From Russia with love... or something

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The clock is ticking here in Moscow.  I'm scheduled to leave for Krasnodar on Thursday morning, and it seems quite possible I won't be back in Moscow again.  This is utterly bizarre to me.  How can it be over so soon?  How is it that I've done NOTHING?  I'm filled with regret about what I haven't seen and what I haven't done here in the city.  I think perhaps my expectations were unrealistic.  In that past I've always visited foreign cities as a full time tourist, free to determine my own schedule and pick from the menu of amazing things to do more or less at my leisure.  This kind of life really isn't that at all.  I'm here to do a job, and I'm doing it 5 or 6 long days per week.  In the small amount of time left, it's often been hard to muster the energy to go out and explore.  That's why I was so pleased to spend a full day out on the town last Saturday, with my new co-worker and buddy Gerald, who only arrived a few weeks ago.

Once again, the weather was grey, cold and rainy.  In fact, I genuinely cannot remember the last time we've had more than a hour or two of sunshine.  Certainly there hasn't been a drop of sun on a weekend since about August.  It's frankly a bit dispiriting.  Nonetheless, with a friend to share the experience with, it was much less annoying.  We started out at Izmailovsky Market, where I was able to show Gerald around like an old pro.  I picked up a few bits and pieces, including some nice linen tea towels with the days of the week on them (in Russian, of course!), and some little Christmas tchotchkes.  And because the weather was so cold, and we still had a lot of walking ahead, we both splashed out on big silly fuzzy hats, which made life way more comfortable.

The hat seller man clearly is not exactly Annie Leibovitz, so please forgive the fact that this photo is only slightly less fuzzy than the hats.  And yes, we're doing the Vulcan "live long and prosper" thing.  It's a long story...

After the market, we headed back into the centre of town to do a long walk past a few of the big sights.  At the Metro we got an unexpected treat.  I've already told you that the Moscow Metro really is a work of art.  In this case, that was true in a very literal sense because the train that pulled into Partazanskaya Station to take us back to town was the Watercolour Train, an art gallery on wheels.

And it's not just the outside of the train that's pretty... oh no.  The outside is just the beginning.

The cars are actually decked out like an art gallery!  Honestly, the Metro system might be the coolest thing about Moscow by a long chalk... 
(This is not my photo, but it illustrates things MUCH better.)

The lovely art train eventually dropped us off at Arbatskaya,  where we stopped to warm up with a cup of cofffee and then walked to the first stop on the agenda, Christ the Saviour Cathedral, on the banks of the Moscow River.  At just over 100m high, it's the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world.

A nice shot from the opposite bank of the river.  
Imagine how lovely that would be if the sun ever came out!

Judging by appearances, you could be forgiven for thinking that the cathedral has been there for hundreds of years.  And in a sense, that's sort of true.  The original was first conceived in 1812, in thanks for Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.  But as these things generally go, it was not actually complete until 1860.  Those of you who know anything about Russian history may be able to guess what happened next... in 1931, under orders from Stalin, the cathedral was demolished.  Stalin planned to use the site to build a grand monument to Socialism called the Palace of the Soviets.  The Cathedral was dynamited on Dec 5, 1931, after having much of its interior opulence stripped and sold or repurposed.  Apparently some of the marble benches made it into nearby metro stations.

As is often the way with these big building projects, the grand Palace of the Soviets was delayed due to lack of funds (and flooding from the nearby river).  Eventually - and this is the best part - Kruschev turned the foundations of the Palace (all that was ever built) into the world's largest outdoor swimming pool.  (Honestly, you could just not make this stuff up.)

See?  How crazy is that?

It wasn't until 1990 that they finally got around to trying to rebuild the demolished cathedral and it wasn't completed and consecrated until August of 2000.  I find that very surprising, because it honestly looks like it should always have been there.  Also, cathedral building is just not the kind of thing you expect people to be doing in 1997.  Listening to "Candle in the Wind" and watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"?  Yes.  Building a gigantic Russian Orthodox Cathedral out of a swimming pool? Not so much.

Christ the Saviour is, of course, a working church, so we observed the correct proprieties and put the cameras away.  Also, men must uncover their heads and women keep theirs covered, so Gerald removed his fuzzy hat, and I kept mine on, and we had a quiet walk around.   The pics below are from Google, and you can see how opulent and stunning it is.


