Note From Jon


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Russia Recap: Days 3 and 4

Monday April 21

With my one assignment complete, I had two and half days (and evenings) to kill before Kristin finished earning our hotel room by attending her meetings. I’ve always admired people who travel on their own, but felt it wouldn’t be something I’d enjoy. Therefore with the exception of a day in Dakar on my way home from Africa I’d never really traveled alone. Now admittedly that was one of my best days in Africa (which probably should have served as a clue) but I still wasn’t sure how I’d adjust to solo travel in a country where I’d just barely managed to buy train tickets despite all my carefully prepared paperwork.

As you may have noticed, I enjoy theatre, and figured it would be a unique opportunity to experience some Russian style. With the help of the Moscow Times (the couple of links on the left bar below “Calendar of Events”) I’d researched what shows I could catch during my free evenings. I’d brought a list of my options with me to the theatre kiosk which can be found in most metros. My second ticket purchasing experience of the day was considerably easier than my first, but only because the woman spoke English (she had a daughter living in Miami)… because all of my top choices were sold out (I’d figured I’d go see Hamlet hoping my familiarity with the storyline would help offset my unfamiliarity with Russian, but it was not to be). After some wrangling, even in English, I wound up with tickets to see the opera Don Quixote at the theatre inside the Kremlin (for $35) and a one-act play of Eugene Onegin (for $15) at the supposedly controversial Taganka Theatre.

Feeling thoroughly accomplished at ticket purchasing, I set out for my planned activity of the day: exploring the Novodevichy Convent. After a rainy Sunday at the Kremlin I was hoping for sun shining on my outdoor activities today. It rained. I guess it was appropriate for a convent, especially one that had served as a sort of prison (and now tomb) for Peter the Great’s sister and first wife. I was particularly excited to come here because the Peter the Great miniseries I watched during high school had left me with vivid memories of the treachery of Peter’s sister Sophia who’d been confined here. In fact the miniseries basically had the theme that it was Peter vs. the women and the church. Well today it was me vs. the rain and the construction. The main building (and resting place of Tsarevna Sophia) is the Smolensk Cathedral. It was closed for renovation when the Lonely Planet book was published (2006). Turns out it is scheduled to open…May of 2008. Still there are dozens of other buildings, churches, and bell towers in the convent so I figured I’d explore them. I figured wrong. I spent the afternoon photographing puddles and pulling on locked door after locked door (one that did open I realized quickly enough was leading to the nuns’ private quarters). Basically there were two buildings open to me (and the lobby of one church) and neither were particularly historic. They each held exhibits of religious artwork, which was quickly holding little interest for me. I had my lunch of bread and water (seemed appropriate) and set off for the cemetery around back. It was raining harder and I think I was almost relieved when I approached the gate and an extremely serious looking guard made an X with his arms and shook his head at me. I tried to signal “Do I need to go around to another gate?” and he made it pretty clear that whatever was going on in there today (there were some fancy black cars out front) I was not welcome inside.

Next stop was the Matryoshka Museum (the famous Russian nesting dolls). The museum was free, which frankly it should have been since it consisted of exactly one room with no English, and the oldest doll was from… 1950. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy checking out the dolls that were there, and I realized that the set from 1950 with a woman holding a chicken under her arm would be perfect for me. In Indonesia one of my favorite photos is of a boy holding a chicken under his arm, and on my favorite day in Guinea I have a photograph with… a woman carrying a chicken under her arm. Not surprisingly the set in the museum was not for sale (that I could tell) but there were replicas in the extensive gift shop downstairs (it was twice the size of the museum). The prices were higher than Izmaylova market but not unreasonable for what I was willing to spend. Unfortunately the cashier said they didn’t take credit cards but I splurged and purchased my chicken-woman set with my dwindling cash. After I paid, I noticed the sign on the counter. The sign for Visa and Mastercard! I called her on it and she said the women who knew how to work the machine didn’t work that day. This was a common refrain. Lonely Planet may say Moscow is credit card friendly, but it sure wasn’t to me.

