Moscow’s Hidden Stories
We skidded our way across the ice to the base of the towering sombre statues of Cyril and Methodius, the founding fathers of the Russian Cyrillic Alphabet. It was here at their stone feet that our free tour of Moscow was about to commence. Every place we go carries with it, it’s own stories. The more I travel, the more I see how they are interwoven into the entire human narrative. I am not sure how the word serendipitous ever entered the human language, for as we travel, I glimpse more and more the purposeful and intentional way these narratives connect and are connected. It is only the appearance of serendipity when we are caught unaware, and this is where I have found that stories themselves are the keys to the patterns of understanding those happy occurrences. The story of the young woman in front of me, rushing up the stairs to greet us, was just about to reveal the secret patterns of Moscow’s hidden stories and the stories of its Muscovites that would add another portion of the codon sequence to my collection in understanding the greater human story.
As this young woman hurried up the stairs, she straightened a microphone with a small speaker attached to her chest. Her upbeat aura shone through her eyes as she introduced herself as Irina, our tour guide. Speaking English absolutely perfectly, she began to express her story through her love of Moscow and her passion was to guide people around her city, putting us at ease straight away with a series of humorous jokes. Over the course of the next five minutes, the rest of our group arrived while Irina began the tour by asking the one question of why in the world we had chosen to come to Moscow and face the bitter sting of Winter! While my toes and fingers were utterly numb and aching, I couldn’t help but smile. One look at the angelic grounds of the square surrounding us, snowed in, pure white from the overnight drift and we had our answer.
With our group of 13 assembled and Irina leading the way, we took to the streets. To start with, we received a quick history lesson on the famous Moscow Metro system, complete with a well known Muscovite joke. There are 11 metro lines that criss-cross Moscow and all of them were commissioned under the infamous Joseph Stalin. Irina continued with the jest that one morning when Stalin was finalising the plans of the metro, he had used the metro map as a place mat for his coffee. The mug left a large brown ring stain on the map right in the middle and everyone was too scared to ask Stalin if he meant for it or not. Therefore, the circular brown metro line was built all thanks to Stalin’s coffee mug stain.
In every joke there is a little truth behind the story. I can just imagine people being too scared to ask the man of steel what he meant, as this could’ve lead to an extended holiday in Siberia cutting trees or mining, from which you might never return. Indeed, my family’s story is linked to this, as my father’s maternal grandfather was just one of the many victims that were interwoven into Stalin’s story. My great grandfather was not a soldier, nor a person of political interest, simply a loving husband and father who just by being an able man, living in Budapest at the end of the Second World War, was rounded up, along with so many other men as a general punishment on the country. In the freezing cold of winter, he was stripped of his winter coat and herded along with many others onto a freight train and swept away to the dense forests of Siberia. He would never return with the few men from the neighbourhood who did eight years later. They came over one night to share my great grandfather’s tragic story with my great-grandmother and grandmother. It was the last few days of their captivity, and a stray branch from an ancient pine being felled, flew through the air and struck him hard at the base of his neck. They shared his last words, the excitement he felt in the knowledge that he was to see his family again soon. Yet standing here, I cannot feel any angur at Russia or the Russian people, as the mere authentic energy of this lady standing in front of me, reminds me of our collective humanity and all that we share, is so much greater than the things that try to divide us.
Next we climbed down into the metro bunker, where the warm air from the underground slowly revived our almost frost bitten fingers. Here Irina revealed another of Moscow’s hidden stories. She told us that we were underneath the oldest street in all of Moscow and directly in front of the wall of Kitay-Gorod. The wall had initially been built as a second fortress boundary around the city, once the entire population of Moscow grew to unmanageable proportions inside of the Kremlin walls.
The literal translation of Kitay Gorod is China Town, but as we drew closer, we could tell immediately, it had nothing to do with China or expat Chinese living in Moscow at the time it was built. Irina explained that while many historians argue over where the name came from, she also pointed it out to us that the wall was designed by an Italian architect and the word Kitay is most likely a Russian derivative from the latin word Cita (City pronounced Chita in Italian and later Kitay in Russian). When you draw this aspect in, Irina deduced that Kitay-Gorod’s intended meaning was literally City Walls or the town’s boundary. Unfortunately, the wall was dismantled in the 1930s to make more room for Stalinist era traffic and so only a small sliver of the red bricks are still visible in this Metro walkway. Perhaps it was another cup of coffee that decided this too.
