I didn’t see much the night I landed in Moscow, or on the cab ride to Atlas Park Hotel, 20 KM south of the city, so when I had a chance to get a guided tour for a full day I was pretty excited. But how could I begin to make sense of a city of over 9 million and growing in one day?
I had my first sense of it when a tourist brochure at the Hotel had a map and I saw from the pattern that it was a classical organic city, radiating out from it’s center on the Moscow River without interference from hills, railroads, or other barriers shaping influences. It has a bit of the pattern of Paris in this regard. Later when I Googled this actual satellite map I felt like I was looking at the cross section of a living cell – and of course it is, a living social organism that is the heart of Russia.
The cab driver who picked me up at 9:00 in the morning didn’t speak English, but I found out from the clerk that Andrey Metchenko, the Mars Training and Development person who had arranged this trip, had also arranged for a guide to meet us at a metro station somewhere in town. Twenty minutes north we were in increasingly heavy traffic, which soon slowed to a crawl. And it crawled for more than an hour! I began to sink into the pace, and open to the details of what I could see. The overcast gray would burst with color as we passed a fruit stand, a kiosk store, a bank. I began to study the Russian letters, which in many cases mean very different sounds than our identical letters. “P” is an “R,” “B” is a “V.” The cab driver began helping. I still felt pretty helpless. We kept passing and falling behind a big bus with only a few riders. Then I noticed an old woman on the bus. Her face seemed ageless. Could I take a picture of her through it all, without intruding? I finally did. What memories does she carry? Where was she during the war? Where was she during Peristroika? Where did she start? How many children does she have? I asked my guide later how people from the old Communist times feel about the new ways. “If they have sons and daughters who are doing well and taking care of them, they probably are happy. If they don’t they feel a great loss.” For this moment this old woman’s face was the face of history, and my own slim understanding of this new land.
The taxi finally pulled over and properly dressed woman opened the door. “We better take the metro from here or you will never get to see the city,” she said in a thick but clear accent, smiling. I startled a little, for she looked a lot like my old friend and colleague Joan Browning, a designer who joined her firm with The Grove in 1991, and then developed lung cancer and died at the age of 50. I was her guide as she passed on, and came to know something about the power of spirit and the possibilities of communication after death from that experience. Joan is still a guide for me, and I had an eery feeling that somehow at least Joan’s energy was here today. Without trying to explain the feeling, it did turn my attention to a subtler plain, and different kind of knowing. The reminder in Lilia’s “familiar” looks felt almost like I was visiting Moscow with Joan.
I followed Lilia’s prim wool hat and tidy coat down into the earth and my first felt sense of the massive scale of this city.
“We’re going to see 49 bronze statues created to honor the working people of Russia,” she said. Hearing her over the blanketing roar of trains and people took my full attention. I could see from the warm coats, boots, wraps, and packages that this was a thriving, middle class crowd I was entering. No threat. No crowding. Just people moving around. “Nine million a day use the Metro” Lilia said. I began to relax.
Lilia got very excited when we reached all the statues. They were powerful, and only the first of many underground stations of studied grandeur and very different styles. “We used these as bomb shelters during the war,” Lilia said. The shiny nose of this soldier’s dog confirmed her report of it’s being a favorite of Moscovites.
We were headed to the heart of the city, the Kremlin. The train was packed. “You have to get on quickly because it doesn’t wait,” she directed. I was in good hands I could see. She had information about everything. I asked how she got into this business and she said she studied to be a teacher and then went into the Ministry of Tourism for a bit before striking out as a guide. She clearly loved the city, Russia, and her job, and spending time in her little Dacha west of Moscow. I found that many people received land free in the past for these little summer places. When Peter the Great moved the capital to St. Petersburg for a while he had to attract people to the mosquito -ridden area and used land gifts as a lure. It began a pattern.
By this time I was studying the Metro Map, trying to understand where I was. I came once again face-to-face with how map-oriented I am. I want to have a big picture concept and know where I am within it. Feeling my way in the dark is not easy. I remembered being lost in Tokyo once and having to use my intuition to navigate, without language or maps. I found my way, but felt very unsteady in the process. I was having the same feeling here. I couldn’t read the signs, or even link to the map, so, like Bucky Fuller, who couldn’t see detail because of his faulty eyesight, I went for the bigger patterns.
Once again I saw the orderly underpinning of this city.
This map felt alive to me in a way that other subway maps have not. Clearly people in this city use the Metro and flow through it like blood through our heart. The perfect circle is unusual. Even so the traffic is a nightmare up above and getting worse. “People are moving into Moscow at an increasing rate” Lilia said. It’s a global trend.
The Kremlin took my breath away. I had seen pictures, but the spaciousness and scale does not translate in flat pictures. It’s inside a walled triangle I estimated to be about seven by seven city blocks. The high, medieval walls with their archers’ slots enclosed three cathedrals, several other churches, government buildings, and a huge meeting hall Krushev built in a very modern style. I took this picture later in the day when the blue sky peeked through. It captures the feeling of approaching this complex better than any of my other pictures. Moscow is the center of this part of the globe in the eyes of the Russian people for sure. These icons at its heart are a constant reminder of that place in history. I could sense the pride in Lilia, and on the faces of the many clearly Russian tourists who were all around us as we went in.
