Moscow, Russia. 29th June 2014.
St Petersburg behind me, Moscow ahead, one road running more or less due south and 750kms to ride. Should be straightforward. And it pretty much was.
I found my way out of the city easily enough and settled into the ride. There was no way of knowing how long it might take as I knew the roads would be mostly single carriageway with an unknown number of towns and ditto the amount of traffic. So far so routine.
What did surprise me during the early part of the journey was the paucity of towns, industry and activity. The traffic wasn’t heavy and I rode through wooded terrain with occasional villages. Doris was singing along, happy with the road, the weather and the pace. So was I. Luckily no-one could hear the singing.
Another thing that surprised me as I passed through the villages was that most of the houses were made of wood .Some of them looked very nice but many of them were in very poor condition, lacking in paint and in some cases foundations, judging by their angle of lean. They varied in size from well off suburban to little more than shack. In fact some of the smaller ones reminded me of the Chattel Houses I’d seen on Barbados. Several times I saw small but very ornate churches in the middle of villages that were little better than shanty towns. Priorities? I saw people sitting by the roadside selling fruit and vegetables, home grown I’d guess, and most of these looked to be Central Asian or Eastern European. I’m guessing that these were migrants from the south looking to make a better life in a rich country, a common enough story.
After a while I spotted a café on the other side of the road with some bikes parked outside. I was in need of a coffee and a leg stretch so I turned in, parked up and went inside. There were four bikers inside so I said Hallo and got a couple of nods back. While I was drinking my coffee they got up and left. Once finished I went outside and suddenly they were all chatty. I think they looked at Doris in her travelling clothes and British number plates and suddenly they were interested. We chatted a bit and I discovered they were en route to Finland for a tour round. I told them of my planned route and one of them had been previously been to Kazakhstan. He summed it up as ‘Shit roads, shit fuel and not much of it.’He saw the off road style spare tyres I was carrying and suggested I fit them before I enter Kazakhstan as he reckoned I’ll need them. Hmmm.
Further down the road I came to one of those endless series of roadworks I was discovering Russia seemed to love. I was sitting in a queue of traffic when another biker came down the outside, stopped alongside me and indicated I should follow him. I’ve mentioned before about having to be cautious about the unwritten rules for bikers in different countries. Additionally I hadn’t yet obtained any Russian bike insurance so I was being doubly cautious. But I was happy to do his bidding and off we went, mostly down the outside of the traffic until we were clear of it all. I needed fuel so we pulled into a garage and he introduced himself. Andrey spoke a little bit of English and he asked me where I was going. I told him Moscow and showed him the address of the hostel I’d booked for that night. He immediately said ‘Don’t go there, stay with me.’ Straight away he rang his wife, got the all clear and wrote down his address for me.’See you in about four hours’ he said and rode off. What a result! I was feeling a bit low after my experiences in St Petersburg but things were starting to turn around a bit. Further down the road I came to another jam but this time I put my just London head on and got on with getting through it all. I was joined by another biker and we ducked and weaved our way through, using all the road available including the dirt shoulder, as were many cars. Other traffic was happy to move out of the way where it could and we made good progress until we were clear. My companion turned off with a cheery wave and I was definitely feeling much better about the world and life in general.
Traffic was busy now as I negotiated the urban sprawl of Moscow but eventually my GPS delivered me safely to Andrey’s apartment block out in the Moscow suburbs. I was just trying to ring him when he arrived back from the shops with his wife Nadiya and lovely little daughter Maria. There flat is on the 11th floor of a fairly modern apartment block and although it’s small they were happy to squeeze me in to a spare corner. I was invited to stay until Wednesday, when I would then go to the hostel I had booked (now cancelled). Nadiya spoke good English, including understanding much idiomatic English as well, so I was able to find out all about them, and them me. They came to Moscow from one of the southern cities and have made a life in the Capital which they really enjoy. Andrey sells exterior wall finishing products and Nadiya is currently on state sponsored maternity leave for eighteen months. Their eighteen month old daughter, Maria, is as clever as anything and is an absolute delight. Andrey led me down to his lock up where I stored the bike until I would need it again.
