Trip to Russia. Day 3. Moscow. Up North to the Soviet showcase. Back to the Boulevard Ring
When someone asks me about my roots, it feels odd to say I am from Russia. I am Russian but from the Soviet Union. To me, Russia before the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union, and Russia after the Soviet Union are three different countries.
My grandmothers from pre-Soviet Union times were largely responsible for my upbringing. They even taught me how to read with books published in the 19th century. After 1917, the alphabet was changed and I had a lot of trouble during my first years in Soviet schools using letters cancelled by the October revolution.
The values and customs my grandmothers observed certainly did not make life easier among my Soviet peers. But children adjust. And as time went on, similar misfits came out of hiding and I found more the likes of my own.
On the way to Oktyabrskaya metro station, the closest to my house, there’s this giant Lenin statue still standing — pigeons on top and bird poop all over — in the new glossy Moscow.
Our third day we started at VDNKh (ВДНХ) — the Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy — the showcase of “socialism’s victory in a single particular country.”
Appropriately, before the entrance to the exhibition is a monument to the Conquerers of Space. This is a 107-meter tribute to honor the USSR, the power that opened space to the rest of the world.
The exhibition originally was created in 1930s as proof that socialism could be built in one country and to show off the success of collectivization. During the Krushchev Thaw, 1950-60’s, it became a platform “to catch up with and get ahead of America.” In the 1970-80s, the exhibition served as a major propaganda vehicle for Soviet achievements in science, technology, agriculture, transportation, communications.
At the top of the entrance arch, a tractor operator boy symbolizes heavy industry and a farmer girl — agriculture. The original version of this couple had a boy holding an armful of wheat all by himself in one hand and hugging the girl with his free hand at her waist. Later, this frivolity was eliminated and now they are holding the sheaf together — equality of sexes.
The fountains of VDNKh are probably the most famous fountains in Moscow. This is the Friendship of Nations fountain. Sixteen golden figures each represent a republic of the former Soviet Union. The one with the armful of wheat facing the front is Russia. To the left and right of her are Ukraine and Belorussia, the closest Slavic sisters.
There were only fifteen republics in the former Soviet Union. There are sixteen figures in the Fountain, as well as sixteen coats of armor at the entrance pavilion. A mistake? In a way. Think Finland.
The idea of the Stone Flower fountain comes from the tales of Russian writer Pavel Bazhov, whose fairy tales took place in the mineral deposits of the Ural Mountains.
A picture of the long basin of this fountain is at the top of this post. The perimeter of the fountain is decorated by horns of plenty and sixteen platters covered with the treats from different republics — fruits, vegetables, birds, fish from all climate zones.
The exhibition has always been a gigantic park for people to stroll along. Dozens of pavilions represent either different republics of the Soviet Union or branches of industry. People come here for a walk or to check out the latest achievements in the area of their interest.
Our time was limited and we mostly walked around. One pavilion we made a point to visit — Exploration of Space.
Here’s a model of the capsule that took Laika, a stray Moscow pup, on its sad one way journey into orbit.
Last time I was at this pavilion in the winter of 1992/93. Those were the dark times. Being a mirror of the country, the exhibition reflected all the barbarism and chaos of that period. Aside from an amusement park with rides, almost everything here was closed, destroyed, or turned into flea markets and kabob houses.
Director of the NYU Journalism Science and Environmental Reporting Program Professor William Burrows was visiting Moscow that winter. Knowing his interest in space, I thought he might like to check out some Soviet space memorabilia. Little did I know that the place was in shambles and boarded up. That fiasco was embarrassing. We circled around the ruins peeking through holes, when a tipsy and slightly disheveled “entrepreneur” approached us:
— Wanna get in?
— Is it possible?
— Five bucks.
Bill Burrows did look American.
Bill produced the money and we slid in through a crack. A duplicate of the Sputnik that first orbited the Earth was dumped in a corner together with empty cans of paint, rotten wood, and a chipped bust of Lenin. A rusted model of Vostok 1 was on its side. There was metal junk all over the place. It meant little to me but Bill was like a kid in a candy store. He kept walking around in circles in absolute disbelief of what he was seeing and the conditions these treasures were in. He kept talking and talking. He knew what everything was. It is there and then from an American guest I learned all the details of the Soviet space exploration program. A picture of Sputnik from that visit is still on the wall in Bill’s home office.
