Thursday, September 13, 2018

A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma - Part 1

A Journey from Moscow to Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian Railroad

Street Alongside of Red Square at Night



I have always been fascinated by Russia and east Europe in general. The gateway to Asia. Exotic lands like Turkey and Palestine. Two of my grandparents were from Poland and Russia. The Slavic people who settled around Kiev and who were joined together by Russia’s Bismarck: a man named Vladimir the Long-Armed, also called Yuri, Dgury, a few others, or, George I of Russia, established the Russian Empire with its capital in Kiev, modern day Ukraine. He ruled in the eleventh century.

And then there was Russia.

Modern day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine derived from a loose federation of Slavic and Finnic tribes living around Kiev, which was Russia’s first capital. They engaged in trade with their neighbors, including Scandinavia to the north. The capital was later moved to Suzdal in the Vladimir Oblast east of Moscow and then again to Moscow in the thirteenth century. In the sixteenth century Ivan IV (the Terrible, or Formidable) delivered the Rus from domination by Tatars and Mongols, earning him the role of liberator and the title of Tsar. Derived from Caesar.

Then Ivan was left childless. The king makers of Russia decided to offer the throne to a very respectable Moscow family called Romanoff. They took the job, unsurprisingly. Notable Romanoffs included Katherine the Great (eighteenth century,) Peter the Great (nineteenth century,) and Nicholas II (twentieth century,) and Me, the Not- Noteworthy-Enough (twenty-first century.)

Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg to get closer to Europe. Stalin moved it back to get away from them. Not sure who made out better on that deal. If it’s anything like today, probably not Russia.

Enough history for now. We will meet these figures again.


Miss Manners, Kremlin Edition

When you travel it’s a good idea to get a sense of what is acceptable behavior in the country you are visiting. Some things we take for granted others might find odd or even insulting. Hand gestures are a big variable. How much do you tip? How do you behave in a restaurant? How easy are the girls? How hard are the girls' boyfriends’ fists? Where is the hospital? For instance, tipping has gradually taken hold in Europe. Dieter, Kristin’s father in law, told me that leaving a Euro or two in a restaurant is acceptable now. Now, Russians, at least west of the Urals, are Europeans, but not exactly. We think they are like us. They look like us, dress like us (because we both buy our clothing from China.) They talk like us, but they’re not us. Not quite.

For one thing, Russians are perceived as being distant. Cold, even. That’s because they don’t smile at strangers. ‘Poker faced’ has been used to describe the Russian demeanor. We’ve all seen pictures of Russian president, Putin, with a face that could make concrete cry. That’s the way they are. But Russians are actually very warm, VERY generous and loving people. It’s just that they feel that’s to be reserved for intimate acquaintances. They consider being overly friendly, smiling at everybody and the like, as disrespectful and frivolous. So by keeping a formal, we would call dower, face to the world they are showing respect. Someone who smiles at everyone and is outgoing and friendly is, well, a little touched in the head to them.

So I have to practice my award winning frown! 🙂 Oops.  I mean 🙁
There, that's better!

Day 1 – Saturday, 7/21/18 05:10. UTC: Saturday, 7/21/18 09:10.
41.68578 -72.00998
Canterbury, CT. USA.
By my reckoning: Saturday, 7/21/18 05:10.

All packed. Fairly rested. Ready to go.

Travel is uneventful, which is how I prefer it. Bradley wasn't too busy. In DC I had to retrieve my luggage, exit the airport, get a metro and then a bus for about an hour and then enter Dulles International. I got to my plane with about an hour to spare.

Aeroflot has an insignia of a set of wings sprouting from a hammer and sickle in the middle. I didn't think that Russia used the hammer and sickle anymore. The stewardesses wear shocking red uniforms. Red dresses, little red sailor hats, red scarfs, and ruby slippers. Plus the flying Soviet Union symbols of oppression. Of course, look at the name. Aeroflot. There's a name only a Soviet bureaucrat could love.

The boy stewardesses wear navy blue suits. I guess they don't want them to look like circus barkers.

As I expected, the plane is one of those wide bottom planes with 24 seats across and I'm in the back. There's been a baby shrieking a few rows behind me. He resolved into a pained wailing as he consumed his seed corn and oxygen. He finally died out a while ago. I can only hope. Wait. He's back, refreshed from his respite. Too bad we're not. There are a lot of kids on this flight. So far they haven't taken little Death by Larynx to heart and started a choir.

Actually, one of them was cute. He was a little boy with a precocious spirit and a disarming look Aren't they all? I was sleeping (I wish!) and suddenly felt something tapping my elbow. It was a glowing light stick on the end of a little boy! He wanted to give me his glowstic! I took it and played games with him. It's a moustache! It's a hair bow! We played for a bit until I gave it back to him and he tottered away as far as a toddler can tottle on an airplane.

He had beautiful, milk chocolate skin and was too young to know what that meant.

Now somebody's kicking the back of my seat! What is this, the all kids flight? It is! I just checked and the whole flight is full of toddlers! I know Russia has a population deficit, but if you're gonna import, can't you use cattle boats like everybody else? I've gotta complain. Where are the grownups on this flight? Gone? Great. I'll just see the captain. "Captain, do you know there are children running ramparts on your flight?" "Goo, goo. Ga? Silly man!" "Not you, too!"

Seven hours I've been trapped in this travelers’ Twilight Zone of speed, altitude, and boredom. And hell baby is still going strong. Why don't planes come with air locks? I think the parents are ignoring it or they got another flight to another place far away. Geesh.