So I got fed and watered and we sat up quite late chatting away. It was a terrific end to a very long day. Twelve hours on the road. Some of the pain from St Pete had been alleviated by the kindness of complete strangers. Did I say this before? I just love the biker family!
Moscow is a big city and has many sights to see. The best way to get around is the Metro, one of the most extensive in the world. It’s very easy to use and fares work on the simple principle of paying by the journey. Nadiya had kindly given me an unfinished multi journey ticket with five journeys left on it so I was off to a good start. They sell tickets for one to sixty journeys and the system works by docking a journey off the total every time you pass through a barrier from the street. That means you can go from one line to another as many times as you like all for the same fare. The price is RU30 for one journey and it gets cheaper when you buy eleven or more. You don’t even need to know any Russian to get them as all you need to do is go to the ticket office, hold up your fingers to represent the number of journeys you want and pay the money. Simplicity itself. The Moscow Metro is renowned for having lines that run very deep under the city and the escalators seem to go down for ever. One of the great features of the system is that many of the stations have there platforms decorated with artwork. They are world famous and the idea has been copied in many places elsewhere. I’m sure most Muscovites don’t really care that much once they’ve seen them but there will often be visitors taking photos of them, me included. One thing the metro system does need is a huge amount of investment in trains. Some of the lines do have modern trains, with fully joined carriages and electronic signage but many of them suffer from carriages that look as if they were first used forty or fifty years ago. And they are so noisy! Unbelievably so. Sometimes it was so loud as to be uncomfortable.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My first task was to go to the Mongolian Embassy to organise a visa. Nadiya dropped me off nearby and I found it easily enough but the visa department was elsewhere. The security guard gave me directions, exercising my Russian in the process, and I managed to find my way there. They told me I could use the express service for $100 and it would take one day. I could pay less and wait longer but I decided to get it ASAP. So I took the form away with me to complete and return next day. Unlike the Kazakh visa, the Mongoilian one will give me a ninety day window to get there and then I will be allowed to stay in the country for up to thirty days. Much more flexible and sensible than the Kazakh system.
That job done I went for a walk around. The visa office was just off Arbat Street, one of Moscow’s main tourist areas. This street has plenty of old buildings, theatres, street performers, souvenir shops, cafés and so on. It wasn’t all that busy on a Monday afternoon but there were still people around enjoying the atmosphere, having their photos taken and so on. I carried on walking through and kept going until I came to Revolution Square. I wanted tourist info so I wandered around, admiring the buildings, statues and fountains until I found it in the foyer of the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812, clearly a place I was going to visit. Tourist maps and brochures are a great way of not only orientating yourself but also helping you know what there is to see and to decide what to visit. I’ve always found that there are things I’m not bothered too much about seeing and wouldn’t want to risk ‘art and artifact overload’ by visiting places just because they happen to be there. Apart from anything else there’s so much to see in a place like Moscow that I’d have needed at least a month to see it all.
It was too late in the day to visit anywhere as places start to close from 5pm so I walked back to Arbat Street, found the Starbucks I’d spotted earlier and enjoyed a sit down. Afterwards I found the nearest Metro station and ventured forth for my first experience underneath the city. One of the odd things about the Metro is that different lines will have different stations and although they may be close to each other they won’t necessarily be connected. Also the entrances aren’t always easy to spot and their signage is annoyingly discreet at times. I had a choice of two lines to take and I found one and made the journey back to Andrey and Nadiya’s in one piece.
Nadiya is a good cook and had prepared a meal of soup and a vegetarian dish based on buckwheat, something I’d never had before but seems to be quite common in Russia. About 75% of their food is vegetarian and is very nice. I had black bread for the first time and it went down well with the soup. They also buy home made honey which was as nice as you might expect.
After a while Andrey suggested we go out to have a look around some of the city. This was about 22.30 and yet it was only just getting dark. So we all piled into their Suzuki 4×4 and drove around to some places that I would never have found on my own. They showed me Moscow’s new financial district, called Moscow City. This area has Canary Wharf type skyscrapers in it, some of them very stylish in appearance. We drove up to a park called Vorobyovy Hills which opens out onto a plateau where bikers meet at night and where there is an amazing view out over the city, all lit up below. This park is in front of the Moscow State University, a huge building of which the city is justly proud and which looked very nice in its night time illumination. We drove down to Red Square and walked around admiring the beautifully illuminated buildings – The Kremlin Walls, St Basil’s Cathedral and GUM, the famous Moscow department store. We also drove round to the building that used to house the Moscow State Circus which has some amusing statues outside it.