Inside I was struck by the contrast between the intensely spiritual roots of this place in the Russian Orthodox tradition, and the modern secularism with its attraction to power and force. I saw this pattern in the map, with it’s Mandala ring roads and metro, cut by the flowing yin/yang of the Moscow River. It came through in my feeling as I saw a troop of young men marching out the government building area as we entered, already dressed for winter though it was only a brisk fall day. And then in the golden towers of the churches that rose like the candle flames they were shaped to represent, symbols of the eternal light.
I saw this contrast again as we rounded the big hall, now used for concerts only, and came into the area where the Cathedral of the Assumptions and the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael are preceded by an enormous cannon made to shoot one ton cannon balls. “It was never fired,” Lilia said. “It as a psychological weapon.” How true of so much of our warring, and how closely allied are our “true beliefs” and our willingness to fight for their sanctity. Perhaps it is not a contradiction that both these symbols are so proximate.
I stopped abstracting when I stepped inside the Cathedral of the Assumption (where no pictures are allowed). It was a multi-story graphic story of this peoples’ beliefs. And Lilia knew the history. I can’t relay it here, but I was fascinated to get a direct, felt sense of it—clearly still present for the many people coming to this active cathedral. I could see that many were coming to worship even tho it wasn’t a service. Here are the relics of their kings and Saints. Here are the sacred icons, painted by artists who believed their brushes were being guided by the divine, so they never signed their work. Here are the layers of interpretation and conquest, the recast silver recaptured from Napoleon, images of kings who died at the age of 14 of the Black Plague, wide-eyed and small mouthed images of the saints. (The mouth was seen as the source of sins and should be small; the eyes wide to see the divine). The icons are painted on wood, symbol of the cross, with egg tempra, symbol of the newborn in Christ. With one culture foot in the East and another in the West, this art and this pattern began to blur my sense of where Christianity ends and Buddhism begins. Here in the cultural middle of this huge continent, people’s have been trying to make meaning for thousands of years, and these are their reminders.
It wasn’t long before our experience turned magical. We went into the second Cathedral, dedicated to the Archangel Michael (to the right in this picture). As we entered another space cloaked with icons, a rustle caught Lilia’s attention. “Oh we are lucky, they are going to sing.” Five people moved slowly to the area in front of the closed altar doors and turned to the crowd, holding thick song books. Then quietly, with a tone that can only be described as angelic, they began to pray in song. Inside the walls of these cathedrals, I found out later, are embedded hollow earthen jars, just to make the walls more resonant. The arches and soaring ceilings are sound chambers. We were enveloped in sound, carried into our spirits and souls as if an arrow had quivered straight there from a mighty archers bow. I was dumbstruck, and then deeply moved. The soprano sang as a bird would fly. The contralto curled under her sound, held by a deep base, tenor and baritone. There were no boundaries in the sound, only flowing reverence. I found out after that this group is called Anima. I’m still listening to their CD and holding that feeling of having felt the beating heart of this great tradition in direct transmission.
After a wonderful Ukranian lunch in another part of the city, reached again by Metro, we rendezvoused with our driver and came back to Red Square, which was on the other side of the Kremlin from where we entered. Once again I was unprepared for the sweep and scale. This picture only hints at it.
The sun was already low in the sky, but St. Basil’s church, with its nine churches on the second floor, has eight honoring the Virgin Mary under the different domes and a central one dedicated to the ascension. It’s restoration includes reveals into the older layers, styles of decoration, and the unusual feature of painting brick patterns over bricks, in order to make them diminish as they rose higher, increasing the soaring nature of the inner sanctuary. Outside the enormous square is bordered on one side with the wall and turrets of the Kremlin, and the pyramid memorial to Lenin, and on the other by Gum’s Department Store, as lavish and opulent as any nouveau riche Russian would want. Lilia believes Moscow is the most expensive city the world right now. I can’t defend that argument but will agree it is expensive. A simple lunch starts at $50 or 1330 ruples. However people who got into rentals after Perestroika have reasonable rents and low incomes taxes (only about 13% according to Lillie). She was able to move her parents to Moscow during that period. And only 25% of the Russian people have any kind of debt at all, she said, compared to our credit happy society.
Back to the Big Picture
Afer all this Lilia asked me what I was interested in. I found myself back at the big picture level trying to feel the bigger organism. Where was the business district? Where do the poor live? Where are the artists, the upscale, the middle class, the ethnic neighborhoods. I assumed all these features of cities would be here. So we went out to begin to see, but the pull of the cathedrals stayed. As night fell the city lights up, and the domes do become flames. It wasn’t this way 15 years ago, but now all over the city the spires and domes play out a silent pageant of honor for the old traditions. We drove west to the Cathedral of Christ our Savior. In this place I found my favorite story.
