Sunday, June 5, 2016

Travel Log: Days Thirteen, Fourteen, and Fifteen

Moscow, Russia: 5/28/2016

           I'm just going to make a big post about everything about Moscow and everything from Saturday to Monday.
Ferry Ride on the Moscow River
           First of all, every Russian I've spoken to has told me that I'll take back these words after I see St. Petersburg, but Moscow is easily one of the coolest cities ever. It's absolutely huge (it takes up 1560.3 square miles of space; for reference, Des Moines's area is 132 square miles, Nashville's is 846, and New York City's is 490), let me tell you, if I personally designed a city, Moscow is pretty close to what it would look like: its incredibly clean, it manages to have parks every other block (including big ones with hiking trails and forests) and open space everywhere while still feeling like a city, all the buildings are architecturally beautiful and the monuments are especially incredible, ornate churches are everywhere, there are tons of museums, it rarely felt crowded despite its enormous population, the weather is beautiful (I know it must get freezing in winters because its Russia but I'm in favor of the summer weather), it has a huge and fascinating history that you can feel everywhere but there is also a huge section of the city that is made up of skyscrapers and is very modern, it has the gorgeous Moscow River and the magnificent Kremlin, the metro is efficient as all hell and everyO stations are beautifully designed, it has the best university and conservatory in the nation, I could go on forever. Moscow has this atmosphere to it, like it's at once a city of the past and future. It's magnificent.
One of the ornate Metro stations
              On Saturday we spent a lot of time exploring the metro system, and I'm proud to say I'm a little bit of an expert in it at this point. Rather than having a tour guide show us around the city, David printed each of us a map of the Moscow Underground and a few pages of tasks to complete at different stations; we had to successfully navigate the 12 different lines and find works of art/historical sites throughout the city. We spent most of the day, since the Moscow Underground's total length is 325.4 km, and since, of the 194 metro stations total, 44 are Russian cultural heritage sites. The system manages to be both efficient as hell (it serves an average of eight million passengers a day) and beautiful; began during the Soviet era, city planners hired renowned artists and architects as well as engineers to design the stations, and as a result, many feature mosaics, statues, chandeliers, ornate ceilings, and more. Often Soviet values or wartime images are reflected in the station ornaments: one of the stations we stopped at and explored had mosaics on the ceiling representing different working members of society, from iron workers to farmers, another featured around eighty statues of 'modern' people, from soldiers to students, and we found Lenin in most bigger stations. A particularly beautiful one contained colorful stained glass works of art on every wall, a choice that was apparently controversial at the time, due to stained glass being associated with European churches and the USSR's strict anti-religious policies. The whole day was fun, I figured out the map early and did most of the navigating for the group, and by the I was definitely an expert.
Pre-Lenin's-Tomb Selfie
           Saturday morning we went to see Lenin's tomb (his body is almost perfectly preserved for public viewing, it was vaguely terrifying; the USSR was an anti-religious state but David says they needed something to hold 'sacred,' and Lenin's body ended up being it) and before stopping by an enormous flea market. I bought a present for my brother that I managed to barter down 50%. Not bad for an American. There was also a little figurine of Putin shirtless riding a grizzly bear, and I would've bought that in a second if it hadn't been tragically outside of my budget.
Obelisk in Victory Park
Fireworks Behind the Museum
of the Great Patriotic War, in
honor of Border Guards Day
            Saturday night was perfectly timed. After we had dinner and finished our scavenger hunt, we took a trip to Victory Park, one of the enormous parks in the city. It was breathtaking, with fountains and sculptures everywhere and a forest that spread almost to the horizon (the horizon itself was more buildings, because this city is giant). We got ice cream from a vendor nearby, and set up camp as the sun set on a plaza on the edge of the park; the skyscrapers rising from New Moscow in the distance cut through the purple sky and made for a picturesque view. The National World War II Museum, a majestic white building with great white statues of soldiers on horses on its roof, sat at one end of the square and in front of it was one of the most simple yet breathtaking monuments I've ever seen: a white pillar that jutted up in front of the building, angels and cherubs soaring at the top and a larger-than-life statue of a victorious soldier on horseback, impaling a menacing snake, at its feet. The monument was tremendously tall (built 141.3 meters high, it was meant to represent the amount of time Russia spent fighting, which was 1413 days in total) and, as I stood at its feet, alone and feeling very small, it seemed so impossibly grand that it was almost surreal; in terms of making one feel the weight of the events and sacrifices of the twentieth century, the incredible hardships faced and the meaning of the fact that they were surmounted, it was very effective. And as a final touch to the day, as I walked back to my group in the dark, I heard explosions behind my and turned to see fireworks shooting up behind the museum, framing the monument perfectly. We sat and watched the celebration (it was for some kind of holiday, there were a few rowdy drunken celebrators) in awe, and by the time it was over, night had fully fallen and it was time to return home.
Victory Park