I had just enough time to swing by the hotel and change into some theatre appropriate clothes before setting off for Don Quixote at the Kremlin. Knowing how sensitive they were about photos of Lenin, I feared there would be issues bringing a camera into the theatre so I left it at the hotel… which proved to be my loss (and yours) as I missed some beautiful photos of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s at night (and if I was as bold as some other audience members, maybe even photos of the show). Inside the enormous soviet-feeling State Theatre I found my seat (once I deciphered the words for row and seat in Russian). It was actually in the 13th row in the orchestra… and the absolute last seat in a row that probably spanned nearly a hundred seats. Still it wasn’t too bad and I settled in for the opera. It turns out the opera I was there to see was no opera at all. I was watching the ballet of Don Quixote. I’d wikipediaed the storyline at the hotel but I learned quickly that at best the ballet was loosely inspired by Don Quixote. Since I’m a fan of storyline, the second act was easily the best. Let me show you what I mean: The second act opened with more dancing in a tavern where Don drives away an unwanted suitor for the innkeeper’s daughter. He leaves for more adventures and ends up watching a play-within-the-ballet in some village. When an unwanted suitor emerges in the play, Don charges the actor, then the audience, then a windmill (the windmill wins and a—presumably stuffed—Don comes flying off the blades). Injured, Don heads home and collapses in a forest where he dreams of fairies… who dance. The act ends when Don awakes and some nobles show up. Here’s what happens in the third act: Don watches dancers at the nobles’ court. That’s it. That was the end of the show. Of course it is my fault for wanting a ballet to be an opera. Still it was a fun experience and I learned some things about Russian shows:

  • People still call Bravo here
  • There are encores and curtain calls at the end of each act (and even at the end of some dances)
  • Many in the audience rushed to the edge of the stage during the standing ovation
  • You have to buy your programs
  • They broke the cardinal rule of encores! They returned once the house lights came on (and it was like their 4th or 5th curtain call at the point). This rule really should be universal (as should a limit of at most 2 encores). I’ll bring these up with Darren who is compiling a list of decrees he would enact if he were a benevolent dictator (maybe I should start documenting those along with Darrenisms).

Here’s the problem. When I was on my own I took far fewer photos so I decided to combine the photos for days 3 and 4. I use slideshows because Blogger’s photo insertion capabilities are unacceptably pathetic (all photos insert at the top and must be excruciatingly dragged down into place, no easy way to do captions, preview mode doesn’t match how it gets published etc.). As a result I only have one slideshow and planned to make one entry for both days (and that’s after spending a whole entry on the ticket buying). So. Consider this the end of act one (and as you’ll see it would be just like a Russian one-act). Go get some snacks, use the restroom and come back for act two (aka Day 4) when you are ready. Deep breath. On to day four…

Tuesday April 22nd

The sun came out! And I had a whole day planned inside at art galleries… I did walk to the first gallery, and I was rewarded. I crossed the Patriarchal Bridge behind my hotel and started photographing the Peter the Great statue, The Church of Christ the Savior, and the Kremlin Cathedrals in the distance. Then I glanced down at the bridge and noticed a huge padlock attached to it. Then another. Then I realized there were dozens if not hundreds locked all the way up and down the bridge. Many had names and dates and I began photographing them. Another photographer joined me shortly and asked me something in Russian. Since he also spoke English I found out he was asking me if I knew about the “lovelocks”. I didn’t and he provided me some background. He said the tradition started in some European country… maybe Paris, maybe Italy. It started in 1993 (the date was specific… if not the location). Couples would place locks on a particular bridge (or two bridges in the case of Moscow) to commemorate their love or marriage. It turns out the man I met, Alexander, goes around photographing the locks and has a website ( —which Google will translate for you) devoted to them. He seemed like a good guy (he tried unsuccessfully to adjust the settings on my camera to take a photo with both the lovelock and Kremlin in focus) and I’ve enjoyed exploring his website and seeing many of the locks that I remember from the bridge. It was the perfect start to what would be my best day in Russia.

I eventually found the Pushkin Fine Art Gallery (which has split into two galleries since the Lonely Planet was written). The Kacca woman was helpful and let me know that the Impressionists that I probably wanted to see were actually at the other museum next door. The highlight was finding my uncle’s favorite Renoir, “The Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary” and being reminded of the vast range of Picasso’s styles. I spent several hours enjoying room after room of artwork that I didn’t recognize by artists who I certainly did (Renoir, Picasso, Degas, Gauguin, Cezanne).

