Seeing Russia through new eyes

A visitor to the ‘Motherland’ discovers spellbinding hustle and bustle and historic grandeur.

THE AUTHOR stands in Moscow’s Red Square (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE AUTHOR stands in Moscow’s Red Square
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As I walked to the boarding gate for Moscow to meet my tour group, a stray thought fluttered through my mind: “Why, when over the past years so many Russian Jews have been happy to come this way, am I flying out in the opposite direction?” The thought continued to hover in my mind on my arrival in Moscow as I was confronted with drab monolithic buildings, unending traffic, serious faces and an absence of English – written and spoken – in hotels, stores, museums and ordinary street encounters.
Then I began to notice that there was a bustle of activity on the streets: serious faces meant a focus on whatever job was at hand, whether it was portering to a hotel room or guiding through a museum. As a matter of fact, on our first day in Moscow, we were unable to drive the last block to our hotel because there was a “gathering of bicyclists” blocking the street. Porters from the hotel arrived to help us bring our luggage across the square. As I was walking with the porters I tried to ask about the purpose of the bike gathering and that was my first encounter with the lack of a common language to communicate in. Finally someone, possibly also a tourist, explained in broken English that this was a frequent Sunday activity.
It didn’t take long for Moscow’s spell to take effect.
The hustle and bustle on the streets Monday morning was intensive. What had seemed unsmiling previously became purposeful and straightforward. In spite of the language issue, pointing and gestures conveyed friendliness. Furthermore, it became apparent that the streets of Moscow were a veritable fashion show. In the hotel I had seen a TV show devoted to fashion that displayed one runway after another. Watching people in downtown Moscow was like life imitating art; whatever the style worn, it was up to date and fashionable.
Several of my fellow tourists noticed this as well. It was interesting to note when we went into the countryside dress became much more relaxed and work–a-day. St.
Petersburg had its own flair, with an anything goes fashion statement reminiscent of New York or Tel Aviv. All of that changed when the north wind blew in from the Baltic in St. Petersburg and sent everyone scrambling for down jackets and rain gear even in June.
More impressive than fashion was the passionate patriotism we began to notice in museums and at the multiple heroic monuments throughout the city.
Most of these are military in nature, commemorating Russia’s repulsion of foreign invasions, starting with the Mongols, and continuing to the two most seminal – the repulsion of Napoleon in 1812 and of the Germans in 1943. The latter two events, although almost a century a half apart, are often mentioned together as examples of the resilience and strength of the Russian nation. There is a museum in Moscow devoted entirely to one battle of the war with Napoleon, in the village of Borodino right outside of Moscow. The losses on both sides were enormous and the outcome indecisive, but it led to Napoleon’s retreat and ultimate defeat. Every aspect of the battle is displayed and the strategies and lives of the generals portrayed on the walls are discussed as though the battle happened yesterday. This is de rigueur for Russia, we observed, when we saw in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, huge halls lined with portraits of generals throughout Russian history.
World War II is referred to in Russia as “The Great Patriotic War.” A huge and impressive museum is devoted to commemorating and portraying that event, marked by a monumental hall portraying the victory and incredibly realistic dioramas of major events and battles. The museum is located in Victory Park, which is symbolically located on the hill where Napoleon waited in vain for the keys to the city of Moscow. The park also houses a synagogue, a Russian Orthodox church and a mosque. The synagogue, tucked away in a wooded area, is not used for daily services, but serves as a museum of Russian Jewish history displayed in a rotunda surrounding the sanctuary, and on the lower level there is an exhibition devoted to the Holocaust.
The most impressive monument in Moscow is the Kremlin, built as a fortress in the 12th century as protection against Mongol invasion, and today housing governmental buildings and historical treasures. Only the latter is open to the public. President Putin also has an official residence in the Kremlin, and on the day we arrived, he was greeting official visitors within, resulting in our group having to detour around the walls to a farther entrance.
The area outside, comprising “Red Square” is imposing, surrounded by Lenin’s Tomb, a historical museum and St. Peter’s Basilica. But it is the inner city that is most impressive, housing Russian treasures throughout its history in the monumental Armory building.
Climbing to the top of a regal staircase, we viewed the treasures of the Czars of Russia, including the Fabergé eggs, the dazzling diamond collection and the royal crowns. Equally interesting were the costumes, chinaware and utensils of the Russian Royal families, evidencing wealth hard to imagine. We were to encounter this again in St. Petersburg, where luxurious palaces starting with the reign of Peter the Great displayed an opulence marked by gold in all forms, from solid artifacts to gilded walls.
It was hard to reconcile these displays of luxury and wealth, even though we were told that the gilded carriages were not very comfortable, nor the elaborate gowns very clean, with the fact that Russian serfs were not freed from their land until 1861. This was in no way denied by our guides, and as a feature of the aforementioned Borodino Museum there is a handsome portrait of a general, who had been adopted from serf-hood and educated, becoming a military genius who nonetheless had the misfortune of dying in battle quite young.
One thing that surprised our group was the tremendous emphasis on religious monuments and edifices of the Russian Orthodox Church, which despite the long Communist negation of religion continued to have a prominent role in Russian life. Within the Kremlin walls are numerous cathedrals and churches, their golden domes and spires reaching to the sky, an architectural feature that gives the character to the topography of the Kremlin itself. We were told that the churches were all in present use, and that buying icons for the home is very prevalent. In St. Petersburg as well, the landscape is punctuated by golden spires, and many cathedrals have been rebuilt since 1945. Each has its own character and one in particular, known informally as the Church of the Bloody Foot, was built to commemorate the assassination of Czar Alexander II, whose legs were blown off by a bomb on that very spot.