Mercilessly, the flight ended after two nap times, a diapee change, some juice, and nine hours looking for the cone of silence switch on the in-flight entertainment package.

And I am in Moscow. People cheered when we landed. Not sure if they were grateful to be in Russia or just grateful to have landed at all.

It is now tomorrow. After 24 hours of what's euphemistically called 'travel' I'm ready for... Another 12! But first, the Moscow Marriot.

Day 2 – Sunday, 7/22/18 09:10. UTC: Sunday 7/22/18 06:10.
55.75588 37.6083
Moscow, Russia
By my reckoning: Sunday, 7/22/18 09:10.

Before I start in on my interactions with Russian citizenship beyond the age of two, I would like to establish a few things. I am here to see Russia, not to criticize her or Russian American relations, which are at an all-time low. Since I am a not-so-innocent abroad, I will make my observations about what I see in Russia. Any satirical (wise ass) comments I may say about Russian culture, history or, yes, politics is strictly good natured and must be seen as an outsider's views of a strange culture. It is the self-criticism of a self-acclaimed Idiot Abroad to contrast impression with reality. I intend to take an honest, and I hope kind, view of another group of people trying to make sense of a cruel, indifferent, and precious life. I hope to be faithful in my depictions, showing the good and the bad, which may require me to contrast them with us in the west. Any bias is unintended, either direction. I encourage you to treat me, as anyone else, with a grain of Russian salt.

Now, on with it.

It was 9ish when my driver dropped me off at the hotel. I checked in and had them hold my bags. I knew my room would not be ready but that just gave me the impetus to explore. I got a tourist map and the concierge offered to call me a cab. I said, no. I'd like to study the map and maybe walk around a bit to get my bearings straight. Get it? Bearings straight? Barents Strait? Hey, at least I didn't do a 'call me a cab' joke! Fine.

So I shouldered my tourist map, unpacked my Nikon, and trekked forth.

Bolshoi Theater
St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square

Morlock Underground

Rock Concert outside the Kremlin.

Guess who?

First thing I noticed was that the map is not to scale or very accurate. Things that are right next to each other on the map can be blocks apart. Streets that are on the west side of a building on the map are on the east side in real life. Or nowhere near it. Kind of like having the Empire State building next to Battery Park. Time to create an infallible, internal guy map in my head for precision guidance to my goal. And I did a lot of back tracking.

The streets were very crowded for a Sunday morning. I walked down to what I thought was the Kremlin. Then I turned around and went the right way. A major road runs by the Kremlin and it was mobbed. There were temporary crowd control barriers lining the streets with armed guards and police backing them up. I descended a tunnel to cross under the street and found myself in a combination cross walk, subway station, and mall. I found a chimney out of the Morlock world that appeared to go where I wanted to be. Guards were there, too. No admission!

Flummoxed, I headed through the mall, subway station, tunnel, whatever to see if I could get up there some other way. Nope. All exits secured or liquidated or sent to the Gulag or something. So I headed back to where I had entered and came back to where I was on the first try. (Take that for infallibility.) Following half blocked, Busy Street to see where it went, I found out. Some traffic circles, museums, and statues to oversung heroes. Here I had to scrutinize my guide map. I hadn't yet appreciated its penchant for inaccuracy. But I got there in the end.

I found the Bolshoi Ballet, museums to Tolstoy, Chekhov, and, of course, Dostoyevsky. Blundering around. Ahem, using skillful navigation skills, I found Red Square, the Kremlin, St. Basil's cathedral, and a bunch of road construction. Everywhere was packed. From Red Square I walked through a gate by the museum of Russian History. And low and behold. I was now on the other side of Busy Street and the scary barriers with armed guards. There was an all day concert going on. The armed guards suddenly looked more friendly and less storm troopery. That explains why most of what they were doing was answering questions and politely telling people that way is closed. And I thought I was witnessing a peoples' revolution. Just as well. They just got all the blood out of Red Square.

I was starting to get my bearings a little more and trust my map a little less. Not a bad lesson of life. Make your own map and then wear it out with an abundance of living.

And I was hungry. I wanted to find a restaurant called LavkaLavka. This is a locally sourced, natural ingredient restaurant. It took a while to locate. Oh, another thing about the map. It's in English and transliterations of street names are used. Good. I should be able to match it up with the real thing. Except that street signs are not bilingual. They're all in Cyrillic. I had to guess how it was pronounced. That P is not a P. It's an R. And that C is not a C. It's an S. And that thing that looks like a hangman's scaffold? A G. Through a combination of knowing some of the sounds, knowing what I was looking for, and counting the word length, I managed to get a lot of them.
And I found my restaurant! I had an appetizer of three pancakes topped with caviar, anchovies, and sprouts and cream cheese. A bowl of borsch. And a duck comfit with wheat cooked like risotto. With a shot of vodka and some bread kvas, which is fermented bread. It was very good.

Food of the Gods. And me!

Drink of the Gods. Why should they have all the fun?
I came back to my room and took a short nap. I had to get my neurotransmitters topped off and some sleep deficit stamped paid in full. God, that was hard waking up from.

And then off to the opera.

Romeo and Juliette was wonderful. And the fact that the music is by Prokofiev doesn't hurt, either. A woman next to me struck up a conversation at intermission. She was interested in my take on Russia. I really haven't been here long enough to have a 'take.' I asked her about her views and they were pretty positive. I said in the US there is a lot of contention surrounding our politics and our relation with Russia. She seemed surprised. Like a lot of Russians she views our leaders talking together as a good thing. A few weeks ago I saw an excerpt from Russia's version of 60 Minutes called, unimaginatively, 60 Minutes. The host was reading off the things Trump and Putin discussed in Helsinki and at every item the crowd cheered. Borsch for thought.