Apparently this once was a great church that was blown up in one of the conquests, perhaps Napoleon or the war, I’m not sure. There was a nunnery there, and a prophecy was made that if anything else was to be built it would be destroyed. Well Stalin had plans for an enormous building, the top of which would be a monumental statue of himself. In the basement Lilia showed me the picture and plans. It would have towered over the Kremlin and the skyline. The ground was prepared and some foundations laid, but the post war recession derailed his plans and it was never built. In its stead people raised money to recreate the Cathedral, and dedicated the bottom to the nunnery as a safeguard against the prophecy.
We got in as the last visitor and I was able to see what was clearly the largest interior sanctuary yet. But more movingly, as we went to the basement we happened upon a full Russian Orthodox mass, with full choir, chanting, and many people coming to worship. It is their tradition to stand, not sit in pews, and light candles and make prayers as they follow along. We saw the altar doors open, the connection with the holy icons and the processions of priests.
We came out into the night, and walked toward a well-lighted pedestrian bridge. “This is what many people feel is the spiritual heart of Moscow,” Lilia said. I asked her how. She said that people who feel these things say that the center of the bridge is a special place. Newly weds come here to make vows.
As we walked out I could see how this could be. The view East to the Kremlin over the water was special. Behind was the Cathedral. To the north a great statute commemorating Peter the Great. I felt enchanted. I hadn’t expected this feeling, or sought it, but here it was. The heart of this great city is intact, and remembered, and loved. I contrasted this with all I know from the media, from our media, and wondered how much I really know.
I had said I wanted to get somewhere high and see the city from an overview. So we ended our day in the evening, driving around the Garden Ring Road toward the University of Moscow, a 40,000 student campus on the West side up on a rise that looks out over the city.
From there I could now see what was before only a map. I could imagine a few parts where I had been that day. I could see the tall skyscrapers to the North, west of the Kremlin, where a new center of business skyscrapers is growing. I could see the tall skyscraper to the south with is their Institute of Science. The tall towers of the University lay behind. I found out later that tall buildings are part of seven skyscrapers—ordered by Stalin to have sky scrapers!!! He purposely spread them out to be impressive. But that night I took their elevations as pointers toward values, and remembered an insight I had meditating on the roof of my flat in San Francisco one morning years ago.
Pointers to Value
As I looked out that dawn in SF, I noticed that all the old buildings rising above the visual hum of the Richmond District flats were churches – the Synagogue on Arguello Boulevard, the Russian Orthodox Church out on Geary, The Presbyterian Church on Lake, the Catholic Church on Geary, Lone Mountain College Chapel on the hill, St. Ignatius on Fell. And then I realized that ALL the modern buildings that rose above the flats were medically related – Children’s Hospital, French Hospital, UC Med Center, the VA out on Geary. How are values have changed! How where we place our trust has changed.
And here in Moscow I imagined I could see the pointers. A tradition of divine right of kings and queens in the heart of it all, with the towers of military might right beside – and more contemporarily the towers of science, education and business, the mighty triumvirate of a secular world, but on the periphery of this city, not at its core. In this world, up through the plans of Stalin him self, sprouts the old way, anchored in spirit, popping up like a white mushroom of belief in the face of repression.
I didn’t see the famous clubs, or the lavish hotels. I didn’t encounter the mafia. I didn’t spend time with the farmers. I didn’t see Putin. I didn’t get to see the truly poor parts of this place. I didn’t get to feel the hard bite of winter, or drink vodka, or understand how people make sense of all the many contradictions.
“The Russian people live for the moment” a woman named Larissa, the government affairs officer for Mars told me at dinner one night. “We understand ambiguity. That’s why we like to spend, and share our food.”
At lunch today one of my trainees at Mars tried to explain the change. “It used to be you worked and every year you got a raise, regardless of how you did, and you got your new TV one year, your refrigerator the next, your car the next. It wasn’t much but you could count on it. It was secure. With Perestroika everyone was suddenly on their own. I was young, and I realized even tho I was trained as a mathematician I needed a job, and get my own apartment, and survive, so I did. Now I’m a personnel manager for Mars. Who would have ever thought I would have a mathematics degree and be doing this? For me and others who have made it, and for some of the growing middle class, it is working. For the older people, and many without skills, it’s been a tragedy.”
I come away touched by the scale, and the mystery, and the layers of this land, and humbled that I thought I understood much at all. The last thing I saw before driving back into the night was the most puzzling of all. This icon of light blazed near the metro station where we dropped Lilia, at the foot of the business district with all the skyscrapers. I felt its dazzle, movement, the structural showmanship, the lure. But has Las Vegas infiltrated this culture too? Is profligate energy use the new symbol of power? Is this the future, something fleeting, or an electronic jewel mirroring the crown jewels I saw in the Kremlin’s Armory museum? One day in Moscow won’t give me answers to those kinds of questions, but having them is the gift I received.