Monday, May 22, 2006

First visit to Moscow

Red Square. Sunday at 4:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Saturday afternoon JH and I headed out to Kennedy to catch a 5:30 Delta flight to Moscow to cover the Moscow World Fine Art Fair. This trip was a first for both of us. The flight is nine hours, first heading north via St. John’s, Newfoundland, up across Greenland, Iceland, Norway and down through Russia to Moscow. It was daylight for quite a bit of the way although we were flying toward the Russian late nighttime (Moscow is eight hours ahead of New York), but way up north at the top of the world the horizon is a thick band of bursting fiery-gold, bordering the darkness all the way to the moment the Sun rises over Russia.

At a certain hour, the porthole shades come down and the airship is mainly darkness. A friend of mine had given me a couple of Ambien, one for each flight. Of course I left them on my desk in my apartment so I had to rely on my own sleep patterns which are not geared for early-to-bed (8:30/9:00). And so I slept very little. JH, who usually can sleep unassisted for part of these international flights didn’t catch a wink.
Scenes from Delta flight 030; which departed JFK at 5:30 PM on Saturday and arrived into Moscow at 11:15 AM on Sunday.
I was also very excited anticipating the first sight of this land where I was headed which I had known only from books and a lifetime of Cold War from my early childhood to it to Mr. Gorbachev’s Perestroika. The mystery of Russia has been shrouded in fear developed early during the days of Josef Stalin and the spector of Marxism, preceded by the centuries of brutality of the czars and Catherine the Great. Now, I was being told over and over again by many who had experienced it, Russia was the land burgeoning with all the gifts and problems of modernity, the 21st century techno-world, and it was a-building a-building, a-building.

The Sun was up as we entered Russian airspace and although it was a very cloudy day on this part of the planet, I could still see stretches of the vast land below, green and hilly with few signs of human habitation, remembering those maps of the enormous expanse that is Mother Russia.

On final approach to Moscow, I could see more and more clusters of communities as well as increasing networks of roads. And then as we drew closer to the airport (flying at a lower altitude) I was looking down on pockets of neighborhood whicih looked new-ish, often with larger, more elaborate dwellings and grounds (including the occasional swimming pool). This is the Russia I’ve been hearing so much about where wealth and prosperity are now transforming the land of the serfs and the czars and the Soviet system into something that looks very much like the world this westerner is used to.

We set down at the Moscow Airport about noon. There was surprisingly little air traffic for this New Yorker used to watching airliners landing every minute and a half at La Guardia from my vantage point on the East River and 83rd Street. I counted only eight aircrafts at the Moscow airport on this day. That came as a great relief: since it meant we wouldn’t be waiting forever in customs and baggage claim.
The ride into Moscow can take forty-five minutes or two hours depending on traffic. Just like New York. The landscape is very green with frequent thick woodlands of tall evergreens or tall elegant birches. Apartment houses newer and old, mainly of concrete and glass line the highway that leads into the city although there is no sense of overcrowding. The roadways are also teeming with cars of every make, and there are billboards everywhere. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonalds, IKEA, movie ads like The DaVinci Code, concerts (Gloria Gaynor, Ricky Martin) and cosmetics. A little like New Jersey just across from Manhattan, although not as heavily populated, leaving room for trees, lots of trees.

Our traffic was pretty good, possibly because it was early Sunday afternoon, and as we entered Moscow proper there was even less traffic. This surprised me because I’d been told by several friends that the traffic could be hellish with so many cars and trucks. Maybe we’ll see that today (Monday).
Snapshots through the window of our van while driving from Moscow International to Hotel Baltschug Kempinski.
We had a guide aboard the van pointing out different buildings including a palace built for Catherine the Great as a rest stop for her trips back and forth to St. Petersburg. We passed a large bronze statue of Karl Marx which went unnoticed and unremarked upon, leading me to wonder if anyone had even heard of the man.   The boulevards are very wide, wider than Paris, and there are few very tall buildings (more than 20 stories) so there is a feeling of spaciousness about the city, and everything seems more accessible to the eye.

The Hotel Baltschug Kempinksi, where we are staying, is a stately looking hotel just across the river from the Kremlin whose parapets and turrets are within its sight.

Having heard about the Kremlin all my life, accompanied by the frequent stock images of the dark red walls and the dark towers and their foreboding within in the era of the Soviets, I was surprised by its fresh, almost ancient beauty, its reflection of a culture really unknown to this American boy, and its sweep. It’s vast, the way palaces of a child’s imagination are vast; so vast as to almost look like it goes on forever, simply part of the landscape, not unlike the Vatican, or Versailles or the monumental government buildings in Washington. None of the images of the Kremlin that I’m used to reflect its ancient serenity.

After we were settled into our rooms, we took a walk across the bridge of the Moscow River, across to Red Square.