Right beside the wall was the white silhouette of the Maximus the Confessor Church. Here Irina shared another story that she explained not many Muscovites knew themselves. In the late 1700s, plague broke out in Russia and many people believed that the only thing that would save them was if they journeyed to the Maximus the Confessor Church to kiss the Icon of Our Lady. With thousands of people flocking to the capital and all kissing the same icon… you can imagine, the plague only spread more rapidly. To stop the spread of infection, the priest stole the Icon and hid it in The Kremlin. The next morning, when the people of Moscow heard this, they stormed the Kremlin but could not find the Icon. This whipped them into a frenzy and they decided the next best thing would be to go after the priest, who had been evacuated to a nearby monastery. When the crowds found out where he was, however, they made their way to the monastery, found him and promptly murdered him. This was a little shocking and made me wonder whether this was part of the overall Muscovite story. Last night, however, a new friend I met while traveling in Jodhpur, India, Emma, a Psychology graduate, reassured me that Crowd Psychology accounted for madness of this nature. She said that the bigger the crowd, the more universality of behaviour was likely to occur and people who would normally never hurt a fly, could be transformed in an instant into monsters, capable of doing unspeakable acts.
We continued down Varvarka (Barbara)Street, coming next to the bright red Chapel of St George. The gold topped church domes shone against the snowy background and reflected the brightness of the snow, as Irina explained how behind the church once stood the famous or infamous State-owned Rossiya Hotel.
Formerly the largest and ugliest hotel in all of Russia, it was finally demolished in 2006 when a fire killed over 40 people. It is now being replaced with an eco-technological park that will showcase microcosms of every type of climate on the planet and is set to be completed by the 2018 Fifa World Cup.
With a little more walking down Varvaka Street, we arrived at the oldest civil building in all of Moscow, The English Court or Old English Embassy. It was built at the turn of the 16th century for English merchants and trading companies visiting Russia to negotiate trade contracts of all sorts. Another hundred meters down the road was another bright red building, rising above the others with its ornate cupola. This building originally housed The Romanov Family before they moved into The Kremlin. It now holds a museum showing the lifestyle of Moscow’s medieval nobility.
We had only been on the tour for about an hour, but I had a far greater appreciation for these real hidden stories of Moscow and how they had shaped this town. These are the stories that are clinically ignored by the history books, to keep them sanitary, as if describing the hallways of a disinfected hospital and never delving into the heart of what makes people… people. Irina was doing a great job of sharing this and bringing this city to life in a way that I had never thought of it before.
As we walked on, I heard my father ask Irina politely why she thought Russians had a preference for strong, authoritative leaders, even today. Irina did not skirt around the question and answered plainly saying that in her opinion, Russians perhaps liked a decisiveness in the way that their country was led and that this was reflected in their ease at accepting a benevolent ruler who was empowered to make the big decisions. They mostly accept that this will sometimes mean that people may not always get what they want, but the Russian Psyche would rather have a strong leader instead.
Crossing the street, we arrived smack bang in front of the rainbow allure of St Basil’s Basilica! Our eyes swept over the striped and spiked turrets while listening to Irina. She explained that the proverb attached to the basilica when it had been contracted to be built was that ‘The Bigger The Sin, The Nicer The Basilica’. It definitely made sense when we learnt that it was Ivan The Terrible who commissioned it. One example of Ivan The Terrible’s cruelty was, he had once asked the architect who had designed St Basil’s Basilica if he would ever be able to recreate something as beautiful. When the architect had carelessly answered ‘yes’, it is rumoured that Ivan had his eyes burned out so that he would never be able to design anything again. Perhaps this story was a little more urban legend than truth, but it gave another great insight into the stories that shaped this wonder-filled city.
Irina sidled up next to me as we started to hobble down the street. “Do you know what you want to take home as a souvenir?” she asked in her adorable Russian accent.
I shook my head.
“Maybe a Matryoshka,” the famous carved Russian dolls within dolls that get smaller with each doll.
Irina turned to rest of the group. “Souvenirs are a great way to take a piece of your holiday home.
When Moscow was invaded by Napoleon in 1812, he decided he wanted to take home a souvenir too, St Basils Basilica!” He instructed an engineer to try to have it removed entirely and transported to Paris. Irina asked, “Do you know what stopped him?”