We chatted some more after the show until they started turning the lights out. As we walked outside I thought, I should ask her out for a drink and talk some more. But I didn't. What the fuck is wrong with me?

What the Fuck is wrong with you?


That cute Russian girl? The one who seemed eager to talk to you and laughed at your jokes even?


That's some feat, you know.

Talking to me?


They're not that bad.

Yes, they are.

Fine. So. What did you want me to do? Invite her over to my hotel on Adulterskaya Street?

Pathetic. You could have just asked her out to talk and to share a Moscow Mule, for Christ's sake. Not for her hand in marriage.

Well. What if she was looking for a one night stand?

Duh. Those are the best kinds of stands!

Yah, but you know the drill.

We're talking about a date, not a dentist.

Guys aren't supposed to show any interest in a girl. You know. Then they get all 'Me too!' and shit.

That's American girls. She's Russian, remember?

I didn't think self-righteousness was sexist.

Well, it is. And just how are you supposed to get to first base if you're too afraid to leave home plate?

I don't think I'm cut out for this stuff.

Who is?

She was kind of cute.

And does kind of cute girl have a name?


Of course. She has a Sugar Plum Fairy name, even. Forget it. You're hopeless. I'm outa here. Call me when you find your spine.

While chewing on regrets I ventured back to Red Square. Did I tell you about Red Square? It's not red for blood or Communism or revolution or anything morbid and military like that. Red is old Russian for beautiful. As in, Beautiful Square. Paulina was quite red herself...

Stop it, Jon. You have a penchant for embarrassing yourself around women.

Are you back again?

No. You're thinking this all by yourself.

Right. Back to Red Square... Beautiful Square... Come on, people. I’ve got an epic journey to photo document here. It won't take pictures of itself! Well, unless it's a selfie.

I was hoping that St. Basil's would be lit up after sunset. It wasn't, or at least not brilliantly. The concert was still going on; noisily, on the other side of the Russian History Museum; historically. It was now more rock and roll...; rollingly. So I followed the crowds, tunneled under Busy Street, which is actually Mokhovaya Street, and got lost on my way home, my infallible guy sense of direction wavering. I thought I knew where I was. I kept seeing landmarks I recognized. A park. Tchykovsky's monument. A certain tilework on a building. But then suddenly it all looked strange and felt like I had gone too far. So back I went to Red Square and the Bolshoi Ballet and a red girl who looked at me and smiled and actually laughed at my jokes.

You're doing it again.


Regret. The burden we take with us beyond the grave.

Shut up. Haunt somebody else!

As you wish.

I found my way home, eventually. I just hadn't gone far enough. Boy, had I ever...

...I could use vodka.

First shot's on me...

Day 3 – Monday, 7/23/18 09:00. UTC: 7/23/18 06:00.
41.68578 -72.00998
Moscow, Russia
By my reckoning: Monday, 7/23/18 09:00 AM.

Moscow day trip. We met our guide and each other. There are nine of us. The nine wanderers. Our guide who will be with us for the next three weeks is named Yevgeny. Our Moscow guide is Mila (Mee-la.) After a European style breakfast of fruit, cold cuts and cheese, rolls, baguettes, ham and eggs, and coffee, we packed into our van and ventured out. Next stop, the Kremlin.

Along the way Mila pointed out landmarks. There's Vladimir, the Long Arm, the founder of Russia. You can remember his name because he has the same name as our president. Kiev was the capital of Russia then. Here's Tass, which runs Pravda, the news service. Pravda means Truth. Mila said today Russians say they get News, not Truth. I knew I got my cynical mistrust of everything from somewhere!  We saw the Duma, or Parliament with its 200 some odd senators in two houses. Duma means to think or consider. It was created by Tsar Nicholas in 1906 after one of Russia's numerous civil wars. This is the place that Boris Yeltsin called out tanks and surrounded until they agreed to some more looting by the west. When Russians today think about western style democracy, that's what they see. Boris and the Duma. And tanks. But no food.


Pushkin, the Shakespeare of Russia, Chekhov (look for the gun on the wall.) The Bolshoi Ballet (I was there!) She talked about Red Square. Ivan the Terrible had a special place below the main gates of the Kremlin for slaughtering his enemies and people who annoyed him. Then he defeated the Mongols and Tatars who had ruled/oppressed Russia for two centuries, which now earned him 'the Great' as a designator... Great? Terrible? Depends on who is doing the designating. One man's monster is another man's liberator. Except for the Russians. They experienced Ivan as both.

Museum of Russian History

Look up in Moscow at night. You will see galaxies.

We also passed the Russian Pentagon, the defense dept. And the KGB. Sorry, sorry. The FSU! Federal Security Service, which is nothing, NOTHING like the KGB, which in turn was nothing, NOTHING like the Tsar's secret service. But, they continue on, anyway. The doors still only work one way.

Our driver dropped us off near Red square, which used to contain an open market and was more of an ordinary square. Then they built a huge shopping center called Gum (Goom) and moved all of them inside. The Little Flower did the same with all the street vendors in Lower Manhattan. LaGuardia was ashamed of the street vendors shouting out in the open so he gathered them all up and put them in one building. Russia’s open air market now became the 'Beautiful' Square.

Before we went any further Mila needed a designated caboose, someone to take up the rear and keep all our company together. I received the honor. Da, comrade. You can count on me! Basically, I was tall.

Red Square is surrounded by the Russian History museum, the Gum, St. Basil's Cathedral, and the Kremlin. It is a beautiful square, indeed.

