Trip to Russia. Day 1. Moscow. Off to the right and through Gorky Park
“In Moscow, you’d sit in an enormous parlor of a restaurant where you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you and you don’t feel that you’re a stranger. And here, you know everybody and everybody knows you, and you’re a stranger, a stranger… and a lonely stranger.”
Anton Chekhov, “Three Sisters”
In the morning of our first day in Moscow, I found my dad at exactly the same place and in the same position as I left him 25 years ago. He’s got more gray hair and one more map was on the wall behind him. Besides that, nothing has changed in this corner.
There were a few more pairs of scissors in the top right drawer of his desk. I checked. Back in the day, there was only one and he took great care of it — sharpening, cleaning, and all. It was the only pair in the house. Those scissors were multipurpose: dad used them to copy & paste when writing his papers in pre-computer era, mom used them to cut and clean fish, I used them for my black tie sewing projects, my brother used them to string his tennis racquets. They were also good for everyone’s manicure/pedicure purposes. And for haircuts. We were allowed to touch those scissors on one condition — they had to be returned back into the same drawer/same position immediately after use. It is still in my ears — dad’s voice through the apartment:
— Where are my scissors? Who took them? All what I ask is to put them back! How hard could that be? — in a fury, he’d get out off his corner to track the culprit.
The trick then was to sneak into the room while he was on the chase and stick the scissors into the drawer under a piece of paper:
— Dad, they were there all along. Didn’t you see them?
Lots more scissors in that top right drawer now. No one to take them.
As my American family was coming to its jet-lagged senses, I had to take care of business — to find a place to have my pictures taken to refresh my Russian papers. This trip took me, sentimentally, to the church where my atheist-raised friends and I were secretly sneaking out to watch midnight Easter processions while the Soviet government was spinning Liza Minelli on the state television to keep us home. In 1988, little Anton was baptized here. The history of The Church of the Deposition of the Robe dates back to 1625 when Persians came to Moscow to establish diplomatic relationships with Russia. They gifted Tzar Mikhail Fedorovich Romanov with the robe that Jesus Christ was wearing on his way to crucifixion. That robe was later split into pieces and those pieces are still kept in Kremlin cathedrals, in cathedrals of Saint Petersburg, and major monasteries in Russia. This church was built on the spot where the Persian delegation was greeted and the gift changed hands. No other place like this in Moscow.
If I could write like Jane Austen, I’d say that my Moscow apartment building has been happily situated along the path connecting Gorky Park with Neskuchny Garden — an amusement park with secluded gardens. We lived so close to the park that, when back in the day during long Moscow winters they poured water over the park trails to make them skating lanes, I’d put my skates on the couch at home, take the elevator to the ground floor, stomp a few feet to a slope from which, sliding on my butt right onto the skating paths. That maneuver would save me the ten kopek entrance fee and the park would be mine.
Today, we legitimately walked down the slope to the river and our first sight was the Russian Ministry of the Interior. Grand, isn’t it?
The day was cloudy and a perfect one to embark on a long walk. We had a plan and our walk was mapped.
A park is a park. Gorky Park. Central Park. Hyde Park. Tuileries. What makes it The Park? Memories. We didn’t wander much through the Gorky Park — I just wanted to make sure that some important places were intact — they were.
This suspension bridge — Krymsky bridge —over the Moscow River will always be a mini George Washington Bridge over the Hudson to me.
As we walked along the Moskva River, we passed an outdoor gallery, an extension of the Tretyakov Gallery where artists get an opportunity to exhibit their work and passersbys can enjoy the art and purchase it as well. This is the gallery front.
There was a gallery back. A memorial to the victims of totalitarian regimes. Faces behind bars.
Summer of 1991 — my parents are on vacation with little Anton and I am home alone. On August 19, I woke up with my bed shaking and windows rattling. Along the deserted 12-lane avenue, a sturdy endless steam of tanks was moving towards the center of the city. I have never seen so much military machinery so close. Turn on the TV — Swan Lake was playing on all channels.
Today, it’s August 19 of 2019 — exactly 28 years later. My family and I are moving towards the center of the city, too.
Right after the coup, all the dismantled Soviet statues were piled up in a little courtyard behind this art gallery. They are still here — now erect. This is Iron Felix, creator of the most evil persecution machine, the KGB. This statue used to stand in the center of Moscow in close proximity to Kremlin until a well organized mob took it down.