“The weather,” I answered along with a few of my fellow walking tourers.
“Yes, the weather. When Napoleon invaded in 1812 the weather, which in November was normally around -1ºC to-5ºC dropped to -40ºC. This too happened when Hitler tried to invade Russia and this led back to a joke Irina said to the group. “So just know, that if you decide to invade Russia, it will be -40ºC.” She also finished here by saying, eyes twinkling, “You know there is an old Russian saying we have…You should visit Russia before Russia visits you!” I thought tongue in cheek, that this would be a great ad for a tourism campaign.
Here outside the Basilica, Irina noticed how the very same effects of the relatively mild Russian winter were already starting to have a sluggish effect on the group, as we hobbled from side to side, trying feebly to get a sliver of blood to start pumping in our paralysed feet. I myself couldn’t feel my toes, but simply bouts of sharp shooting pains, pins of pain, courtesy of the cold.
The -3ºC weather, had a wind chill that made it feel at least -10º. Irina suggested that we thaw out by moving into GUM, the richly designed and elegantly architected 19th Century Shopping Building for Moscow’s best Hot Chocolate, Teas and Russian Sodas. While the building now housed the Haute Couture of the most expensive and exclusive brands known to man, Irina assured us that because of the lack of real buyers, the food and drink vendors all had more than reasonable prices to attract patrons.
Irina also shared the personal story of her mother, that it was the best place in all of Moscow to get real Communist flavoured Ice Cream. Before you ask, Irina explained that this was the only place left in Moscow, according to her mother, where the ice cream still tasted like it did before the end of Communism. Thus, this was the best, most authentic communist era tasting ice cream in town. This brought laughs from all the group and Irina saw this as an opening to share some of the other traditional jokes of the communist era that kept the people of Moscow laughing. She explained to those that were not aware, that the people of Russia had to wait ten years to be able to purchase a car, such were the back orders, and that you had to pay the full price in advance.
A man walks into the Lada dealership and puts his money down for a car. He asks the salesman ‘When will the car be ready?’
The salesman replies ‘Come back in 10 years’.
‘Morning or afternoon?’
‘Why are you so particular?’ asks the Salesman
‘Because I have the telephone man coming in the afternoon to install the telephone.’
Everyone laughed, but Irina assured us that these were well founded in the reality of living in Communist Moscow. She related her own experience, one very relevant while we stood here in this department store surrounded by the world’s most expensive and exclusive brands. She explained that women in those days had to be very frugal, resourceful and forward planning if they wanted to dress well, something very important to Russian women, even today, she assured us. If fabrics were available for purchase, they would purchase great swathes of materials in anticipation of shortages. This, Irina explained, was how she was dressed growing up, with a range of clothing all made by her mother and all three sizes too big, with whatever materials were available. She joked that at 12 they had made a track suit for someone 170 cm 5”5’ tall, thinking that she would grow into it and yet, standing before us, was her well constructed compact 152 cm / 5”2’ frame. Irina finished by saying that she felt that her generation was a bridge between these two worlds as she jokingly referred to herself also as still being “Made in the USSR.”
We walked around the GUM department store where, just like Irina promised, you could find for a very reasonable price, the best, most thickest and richest of hot chocolates. So thick and creamy was its chocolaty goodness that you needed a spoon to drink it, that would almost stand straight and tall when left in the cup. However, if chocolate is not your thing, there was also a range of Russian teas, as well as the traditional Russian Syrupy Sodas – flavoured with all sorts of colourfully sweet flavours that Russians enjoyed. These included Mint, Berries of the Forest, Rosehip, Raspberry, Elderberry and something that looked like Cola. I promptly decided on the Hot Chocolate and can confirm Irina’s claim of its number one spot, while my brother Lalika was prepared to brave the cold, just for his opportunity to get just a small taste of Communism.
After fifteen minutes, just enough time for us to thaw out, we walked out the back entrance of GUM, and were greeted by no less than Stalin, Ivan the Terrible and Catherine the Great, all wanting to have their pictures take~ with us. Beware of Stalin and all his buddies though. They are all friendly until the picture is taken, where each one of them wants to hit you up for 100 Roubles. At least they no longer have the authority to send us to Siberia if we refused.