First stop, the Kremlin. We headed for the line to get in. Mila tried to get us in by a side entrance, but no dice. Once we got to the entrance we had to go through a security checkpoint, x-ray, brain scan, etc. I got up to the machine, put my metal items on a belt and walked through the stargate. I heard no klaxons nor saw any flashing lights, so I figured that Ivan would have no problem with me. But not quite. A very efficient, young guard stopped me and started speaking to me in Russian. I said English, please. He continued upbraiding me for some indecipherable reason. Fortunately Mila was nearby to interpret. He says your shirt is dirty. Huh? He said it had stains on my shirt. I said, oh. I spilled some coffee on it. No, everything is dirty. Huh, again? Your shoes! My shoes? OK they're a little frayed on some seams, I grant you that, trying to 'understand' his culture. You are going into the place where our president is. You are showing disrespect.

Ah. Now, boy Stalin was being a little zealous at his post, I get that. I had made sure to wear casual attire, not slovenly. I had on dark trousers, a simple short sleeve shirt with no insignia and my walking shoes for comfort. I thought I was being respectful of my host. I had left my "America first! The rest of the world can go fuck themselves!" t-shirt at home, after all. I was being respectful, I thought. Down right sympathetic.

What, do you think I look funny, too? Instead, I just said, "Mila, please tell the guard that I apologize to him and to his president. It was never my intent to offend." I didn't want to go through one of those 'one way' doors in the 'reformed' KGB. He let me through and told me to close my jacket when I am near the president's office. I'm sure if President Putin saw me in a crowd from his window he'd order a Novochok attack on me. Don't poke the bear.

I would have done the same thing anywhere else under the same circumstances. It wasn't just because this is Russia. I took every precaution to be respectful and someone took issue with me, anyway. I apologize for my breech of etiquette. Case closed. I'll talk about this more later.

Kremlin in Russian is fortress. Every city has its kremlin. But there is only one Kremlin. That's the one where the Tsar is. As Mila says, things never change.

While hiding myself from the wrathful eyes of Tsar Vladimir Putin and refusing to close my jacket, I walked in unmolested. I am Russian, after all. There is a little revolutionary in there somewhere.

The Kremlin is quite the place. It's a triangular fortress along the Muskva River with nine towers set in its walls. Inside are several buildings. There's the government building. The one I have to watch the windows? At the top is the insignia of Russia, just below the flaming red eye. It used to be a hammer and sickle but now is back to Peter the Great's two headed eagle. Peter created this symbol to show that Russia and Europe are united, which was his driving wish. Russia has been trying to be a European country ever since, but there’s something not very European about them. Oh, they look and talk just like us. But then they will say something or do something that doesn’t quite mesh right. We don’t like what it shows us. But whether it shows us something about Russians or something about ourselves I cannot venture. Wherever it comes from, we don’t like it.

Singing monks.

One of several churches in the Kremlin.

The two headed eagle.

Kiev used to be the capital of Russia. It was deemed too close to the frontier. Moscow, founded in the 12th century, had always enjoyed the preeminent place in Russian culture, so the capital was moved there. The Romanoff family has lived there for ages. Peter, who wanted to move Russia closer to Europe, moved it to St. Petersburg, where it stayed until 1917. The revolution once more made it exposed. So back it went and there it stays. Or so for now.

There are several churches in a ring around a little square. And a staircase on which the Tsars were inaugurated. It was called, naturally, red stairs. Putin was sworn in as president there. Things never change. The churches performed various functions in the lives of the royal family. In one, royal children were baptized. In others, they were confirmed, inaugurated, married, and their funeral rites performed with solemn gravity. The entire spectrum of life and death is honored.

We could visit one church. Inside was stunning. Every inch of space was covered in icons. The church is all about symbolism and teaching the gospel through iconography since the population was illiterate. I won't/can't list them all and pictures weren't allowed, so I will just give my impression. There are different styles of icons. Greek icons are darker, the faces are darker reflecting the demographics of Greece. In Greece you have a Greek Jesus. In Russia you have a Russian Jesus. Man makes God in his own image. The Russian icons come in two styles. Both are lighter, reflecting the Scandinavian origins of Russia and some are very colorful and almost fanciful representing the Russian temperament.

Toward the side wall is an interesting display. There is a monument, of sorts, to Ivan the Terrible. It has sculptures of wolves and other dangerous animals all around it. Against the front wall is an icon of Christ. He is looking straight at the Ivan memorial and frowning in condemnation of Ivan's unchristian life. Imagine that? Suppose we put a statue of Richard Nixon with Jesus shaking his fist at him in the National Cathedral?

Next stop, the armory museum.

Again, this is a very dense slice of history that I cannot possibly do justice to, so I will give you highlights. The museum occupies three floors and used to be a ball room. The staircases have to be wide with spacious but short steps to accommodate the ladies and their modified yerts for dresses.

There were royal carriages caked in gold. Antique weapons. Dresses worn by Alexandra and Catherine the Great (why is she great?) Enormous clocks that open up to reveal waterfalls and a piano that plays several tunes. Gold, of course. Plates, samovars, crowns, jewelry, toys. All of these things belong to the state. Some were kept locked up so the reigning monarch couldn't slip a valuable piece into a pocket. All made of what? If an alien doctor visited the royal court he would conclude that the Russian royal family suffered from a condition that required vast quantities of a heavy metal to treat it. Actually, it was hemophilia from inbreeding and gold didn't help.