Some of my friends went to participate in the dismantling and egged me on to join. Nope. I did not go to the White House in August of 1991, neither did I go to dismantling. Just like I’ve never gone to May Day parades, or November Revolution celebrations, or outdoor New Year festivities. Just like I avoid St. Patrick’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, or Pride Parades. The fear of the mob was instilled in me by my grandmother, who barely escaped the Khodynka mayhem in 1896 that crushed 1,400 people, and by both of my parents who miraculously survived Stalin’s funeral in 1953, escaping the stampede on roofs and along the sewers of Moscow.
Here’s Joseph with his nose lost during the dismantling ordeal.
Leonid the Immortal. Indeed, he suffered so many clinical deaths and miraculously returned to life so many times that when he actually died no one believed it. He died in October of my second year at the Moscow University. To get to the school that was next to Red Square, I had to cross some Kremlin entrances. Of course the streets around them were blocked, detours created, IDs required. I was late to class. Not that I was super diligent on other days and the teachers didn’t know my ways…
— Well, Adushkina (my maiden name), what happened today? — the Scientific Communism professor stared at me.
— Sorry, looks like Brezhnev died and everything is blocked around here.
— Go sit down and stop talking nonsense!
After a brief brush with the past, we continued along towards the center of Moscow.
Muscovites did put up a fight against this one — a 94-meter statue of Peter the Great created by Zurab Tsereteli, a close friend of then Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Originally, this was a project known as The Birth of the New World with the figure of Christopher Columbus and intended as a gift to the United States. The States rejected the offer. Then, Tsereteli unscrewed the head of Columbus, substituted it with the one of Peter the Great, and had it installed here, on approach to the Kremlin.
To Americans of the NY-NJ-CT tri-state area, Zurab Tsereteli might be known as the author of The Tear of Grief or a monument To the Struggle Against World Terrorism installed in Bayonne, NJ to honor the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Cathedral of the Christ the Savior appeared almost across the river from Peter the Great. This is a new one and known to the world as the place where the Pussy Riot girls were arrested. The original one goes back to the 19th century. It took over four decades to build it and one day to destroy, in the 1930s, on Stalin’s orders. The place was cleared to erect an enormous Palace of the Soviets. That never happened. Some say the war stopped the construction. Others say the quicksand and flooding from the Moskva River would not hold any construction on this site. The abandoned foundation of the Palace that never happened was turned into the open-air swimming pool — the world’s largest, of course. The water in the pool was heated so citizens could use it year round. All what my memories hold about this area is a gigantic cloud of steam forever hanging over Volkhonka Street.
The walls of the new Cathedral were covered with words blessing and commemorating names connected with the Patriotic War of 1812. Absorbing these, my practical American companions noted that church is never separated too far from state.
Our planned route took us by Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, the Moscow equivalent of the Metropolitan Museum. Since for Tom and the girls it was their first trip to Moscow we decided to skip museums in favor of getting a feel of the city. There are only so many hours in the day.
From Volkhonka Street we moved on to Mokhovaya towards my school. Here’s something new to me — a monument to Prince Vladimir, the one who moved barbarian Russians towards Orthodoxy in 988. My 4th grade history teacher explained to us that Vladimir, when choosing the right path for Russia, was torn between Islam and Catholicism. He liked the idea of having multiple wives, on one side, and being able to drink wine, on the other. In the end, he went with Constantinople.
Pashkov House is just beautiful. It houses the Russian State Library now. But to me it is the house from which Woland took his final look at Moscow — more on that later.
And here’s my school — journalism department of the Moscow State University. And here are these fine American people. And the eternal cloud of cigarette smoke that forever hung over Mikhail Vasilievich is now gone.
Before this trip, I was in Moscow only once after moving to the US, when my mother was ill. But I do not consider it a visit. Those were five days in January of 2008 spent on Kashirka in an oncological clinic. The only tourist attempt I made was to visit my school. I was wearing the same winter coat I had back in the 80’s, same shawl, I spoke Russian. The guard who opened the door gave me one look and said:
— We do not allow American spies here.
This time, the guard was nicer and I have this picture now. Strange feeling — like everything was just yesterday or it has never happened.
”Was there a boy at all, perhaps there was no boy there?”
And they finally restored that church behind the department. Church of the Sign Icon of the Mother of God at Sheremetyevo Yard. This was my cut through to Mayakovsky theatre, Conservatory, and a bunch of movie theaters.
