Dancing With the Bear
An On-line Book by Liam Guilar
Presented by the Idaho State Univ. Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Text and photographs © 1999 Liam Guilar and used by permission (see permission notes).
IF I WAS A RUSSIAN I would write poems about the Metro, relishing its paradoxes. The first paradox being the fact that it is worth a poem or two. I can not imagine any one writing hymns of praise to the London Underground: graffiti strewn, cramped, cluttered with advertising hoardings, and downright dangerous after certain hours. But with the Moscow Metro, and the ones in Petersburg and Tashkent, you leave the drab city streets and descend into light and space and elegance.
Mark and I became staunch metro addicts in our short stay and even went station stopping to hop out and gawk, (there's no other word for it) at the architecture and the decorations and the statues. It is an example of beauty combining with function. The stations are built deep in the ground to serve as bomb shelters and the long escalator ride allows time to watch the faces and the body language of the people going the other way. There were very few fat people in Moscow. The trains leave with a reassuring regularity. With a simple knowledge of the Cryllic alphabet, an up to date map, and a little patience you can navigate around Moscow with surprising ease and do so at an absurdly cheap price.
Travelling at the peak time we discovered how naive we had been to marvel at the way the Japanese had packed their bus at the airport. The experienced Russian Commuter gets on to the train by pushing his way on. No matter how full the carriage the newcomer simply pushes steadily and either grumbles or jokes about it until his or her back is clear of the automatic doors. The resultant crush would be paradise for a sex starved adolescent and hell for a claustrophobic. On our rides to the city we inevitably stood, and Mark read his book and I watched faces. I came to the conclusion that young Russian women were very beautiful, or would be if they stopped chewing gum and dispensed with the violent red lipstick. They all had long hair, and when I mentioned it to Olga she told me that the Principal of her school had called her mother to his office to reprimand her for allowing her daughter to have her hair cut.
On our second day we met Olga at the Revolution station, which was to be our meeting point for the rest of the week. Beautiful might be the wrong word, but its spacious halls, gleaming stone, and hallway lined with statues of the anonymous heroes of the revolution would put some art galleries to shame. We felt very proud of ourselves, arriving where we wanted to be and at the right time, but the journey hadn't been error free. The Metro has its own idiosyncrasies and discovering them had cost us a few moments. We had left our train at the wrong station, actually it was the right station but on the wrong line, and as we stood at the top of the escalator, bemused, an elderly woman approached us and tried to help us find our way. We conversed in Samurai Russian, which always begins with the phrase (In Russian):
"Pardon me, I neither speak nor understand Russian"
"German? Niet. English?. burgle burgle "Gudbiy"."
"Where is Stansia Revolutionary Ploshchad."
"Ah. stanzia Burgle one burglee burgle station burgle burgle. Oup. Tak tak tak tak " walking her fingers along,"tak tak tak" down an imaginary escalator."burgle burgle one station."
"Ah. One station more."
"Da Da. god biy."
We reached Olga without further incident.
We went to visit Lenin. It was raining. Red square was cordoned off and the cobbles were deserted. There was no one waiting to hustle the tourists. The photographer and his easel had gone, the man with the badges, who had wanted to exchange his badge for the small thermometer that hangs from my coat's zip, had thankfully disappeared. There were only policemen in grey capes and the silent, unmoving guard at the entrance to the tomb.
We tried to enter the square and were stopped by a smiling policeman, a blonde slav with pale blue eyes, who was being firm fair and friendly and who explained that cameras were not permitted. When we came back to the entrance after depositing our bags, Mark was politely asked to extinguish his cigarette. There was no one else waiting outside the mausoleum although a tourist bus was arriving behind us. There was a time when people had come and queued for days, there had also been a time, after the banning of the communist party, when Russians of the standing of Sobcheck, the mayor of St. Petersburg, had called for the closure of the mausoleum and the burial of Lenin's body.
You enter the mausoleum and go down, down dark wide steps that lead to a large dim chamber where Vladimir Illych is resting. He lies at right angles to the entrance and you have to wander round the other three sides of the room along a black balcony. The glass case is simple, and inside it, one hand open, one hand clenched, he sleeps through the endless blank of an athiest's eternity. The case is filled with a soft yellow light which makes him look jaundiced although he looks a lot better than many folk who haven't been dead for half as long as he has. The crowd hustles through. I wanted to loiter, began to slow down as I came opposite him and the policeman in the corner moved towards me, hurrying me out.
We all interpret the world differently. Here was a man who had decided that that wasn't enough, that unlike the Mensheviks, those "dry as dust archivists" he would do something about it. Such a strange, rare combination of dreamer and man of action.
As ruthless, though perhaps not as statistically bloody, as Stalin, the successor he had come to fear and despise. He had died before his name could be associated with the worst excesses of the Soviet regime and has somehow escaped much of the opprobrium that has attached itself to Stalin's memory.