They had Faberge eggs. Including the one with the working model train inside. And everywhere gold. What are my impressions of the obscene wealth of the Romanoffs? Well, most of it belonged to the state. That does not mean they were poor, by any means. Far from it. Just that, even though Russia was a monarchy, there are still things that even a tsar can't do. The wealth belongs to Mother Russia, as it should.

This is what Napoleon was after, the wealth of Russia. He was broke and couldn't pay his soldiers. This is how all righteous conquests eventually die. They start with an ambitious tin general looking for glory and power. He exploits some grievance, disparity, ancient atrocity, real or imagined. It all ends with bankruptcy and becomes a looting expedition just to pay the bills, usually to the soldiers so they don't wage war on you. After all. You started it all. What goes around comes around. Sometimes with a vengence.

A lot of the buildings and Kremlin towers are adorned with red or gold five sided stars. This represents the five continents where Communism would eventually rule. Yeltsin was asked if they should be replaced. He said it would be too expensive, leave 'em. So they remain there today. A little reminder, I suppose.

I made it out of the Kremlin without being kidnapped by any of Putin's friendly, not-the-KGB, FSU spooks. And we were ready for lunch. Borsch, chicken, beet salad and little cream puffs. And we were back on the road.

Next, St. Basil's Cathedral.

St. Basil's is actually the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, whatever that means. St. Basil was a local shoemaker with the gift of speaking for God, a sometimes useful gift, but generally not. Try it sometimes. You won’t like it. Someone would come to him and want to buy shoes and he'd say, why bother? You won't need them next week. And he was right. Not welcomed news, until you become a saint.

St. Basil's is not really a cathedral. It's ten churches welded together. The iconography was beautiful. One room had monks singing. Their voices beautiful. And the acoustics are incredible. Why do Russian churches have towers with gold onion domes? They look like candles.

So, a history lesson. St. Basil's was built by Ivan the Terrible. He did so to celebrate his victory over the Tatars. Tatarstan has been a part of the Russian Federation since then. When it was finished, he gouged the architect’s eyes out so he could not build anything else so grand. Terrible, indeed! Or at least that’s the legend.

On our way out we walked through the Gum. It was quite a place. Not just like a department store here. Or even a mall. It seemed to have everything. We visited a grand church on the edge of the city. Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. They sure do seem to have an abundance of them. This one was a reconstruction. The original had been razed by Stalin. For years a gaping hole full of water stood there. People used to swim in it. After Perestroika people wanted their church back. Yeltsin was hardly going to allocate any fistfuls of rubles to that project, so every kopec came from private donations. Some of the artwork was donated by artists and craftsmen. Art historians insured that the reproduction was faithful.

This was truly a project of the people, just like Lenin and Stalin had envisioned. Only not how they envisioned it. Funny how visionaries and revolutionaries can't seem to change anybody. So they declare victory and retreat into their ivory towers while the rest of us continue on as always. We worship our gods. We venerate our heroes. We love our families. Just like everyone else. And we make war. Also just like everyone else, as well.

Stalin tried to erase an entire culture. He wanted factory humans. Atheists. Generic. Homogenous. Grey. Party members. Breeders. Mirrors with no hopes or feelings of their own. Let this be an example to tyrants and anyone who tries to force their ideals on others. The mansplainers and girlsplainers out there. The fascists who just can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t believe like them. The Social Justice Workers who’s only recourse to the obvious, that you have no right to shove your opinions down other people’s throats, is to declare fascism and condemn the messenger. It’s been tried. Quite spectatularly, at times. Only one problem.

It never works. 70 years of Communism collapsed in a heap. Nothing to show for it. Nothing but the endurance of the Russian people. And the church. That pesky church that just keeps churching up all over the place like it’s relevant. Why is it still here? We did everything to make it go away!

Can you tell that Communism was ever here? Seventy years? Nothing. Thirty years since Perestroika and Russia is back. The church survived in domestic exile like Cinderella sitting in her ash heap, wearing her shame with courage and holding her dignity like a cherished pet. All the renamed Soviet cities? Back to their original names. They have a new, modern Tsar for all the good and bad that means. They are proud to be Russians. And they are once again influential in the world, which makes some people abroad very nervous. I find it exciting.

Mila pointed to a hill across the Muskva River. It was a park full of old monuments to the glory of the Soviet Union. They used to be peppered around the city. After the fall of the Soviet Union the Russian government wanted to remove the monuments, but not bury them, so they built this park outside the city to keep them so people will not forget. I know now why destroying monuments or burning books has always offended me.

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
Omar Khayyam.

History is supposed to be learned from. Burying it only means we will live Santayana's hell and repeat it. More and more often again. And therefore, maybe we should consider that for our Civil war monuments. Imagine a giant park outside of Washington, DC, containing all Confederate monuments? Just left there. Without an explanation or a moral condemnation. Without judgement and pontificating. Just. For viewing. Take from it what you will. You will, anyway. Who am I to pretend to teach when you are only going to pretend to learn? History speaks in echoes. Gradually receding echoes. Increasingly meaningless echoes.

And then silence.


And what should we say about Stalin? Was he Joseph the Terrible? The Great? He murdered more people than the Nazis, some say. But he actually was not interested in world Communism. That was Trotsky’s conceit. Stalin assassinated his rivals like Trotsky but he successfully drove out Hitler guaranteeing an end to the war. 2,000,000 Russians died in the Battle of Stalingrad, effectively breaking the back of the Nazis. That's five D-days. So what of him? Stalin the…?

He's a hated butcher who stops his limo to let a momma duck and her ducklings pass.