Hotel Moskva is a block away from my school. Built in the 30’s, demolished in 2004, and reproduced in 2014. Another Moscow story has it that architect Alexey Shchusev presented Stalin with the two possible designs and, in a hurry, Stalin signed them both. Afraid to inform the infallible leader that he messed up (sounds familiar?), the architect made the decision to use both projects. This is why every side of the building is different — different number of floors, different windows. For the vodka drinkers, the label of Stolichnaya features a drawing of this particular hotel.
The Central Telegraph on Tverskaya, one of the most Nazi-bombarded buildings during The Second World War. A major communication hub. During that war, my grandmother worked here — sometimes 24-hour shifts. Later, when I was little, she used to bring me telegraph tapes to play with. I loved unwinding those rolls off our balcony into the courtyard “ticker tape” style. She also tried to teach me Morse Code. That didn’t work. I only remember the SOS tap.
On Tverskaya Street, across from the Central Telegraph, there is an arch that can be easily missed. Once you walk through the arch, there’s this gem — Savvinskoye Podvorie — which is not only about the 19th century architecture. There’s 20th century engineering.
In the 30s, the Moscow government started a reconstruction craze in the city. Many interesting buildings fell victims to this architectural renaissance. The valuable ones were moved. Yes, moved. And this is one of them.
Built in 1907, it was the most beautiful building on Tverskaya Street, the main drag of the city. It was lined with glazed tiles and carried elements of baroque and modern. Since this building got in the way of some reconstruction project, it had to be moved about a hundred meters. Preparation took four months but the 23-thousand-ton building was moved in one night. The tenants of the building were not even notified about the date of the move. They slept through the night and only in the morning they noticed that the building was in the new place — pipes, wires, and all functioning. Rumor has it that even a tower made of wooden cubes by a child in one of the apartments remained intact.
At that point of our walk, we got hungry and decided to look for a place to eat on Kamergerskiy Lane. All these hanging decorations that light up at night are remnants of last year’s soccer World Cup that was held in Moscow. Not sure if they add or take away from the look of the old town.
Kamergerskiy Lane is a home to a major Russian theatre school established upon the initiative of a great director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Appropriately, here’s the monument where he is with another, better known, director, actor, creator of an acting system, Konstantin Stanislavsky.
Of course the restaurant we chose on this lane was called Chekhov Cafe. And of course we went all Russian with our selection of zakuski — small plates — instead of major meals.
Here’s okroshka, a traditional cold soup that my mom used to make every summer. It is a mix of chopped herbs and vegetables with kvas, a fermented beverage made from rye bread.
These are fried chanterelles that are growing everywhere and are a dime a dozen sold by babushkas along the country highways. At Fairway in Paramus, NJ, they could go up to $50 per pound.
Another mushroom offering — sorry, Lizzie, — milk mushrooms. These are pickled and served with sour cream.
And pickled herring, of course. But not under the “fur coat.” We needed room to taste more things.
No way we’re leaving out chicken liver pâté.
Chicken in aspic. My mom usually made a beef aspic at home. It was a lengthy procedure of boiling beef knuckles for hours and hours to extract all the gelatin. Once ready, my dad was invited to the kitchen for the honorable job of separating meat from the bones. Cleaned meat was added back to now strained and defatted broth. The honor was to suck the marrow from the bones before they got discarded.
And of course here’s salo, a dry salted pork fatback. Salo was well loved in my family. Little Anton, in the bathroom getting ready for bed, could hear when my dad would get salo out of the fridge:
— Grandpa, cut me a slice, too, and bring it here! — he’d yell from the bathtub.
It is still a mystery how he knew.
This Russian culinary tradition I miss in my new life — a plain dish of piled up herbs. Here it came with a selection of pickles.
And the king of any Soviet table — Salad Olivie. This one was with beef tongue.
After lunch, we headed towards Kremlin. Looks like Red Square business people are catching up with their Times Square counterparts. How often do you find Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, Lenin, and Stalin having a smoke together?
This is Moscow Point Zero. All distances in the country are measured directly from this spot.
Another build—demolish—restore project. Kazan Cathedral on Red Square was erected in 17th century to commemorate the defeat of Polish intervention. First, it was wooden and burned down. Then it was made of stone. Stalin knocked it to the ground to establish a pavilion of The Third International in its place. Then, there was some sort of a cafe here. Interestingly, exactly at the spot of the old church altar, there happened to be a public bathroom. In 1990s, Muscovites collected money and rebuilt the cathedral following the original plans.