We got back about 01.30 and I was knackered! One thing had become very clear and that is that Muskovites love their city and enjoy being out and about in it. The streets were still busy. Although not native to Moscow, Andrey and Nadiya clearly love their adopted home.
First job today was to go to the Mongolia visa office and get the wheels of bureaucracy turning. I didn’t get up very early but then neither did anyone else apart from Andrey who had to go to work. So by the time I got down there I only had fifteen minutes to sort it out before they shut down for their two hour lunch. In the end it was all straightforward and quick. The only potential problem was that some of the dollar bills I took with me weren’t crisp enough for them and they wouldn’t accept them. Fortuitously I’d taken some spares with me so all was well. I’d read about this bizarre situation before. It seems these places don’t like folding money if it’s been folded too often. ‘It’s still legal tender’ I wanted to say to the cashier ‘and it’s not even your currency.’but I said nothing. I could have come back that afternoon to collect the visa but I had other plans.
A stroll down to the Kremlin on this warm afternoon took me to the ticket office and I joined the queue. I bought one that would let me into the Kremlin, cathedrals and churches. There are museums in there too but I wasn’t particularly interested in their contents, mostly jewellery and similar, so I passed on them. When I got inside I was surprised to see how small the visiting area was. The complex is huge but visitors can only go to a small area where the cathedrals and museums are. I suppose it’s no surprise as the Kremlin does contains the parliamentary buildings and the presidential palace. The other thing I swiftly learned is that if you step off the approved walkways a guard will very quickly blow his whistle and wave his stick at you in a very meaningful way. Stray at your peril! There are three cathedrals to visit, The Assumption, The Annunciation and the Archangels. There are two churches also, the Twelve Apostles Church and the Church of Laying Our Lady’s Holy Robe. They aren’t all accessible and I went into two of the cathedrals for a look around. Typical Orthodox decoration and iconography, very decorative and some of it dating back tio the 17th century. Unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed. Outside lie two Tsarist relics, the Tsar Canon and the Tsar Bell. The cannon is huge and very nicely decorated. It was cast in 1586 and weighs in at forty tons. The bell was definitely overambitious. Six metres in diameter and the same in height, it weighs in at two hundred tons and that may be the reason why it broke before it ever rang. Because of casting problems a large chunk dropped out of it before it was even lifted so there it sits, the worlds largest bronze door stop.
There is no doubt that the Kremlin (the word means fortress within a city) is an amazing complex. It covers 250 hectares, has twenty towers, contains five major religious buildings and two state museums as well as presidential accommodation and both houses of parliament. All of the towers have names, even if they’re merely descriptive, and the walls and towers have stood since the 15th century. Some of them were destroyed by Napoleon when he was forced to retreat from Moscow but they were quickly rebuilt. It fell in and out of favour with the Tsars but has always remained a vitally important building for the city, especially since Moscow became the nation’s capital after the 1917 revolution.
Opposite the exit stands that exemplar of the ‘point and ask’ method of buying food in a foreign language, McDonalds. A chicken/bacon/coke/fries combo beat my hunger into submission and I felt ready for round two. Round to Red Square and St Basil’s cathedral. The name ‘Red Square’ doesn’t come from the colour of the brickwork on the walls and buildings nor does it represent communism. The Russian word for ‘red’ also means ‘beautiful’ or ‘best’. So the Red Door would be the front door and the Red Girl would be the prettiest. Talking of the brickwork, at times that had been painted white anyway. And while we’re discussing names I learnt that ‘Basil’ is a derivative of the name ‘Vassilly’. St. Vassilly was a peasant who came from the Russian tradition of ‘Fools for Christ’. These people, whatever their original background, became poor and lived as beggars. They had the gift of being able to deliberately lose their minds, would have visions, speak in tongues – all the usual superstitious goings on. But they were revered to such an extent that they could freely take on the rich and powerful, even Emperors and Tsars. St Vassilly was one such peasant and had such an effect that a cathedral was named after him. So perhaps the best way to beat the rich and powerful banks into submission is to become poor and be a fool. Oh, hang on, we’re there already aren’t we. Oh well.