The events and coincidences that led to that visit and the ones that followed are unreal but they did happen.
In the 90s, I started traveling with my father to the US as his interpreter. During one visit — it was April 1992, in Washington, DC — the host of the visit gave me an offer: we can give you a financial bonus or you can stay a week in New York with the family of one of our associates.
I gave up the money and chose New York.
The night of said choice, on the way to my hotel room of Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, MD, I walked into the elevator to come face to face with Yassen Nikolaevich Zassoursky, the dean of my Moscow University journalism school. Not sure how, but during a few flights of the elevator ride I was able to get an invitation for a private talk with him the next day.
As bad luck would have it, the next night, after meetings and the commute, my father and I got back to the hotel around 1 AM. An indecent time to contact the dean of your school. Not one to push and not one to give up, I wrote a note with an apology for lateness, etc, etc, added my room phone number, and slid it under the door of Yassen’s room. On the one hand, I did not want to insult him by ignoring his invitation — after all, Yassen has a computer memory and you don’t want to be on the bad side of it — on the other, I was secretly hoping for a chance to have a conversation with the legend.
My phone rang the moment I got back to the room. Rolling his “R’s” in that particular Yassen way, he apologized for calling at a late hour, said that he just got back to his room himself, and asked if I was still interested to talk.
Was I? Are you kidding?!
That was a one life-changing conversation. We talked about our country, our school, about lives being uprooted and turned upside down. It was late and dark and so easy to be honest. At that stage of my life, I did not know where I was and what I wanted. One thing was definite — I was not content. It was Yassen — then and there — who advised me to try to apply to school in the US. It was Yassen who told me about NYU, a school I had never heard of before. It was Yassen who pointed to NYU’s Science and Environmental Reporting Program and said I would be a good match for it. It was Yassen who said: whenever you start over — start from school.
So there I was with my gift of one week in New York and Yassen’s wisdom.
Long story short, when in New York, I walked over the GWB from Nyack where my host lived, found the IND subway line and got to the West 4th. After multiple circles around Washington Square, with the help of a local cop, I got to 10 Washington Place.
It was too late. Registration time was over and no new applications were accepted. All the effort to apply — school transcripts, translations, notarizations, references — all down the drain. What was the point of taking the papers back? I left them with the secretary of the department to dispose. It was May 1992.
That whole NYU attempt quickly became a foggy memory — “Was there a boy? Maybe there was no boy at all?“
There was a boy. Now I know, when in question, there’s always a boy. I remember the dates so clearly because the coincidences were unreal. On October 21, 1992, in my Moscow snail mailbox, I found a letter posted in July of that year in New York. The letter was from Professor William E. Burrows, Director of the Science and Environmental Reporting Program of New York University notifying me that said professor saw my papers and was interested to discuss my application. More so, he was visiting Moscow and had time to meet on October 23, 1992, if I was interested.
Was I? Are you kidding?!
We met. Even after all assurances from the NYU Professor, there were doubts in my mind if I was doing the right thing. Then came the sign that sealed the deal.
One crazy hot day in July of 1993, my mother asked me to wash the floor in the kitchen as she took Anton for his mandatory walk. There I was — barefoot with my pants rolled up to above my knees, sweaty, stinky, and messy — on the task. The door bell rang. With a rag in one hand, I went to the door and saw a man about my parent’s age. He spoke English. Random foreigners rarely wandered around our building. He was looking for someone I had never heard of before. We spent some time by the door, my rag dripping and sweat getting into my eyes, trying to figure out where could he find that friend. The man said he came all the way from New York to meet that person. The words “New York” got me excited and I shared my news of being accepted to New York University starting that fall. The man raised his brows and told me to stop by his office if I made it to New York. My hands were too dirty to take the card so he put it on the chair by the door. We talked some more about Moscow, New York, weather, and things. He left. I got back to the kitchen floor but remembered the card on the chair. Curious who that guy was, I went back to the door to check out his card. It said “John Brademus, President Emeritus, New York University.”
Besides me, one more student was late to apply to NYU Science and Environmental Reporting Program for 1992 school year. His papers were rejected but reserved for the next school year, just like mine. Three years later, that student and I would get married and go on to raise three children. That would be the best thing happened to me. To this day.