On our way back to the hotel Mila talked about the city. They've had a new mayor for a number of years and he is doing good things. He enlarged all the sidewalks, making the lanes slightly narrower. She said people have gotten used to the narrower lanes and love the more spacious sidewalks. He took down all of the garish advertisements and billboards. Much of downtown is pedestrian. The city is clean and safe. People like living in Moscow. I can see why.

And at breakfast the next day I spilled coffee on my pants. I wonder what Stalin Jr. would think of that?

Mila made some comments on politics. Talking about Catherine the Great, she mentioned that Catherine conquered Crimea in 1750 and made it part of Russia. Khrushchev just gave it to Ukraine in the 1950's. He was Ukrainian, himself. But more importantly, it was not his to give. Even Peter the Great had to sell it if he wanted to deed land to someone else. Crimea is back with Russia and it will stay there, she declared.

Obviously, Mila supports the president. Other comments made that even more obvious, as well. How should we interpret this? Propaganda? She's supposed to say that? She brought it up, so she obviously cares about it quite a bit. But she seemed sincere and she had criticisms of the government and anecdotes about the modern incarnation of the KGB. And she made comments about how nothing has changed. Putin was sworn in on the same steps as Peter the Great, etc.

This, too, is a typical Russian response. There's an old parable about that. People would say that their city is in trouble. Our officials are corrupt. They take bribes and steal from the coffers. The priests grow fat and there is no justice for us. But the Tsar is a good man, a Christian man, a holy man. If he knew about this he would put a stop to it. The Tsar would never put up with it, but he's far away in Moscow governing this great country of ours. His mind is occupied with other things, weighty matters of state, deep things for the benefit of us all.

Now, I don't know if this is supposed to be tongue in cheek, sarcastic, or dead serious. With Russians, you can't be sure.

Vocabulary word of the day: Спасибо! Spa-SEE-ba. Thank you.

Day 4 – Tuesday, 7/24/18 08:00. UTC: 7/24/18 05:00.
41.68578 -72.00998
Moscow, Russia
By my reckoning: Tuesday, 7/24/18 08:00/

A trip to Nizhny Novgorod

Time to leave the Red City. We took a high speed train to Nizhny Novgorod. This would be about a four hour trip, eight or nine on older trains. On our way we passed through Vladimir, I assume named after the founder of Russia, Vladimir the Long Arm, in around 1000AD with its capital in Kiev, modern day Ukraine. Since Kiev is a frontier town, it was vulnerable to attack. The capital was moved to Moscow some time later. Vladimir is part of the golden circle of towns around Moscow.

We passed through the City of the Military Glory. Sounds like a good Soviet name, right? Why not call it the City of Silent Submission?  Well, there's more to it than that, of course. During what's called the Great Patriotic War of 1942-1945, this city was home to a munitions factory. 20,000 men went to fight the Nazis, so it was staffed by the women and children. Of those 20,000, 8,000 never came home. The renaming of the city is in their honor, all of them. This city was closed to outsiders in Soviet times. One of many we passed through.

We don't have any idea what war is. We in the US have not been invaded since the war of 1812. Technically, we started it. No hostile foreign troops have set foot on our soil since then. Russia was almost overrun. Hitler invaded and besieged St. Petersburg (Leningrad) for 900 days, starving to death a million people. Vladimir Putin's older brother being one of them.

Stalin took the unprecedented action of evacuating Moscow. They left Hitler to General Winter, the Undefeatable. When Hitler got to Moscow it was empty. Stalin had suspected a German invasion, so he had made preparations. He evacuated Moscow to the east, in part so they wouldn't side with the Fascists. Car factories were building tanks, airplanes, and cannons. He moved the government to Volgograd (Stalingrad.) Hitler pursued him to his doorstep. And then he met General Winter.

Hitler depended on speed, the Blitzkrieg. Rapid disabling of the enemy was critical. Germany used coal and had a strong manufacturing base in the Ruhr Valley. He had coal. But no oil. He desperately needed fuel for his Panzers or they were just monuments. World War 2 was really a continuation of the Great War, aka World War 1. Germany had been negotiating with the Ottoman Empire to build a train route from Kirkuk to Germany to bring tanker cars flush with Mideast oil. Churchill and Roosevelt, then the Secretaries of the Navy in their respective countries, had to stop them. WWI may have redrawn maps, but the issues were still underneath. Oddly, today you can see miles of tanker cars on the railroad, full of oil. Where are they going? Germany.

So Hitler desperately needed Russian oil from the Urals. Hence, the siege of Stalingrad. It was more than a priority. It was life or death. In the west he could occupy the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, but before an invasion of Britain, the USA, or any expansion, he had to take those oil fields. Period.

In pure Machiavellian style, FDR and Churchill hung back and even supported Hitler with oil and money as long as he killed Russians. IBM even sold him computer equipment. No, that's not right. IBM never used to 'sell' their machines. They leased them. That way they still controlled them, sent in technicians, and trained people how to use them. And when they were obsolete they replaced them so the old machines wouldn't fall into anybody else’s hands for reverse engineering. IBM surely knew what they were being used for. The enemy of my enemy. The tools of statecraft have bayonets attached. When Russia was gone they could step in and mop up Hitler, they thought. Medals all around. Heroes one and all. Except for the dead.

Then came 1943. General Winter struck and the unthinkable happened. Stalin drove Hitler back. It was over. Not too many knew it yet, but they had backed the wrong horse and he had come up lame. But not without a stupendous effort. Two million Russians died in the battle of Stalingrad. There is not a family in Russia that does not have a father, uncle, cousin, or grandfather that was lost in the war. They don't call it the Great Patriotic War for nothing.