This is GUM, Glavny Universalny Magazine, a Moscow Garden State Plaza of sorts. This is the side of it that overlooks Red Square.
Built in 1890s, GUM has three lanes and three floors filled with all kinds of botiques.
That glass-roofed design by Vladimir Shukhov — I will return to this name later — was unique at the time. And although the roof looks light, the metal construction of it can handle the heavy weight of the famous Russian winter snowfall.
We paused at St. Basil Cathedral and a monument to Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky. It was interesting to explain to my predominantly Polish family the importance of militia activity led by these two guys and how, in the 17th century, they rid Moscow of Polish occupants.
From Red Square, we moved along to Park Zaryadye on the bank of the river, built by the same team that put together New York City’s High Line. Before, on this spot was famous, or infamous, Hotel Rossiya. To me that park was a disappointment and I forgot about taking pictures. There was nothing for the eye. How long will it take to start replicating the old hotel back on this spot?
Only the observation deck extending over the Moskva River was interesting with really nice views of the city and Kremlin.
This is one of my favorite churches in Moscow. When I was little, I liked how the name of it sounded in Russian — there are a lot of deep sounding “aah” vowels. It doesn’t sound as interesting in English — Church of the Conception of the Righteous Anna That Is in the Corner On the Moat. Originally, the church was built in the 15th century and destroyed by one of the fires Moscow was plagued with. In the 16th century, Elena Glinskaya, mother of Ivan the Terrible issued a decree to restore the church “that was in the corner on the moat.” Thus, the name.
Along Varvarka, we got to Solyanka. Love these old names returned to Moscow streets. This is a monument to two brothers, Cyril and Methodius, who devised the oldest Slavic alphabet known as Glagolitic alphabet.
This is the monument to the victims of the tragedy in Beslan, Ossetia, when terrorists captured 1,128 hostages, mostly children, on the first day of school and kept them for two and a half days in totally inhuman conditions. The church behind it — Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin on Kulishki — has been transferred by Moscow Patriarch to the Ossetian community and is known now as the Alan Courtyard.
We’re approaching the end — or the beginning — of the Moscow Boulevard Ring at the Yauzsky Boulevard.
If you look at the map of Moscow, it sort of looks like a dart board. Red Square is a bulls eye and other roads like rings spreading away from it. As Moscow was being built, it was constantly under attack — 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th century — almost always burned to the ground and always restored. The circles were fortresses to protect the city.
Boulevard Ring actually is not a ring. It looks more like a horseshoe. It marks the borders of the Old White City, when Moscow was surrounded by the walls of the white fortress.
Clean Ponds, or Chistye Prudy in Russian, are diagonally across from the hospital where Anton was born. My mom and dad used to go skating here in their dating days. This pond gave the name to the Boulevard — Chistoprudny.
In the 17th century, butchers from nearby Myasnitskaya Street were throwing garbage from their stores into its waters. The stench created by this practice gave the pond a bad reputation and the name Filthy Ponds. Later, Prince Menshikov, a favorite of Peter the Great, bought the land here and gave an order to clean the pond and change its name. That name holds up to this day.
The Sovremennik Theatre that was founded during the Khrushchev Thaw is right across the street from Clean Ponds. Anton’s paternal grandfather served as an actor in this theatre many moons ago. He also shot a movie around this area of Moscow that became a cult classic — “Pokrovskie Vorota.”
We decided to continue the Boulevard Ring some other day and instead took a turn onto Myastitskaya Street, one of the prettiest street in the city.
And here it is — the famous Tea House on Myasnitskaya.
This house was built in the late 1890s on the orders of a tea company owner Sergei Perlov as a house with apartments for rent and a tea store on the ground floor. Sergei split from his family business to start his own. Competing with his brother, he wanted to invite an ambassador from China who came for the coronation of Nicholas II to stay in this house. To impress his potential Chinese guest, Perlov completely changed the look of the building, decorating it with dragons and snakes, Chinese slates, and a little tower on top that was reminiscent of pagodas. To make Chinese house look Chinese, the materials were ordered from China. The guest never came but the house remains. Unlike most of commercial buildings in Moscow, Perlov Tea House carries the same business from the day it was built to this day — it is the most famous tea store in the city.