And there’s the Sputnik 1 — high up — risen from the ashes at the ceiling now.
“Russia has only two reliable allies: its army and its fleet.” Alexander III, the Russian emperor.
In the Moscow Model pavilion, there’s a really cool model of the center of city. Visitors can choose the lighting: night, rainbow, cloudy sky, sunny day. They can light up the bridges or the train stations only, or highlight skyscrapers alone. Every singe building is there. I found my home and all of my schools.
The Golden Wheat Stalk fountain symbolizes birth, life, harvest, fertility, and plenty. We did not get to see it, but they say some amazing light shows mimicking rainbows, dawns, auroras, clouds, and star dust take place in its waters.
Across the lake with the Golden Wheat Stalk, there’s Ostankino Television Tower, the tallest free-standing structure in Europe.
By the time we reached the pavilion of the Meat Industry and the girls left us for the company of younger Muscovites, thoughts of lunch came to mind. The food courts, identical to those in the US, did not look interesting: burgers, nachos, noodles.
And there it was — on the map — “Jays Wedding,” a reference to the Vazha Pshavela fairy tale, 80’s movie musical, Iveria’s songs. That one has to be Georgian. And one can never have enough Georgian food.
The place had a nice outdoor seating area. Lately, our meals consist of a snack in the morning, a snack at night, and a collections of appetizers late afternoon. Here we went for a mix of vegetable concoctions — beet, pumpkin, and leek pkhali, eggplant stuffed with a walnut paste, pickles, and Georgian cheese.
These lamb khinkali — a Georgian version of dumplings — were not bad at all.
Khachapuri adjaruli — Georgian cheese filled bread — was lacking heat. I like it when they bring it to the table with cheese bubbling hot.
These grilled vegetables absorbed quite a good amount of smoke from the fat drippings of previously cooked meat. Very tasty!
Poor Tom! Not a fan of tomatoes, he did get to pick some cucumbers and peppers from the salad. Lucky me — I got all the tomatoes!
Lulya kebabs — kefta — meatballs — burgers — cutlets… Ground meat grilled and served Georgian style. Satsibeli sauce on the side.
While Tom and I were relaxing at VDNKh, the girls went out with their Russian friends to play Claustrophobia, a game that seems to be wildly popular in Moscow. For this adventure, a group of friends goes to a themed escape room and using whatever items available in the room tries to escape.
From what I read, Moscow has some of the best escape rooms in Europe and there are plenty of themes: Philosophers Stone, Houdini’s Academy, Baker Street, Iron Man Polar Station, Flying Dutchman to name a few. Interestingly, most of the quests are in English.
The girls and their friends took a ride on a boat along the Moskva river. Would you believe it — I cut the strings and let them go by themselves! without holding my hand! in Moscow! among strangers! Crazy!
Two days ago, we walked along that embankment on the left. Now here it is seen from the river.
The girls’ friend Ilya is an artist — for those who come to my studio, his pictures are in my front room — he naturally took them to the Tretyakov Gallery.
Some of the pictures the girls took at the gallery.
Did they take this one because they remembered the candy wrappers or because they noticed the tapestry over my bed in the Moscow apartment?
Meanwhile, Tom and I hooked up with our friend Tanya and continued on the Boulevard ring from where we left off two days ago at Sretensky Boulevard.
This is Sretensky Castle, by some accounts, the most beautiful building in Moscow. It takes over the most of the inner side of the shortest boulevard — Sretensky. Basically, these are two buildings connected with iron lattice creating a courtyard. The decorations are lavish — big and little outdoor balconies, various bay windows, sculptures, friezes, towers. This is truly a masterpiece of the Old Moscow.
Constructed at the turn of the 20th century, this building was equipped with the most modern heating, water supply, sewage and ventilation systems, as well as electric elevators. The air supplied to the premises was filtered, humidified, and heated. Water entered the house from an artesian well. Electricity was generated by its own power station. In the basement and in the attic, there were laundromats. Rumor has it, there were entrances into the system of Moscow underground passages from the basement of the building.
Many famous people lived in this house: Yuri Grigorovich, Director of the Bolshoi Theater; mathematician Skanavi, whose textbook were so hated and admired by students applying to science college — my brother being one of them; Mikhail Bulgakov lived here. The building was home to various literary, scientific, cinematographic, historical, theological organizations.