We were there on a Saturday and the place was full of ordinary Muscovites, there to worship. In fact, it was these same ordinary Muscovites who helped pay for the magnificent building.  More than one million of them donated to the construction fund.

Orthodox churches are laid out very differently to non-Orthodox ones. (Is that the right term? Non-Orthodox?  It sounds weird.  Then again "Un-Orthodox" is worse...) Mostly, there seem to be individual shrines or icons or relics placed around the interior, and people were lining up to kneel before them or light candles.  I always feel like a bit of an intruder in these places, but there were so many people it was easy to blend in.

Apparently the cathedral is quite an accurate replica of the one that was demolished, which is nice.  Before I'd seen the place, when all I knew about it was that it was built in the 1990s, I was afraid it was going to be some kind of modernist nightmare, which, as you can see, is not even remotely the case.  Phew.

After we left the church Gerald and I continued our walk, though by that time is was actually spitting rain and the temperature was dropping even further and the sun was starting to set. Our path took us past a few other remarkable Moscow sights, but I think I'll save those for another time.  With my days in Moscow winding down, it'll be good to have a little something saved up to tell you about the next time I manage to scrape up a few hours of blogging time. No promises about when that will be, but we live in hope.

The Bolshoi

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Finding the time and energy to blog is becoming more and more difficult, as you may have suspected considering the dearth of new posts since I got back from vacation.  Luckily for you, I did manage to squeeze in a very very Russian activity a few weeks ago: I went to the Bolshoi Ballet!  I'm not sure how it was managed, but word went around the office before my vacation that tickets were being arranged and I put my name on the list.  They were not cheap (7,000 roubles), but it seemed ridiculous to be living in Moscow with the means and the opportunity to see the Bolshoi Ballet and to pass it up in favour of another night on the couch with the latest episode of Masterchef.  Weeks later that I realised I'd managed to double-book myself.  The Ballet was on the same night as a huge and legendary Halloween party I'd been invited to by some Moscow Hash House Harriers.  I was semi-gutted, but having committed to a £140 ticket, there was no turning back.  Also, it meant I didn't have to scramble around trying to cobble together a Halloween costume, which was a definite bonus. Then, after a few conversations with local ex-pats, I realised what a big deal it is to get tickets to the Bolshoi.  In fact, anyone I mentioned it to immediately replied with, "You went to the BOLSHOI?  HOW DID YOU GET TICKETS? I've been trying for (six months... four years... since Stalin was in power... blah blah blah)"  Here's the answer: I don't know how I got tickets.  Someone at work arranged it.  I think one of the Russian people in the office has a high-up connection at the Ballet.  When I sais this, people inevitably nod sagely, and understand.

Months ago when we were first starting, our lovely Russian team member Anna was trying to explain the relationship of a particular potential supplier or workshop or something to one of the producers.  She was clearly struggling to find the right English word because she finally said, "He is, umm, he is… do you have this word in English, umm… trusty-face?"  This was met with either blank stares or giggles, I can't remember which, but regardless it was mostly clear what she meant.  Apparently there is a word in Russian that translates literally as "trusty-face" and sort of means "someone I've worked with/ trust/ can call on for a favour" etc.  It's actually a very useful (and very Russian) concept, and one that has passed into the vernacular in the Props Department.  We've also expended it into the very useful acronym: MRTS.  For instance, months ago we were trying to figure out how to get a prototype made, struggling with identifying a workshop, and figuring out how to get the expenditure approved (impossible).  Then one day we were in a meeting and looked across the room to see the very prototype we'd been trying to get, sitting there on a table.  Where did it come from? The MRTS. Someone picked up the phone, called a trusty-face of theirs, and boom, one prototype.  It's the Magical Russian Trusty-face System.  To be fair, I think it's the same everywhere.  It's just the Russian version of the old adage.  In Russia, just like everywhere else, it's not WHAT you know…

So that's where the ballet tickets came from: the MRTS.  And back to the Bolshoi.  The Bolshoi Ballet (which translates literally as "Big" or "Grand" Ballet) is one of the world's oldest and most prestigious classical ballet companies.  It was founded in 1776, though only rose to international fame in the early 20th century, during the Soviet era.  The ballet tours the world, but its home is the similarly-famous Bolshoi Theatre, opened in 1825.  The theatre itself is stunning, and recently re-opened after a six year renovation and restoration.  Seeing the Bolshoi Ballet anywhere is a treat, but seeing them in the Bolshoi Theatre is a big deal.

