A Day of Contradictions

We spent our first full day in Moscow with Tina, our guide for the “Must See Tour.” Surfacing from the Metro at Revolution Square, we were greeted by this guy, who, in case you don’t recognize him, is one of the famous Marx brothers: Groucho – no, wait, that’s Karl.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was the master of the pithy one-liner. His better known quotations range from the candid (“The theory of Communism can be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property”) to the utopian (“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”) to the profound (“Religion is the opiate of the masses” and “Democracy is the road to socialism”). But, consider this one: “Nothing can have value without being an object of utility.” Seems odd to have the declarant of such a statement gazing across the plaza at the Bolshoi Theater, home of the famous ballet of that name.

From Revolution Square, we walked past the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812, a reference to Napoleon’s ill-fated Russian campaign. While Napoleon did make it all the way to Moscow, which he entered and occupied in 1812, it was the beginning of his end. The Russian forces had already evacuated and left the city deserted, following a scorched-earth policy as Napoleon had approached. Consequently, Napoleon’s troops could not sustain themselves here and soon abandoned Moscow and began their disastrous retreat home. The city was burned (by Napoleon?) and about 2/3 of the buildings were destroyed.

At the end of the 1812 Museum (on the left) is the Iberian Gate to Red Square (center; on the right is the State Historical Museum):

We stopped right before the little church in front of the Iberian Gate where Tina encouraged me to throw a coin over my left shoulder (for good luck) from the bronze plaque marking “Kilometer Zero,” the central spot from which all measurements in Moscow are made.

Like the visage of Karl Marx staring at the Bolshoi, Red Square is a study in contradictions. As you enter through the Iberian Gate, immediately to your left is the Orthodox Kazan Cathedral, just opposite the State Historical Museum.

Remember the quote from Marx that “Religion is the opiate of the masses?” Well, Lenin and Stalin took that philosophy to heart and sought to eradicate religion from Soviet life. In particular, Stalin had the original Kazan Cathedral torn down in 1936 and, supposedly, public toilets built in its place. Fortunately, the cathedral was able to be reconstructed (at private expense) in 1993, based on detailed measurements and photographs made before its demolition. We went inside. The cathedral is very much in use today by Russian Orthodox worshipers (photography was prohibited).

Beside this State/Church counter-point, the next pairing of structures was even more at odds. On one side of Red Square is the iconic department store known as GUM,

…which is opposite Lenin’s Tomb (far right) and the Kremlin wall, symbolic in the West of communism, capitalism’s antithesis.

We opted to not visit Lenin’s Tomb; the line was way too long and, frankly, it seemed a little creepy – Lenin’s embalmed body is on display. But we did go into GUM for some window shopping and ice cream.

The name, GUM, is an acronym derived from its original Russian name: Государственный универсальный магазин, transcribed as: “Gosudarstvennyi Universalnyi Magazin,” translated as: “State Universal Store” or “State Department Store.” GUM was originally built in the 1890s as a trade center which, at the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, contained 1,200 stores. It was soon nationalized by the Soviets, continued briefly as a market, then converted by Stalin in 1928 into offices. It was reopened as a department store by the Soviets in 1953 and ultimately privatized and redeveloped as the shopping mall it now is in 2005, at which time the word Glavnyi, meaning “Main,” was substituted for Gosudarstvennyi, meaning “State,” so that GUM is now the “Main Universal Store” in Moscow. It’s the most decadent shopping mall I’ve ever been in.

After GUM, we walked the length of Red Square to St. Basil’s Cathedral, built in 1554-1560,…

…which is opposite the massive Spasskaya Tower and gate into the Kremlin; again, the juxtaposition of church and state.

There was a good view of Red Square from the base of St. Basil’s:

Red Square is a little bigger than 18 acres. Traditionally, it was a market square, but it has been used over the years for all sorts of things: coronations, military parades, protests, you name it. Together with the Kremlin, Red Square is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. By the way, the “Red” in Red Square does not relate to communism or the color of the Kremlin which was white at the time of the naming of the square. It seems that the name comes from confusion surrounding the Cyrillic word that was used in years past: красивая (krasivaya, meaning “beautiful”) and красная (krasnaya, meaning “red”). At any rate, I’ve heard and read conflicting stories, but they all agree that it has nothing to do with communism.

Leaving Red Square, we passed back in front of the State Historical Museum for a photo op among the flowers.

Then we watched the changing of the guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to Soviet soldiers who died in WWII.

We finished up with a walk through the Alexander Garden, one of Moscow’s first public parks,…

…to the modern Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the tallest Orthodox cathedral in the world, completed in 2000. The original cathedral, built in 1883 in tribute to the defeat of Napoleon in 1812, was destroyed by the Soviets in 1930, partly to carry out the communists’ anti-religion campaign, and partly to snatch the 20 tons of gold that made up the cathedral’s dome.

We finished the day from atop the Patriarshy pedestrian bridge over the Moscow River, with a view of the Kremlin behind us. A fine finish to a wonderful and informative day. Thanks, Tina!

One thought on “A Day of Contradictions

  1. This is a wonderful picture of you both.
    We wish you a pleasant stay in Moscow.
    We will add the city to our “must see”-list.
    Greetings from Palma de Mallorc

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