Actually, Stalin wasn't good at much of anything except assassinating rivals and oppressing people. It was his general, Georgy Zhukov, who masterminded the defeat of Hitler. Stalin gets the credit. Actually, America gets the credit, but that's another story.

They drove Hitler back, liberated (empty) Moscow, liberated Leningrad, Ukraine, Poland, Auschwitz, and were well on their way to Berlin when the allies stormed Omaha Beach. Eisenhower wanted to get to Berlin before Stalin, but had he failed, in a few weeks there would have been Red soldiers in the streets of Paris. Today, there is a subway station named after the Battle of Stalingrad in Paris in commemoration of this. It’s called the Place de la Bataille-de-Stalingrad. People. They so much want to remember. And then they forget.

I always knew that Russia had suffered greatly in WWII, but those were just black and white facts. There was no blood in them. History without blood is sterile.

Before 1943 America wasn't even at war with Germany. It was after Pearl Harbor that we got involved, and even then Hitler declared war on us. Shit got serious. The assassination attempt, North Africa campaigns, Dresden. Panic amongst Hitler's generals. More assassination attempts. All after General Winter's February offensive. It was over. But nobody knew.

We got to Nizhni Novgorod around 1ish or so and had a look around. This had been Gorky during the Soviet Union. It was named after a famous Soviet poet. It stands at the confluence of two rivers, the Volga and the Oka Rivers. A new stadium was built here for the 2018 World Cup, which had just finished up. Everywhere we look we see evidence of the games. I'm starting to appreciate the enormity of it all. Games, games, games everywhere! And no major problems. What a logistical nightmare. We went to visit the kremlin, with a little k. Just outside is a big square that can hold thousands. They set up a huge screen and broadcast the games to a sea of red checkered shirts for Croatia.

This kremlin was much different from the Kremlin. First of all, it resembled a park more than a fortress. We just walked right in. No metal detectors. No guards everywhere. No thirteen year old underwear checkers. I think I prefer the lower case kremlins.

Inside was lovely. Fountains and flowers and children playing everywhere. Displays of weapons systems. Tanks. Cannon. Submarines. Military trucks. Nizhni Novgorod was another of Stalin's defense contractors and therefore a closed city. The Nazis knew so, too. It wasn't closed to their bombers. Each night they would bomb the factories. And each night the women and children would rebuild them and keep churning out heavy equipment. One, two, three.

There is an aviation school, military academy, and several murals composed of pictures of the martyrs of WWII from Nizhny. Suffering, sacrifice, service. But no surrender anywhere to be found.

At the base of the kremlin is a monastery. It's a working monastery, but they welcome guests. Outside is an avenue of busts of the Romanoffs. Did I tell you how the Romanoffs came to power? Ivan the Terrible died with no heir. For eight years Russia was in an interregnum state. A time of troubles. The Powers that were in charge of such stuff finally offered it to the Romanoffs, who naturally accepted. I would, should they notice that I am descended from Romanoffs. Just sayin. Cough. Cough.

There were several ordinary ones and several that were quite extraordinary. Peter the Great, of course. If ever there was a man called Great, it was he. He was multi-talented. An engineer, for one (as was Nicholas II.) An innovator. Social reformer. He wanted Russia to be closer to Europe. He adopted European customs, personal grooming, clothing styles, and cuisine. He moved the capital to the more accessible St. Petersburg. He opened up a whole watershed of cultural exchange between the two. You could say he put Russia on the map. In 1861 Peter eliminated slavery in Russia. Five years before we did.

Then there was Catherine the Great. In 1750 she added Crimea to Russia. Catherine was actually English, but she completely assimilated into Russian culture. She came from a poor background, but managed to snatch herself a Romanoff Tsar, who she didn't particularly like, and had a son by him, which she didn't particularly like, either. They very accommodatingly died. Tests done later on the bodies revealed high levels of arsenic, so they think they might have had assistance. After that she ruled the roost, taking up to 40 lovers. Not sure how many at the same time.

And at the very end, looking back across them all, Nicholas. Tragic Nicholas.

They let us take pictures in the church, but not flash, of course. There were scarfs for women to wear and some worshipers inside. We were respectful.

We had a guide during the afternoon named Ala. We asked her some questions about post-Soviet Russia. How many people are religious? What was it like after the fall? She has two grandmothers, a devout one and a good Soviet atheist. During Soviet times the big cities were purged, but in the back waters the church kept alive if on the periphery. Underground. Most of the churches were being used as warehouses or government buildings of some kind. But some still functioned. But you didn't show it. If someone was caught wearing a cross they could lose their jobs, be denied raises or promotions, and be ostracized, or worse. After Perestroika you saw people showing an interest again. Some out of curiosity. Nostalgia. Some for the babushkas who never left the faith. Ala said Russia is 70% Christian and 30% Moslem but a lot of that might just be people humoring their grandmothers.

The Russian Orthodox Church considers itself the successor to Rome. Moscow is the third Rome after the original Rome and Constantinople. As such, they are the inheritors of Christianity from the original church. They consider the western churches as apostate or heretics. And it's not just because of the 11th century schism over the 'filioque' issue. The two churches have diverged in other ways, as well. Like they say, a fight is never about what it's about. There were many disagreements over papal authority, church organization, etc. Nothing changes. You want a fight? I’ll give you a fight.

The Kremlin of Nizhny Novgorod

An Eternal Flame

Each tile a picture. Each picture a martyr.

Nicholas II

Alexander II

Peter the Great

Somebody the Something

I thought this was Catherine the Great.
Oops, wrong Great one.