Somewhere in this area on Sretenka was a dormitory of the Moscow State University where my mother lived. The university shared this building with the National Research Nuclear University (MEPhI) where my father was a student.
One day, my Muscovite father came to the dormitory to join his classmates for a party. The guys needed music. The only transistor radio for both schools was passed around and stored in the best kept room as a reward. That was my mother’s room. My father knocked on the door to borrow it. And here I am.
Moving along onto Rozhdestvensky Boulevard. So many stories about these streets! The one that Tanya told really stuck.
This is the Theotokos-Nativity Stavropegial Convent. Across the street from the Convent a brothel was allowed. The wisdom behind such placement was so the nuns would look out the windows at the women in the streets and think about them in their prayers and the women in the streets would always be able to hear the church bells ring.
Why is this building on Petrovsky Boulevard important to us? Here, in the 1800s, when it was the famous restaurant “Hermitage,” a Russian chef of French descent, Lucien Olivie concocted his famous salad that is now served by buckets during Russian New Year and other festivities.
Many legends surround this dish also known as Russian salad. This version is my favorite.
Originally, the chef planned it not as a salad but as something he called “Game Mayonnaise.” Boiled fillets of grouse and partridge were decorated on a plate with cubes of aspic from broth. Sprinkled around with a special Provençal sauce, slices of tongue and crawfish tails were nestled. In the center of the dish there was a mound of potatoes, pickles, and slices of hard boiled eggs. That center mound, according to the chef’s idea, was for decoration only.
To Olivie’s dismay, Russian brutes immediately mixed all the ingredients like kasha, destroying the design and the idea behind the dish before scooping it on their plates. Disgusted, the next day, Olivie intentionally mixed all the ingredients and liberally doused it with mayonnaise to show those Russians. To his dismay, the success of the trivialized version was incredible.
The restaurant was also famous for another thing — a celebrations of Saint Tatiana’s Day. In Russian Orthodox religion, Saint Tatiana is the patron of students. Her day, January 25, also coincides with the end of winter exams and the start of a winter recess. On January 25, the restaurant hid expensive table settings, covered the floor with the straw, and let students heated up with strong drinks mingle with their professors shouting together: “Down with the autocracy!” That day, police were not allowed to touch them.
In 18th century, along the entire length of the Boulevard Ring there was a white stone wall surrounding the city. At this particular spot they made a hole in the wall to let the Neglinka River flow. People called that hole a pipe, which in Russian sounds like “truba.” Hence, Trubnaya Square.
On March 6, 1953, at this square, my mother and father — they did not know each other back then — were almost crushed to death during Stalin’s funeral stampede. My father was running away along the roofs of adjacent buildings. My mother was saved by a good samaritan. She was pushed by the mob into a metal fence with spikes digging through and people were running over her body using it as a trampoline to escape towards nearby streets. The good samaritan pulled her off the fence to safety.
TF & TF Coincidence? My two lucky letters. Thomas F and Tanya F. My support group and life savers.
One day, I’ll try to go down the memory lane to recreate the history of what brought me to this picture — Lenin’s auditorium on Mokhovaya Street in Moscow, diapers, play pen, chicken wings, oranges, Chinese New Year, Alyosha, Ilysha, Anton, Sandy Hook, San Gennaro in New York, border patrol, sim cards, flowers at the gate… Like Tom’s father used to say — only those who know…
Tanya was our hostess and the mastermind behind our plans, routes, lodging, nutrition, sanity, excitement. Don’t go around Moscow without Tanya — waste of time. She’s a Klondike of knowledge — history, architecture, you name it. Tom kept asking me: ”How does she know it all?” and I’d ask her: ”How do you know it?” And she would say: “Everyone knows it. You know it, too. You just forgot.” Nope. I didn’t forget — I didn’t know. Bottom line — don’t wander around Moscow without Tanya.
Constantinople Patriarchal Compound. A unique mix of Muslim ornaments and Russian details to remind all that although there is now a Muslim country where the Byzantine empire used to be, the Constantinople Compound continues to exist on Russian soil.
High Monastery of Saint Peter. One of the oldest in Moscow. Unlike other Moscow monasteries, it was built of stone, not wood, and survived multiple fires. Major damage was delivered to it by French cavalry — thousands of soldiers were stationed here during the 1812 war, robbing and destroying everything around them.