This building is a strange one as it actually consist of nine separate cathedrals melded into one. It therefore has passageways that twist and wind all over the place as you move from one part to another. It/they were built in the 15th century to commemorate victory over the Khanate of Kazan, an area south of Moscow ruled by the descendants of Genghis Khan. There are some really nice artworks inside, particularly items such as altar screens, iconography and wall paintings. I liked its inherent craziness very much.
I eventually made it back to Andrey and Nadiya’s. Today was Wednesday and I had been due to leave them and go to the hostel but they had invited me to stay longer, as long as I needed to be in Moscow in fact. They had originally only invited me for a few days because they were worried about how Maria would react to my presence but as she wasn’t in the least bit bothered by it they’d decided to extend the invitation. I was delighted by this mostly for emotional reasons but also for practical ones too. I felt great gratitude towards them. They are a lovely family and are so kind and generous.
After we’d eaten I was taken out for a tour round once more. ‘Good heavens’ I thought, ‘Don’t Russians ever sleep?’ Then I remembered that they have a short summer and a long winter. Plenty of time to catch up. This time we went to one of Moscow’s ninety six parks, Victory Park. Dedicated to the victims of the Great Patriotic War – WW2 to you and me – the park has a huge obelisk, a sculpture of St George slaying the dragon, a memorial mosque and synagogue and a colonnaded building housing the memorial museum in front of which sits the eternal flame. The whole area sits on top of a hill and running down from the memorial structures is a walkway with a series of fountains and gardens, the fountains being lit up at night. Being there led the conversation round to remembrance celebrations and I explained to Andrey and Nadiya about the Cenotaph and the significance of the Poppy. I told them of my visit to Ypres and the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate. When we got back home I showed them some pictures of these things on the internet. Being there got me thinking about something I’d read in Berlin. After WW2 The Soviets would have liked to have taken over the whole of Germany. They firmly believed that West Germany was full of Nazis, and there may have been some small justification in this. We can all agree that, had they had the opportunity, the Soviet’s way of dealing with this situation would have led to the death of thousands of innocent people and perhaps suggest that it was all based on paranoia. But when you see a memorial to over twenty million war dead it gets much easier to understand that paranoia.
One thing I hadn’t been able to sort out was Russian insurance for my bike. Andrey had made enquiries for me and I was due to meet him at his insurance companies office at 3pm next day. Before going there I needed to get a spare battery for my camera to replace the one that disappeared when my camera got stolen. Nadiya new of a place where she thought I might get one, a big Techno Mall that had loads of small stalls in it selling various technical bits and pieces. The only problem was that I had to drive their car down there as she needed to look after Masha (the pet name for Maria). So off I set into the maelstrom of Moscow’s traffic, fighting my way through throngs of trucks and 4×4’s like Ben Hur winning a chariot race. In actual fact it’s only like that in bad films and scare stories. We just took a gentle drive from their suburb to another one, parked around the corner from the mall and went inside to get what I needed. The only battery available was a ‘made in China’ one and I’ve always been suspicious of those. But when I looked at the original that had been made in China too! So i figured I’d got nothing to lose and paid the very reasonable price for it. I was beginning to like Russia.
I met Andrey at the insurance company and we sat down in front of a very pretty young woman with one of the nicest smiles I’ve ever seen. Really! And she rides a bike too. I haven’t got room for a pillion but if she’d said ‘Take me with you’ I’d have found some! Anyway, some paperwork completed, signed and cash handed over and I left with insurance for four months, plenty of time to cover the ground I wanted to. Luckily Andrey made me check all the details before I left and it turned out her colleague had entered the registration number incorrectly. Perhaps she was dazzled by the smile too.
When I was in the tourist office I’d got a brochure detailing Moscow’s tourist attractions and in it was a small motor museum that looked worth a visit. My feet were a bit sore after the efforts of the last couple of days so I felt happy to have an easy afternoon. Leaving Andrey I got the Metro down there and whiled away a couple of hours looking at some very nicely restored classic cars and being amused by seeing the familiar names written in Cyrillic script. None of the signs were in English so I set myself the challenge of converting the technical info into something I could understand. I got there with most of them.