The Whole Great Family

The City's Protector

And back on our Trans-Siberian Chariot.
Of course, there're the icons. Westerners consider them idolatry. Easterners consider them spiritual skype, a way to communicate with the saints and with God. In the west we believe Jesus paid for our sins like a plea bargain in a court of law where we are on trial for crimes and the penalty is eternal suffering in hell, but Jesus volunteered to take the punishment in our places or some such rot so we can go free.

The Orthodox view is that the Church is a field hospital and we are her patients. They are here to treat an illness, not rub salt into our wounds. That's why nobody is judged and everyone is welcome. Jesus death on the cross is the treatment; he gave his blood to be our transfusion. All bishops are equal. No patriarch can claim supremacy over the rest. There's a Patriarch of Constantinople, a Patriarch of Kiev, a Patriarch of Moscow. None is supreme. None is preeminent. And yet all of the Orthodox Churches are in surprising agreement. Or so they say.

Some early Church fathers struggled to understand what the crucifixion was about. One theme was that Jesus was the bait and the cross the hook. God lowered him into hell, where Satan took the bait and his grasp on humanity was severed. The early Church didn't use the crucifixion as a symbol. That wasn't the important part.They used the fish, which is an acronym.In Greek, Icthus: Jesus Christ, God's Son Savior.

There are caves in the chalk hills south of Jerusalem dug by Romans for concrete. Inside, first century Christians fleeing persecution hid. I stood before chapels with altars and fish symbols carved over them, nary a cross in sight. The Church is about salvation not suffering. It wasn't until much later that the view of Christianity as crime and punishment polluted the faith.

Christianity was a Jewish sect, like many others. There were other Messiahs with other followers who believed other things, some of them even claiming to be other Sons of God. And in the ancient world there were loads of God-Kings: Mithras, Osiris, Hercules, Adonis... Kristna in the Far East. The good padres preaching to the Maya of Mexico discovered a sect that worshipped a dead god who they knew by making corn flour effigies of him, breaking it, and consuming it in worshipful community. Their only recourse was to assume that the devil had taught them a mockery of the One True Holy Christian Eucharist. This new group of worshipers had to figure out what their God-King was all about. We're still working on it.

Ala was baptized when she was 14. That must have annoyed her enlightened atheist grandmother. Vladimir Putin's mother had him baptized when he was an infant. He rarely speaks about his religious views, which he considers private. But he definitely believes in God, always wears a cross, and considers himself a Russian Orthodox. I will take him at his word for it.

Speaking of Putin. She made a few political remarks, too. About how Putin is their only choice. He's autocratic. Ah, finally. A Russian critic of Putin. Masha Gessen is well known in the west, but I think she has a bit of a hammer and sickle of her own to grind. People love him but she obviously had issues. Everyone has to think alike. Not as many freedoms. Someone asked about the interim between Gorbachev and Putin. The modern interregnum, you might say. She admitted that things are better now. In 1996 she got out of college. Then, you didn't get paid in money. You got scrip which you exchanged for certain goods, which you then sold on the black market for rubles and ran, quick as a bunnie, back to the store to buy what you wanted in the first place. It was worse than a depression. It's day and night now.

More borsch for thought.

After that we visited a park on the river. There is a statue of a deer there. The legend is not uncommon in the world. One day a watchman on the tower saw a bunch of deer fleeing toward the city. The watchman set off an alarm and raised the defenses. Low and behold, an enemy was advancing on the city. So the deer became a protector of the city. Nice story. It gives the city one more thing to feel proud about.

We took a cable car ride over the Volga and then back to our hotel. I ate in the hotel. Glad to say there wasn't venison on the menu, seeing as a deer is our protector and all. It wouldn't be very good manners. I had the veal ravioli with cream sauce. Don't judge me.

We have to get up at 3:30 tomorrow and spend the day on what will be our base of operations for the next few weeks, our sleeper car. Orient Express here we come.

Vocabulary word for the day: Прывет Prev-YET. Hello.

Day 5 – Wednesday, 7/25/18 03:37. UTC: Wednesday 7/25/18 00:37.
Nizhny Novgorod
56.3231 43.99186
By my reckoning: Wednesday, 7/25/18 03:37.


Up and at 'em! Today we are on our train all day.

One event I'd like to relay. At the train station I went to the snack shop to get a coffee. I saw someone getting what I wanted, so I asked the girl for the same thing. She didn't speak English and I wasn't sure how to say it in German. After a few tries I just said, Cappuccino, please. Someone saw me and stepped up to see if he could translate. I imagine there were a lot of cases like that during the games and it was nice to have someone immediately step in to help. There is still milk of human kindness in the world.

Within Nizhny Novgorod’s kremlin

Peter the Great founded the Russian Navy. You ain’t great for nuttin.

And my cabin in the woods, on rails.

Moscow train station. Come for the Socialism,

Stay for the murals.

Our car is the last one on the train. It will be disconnected each place we stop for the night and hooked up to the next passing train when we depart. We each have our own cabin for two. This is giving us a chance to get to know each other better. I had lunch with a couple and we were talking about Russia, of course. Not just historically but currently, as well. And we were comparing that to the current climate in America. I made a comment about something Marx said about Capitalism. Michelle asked me if I was a Marxist. I thought for a moment and said, I don't think so. I think that I am willing to learn from anybody, but I'm the disciple of nobody.

We had a box breakfast in a bag on the train and a very decent lunch of soup, rice and chicken for lunch. Mostly, I'm catching up on journal writing for the past few days.

Vocabulary word for the day:  извините Is-ve-NEYT-ya Sorry.

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