Petrovka, 38 — the Main Directorate of Internal Affairs of the city of Moscow or, in plain words, The Moscow Police. It was a rare crime thriller that did not use its image or address.
“Experts are Investigating” — a Soviet version of American “Law and Order” — took place at this location. My grandmothers were glued to the wildly popular miniseries along with the rest of the country and little me.
After watching the series I was afraid to even go on this street in case the detectives would get me too.
“Our service is both dangerous and difficult…”
This is a building overlooking the end of Strastnoy Boulevard — the widest one of the Boulevard Ring. They really cleaned Moscow up nice for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Strastnoy Boulevard is coming to an end and Pushkin is visible in the distance. The three boulevards that are left — Tverskoy, Nikitsky, and Gogolevsky will have to wait until our next visit to Moscow. Today, we will be turning right onto Tverskaya Street — Moscow Broadway.
At the end of Strastnoy Boulevard is the Rossiya Music Hall. It used to be one of the best movie theaters in Moscow. Not sure if Sergei remembers, but it is in this theater we watched “Cleopatra” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton after a rock fell off our shoulders when we passed our Medieval Literature exam (Prof. Vannikova was the hardest teacher I have had in my life).
Also this was a major hub for the Moscow International Film Festival.￼
Charlotte mentioned how new and unusual it was to be in a place that worships words and arts. She did not say it exactly like that — she meant it was new to see these writers, poets, actors set in stone on the streets. And all the respect and admiration.
Alexander Pushkin’s monument stands at the end of Strastnoy Boulevard. It used to be across Tverskaya Street at the beginning of Pushkinsky Boulevard before they moved it across the street to the current location.
No point of talking about Pushkin when just writing captions for the pictures. Those who know — they know. The curious can look him up.
My mind brings back a reflection of an ailing poet Riukhin sitting in the back of a truck at the worst moment of his life when suddenly…
“…on a pedestal stood a metal man, his head inclined slightly, gazing at the boulevard with indifference. Some strange thoughts flooded the head of the ailing poet. ‘There’s an example of real luck…’ Here Riukhin rose to his full height on the flatbed of the truck and raised his arm, for some reason attacking the cast-iron man who was not bothering anyone. ‘Whatever step he made in his life, whatever happened to him, it all turned to his benefit, it all led to his glory! But what did he do? I can’t conceive… Is there anything special in the words: “The snowstorm covers…”? I don’t understand!… Luck, sheer luck!’ Riukhin concluded with venom, and felt the truck moving under him. ‘He shot him, that white guard shot him, smashed his hip, and assured his immortality…’ “
Yes, sheer luck when you can start with: “Guests were arriving at the dacha of X …” or “At the house of Naroumov, a cavalry officer, the long winter night has been passed in gambling…”
Long weeks of summer without hot water come to mind. Our apartment always had its turn. Apartments in this area were much older than mine and had individual gas heaters and tenants always had hot water. My mother’s best friend, a roommate from that Sretenka dormitory, lived in the building overlooking Mayakovsky and we would come here for baths. Mom’s friend would always make for us my favorite Ossetian cheese pies and I could play with her dog. Her pekingese Chapa was spoiled rotten — he lived on a diet of salami and éclaires. When those were not available he would eat the wallpaper off the walls.
Also, by the left leg of Mayakovsky, every first Saturday of September, young people who used to spend their summer vacations in a small Crimean village of Gurzuf got together. Hundreds of people were buzzing like a beehive on those Saturdays. This cult event was called Gurzufskaya Strelka. My brother was a big part of the gatherings. They were always the talk of our house — excitement on the part of my brother, panic for my parents.
At the end of the day, Tanya’s husband, my classmate Sergei, joined us and we crushed Noor I Electro, a very stylish bar on Tverskaya Street. Nice cocktails and pub fare and a very inviting outdoor area. According to Sergei, this was a place for a selected few creative and business elite and most of the customers knew each other on a first name basis. That explained the “I-do-not-really-care” vibe of the service — they were cooler than us.
Tom is reaching for some water. Rumor has it that on good days, champagne is pouring out of this spout and champagne baths are available. But that’s just a rumor.
Another day and a few more steps around Moscow.