The rest of the tour included a short walk past the beautifully reconstructed, 15th century Kazan Cathedral that Stalin destroyed in 1936. This was painstakingly reconstructed to its original glory in 1990-1993, only due to the diligence and passion of a man who would not let Stalin destroy the icons of Moscow’s cultural heritage. He knew the risks involved in opposing a paranoid megalomaniac, but nevertheless, Pyotr Dmitrievich Baranovsky took the time to secretly take the most accurate measurements of this church, along with a number of other city treasures, knowing that somehow, someday in the future, they would be rebuilt. With his crucial measurements and pictures taken secretly, they were able to be. He paid for his defiance however with seven long years in a labour camp and this leniency, apparently only because Stalin liked him and commuted his sentence. However, he was not allowed to return to Moscow, like other ‘reformed’ political prisoners, but he was forced to live outside the 100 km radius of the Moscow Oblast.
Irina lead us on, and finally, we were outside of the gates of the Kremlin, where she explained that the people outside speaking loudly on topics, were not necessarily political protests. They were often people telling historical accounts of the significant stories in the life of Moscow, or people speaking of religious redemption, but on the odd occasion, there would be someone talking about how the past under communism was so much better than that of today’s system. Irina explained another of Moscow’s hidden stories. ‘Today the state healthcare system is broken and people do not have the money to afford good healthcare and often pensioners starve and people go cold on the streets.” This is something that was not well addressed and Irina noticed the heaviness of the mood, so decided we had one last opportunity for a joke before it was time for the formal changing of the guard. My father told me that the origin of this joke was actually sometime in the era of Mr. Leonid Brehznyev and Mr. Ronald Regan, but for the sake of modern reference, Irina substituted Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin. It goes like this…
An American visiting Moscow turns to a Muscovite and says…
“You have no political freedom here in Russia. In my country I can go out anywhere, even in front of The White House and say, ‘Barak Obama is a terrible president, he is ruining our country and the future of our young.’ Here you cannot do this at all!”
The Muscovite promptly replied with indignation.
“But of course we can! Here in Moscow, we have all the freedom in the world to go out right here in Red Square and say ‘Barak Obama is a terrible President, he is ruining the future of our…..”
Everyone laughed heavily, the steam of the laughter from everyone’s mouth freezing before it could travel too far, however, when the humour of the moment subsided, Irina explained that there was a very serious consequence to jokes of this type in the Soviet era.
She said, “If I were to hear a joke like this, I would need to immediately go to the police or KGB headquarters and report the joke teller and all the people to whom it was told. For the joke teller and all the people who heard the joke, it would be an instant sentence to the Gulags, (Forced Labour Camps in Siberia), while for me it would mean a serious fine and reprimand. Like Pyotr Dmitrievich Baranovsky, if you had the good fortune to return, it would be most likely that you would never be allowed to see Moscow again. However, most people never returned, nor were they ever heard from again, due to being forced to work in Uranium mines, salt mines or like the fate of my great grandfather, forced to work to death in the forests of Siberia. All for simply hearing a joke.
Irina turned our attention to the guard posts at the Kremlin wall. We watched the change of guard as they goose-stepped Russian style up the length of the wall for the changeover. Irina explained that the soldiers had to stand still for a full hour in one place until they were relieved. In this cold, I couldn’t imagine how they did it. I noticed a visible stiffness in the legs of the soldier being relieved, but his resolve pushed through the pain and he marched out of the square and back to the barracks.
With this, Irina called us into a circle, saying that the tour had come to an end. She invited us to put our arms around each other and when we came full circle, she proceeded to say…”In the interest of international friendship and unity, I wish we all see that we are part of the great human story and I wish that your stay here in Moscow and Russia be a happy, friendly and pleasant one.”
These words were the perfect ending to a brilliant tour that summed up what I was feeling. As all of Moscow’s hidden stories converged in my mind, we all smiled at each other and bid farewells. We slowly dispersed in front of the Red Kremlin Walls ready for a hot lunch and some more exploring.
We are grateful to Irina and her friends who run free tours for Moscow. They do not ask for anything for the cost of the tour and if you feel like it at the end, you can offer a donation, but this is completely at your own discretion. We found this tour to be an exceptional experience, where the Hidden Stories of Moscow and her people came to life and helped us to see things in a very connected human way.