Back at base Nadiya’s brother and his wife came over. Irana is Nadiya’s best friend and she and Dimitri started seeing each other and eventually got hitched. Irana also speaks excellent English and she asked me a question that Nadiya had already asked, namely ‘Is it true that everyone in England drinks tea at five o’clock?’ I find this a highly amusing notion and after discussing it we worked out that their English teachers must have been brought up on classic novels, Austen and Bronte most likely, in which everybody probably does drink tea at five o’clock. So the concept was clearly passed down to the pupils. They thought it was a very funny thing to do anyway and clearly didn’t think it was really true. But they just couldn’t resist asking.
Another great evening and it is good to be meeting and chatting to so many ordinary Russian people. A useful day too in that I tied up a couple of loose ends.
Another day dawned bright and sunny. I’d had very good weather since arriving in Russia for which I was grateful. Cities always look better in the sunshine and people look happier too, which makes the visitor feel more welcome. I had plans to visit two museums today, the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812 and the Historical Museum, which traces Russia’s history from Neolithic times.
The 1812 museum was first and it showed a fascinating insight into the minds and ambitions of two of Europe’s greatest Emperors. As we know, Napoleon was ultimately defeated but not before he’d reached Moscow, causing the city authorities to set fire to the buildings rather than let them fall into French hands. In turn Napoleon attempted to completely destroy the Kremlin and all the buildings inside it by blowing them up before he left. Fortunately the wet weather rendered most of the fuses inoperable so the damage, although significant, was limited. In turn Alexander 1 attempted to cross Europe to attack France but didn’t manage to achieve that.
The museum disappointed me in some ways. The displays were good and I loved the paintings but although the display labels were in English as well as Russian all the multi media information was in Russian only. I had hoped to learn more about this period of history and Napoleon’s defeat but came away frustrated.
The Russian History Museum was next and fortunately for my still sore feet, was close by. There was an audio guide available here, thankfully. It was very necessary because very few of the display signs were in English although there were multi language information leaflets available in each of the rooms. The problem was that these only gave general information about the period of time each room covered and unless a particular display item was mentioned in the audio guide, you could look but not necessarily learn. Even so, there was much to discover about the history of the area that Russia now covers going back many thousands of years. Over the last couple of hundred years there have been several important archaeological finds in Russia such as the dugout canoe that was preserved in peat for thousands of years and the graves from 20,000 years ago, showing just how sophisticated burial rites were even then. There’s over forty rooms and you progress through them in time order, getting a nicely linear look at Russia’s progress from nomad to warring tribe to sophisticated European. I learned a lot and thought the time was very well spent.
A few years previously Andrey had ridden his bike down into Central Asia on a 12,000km month long holiday. So we had a good chat that evening about road conditions, fuel quality and availability. He completely disagreed with the biker I met coming down to Moscow about the need for off road tyres. He did his trip on standard road tyres and had no problems at all. I had brought with me a 7 litre fuel bladder to give me a longer range and he said that would be plenty extra. So that was very useful information to get especially as entry to Kazakhstan was getting closer, probably only a week or so away.
I needed a haircut! My last one had been two and a half months ago, just before I left home, and I was looking messy. Nadya knew of a place just down the road in a nearby block of flats, en route to the Metro station. So we put Masha in her pushchair and took a stroll down there in the sunshine. Fifteen minutes after going in I was all trimmed and tidy and feeling much better for it. The woman at the till was highly amused when the hairdresser told her to charge for ’Haircut and eyebrows’ and I was delighted by the RU200 price. Nadya and Masha headed for the play park, I carried on to the Metro station. Today’s destination was the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre, a place my friend OJ had recommended I go to see. On my journey I’d visited several places where the Jewish story was one of pain and suffering but this museum was all about telling the story of Russian Jews in a positive way and about healing the wounds of the past. When OJ told me about it I commented that perhaps Putin should visit there, it being a time when his apparent demonising of certain minorities was in the news. OJ’s reply? ‘He paid for it.’ So that shut me up! But all the more reason for wanting to see it.