Outside in the rain we wandered along the Kremlin wall, past the statues of the not so anonymous heroes of the Revolution. Flowers had been left on some of the statues, the biggest bunch of roses lay on Stalin's.
To counterpoint such socialist nostalgia we went to GUM. Gum is the major department store in Moscow, a kind of Harrods with architectural elegance. Our guide book said we should visit it "for a bird's eye view of the misery of Soviet shopping." If any more evidence was necessary to convince us that there was a new class emerging with money to spend it would have been here. The complex is full and crowded with shoppers: foreign goods; L'Oreal, Faberge, Teflon, Black and Decker; adverts for tampons and shampoo in English, subtitled in Russian. Beside the shops little stalls with small arrays of goods and hand written price labels. We had been told that Moscow was working on a dollar economy, but we found very few places wanting "Hard Currency."
Our plan for the afternoon was to visit the Kremlin's churches, then take Mark to the University. The churches are a long way from Western Gothic; they lack the spare austerity of the great Cathedrals of Europe. They envelop you. Their interiors are richly, almost sensually ornate. We gazed in awe at the rich warm colours of the Iconstatis and the complicated patterns of the doors which seemed to argue a different relationship with God, a more personal, more intimate relationship than one can imagine in the cathedrals of Amiens, Chatre or Notre Damme de Paris.
We seemed to do the round of churches with a bored group of adolescent tourists who sat anywhere they could and muttered and ignored their guide's attempts to explain everything to them. We jostled through, admiring architecture, and icons, and then fled into the gardens which are beautifully kept. There were other tourist things to see; the biggest cannon in the world, never fired, the biggest bell, never rung, and we could have jostled with a group of camera snapping Japanese to see these things, but what I remember most is Olga singing me the Winnie the Pooh song in Russian and feeling good that at least one worthwhile cultural icon had made the journey east.
Leaving Mark at the University, Olga and I wandered back to the metro, talking about poetry. Russians not only honour their poets, but take their poetry seriously. Outside the station in Tashkent someone had nailed a poem to a tree. They put flowers on Pushkin's statue. I can't imagine your average Englishman laying wreaths on Byron's grave and the idea of an Australian putting flowers on Banjo Patterson's is faintly comical. It is permissible to be enthusiastic about poetry, to write poetry, to call oneself a poet. Days later, on a dreadful coach tour of Moscow in the rain, we bailed out for a guided tour of a cemetery, and found ourselves around Yesenin's grave.
I knew little about him except that he was married to Isadora Duncan. As we stood there, feeling a little lost, one of the other passengers started an impassioned rendition of Yesenin's poetry. When he finished the small crowd clapped enthusiastically and Olga nodded; he did that well. The man beamed with pleasure, and returned to the sober business of being a tourist.
When I returned home Tanya was studying, and I asked Victor2 about his school and the books he had to read. I had not heard anything good about the Russian school system. Olga was trying desperately to get her son into a private school to avoid what she saw as the mindless regimentation of state schools. V2 explained that the Russian Literature they studied was heavily classical (unlike Australian programs which treat the past as something to be avoided at all costs in case the little Darlings have to make an effort to understand something).
Victor2 seemed to accept, even to enjoy the authors he had to study, and distinguished between those authors he liked and those he found heavy going but whose merits he could see. He and Tanya got into a running argument about the relative merits of several poets from the "Golden Age." To prove a point V2, who plays guitar in a rock band and thinks the Rolling stones and Beatles are "OK", started declaiming lines.
I thought about my own students, thought about the faceless guardians of the syllabus who scream in anguish and pain if a work program even seems to be "literature based" and wondered if I could emigrate.
Moscow no longer seemed drab and dingy; it was beginning to feel as familiar as that tatty old coat you kept because it was comfortable long after it was no longer fashionable. We had visited Kolomenskoe in the afternoon, wandering through its park land by the river, and as I came home, after negotiating the metro on my own, I loitered outside the little park I could see from my window. It was a beautiful, warm evening, the light gentle, the world full of the childhood smell of wet grass.
There were children playing soccer in the park so I stopped outside the railings, wondering what my own boys were doing, but feeling good to be there, then, until I realised that some of the mothers were watching me with misgivings. Wondering what a solitary stranger lurking out side their park signalled in their minds, I went home.
Victor2 kept me entertained while Tania cooked our evening meal. I read in their English text book:
"The Commonwealth of Australia is a capitalist, self-governing federal state and a member of the Commonwealth of nations...The Government defends the interests of the Bourgeois class ..The Progressive people of the country fight for a foreign policy independent of the imperial powers and the development of all sections of the population." p40-41 A.P. Sturkov and B.S. Ostrovsky English text book and reader 10.
End of Chapter
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