JH's room at Hotel Baltschug Kempinski.
Actually we were looking for a cafe for some lunch. Red Square, which is bordered on one side by Saint Basil’s Cathedral (with its multi-turrets), by the Kremlin Wall and Lenin’s Tomb on another, then by another ancient church on its third side also has the incredible GUM department store which sits directly across from Lenin’s Tomb.

The Square itself is a broad and sweeping cobblestoned plaza, like those you can see in Rome where on a sunny Sunday afternoon in May people stroll, take lots of pictures -- digitals everywhere, eating ice creams and enjoying the day.

Lenin’s tomb, which I’ve only known from the black and white and gray photos of the days when the Soviet leadership stood on its terrace and watched its armies pass by, is also smaller than my image of it. Square, solid and simple, dark red and black marble and Lenin’s name (in Russian) over the door, its design has none of classical flourish of previous generations’s monuments to its leaders. It is just there, and not moving. You can see how useful it was as a public relations device for the Soviet leadership of another age when they stood there, all lined up, at public events and reviewed the troops and stood before the populus -- because it is small enough to have given the personalities standing up on it human proportion, and yet it is also impenetrable looking to provide admonishment. Today it is also there to remind all of us of the monumental changes that have occcurred in this society and all societies over the past hundred years right up to today.
Walking across the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Most (the Big Moscow River Bridge) for our first views of Kremlin.
It is also a tourist spot but delicately chained off so that you can see but you cannot enter. Beyond it, behind it, close to the Kremlin wall are bronze busts of other Soviet leaders although they were too far away for me to recognize them.

Still on our hunt for the cafe we were told was nearby, we went into the GUM department store directly across from Lenin’s tomb. I had been aware of this establishment all my life. This is the most monumental building on all of Red Square -- this tribute to 20th century consumerism -- and it is most impressively inviting (to this 20th century consumer).
Walking through Red Square, DPC takes a pit stop in front of Lenin's tomb.
On our way back towards The Hotel Baltschug Kempinski.
Expansive views from inside GUM.
Beauty consulting in the GUM.
From the outside it looks like a great government bureau building. But as soon as you walk in the door, you’re fanned and greeted by the fragrances of Estee Lauder (and a large Clinique stall) before you, as if you were walking on to the main floor of Bloomingdale’s. But the GUM is Bloomie’s, Saks, Bergdorf’s, Harrods and everyone else combined. It is a great indoor mall, maybe the first (?), I don’t know. There are three or four levels complete with snack bars, fountains, sandwich bars, pizza (Sbarro anybody?) and probably a lot more. Shoppers, I can see, can spend days here and never get bored.

After a tour of the GUM, both of us now beginning to lose altitude from our jet lag, we decided to make the walk (about half a mile) back down to the river and the bridge to the hotel where it was naptime, stretching into the early evening.

About 11 pm, having finished preparing the first part of this day’s Diary with JH’s pictures, we decided to get our acts together and get something to eat.
A mother and son looking out towards Lenin's tomb and Red Square through an archway of GUM.
Where, in Moscow, on a late Sunday night, can you get a decent meal? At Café Pushkin -- open 24/7 -- considered one of the ten greatest restaurants in Europe.

About ten minutes from our hotel by car (the Russians drive very fast), the Pushkin is named for a song written and made famous by the French chanteur Gilbert Becaud in the 1960s, the Pushkin is the Russian version of the French brasserie, the American PJ Clarke’s (with a much wider, broader menu) combined with the elegant decor of a great French restaurant. The dress is casual (or whatever).

The clientele -- at least after midnight on a Sunday -- looks to be mainly thirty-, forty-something. The atmosphere is Old World revisited (known as Brilliant Marketing in America) so it was amazing to learn that it had been built entirely from the ground up only seven years ago. The young staff speaks very good English (thankfully for this monolingual traveler), and the food is delicious.

It was almost two in the morning when we finished up at the Pushkin. The hostess at the restaurant arranged for a car to take us back to the Kempinski. The streets were wet from a light rain and the Moscow night was dazzling with the cacophony of neon signs of local and international purveyors of commerce and entertainment. Many of the buildings and the Kreminlin’s colorful turrets are dramatically floodlit.

It is a beautiful city and at this late hour it was sparkling from the rains. There were few cars on the road. Our driver had very loud Russian and American rock playing on the car radio as he moved very quickly down and around along the wide boulevards back to our hotel. We stopped for a brief moment before entering so that JH could take some photos of the Moscow night down by the riverside.
DPC and JH with their vodkas at Café Pushkin.
JH Sneaks in a shot of one of the downstairs dining rooms of the five-story Café Pushkin.
The Sterlet in all its glory at Café Puskin.
A view of the main bar.
The dessert degustation to wrap up our midnight snack (yea, right) at Café Pushkin.