Unfortunately it just didn’t happen that day. I took the metro to the nearest station , came out and wandered around for over an hour trying to find it. Even with the help of a map wielding, English speaking young Russian woman I couldn’t find it. All I had was a very small map in the tourist book and it just wasn’t clear enough to pin down where it was. Eventually I worked out that I’d come out of the wrong exit of the metro so I backtracked and got onto the right street. The problem was that the museum shut at 3pm and I didn’t get there until 2pm. The woman on the front desk reckoned I needed at least two hours so I left, planning to come back another day. I had in mind to visit another nearby place, the site of some street art but we were all going out that evening and there wasn’t time.
Nadiya had booked us into an Italian restaurant they liked and I wanted to treat them as a thank you for looking after me so well. Andrey was meeting us there from work so once again I drove their care down there. We pulled up opposite the restaurant and I waited until there was no traffic before throwing a U turn across the six lane road. Nadiya was horrified, Andrey was highly amused. She reckoned a Russian driver might get a six month ban for doing that because of the double white line in the middle of the road. We enjoyed a very nice meal there, discussing food and all sorts of cultural things. More quality time with great people.
Next morning Andrey and Nadiya had some friends coming round, transiting through Moscow on their way to a holiday up on the north coast. Andrey went to the airport to pick them up and Luba and her two kids Max and Lova eventually arrived. She also spoke good English so I was enjoying both the conversation and Nadiya’s delicious home made chocolate cake. And did Luba ask me THAT question? Of course she did! And I gave her what had become my stock answer, that as far as I was concerned every hour was five o’clock. She was surprised to find Max happily playing with me as it seems that he’s normally very wary of strangers normally. After a while I left them to it and headed off for my day out.
On today’s agenda was a city bus tour. I’d discovered during my holiday with Jan in Cape Town that this can be a great way to see and learn about a city. They have multi lingual commentary which switches on as you reach given points along the route. I took the metro to where I thought the route started only to find I’d been misled by an out of date tourist map. I got to the right place eventually and while I waited for the bus I was watching a number of wedding parties posing for photos on a nearby pedestrian bridge over the Moskva River. I discovered that it is common in Russia for wedding parties to go somewhere special to pose for the photos, such as a park or a significant landmark of some kind. There were several parties there with the nicely decorated cars parked nearby. It seemed a great way of going about it especially on such a lovely sunny Saturday.
As much as anything else, the two hour bus tour taught me about Moscow’s buildings and their history. The city has very varied architecture with many different styles. Almost all buildings are post 1812 because of the burning of the city by the retreating citizens as napoleon advanced on it. Many of them are from the Soviet era and are quite fascinating. Many old buildings, especially religious ones, were demolished in the Stalin era but he did leave an excellent legacy in the shape of the Seven Sisters. These are seven skyscrapers, modelled on 1930’s New York buildings such as the Manhattan Municipal Building. They are dotted around the centre of the city and look very attractive. One of them now houses the Foreign Ministry, others are hotels and I’m not sure what the rest are used for now. Building work continues all around the city. One that we passed is referred to as The Russian White House. It stands on the embankment and now houses the Russian government. When Boris Yeltsin ended communism there was an attempted coup and this building was shelled. I remember seeing him on TV at the time, in standing front of it surrounded by tanks.
That was a couple of hours well spent and I continued my exploration with a walk along the embankment. I wanted to look at a statue I’d spotted earlier, of a ship with a man as the figurehead. It was erected quite recently and is to celebrate Peter the Great’s formation of the Russian Navy after he gained the port at St Petersburg. Apparently Muskovites are divided in their opinions about it. I thought is was ostentatious but typically Russian in that respect. I mean just look at St Basil’s Cathedral for goodness sake!
I walked on into the Sculpture Garden.This is where all those unwanted Communist era statues have been deposited, often lined up in rows. They look pretty good generally and I had a laugh at one or two of them. Next was the famous Gorky Park. It is very big and very nice, with a large boating lake. I liked some of the people friendly touches such as huge beanbags laid out for groups of people to lounge on and double sun loungers for couples to get friendly on. Unfortunately some of the park was closed for refurbishment and some had been closed off to accommodate a rock concert – don’t ask me who, it was a name I didn’t recognize. At the other end of the park I found myself walking along the embankment, busy with pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders and roller bladers. They kept me on my tired toes a bit! There followed a much longer walk than I intended as I searched for a metro station, which I only found thanks to a kind young couple who showed me where it was. I was happy to pay their fares as a thank you. It had been a long, hot day and I was glad to get back.
