that there is no better way to do so than to go to a Soviet themed bar and have some beer and vodka – so that is what we did. Having mastered the metro, we made our way back to the apartment and quickly dozed off before our last full day in Moscow.
For the final day in Moscow i had set plenty of time to visit what promised to be incredible – the sites of Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva -or VDNKh – a permanent general purpose trade show and amusement park. Namely we wanted to see the famous Worker and Kolkhoz Woman from the 1937 World Expo in Paris. The Stalinist-Art Deco-Socialist Realist Bronze sculpture sat opposite the Nazi Germany exhibit on the Eiffel Tower lawn, foreshadowing the horrific conflict memorialized underground in St. Petersburg.
But the main event was the Memorial Museum of Cosmonauts. Though the Soviet Union lost the race to the moon – they won the space race. It is not a coincidence that when an American wants to go to the International Space Station, they ride a Russian rocket which is, for the most part, a variation of the rocket that sent so many of human space exploration firsts (satellite, animal, man, woman, two people, space walk, probe to moon, sample return from moon, venus, etc, etc). The Soviet Union and its former citizens have, like Americans, a lot for which to be ashamed of their nation, but not this. For this they should be, and are, quite proud. The displays in the museum champion the Soviet Union’s achievements in space. From the cute Lunokhod rover, to a full mockup of the main section of the Mir space station, I felt like a child in his favorite play-pen. I didn’t want to leave.
But leave we eventually did, and made out way to Kiev Train Station, which promised views of Moscow’s modern downtown section which hosts some of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers. This claimed view was never to materialize, but a glimpse of the biggest seven sisters, Moscow State University, loomed large in the distance. We had yet to pick up souvenirs and such for our friends back home, and there just so happened to be a mall near Kiev Station, so we popped in. When we did we left Russia, with its particular architecture and history and entered american with is voracious consumerism and its cheap shoveling of useless commodities down everyone’s throat. Needless to say we were happy to leave.
We had only one more site to see. On an inconspicuous square in an unassuming part of Moscow stands a rocket man. Not the one spoken of in presidential tweets, but rather the world’s first rocket man – Yuri Gagarin. The modern monument its sleek and fashionable, and if it weren’t so cold, I would have liked to remain there and soak it in. But cold it was and how quickly I wanted to return to the warmth of Moscow Metro. We popped out again to frequent yet another vegetarian place, the tomato soup I got was less than savory, but the rice and vegetables did the trick.
That was it. Our plane left early the next morning, traveling against prevailing winds, threatened to be a noticeably longer trip than coming out. So we packed our bags, got ourselves situated and tried to get some sleep before we had to wake as the sun would rise. My mind activated by space travel, I had to will myself to sleep, but come it did. But without feeling as though I had much, I woke to the sound of an alarm telling me it was time to go. A final metro ride and an airport express train ride later, we returned to Terminal D of Sheremetyevo airport waiting for our flight.
On the way back I wrote the post, punctuated by my desire to finish the Trotsky show which was accurate to a point, but where creative license too easily became pure fiction. All in all, visiting Russia in March has its downsides, well downside, it is cold. Real cold. But at the same time, all the seminal events in Russian history happened in Winter – from defeating Napoleon, to the Decemberists, to 1905 and 1917. When we picture Russia we don’t picture kayaking in St. Petersburg, we think of freezing our ass off in some snow pile among onion domed churches and ultimately that exactly what we did. It was incredible.