The exterior of the Bolshoi Theatre.  Not bad.  If you were to turn 180 degrees, you'd be facing towards Red Square.

Luckily, I packed my dress-up clothes, so I was able to look more or less like I belonged when we set out from the hotel in a fleet of taxis.  We arrived just in time for a drink before the curtain, so we stopped in one of the side rooms for a glass of champagne, which seemed the only sane thing to do. That is, until I discovered that a glass of champagne (I think it was Moët) cost a staggering 1,350 roubles.  For these keeping score at home that is £27.  Or about $42.  That is not a typo.  They were also selling candies and strawberries and little open-shelled tarts filled with red caviar.  I shudder to think what they were worth.

Me, with about $36 worth of champagne left.

And the rest of the delights on offer.  Right next to this display was a RosBank desk offering short-term loans with quite reasonable interest rates.

Irritatingly, the bell sounded almost immediately after these pictures were taken, meaning that I had to chug my liquid gold down in two slurps and head off to find my seat.  Luckily, once I actually entered the theatre, any irritation vanished because the auditorium itself is frankly stunning.



These photos don't really do it justice, taken as they were with a shaky iPhone camera.  
But you get the idea.

But wait, it gets better!  My seat was in the SECOND ROW.  Not up in the back of the ninth balcony.  Not in the standing-room-only seats that came with oxygen tanks and safety harnesses.  The second row.  It was a-mazing.

Equally lovely was the fact that the ballet was accompanied by a full orchestra, in a very spacious pit, which included not one but TWO harps and five double basses, along with the usual classical assortment.  Excellent.

The orchestra, warming up before the performance

"But wait!" I hear you cry.  "What about the actual BALLET?  You know, the reason for you being there?"  Here I have to confess that I am not actually a massive fan of ballet, or indeed of any form of dance.  However, I was lucky in that the performance we saw was one of Gisele, which has a strong storyline and a bit of a pantomime flavour to it, meaning that after I'd been clued up by the more ballet-savvy in the group, I generally enjoyed it.  There was still, you know, an awful lot of dancing, but on the whole, it was great.

Speaking of the ballet-savvy, I was surprised to hear from them during the interval that the woman who started the performance in the lead role of Gisele (the young peasant girl with a heart condition) (no, really) was not the same dancer who finished the act.  Apparently there must have been some big ballet disaster because the first dancer exited after a solo and was never seen again.   Also, the ballet experts were a bit sniffy about a few of the other soloists, who I have to admit did look shaky in some of the more challenging lifts and spins.   Then again this didn't really bother me, probably because I spent most of the first act looking at the thighs of the male soloists, which appeared to exhibit entire muscle groups I didn't realise existed. (Artëm Ovcharenko, you rock.)

As far as the production values were concerned, I have to allow that they were less impressive than I was expecting.  In fairness, the repertoire of the Bolshoi is staggering, so keeping all of the bits and pieces for all the different shows in good nick must be daunting. And I think that the sets and props for these kind of productions get passed around the world more or less endlessly, appearing for a year or two at the Bolshoi, then being rented to another company in Japan or Paris or San Antonio or Canmore until they pretty much turn to dust.  I noticed a few dodgey props, including one notably rubbery sword.  And I haughtily decided that the cut backdrops really needed a bit of steaming or stretching to take out some of the wrinkles, but all in all that was a mere footnote.  (Though I do have to reserve particular scorn for the very tacky chasing LEDs lighting effects built into the second act graveyard set, which blinked on an off like a cheap department store display while attempting to portray the foreboding arrival of the Wilis - the beautiful but deadly spirits of women jilted by their lovers.  Really? Blinky blue lights?)

Cheesy lighting effects aside, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.  Despite the comically never-ending curtain calls, and the crush of people at the mandatory coat check after the performance (the Russian definitely have a very loose grasp of the queueing concept), and the outrageously priced champers, and the rubbery sword and the Wal-Mart LEDs, there's still a undeniable level of elegance, sophistication, talent and fabulous old world grandeur that made the whole evening simply fantastic.  And in the end it was all over in time for me to hop on the metro and make it over the the Halloween Party while there was still witch's brew in the punch bowl.  All in all, a most satisfying evening.