We were told that there were also Roman Catholic churches, mosques and synagogues throughout Russia. There is a substantial and veteran Muslim population in St. Petersburg, one of its members originally being Prince Felix Yusokov, who was married to a Romanov (niece of Czar Nicholas II) whose family had converted to the Orthodox Church. Yusukov’s historical fame comes from his role in the assassination of the monk Rasputin in December of 1916 in an attempt to curtail his influence over Czar Nicholas and the Czarina, whose growing unpopularity was thought to stem from their association with Rasputin. It did not help: the Czar abdicated soon after, and following an exile out of Moscow was murdered by the new Soviet government. The Yusukov Palace, deemed second in interest only to those of the Czars (perhaps because the assassination of Rasputin took place in its basement), is still a prominent museum open to tourists (as are all of the palaces.) This being a Jewish tour, our group visited four synagogues. The aforementioned, in Victory Park in Moscow, was clearly ceremonial in nature and functioned mainly as a museum and monument. The two major synagogues in Moscow and St. Petersburg, both named “Choral,” were fully functional with daily and Shabbat services. Our group arrived in time for a morning service in Moscow and spent the Shabbat in the synagogue in St. Petersburg. During the Shabbat services, we observed a large presence of Chabad rabbis and congregants, augmented by what appeared to be local residents and visitors, like ourselves. Among the “regulars” there seemed to be a disproportionate number of small children and teenagers. We were told that this was indeed the case, with the parents’ generation less involved.
Nonetheless, we were assured that both synagogues were completely filled during the High Holy Days.
Perhaps the most interesting synagogue we visited was in the small town of Tver, a city of about 500,000 residents, once a vital trade center due to its location on the Volga River. Rivers, our guide explained to us, were the main arteries of commerce in Russia. In this small synagogue, where our small group was invited to conduct the afternoon service, there is clearly an active Jewish presence with ongoing children’s activities. We met a teenage girl who was preparing for a summer trip to Israel and we were able to converse with her in Hebrew. When one of our group asked her if she would like to live in Israel someday, she demurred and explained: “No, it’s too hot there.”
This very small building, undergoing much-needed repairs, had its own museum in the basement. One part was devoted to Jewish life and customs, including a life-sized display of a Shabbat table; in the other part were two walls of photographs and copies of documents related to the Holocaust. We were told that only a few hundred Jews participated in synagogue activities, but that there were several thousand Jewish residents in Tver. There was discussion among the members who greeted us of trying to revitalize the community, but here, as in the larger cities, it is clearly a work in progress.
Holocaust commemoration, so vital to Jewish life in both the United States and Israel, is considered here as part of the Russian history of “The Great Patriotic War.” As a matter of fact the first time that I saw this title in print was in the new state-of-the-art Jewish Museum in Moscow as the introduction to the huge panoramic depiction of World War II including Babi Yar. The museum itself is interactive and gives a realistic and vibrant depiction of Jewish life in Russia from before the Pale of Settlement time to the present. The synagogue in the Victory Park is also designated as a Holocaust memorial, although the photographs and documents displayed in the rotunda of the lower level are mostly secondary in nature.
The visit to that museum ends with a film that concentrates on footage from very poor Jewish shtetels in Russia, followed by a quick sequence of ghettos, cattle cars, and a graphic portrayal of bodies being shoveled into mass graves. All this is accompanied by dirge-like music until the very last clips, which depict the Russian aliya to Israel and a spirit of redemption. It was a strangely rudimentary exhibit for anyone familiar with any of the major US Holocaust museums or with Yad Vashem. The other references we saw were attached to Jewish centers or synagogues.
The one related sculptural monument that we saw, aside from the museum at Victory Park, was in the town of Klin, en route to Tver, where a small abstract sculpture was located in a garden-like setting. It represented the Holocaust in general and was not related to that particular spot.
On the way from Moscow to St. Petersburg, we stopped a small market town called Torzhok where we visited the Tchaikovsky house and the famous gold embroidery factory, fascinating in itself for its ancient art of winding strands of gold around silk to create strong gold thread. Among the artifacts displayed was a huge embroidered rendition of the hammer and sickle.
The other place that we saw this graphically represented was in the Moscow subway, built mainly during the Stalin era and lavishly decorated with chandeliers, frescoes and paintings.
It was here in the Torzhok Museum that for the first time another side of Russian thought was revealed. As we walked through the museum of embroidered frocks and paraphernalia, I saw a life-sized creation of a man in a gas mask. I asked one of the attendants about its meaning and without missing a beat she replied, “It is to protect us from an attack by the Americans.” I could not help but think of the push in the US to build bomb shelters during the Cold War. However, this was a theme that we noticed again in various encounters throughout our trip and gave us an unexpected insight into political thinking in Russia.
Israel, on the other hand, was lauded and praised from all sides. When I was trying to embark on a riverboat for our cruise of the rivers and canals of St. Petersburg, a few ladies on board extended helping hands, and upon hearing that our group was from Israel, exclaimed, “Shalom! We love Israel.”
That was a happy note on which to depart from our tour, which had taught us more than the history and sights of Russia, but more importantly reflected the attitudes and changes that characterize Russia today and that will surely influence the future of our world.