Friday, March 7, 2008

Russia (5)
Red Square and the Kremlin

Fifty years ago this month a young American pianist landed in the Soviet Union to take part in the International Tchaikovsky Competition. It was the height of the cold war, and it was uncommon for any American to be in the capital of the Soviet Union for any reason. That young man, Van Cliburn, went on to win the competition, a feat that whipped up so much patriotic fervor at home that when he returned to the United States he was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

Recently I heard an interview with Van Cliburn on National Public Radio where he discussed his trip to the Soviet Union. He said that he had seen a photograph of St. Basil’s Cathedral years before in a picture book and the image had captivated him. As his driver was taking him into Moscow from the airport, he asked her if they could drive by St. Basil’s. The driver was eager to please and honored her guest’s desire. He was amazed at how beautiful the cathedral was under the lights at night.

St. Basil’s is one of the most photographed places in modern Russia, and it is familiar to many Americans, even if they don’t know it by its name. St. Basil’s is the structure with nine brightly colored "onion" domes, several of which are swirled like ice cream cones. The craftsmanship is amazing. The cathedral is a breath taking sight, day or night!

St. Basil’s sits at the south edge of 500,000 square feet of gray-bricked open space commonly referred to as Red Square. The public expanse was originally the market area of old Moscow, and it has remained a central focus of the Russian capital since medieval times. Under the Soviet rule it was a parade ground where political leaders reviewed soldiers and weaponry every year on May Day. Today Red Square hosts rock concerts, public demonstrations, and thousands and thousands of tourists. Our group of social workers made two trips to Red Square during our brief time in Moscow.

Red Square is accessible on foot through the north or south end. We entered past St. Basil’s along the south edge. The cathedral was closed during our visits, but we were still able to walk around the outside, read the plaques, and take pictures. Strolling around that beautiful cathedral was something like taking a walk through a glossy and colorful National Geographic photograph.

The GUM Department Store, actually a three-story indoor mall of hundreds of upscale shops and kiosks, borders the entire eastern edge of Red Square. The very large building is a grand example of late 19th century Russian architecture. The very great length of the structure is covered with massive arched skylights. Our group walked through the GUM shopping and sorting through the expensive Russian wares.

The State Historical Museum is at the north end of Red Square. Although I didn’t manage to take in that opportunity, I understand from those who did that it was very interesting. One of the exhibits was a Viking longboat that was dug out of the Volga River.

The red brick Kremlin Wall borders the entire western edge of Red Square. The Russians honor their heroes by interring them inside of that wall. Yuri Gargarin, the first man in space, is interred there, as is American Jack Reed who was portrayed by Warren Beatty in the movie Reds. But the most famous human remains along the western edge of Red Square are not interred in the Kremlin Wall. The mausoleum of the Soviet Union’s first President, Vladimir Lenin, is a very large, block-shaped structure that is located at the center of the wall. It was from atop this expansive tomb that Soviet leaders stood to watch May Day parades each year. Mr. Lenin is located within the mausoleum wearing a nice suit and encased in glass. Every day thousands of Russian and foreign tourists line up to march down into the structure and walk quickly by the body. Guards in military uniform are present and taking pictures is forbidden. Our group marched dutifully through the somewhat morbid tourist attraction and viewed a piece of history in the flesh – so to speak. Josef Stalin was also encased in Lenin’s Tomb for a few years after his death, but Nikita Krushchev eventually had his carcass taken out and buried in the Kremlin Wall with the lesser deities. Our guide told us that Lenin’s stuffed body is shrinking and that he will, sooner or later, probably be buried in the Kremlin Wall also.

The Kremlin itself is located on the other side of that same wall. It is a large palace-type building that has been the traditional home of Russian government. The day that my group visited the Kremlin, I was at an American clinic with further issues related to my diabetes. Cornelius, one of our British guides, dropped me off at that clinic, and he left me with comprehensive instructions on how to hitchhike to the Kremlin where I would rejoin our group. I managed to navigate my way through the medical treatment and through Moscow without incident, and made it to the Kremlin shortly before my group was ready to leave. I did visit the Kremlin’s gift shop where I bought genuine Russian amber jewelry for my daughter and daughter-in-law.

Coming Next: A Night at the Bolshoi

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