From there I went straight to the Tretyakov Gallery with room after room of artwork I recognized (well the styles at least) by artists I had never heard of. The Tretyakov has only artwork by Russians, but the styles are familiar, with portraits, landscapes, Impressionism, Cubism, etc. The Tretyakov also has laminated English pages in each room to carry around with you. I was engrossed. I spent all afternoon discovering new favorite artists and artwork. This gallery would only be in Russia, whereas the works in the Pushkin could be in nearly any major city. At one point I walked through an entire room of portraits, including several identically posed paintings of different people. I was confused until I came into the next room which had an entire wall filled with Ivanov’s masterpiece “The Appearance of Christ to the People”. All of the life-size portraits I had seen were merely studies for this larger work. I sat in the middle of the room to take it all in and looked at face after face that I recognized from the study portraits. The overwhelming size of the painting screamed “Russia!” to me, and quite unexpectedly I found that this was my favorite moment of the trip. In a photograph the scale and detail are lost and the only way to experience this colossal piece of art was to come to Moscow and sit in this room. I experienced that moment several more times through the gallery, seeing Surikov’s “Morning of the Steltsy” depicting a graphic scene from the miniseries (and history), and finding my two favorite artists Vereshchagin, with his photorealistic depictions of scenes of travel and war, and Serebryakova, whose candid scenes of her family life stood out from the rest of the modern works that I didn’t connect with.

I ate a solo dinner at the Russian chain Yolki-Polki, which was good, and a fun atmosphere (they decorate it like a Russian country cottage and the staff wear traditional outfits). It was gimmicky but I went with it since I was having such a great day. After dinner it was off to see the one-act play Eugene Onegin which I really hoped would not turn out to be a ballet in disguise. I guess it seemed a bit strange to watch a play in another language, but I remember seeing Peer Gynt at the National Theatre in Oslo during high school (granted what I remember is some of the staging where Peer escapes from the first act by climbing up the set which is built like a giant computer motherboard… perhaps it wasn’t the original interpretation of the play). Eugene Onegin (or Yevgeny Onegin in Russian) did not disappoint. While I barely picked up a word, I won’t forget the staging. The stage was a grid of eight rooms covered with curtains. The curtains served as screens to display the actor’s silhouettes, as musical instruments (when they slid them rhythmically during songs), and everything from togas to turbans to carriages (hard to explain) wrapped around the actors. One actor wore an “I ♥ Pushkin” shirt and delivered his lines while balancing atop a ball.

On several occasions the actors came into the audience. In fact Eugene Onegin himself (well if I understood who the characters were at all) came into the audience. I don’t mean he walked down the aisle. I mean he started shimmying down a row. My row in fact. He squeezed past person after person until he was 5, 4, 3, people away from me. Oh no! Did he somehow know I was the silly American who was sitting in a play without understanding a word? He had come to expose me. I prepared my “Ya Nye Pyenemayo Parusski” (I don’t understand Russian) response, and prepared for the humiliating laughter of the entire audience. I had survived the “Ass-Hole” chant as a Sox fan in the bleachers of Yankee stadium but how would I handle this? 2 people away from me. He spoke. The women next to me answered. Then he returned to the stage. I was not to have a part in this odd play after all.

The show sort of jumped the shark (as if I could tell) midway through when there was a crazed man draped in a polar-bear fur lashing out from a table in the middle of the stage. The second half dragged since the novelty of the staging was wearing off and I was now just not understanding the increasingly longer monologues. If it lasted as long as an American one-act, it would have been the best show I’d seen this year (nudging Argonautika which had a weaker second act) but it was a Russian one-act, and as such it went on for over two hours! By the end I found myself translating the program I had bought, which listed their other repertory shows… including “Gamlet” aka Hamlet. There is no “h” in Russian (there is a “kh”) and so they replace Hs with Gs. This can be pretty funny. As we learned at various points on our trip, Russians watch Gamlet, read Gary Potter, order a Gamburger at Makdonalds, and may be an alkogolic if they drink too much vodka…

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