Chertkov House was built in the 16th century and changed hands many times. It became famous in 19th century thanks to Alexander Chertkov, who collected in this building the largest library, at the time, dedicated to Russian history — books, coins, maps, paintings. Many famous Russian writers worked here and were friends with Chertkov. What is in this house now? No one can tell.
Lubyanka. KGB headquarters. Muscovites say that from the basement of this building one can see the Far East. It is in front of that building stood the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky that is now in that memory garden behind the New Tretyakov Art Gallery.
Across the street from Lubyanka, there’s the largest children store in Moscow — Detsky Mir, like FAO Schwartz in New York. On the top floor of this building is an observation deck that has a nice view of Moscow.
The evening was falling onto the streets and we decided to wrap our travels for the day and start heading home. We turned onto Teatralny Passage.
Hotel Metropol. The largest one built before the Revolution. This is Waldorf Astoria in New York, Ritz in Paris, or Claridge’s in London. Built for wealthy travelers and glamorous locals in 1905, twelve years later it turned into the Second House of Soviets when Bolsheviks moved the capital from St. Petersburg back to Moscow. It is here, the committee led by Yakov Sverdlov produced the paper that officially announced the victory of Proletariat.
Bolsheviks, though, quickly realized that this gorgeous building can be a nice attraction to rich foreigners. They kicked out of it their own kinfolk, restored the building to all its former glory, and kept it this way as a bait for foreign money and money in general.
Bolshoi Theater is across the street from the Metropol. Unfortunately it was August, the time when most of the theaters in Moscow are closed for recess and we did not get a chance to go inside.
Somehow the theater appeared bigger than I remembered it during the times my mom and I were “shooting tickets” here. In other words, we were asking for tickets sold in front of the theatre. My mom had always been lucky, not only with tickets but with good seats in the orchestra and even next to the Royal Lounge.
There was only one unfortunate occurrence. It was “Spartacus” with Maris Liepa. The tickets we got were for the front row… of the fifth tier, the top most one. Excited, we got to our seats. I looked down and my head spun dizzily — there was a sea of ants in the orchestra area that were supposedly people. To get a glimpse of the stage I had to hang over the barrier almost from my waist. Afraid to look down, I spent three hours staring at the coat of arms of the Soviet Union over the stage curtain, happy with the thought that somewhere down below, there was Maris Liepa breathing the same air as me.
From Bolshoi, we made a turn back to Kamergerskiy to see how those lights looked in the dark and stumbled upon the figure of Sergei Prokofiev.
As we walked along the Kremlin wall, monument to Alexander I in Alexandrovsky Sad brought to mind my teacher Eduard Grigoryevich Babayev and his lectures on Russian literature of the 19th century. I still remember the first phrase of his very first lecture. Imagine this balding guy coming up onto the lectern and excitedly rubbing the top of his head stating this:
— The 19th century started at night onto March 12, 1801, when Alexander I announced: ”Daddy is dead. With me everything will be like with grandma.”
Talk about having someone at hello. Only a few missed Babaev’s lectures. I never did. He was mesmerizing on the lectern and could not care less about exams. During exams, he’d sit in the room behind a gigantic newspaper spread so we all could use the cheatsheets we had. Once in a while, he would announce:
— Careful! I am turning my newspaper.
My friend Tanya told me this story. Once there was a deep ditch connecting Nikolskaya Street with Alexandrovsky Sad. During the times of Ivan the Terrible, in that ditch there was a zoo. Apparently, Ivan was into animals. Rulers from all over the world gifted him with all kinds of creratures. They even brought him an elephant from India accompanied by an Indian guy. Locals were shocked. The Indian guy stayed with the elephant, but the animal suffered immensely from the cold of Russian winters. So they started feeding that elephant vodka. The Indian guy, too. Unfortunately for the guy, one of the court ladies fell for him, which did not sit well with Ivan. All in all, the Indian guy ended up badly and the elephant died from cold and alcohol.
The House on the Embankment. A little world in itself secluded on Zamoskvorechye Island. It covers a block and includes a movie theater, a live theatre, restaurants, and multiple retail stores on the ground floor. It is best described in Yuri Trifonov’s novella “The House on the Embankment.” Planned and set up for the Soviet elite opposite the Kremlin, this building had telephones, central heating, and high ceilings when no one else had that. During Stalin’s Great Purge, most of the arrests and executions were connected to this building. Records claim a third of this building’s tenants vanished into the purge.
It was a nice walk and we stuck to our plan — no complaints. A trolleybus took us home in the end. Tomorrow there’d be another day.