That evening I had a nice long chat with Andrey about Kazakhstan. Routes, tyres, fuel etc. He’s got a friend who lives in Astana and he linked us up on Facebook. That was good as contacts can be very useful in strange countries.
My last day in Moscow was as bright and warm as the previous six had been. It was great to be able to enjoy the sunshine, even though it sometimes left me hotter than I’d normally like. I was planning to finally visit the Jewish Museum and this time I knew where it was! I got there with plenty of time to spare and that was just as well as there was quite a bit to see. The museum all about telling thestory of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe but it begins with what I think is called a 5D presentation about the Creation story. We sat in a small theatre while the story was told and were shaken and rained on while they told the story of the Flood and the Ark. To me it’s all old guff but the important point about the Jewish religion is that the stories will always be told and then discussed, assessed and re-assessed constantly across the ages to try to understand the deeper meaning. To me that’s a much better approach than the religious fundamentalist who will say ‘As it was written, so it shall be’, with no arguments allowed. Into the display proper which charted the life and times of Jews in Russia. The displays are numbered, so easy to follow, but once more I was frustrated by the lack of English explanations. I’d have thought that this museum, above all others, would have considered that many of their visitors might come from outside Russia. Not the case. Fortunately most of the interactive displays were dual language or had subtitles. I was able to learn about the Jewish diaspora, how so many Jews came to be in Eastern Europe and how they lived their lives. They were mostly isolated, living in small villages called Shetells, very poor but able to live according to their religion. Post the 1917 revolution Jews actually had a better time of it in many ways. They weren’t discriminated against any more than any other religion and as time went by were able to take advantage of whatever opportunities presented themselves instead of suffering enforced separation as was the case under the Tsars. Many of them became more Russian than Jewish and entered into intellectual life fully. Even so, huge numbers emigrated to America to escape poverty. Post war many also went to Israel if they could.
During the war Jews fought alongside other Russians against the Nazis. There was a film showing interviews with people who fought, not all of them Jewish, and some of the personal testaments moved me to tears. There was also a film about the war from Russia’s point of view which was very interesting. There was a display about the ‘Refuseniks’, Jews who worked for the state but refused to co-operate because they, or their friends, weren’t allowed to emigrate to Israel. That’s something I remember from the Seventies.
I was very pleased to have gone there and to learn about people that I had mostly seen as Nazi victims. Jews have always been picked on throughout history and it puzzles me somewhat as to why. What is it about them, their religion, their lifestyle that makes them constant victims? Maybe it’s their reluctance to integrate or because their usury was dislikes, although obviously widely used. There were the medieval Blood Libels but that was borne out of hatred as well as being the cause of it. It’s a mystery to me but perhaps I’ll keep it in my back pocket to try and study another time.
So what did I think of Moscow?
A great city and I really enjoyed my week there although it was nowhere near long enough. Muscovites clearly like their city too and love getting out and about in it. There’s always plenty of people around. The city is full of parks and leisure areas and that includes the areas around the apartment blocks that many people live in. I get the impression most of them were built in Soviet times, as were the wide streets and boulevards. Some of the city centre apartment blocks were stunning although now the preserve of the rich man. The metro is a great system, reckoned to be the world’s busiest. But it desperately needs an upgrade, but at least the trains are fast, frequent and cheap. And I love the station architecture. I liked it more than St Pete, which takes some doing. There’s more to see and do and a greater mix of ancient and modern.
My last evening with Andrey, Nadiya and Masha was very pleasant, another nice meal to enjoy. I made sure that they all understood how much I appreciated what they’d done for me. I was happy to tell them, from the heart, that meeting Andrey was easily the best thing that had happened to me on the whole journey. I was in a low place after the robbery in St Pete and they took me into their home and hearts and healed me. It’s as simple as that. Their response? To tell me how much they’d enjoyed having me there and to thank me for being their guest. What lovely people.
I hope to return to Moscow some day. There’s still much to see but mostly I’ll want to see my friends again.