Moscow, Russia, 5/29/2016

One of the government buildings
in the GULAG system where suspects
were imprisoned during investigation
One of the many parks one happens
upon when wandering Moscow
             Sunday was a day of ups and downs. We started off in a pretty low place: a history museum centered on the GULAG system that existed during Stalin's era. The museum was dedicated to educating people on this governmental agency's oppressive regime (particularly during the Great Terror, 1936-1938) and on the horrors faced by people sent to Siberian forced labor camps. The amount of suffering and the sheer numbers of people touched by this terror were horrifying enough (and if I went into it you'd be reading pages; the dehumanization and psychological torture of so many people was absolutely awful), but it was how widespread the psychological influence of the State was during the time that truly astounded me. Despite the thousands of people being robbed of their freedom and tortured at the hands of the government every day during this time, people still believed that the State could do no wrong; our tour guide told us that even family members of people in prison or in camps would sometimes genuinely denounce them, as they believed that, if this was the action of the government, then it must be right. Despite the fact that Joseph Stalin was directly responsible for more civillian deaths than anyone in recorded history (including Hitler; Stalin and his government would literally write and sign quotas for different areas of the country dictating how many people there ought to be shot or imprisoned; officials in those areas would then go out and find civillians to meet these quotas), he was viewed at the time as this glorious leader and after his death many people were injured trying to push through the enormous crowds attending his funeral in Moscow. This feeling still exists a little bit today, the tour guide explained; the museum often has guests that come in convinced that the statistics regarding people killed during this time are false. When you think about it, though, it makes a certain amount of sense: if a government imprisons, tortures, and kills anyone with any notions of dissent, loyalists are going to be all that remain. It did make me wonder how, if a whole population of people were so misinformed, so unaware of the harsh reality of their surroundings, what we could be unaware of in the US today. A scary thought.
Moscow Circus!
My new soccer-playing friends
               After that sobering start to the day, we went to something a bit more lighthearted: the Moscow Circus. Though I haven't been to the circus in a very long time, but I went to quite a few when I was younger, and this one had to have been one of the best I've ever seen. Though it was only a one-ring circus, the show lasted around three hours and had an enormous cast of trapeze artists, dancers, clowns, acrobats, and more, as well as a host of animals, from huskies to leopards to sea lions. Sadly there were no bears, but the performers were all spectacular and the premise was lovely (it was a story centered around a little girl and her stuffed rabbit, the latter of which came to life to guide the former through a series of adventures, which were each act). I've never wanted to be a Russian gymnast/ballerina/acrobat/animal tamer more.
                 We finished the day by walking through Moscow State University, the best school in the country. The campus was giant and was settled on a hill that overlooked the whole city, right next to a huge park we got to hike through. As we were walking, we ran into a huge group of young boys (probably around 10) in soccer uniforms, all of whom were amused by our language and accent, and I managed to befriend a bunch of them (both parties made poor attempts at speaking the other's language). After exploring a bit we took the metro back to Red Square and meandered back to our hostel. Another great day

Moscow State University 

Moscow, Russia 5/30/2016
The gang waiting in line to get into the Kremlin
Selfie from atop the bell tower
                   Sadly, Monday was our last day in Moscow. We got up earlier this morning in order to get
in line to finally explore the inside of the Kremlin. The Moscow Kremlin is enormous; there were at least six churches, the enormous Senate building, and acres of fields and gardens. Because we were up early, we got the chance to climb the tallest bell tower there and see everything from the center; you could see most of the city, too, and all the cathedrals. The square was a display of history, with buildings built anywhere from the 14th century to the 17th
century standing next to each other. David gave us all a little worksheet, a map that was missing its labels, and gave us an hour to ourselves to find the
missing information. This is the kind of thing I love, of course, because my favorite thing to do in new places is to break off and explore alone. I walked around the square for a while (in the Assumption Cathedral I followed a French tour group for about ten minutes and was very proud that I understood about 75% of what the guide was saying) and then spent the rest of the time exploring the lush gardens on the outside. At the end we got to just sit in the gardens and sketch our surroundings, a nice moment of peace at the end of a hectic weekend. After we went to one last delicious Moscow lunch (where we had an amazing chocolate brownie dessert, it was so expensive but so worth it) before going back to the hostel and taking the train home. I got back to my apartment around dinner, and spent the rest of the night relaxing with Polly.
Top: a couple of historic artifacts on the square in the Kremlin
Middle: The bell tower we climbed and one of the churches, many other churches in the background
Bottom: The view from the tower; where Putin at?

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