The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Saturday, July 12, 2008

To Russia With Doug, Part 1: Moscow Day 1

Moscow Day 1

Greetings, comrades!

As most of you know, I have embarked on a grand tour of Russia and the Baltics. The catalyst for this journey was the Christening of Katya and Anatoli’s baby Sasha. I use the term “baby” lightly because she is already 18 months old—but this is her first trip to Mother Russia where she was to be baptized in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

So this seemed like the perfect opportunity to check out the “Empire of Evil” (as Reagan called it, back before we had an entire “Axis of Evil”). I was going to combine it with the now-independent Republic of Belarus, where half of my ancestors come from. But some political unrest there (it was recently declared an “Outpost of Tyranny” by Condi Rice; the US government does love to assign monikers) made it a bad time, so I opted instead for Moscow and St. Petersburg, followed by Latvia, Estonia, and Finland (and one undoubtedly beautiful night at the airport Radisson in Stockholm):

I’ve been away two weeks already, but was too busy to post. I’ve already completed my Russian adventures and now I’m in the Baltics. So in this first entry I’ll just cover my first day in Russia…which was a big one! Even before arriving, it’s a bit of an ordeal. You still need a visa which requires extensive paperwork:

Have rubles, will travel:

I arrived in Moscow late Sunday night after some delays. For someone who doesn’t usually sleep well on planes, I was out cold and only awakened by the thud of the plane touching down. My first glimpse of Russia was a rainy runway that was still light at 11PM:

After looooong lines in the dreary Sheremetyevo airport and a loooong taxi ride I arrived at the National Hotel in Moscow. It’s an old hotel that Lenin once lived in. The accommodations are nothing special for the price (which, like everything in Moscow, is outrageous), but the service was outstanding and the location unbeatable. Here’s the hotel:

…and here’s the view you’re greeted with when you step out the front door—Red Square and the Kremlin:

That first day I was going to sightsee with two other guests, Christine Ryan and Susan O’Connor. And for the record, I was up and out at 11AM while they slept until 3! My first order of business on this warm but cloudy day was to wander across the street into Red Square (as always, you can click on the photo for a better and enlarged version—especially because Blogger for some reason mutes the beautiful colors):

For all the talk about Red Square and the Kremlin I never really knew what they involved. Red Square is a long, rectangular open space at the heart of Moscow bounded by the Kremlin and GUM (a store) on the long sides and St Basil’s cathedral and the city museum on the short ones. In front of the Kremlin’s turreted wall is Lenin’s mausoleum (the red and black marble pyramid above). Some more views:
014 Red Square Cloudy X.jpg

I must say that standing in Red Square has a certain sense of awe and excitement, the magnitude of which was only matched by my first visit to Berlin. Maybe it’s because both of these places were once at the heart of our greatest enemies, so there is a combination of both fascination and fear. And they are both places with both an ancient history and major events recent enough to be fresh in our minds. But I’m sure it also has changed—I doubt Stalin would have approved of souvenir hawkers and American restaurants!:

So my next stop was next door at the Kremlin. Again I’d never really thought about what the Kremlin actually is. It’s a walled-in fortress with buildings inside, not unlike the Tower of London. It’s a cool place to visit but a pain in the ass for the rest of your trip because you have to walk around it. Walking in through one of the big gates:

A view inside. I think the yellow building on the left is where the President works:

Here is the humongous Czar Canon, built in 1587 but never fired:

And the equally gargantuan Czar Bell, the largest in the world. It, too, was too big and got busted and was therefore never actually used:

The Ivan the Great Bell Tower:

The main area that tourists can visit is Cathedral Square. As the name implies, there are a number of little cathedrals concentrated in this area of the Kremlin. The include the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, where all of the Czars from before Peter the Great are entombed, the Cathedral of the Annunciation (where they were Christened and married), and the cathedral of the Assumption (where they were crowned):

This is called the Red Staircase, though I don’t know why. The Czars would climb it after their coronation:

Façade of The Grand Kremlin Palace:

I don’t know what these were on top of but I thought they were pretty:

Photos were not allowed inside any of the churches, though I managed to sneak a few. Of course, I don’t remember which was which but they’re all pretty typical for Eastern Orthodox churches of the time, with insides that are completely covered by elaborate icon paintings:

I enjoy the bald dude in the second photo listening to his audio guide. First of all, he looks like Andy Dick. Second, he looks like he’s just learned some life-altering fact from the audio guide (maybe I should have rented one). In any event, by this time the ladies had awakened and I was off to meet them at St. Basil’s. On the way I picked up this very disturbing sausage. They take a bun with a hole in it, put a blob of ketchup on top, and then shove the sausage in. Just wrong:

Christine and Susan at St. Basil’s. They both bought “babushka” scarves because many of the churches require women to cover their heads. I’m not sure why my camera did this trippy zoom focus, but hey:

St. Basil’s is one of those things that you can’t help but take more pictures every time you pass it. It looks like a gingerbread house, almost unreal from every side:

For one of the most famous churches in the world, the inside is nothing like you’d expect. It’s not one big church inside. Each of the 9 domes is a separate, tiny chapel, all connected by a labyrinth of dark tunnels and passageways. The cramped, dank setup is quite a contrast from the bright paining both inside and out. Here’s the central and biggest chapel:

More Kremlin fun. As we walked over the Moscow River, the walled layout of the Kremlin became very clear:

On one bridge, we had a view of some kids dancing with two tennis balls on chains, which is apparently all the rage here:

On another bridge, we found that couples put padlocks with their names on it as a pledge of their love:

Along the Kremlin’s wall is a tomb with the remains of unknown soldiers from World War II (which is called “The Great Patriotic War” here):

Back in Red Square we were excited to find the sun out. This turned out to be somewhat of a rarity during the rest of our trip but of course gave us an excuse for more pictures of St. Basils!:

One more American moment…PRET!:

That night we had cocktails overlooking Moscow from the roof of the Hyatt Ararat. One thing that definitely takes some getting used to are the long days and short nights. It only gets dark after midnight and is light again by 4AM. This was especially true in St Pete’s! Here’s 10:50 PM in Moscow:

But it does eventually get dark in Moscow, and Red Square lights up. So to close out my first (and most jam-packed day) in Moscow I took some photos and hit the hay:

Coming up…more sensational sights of Moscow, and Sasha gets baptized (or does she?!…)


  • Watch out, Andy Dick has a habit of stalking cute boys in former soviet republics.

    ZvKrzy - Moscow nightclub DJ

    By Blogger Colleen, at 8:04 PM  

  • I love the Pret is called "5 Stars" in Russia! Live and learn...

    Can't wait for St. Petersburg pictures -- enough with the Moscow shots!

    By Anonymous Zhanna, at 8:48 AM  

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