Moscow night from the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski along the Moscow River. 1:30 AM. Photo: JH.
Moscow is a boomtown at the beginning of the 21st century. A boomtown amidst the ancient fortresses and centuries old buildings. There are tall cranes and construction all over this far-flung city. The lobby of the Baltschug Kempinski where we are staying is pulsating with the entreprenurial feeling. And the feeling, not so incidentally to this Westerner is easily identifiable. We call it freedom.
In the hotel lobby at four o’clock in the afternoon (high tea), it is mainly men in suits, although there are many more casually dressed in jeans and pullover sweaters that reveal their rich diets. Jeans are everywhere, on all ages, types and sizes. Jeans, as some may have forgotten, are an American invention, invented for other boomtowns in other boom times.
The men in the hotel lobby sit around in groups of two or four or six, someone occasionally smoking a cigar, and discussing. In Russian. Discussing what I cannot say. I can’t understand one word of the language. But it appears to be serious. The intent is serious. With the occasional laughter interspersed.
Cars pull up to the hotel door, just ten yards from the lobby — Mercedes, BMWs, Japanese models (no American so far), dropping off, picking up more businessmen. Occasionally there is a woman present (besides the women on the hotel staff). She often has shopping bags with her. Luxury shopping bags, that is. And she is wearing jeans too, and maybe a form fitting sweater and some jewelry, and always high heels. Her hair is often blonde or deeply hennaed or both. Women’s hair color is a big thing in Moscow, and often a combination with pink or mauvish highlights — all of it a bid for keeping up with the fashion.
The fashion for the men is more traditional. The Russians’ suits are usually boxier. And their shoes are usually black and longer in the toe, and frequently unshined and scruffy looking (although there is a bootblack often languishing just around the corner from the lobby). The very prosperous also have beautiful shoes which are shined. The cut of the Westerners’ suits are often more shaped to the form of the body, although not necessarily bespoke. The exceptionally well-dressed have no nationality, just a need to express their prosperity in style. They are the cut above.
In one corner of the lobby is a maquette of the Kempinski that is a-building in Dubai. It is fabulous and makes you daydream about living your life in luxury hotels without a care in the world. Wherever that world is. Not far from the maquette display is a grand piano where a blonde woman with an upswept hairdo plays cocktail piano and I find myself singing the words under my breath:
You must remember this,
A kiss is still a kiss;
A sigh is still a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As Time Goes By.
Yesterday was a busy one for us visitors. At eleven o’clock we were transported by van to the Kremlin for a tour. I would call it the “demystifying tour” for the Kremlin of my lifelong imagination was transformed by this tour. First of all, it is a huge tourist attraction as are our national monuments and buildings. There are also lots and lots of small children in groups. We were part of a group organized by a public relations executive Marilyn White, brought here ostensibly to report on the 3rd annual Moscow World Art Fair. The tour of the Kremlin was a perk.
A guide met us outside. A Russian woman with highly accented but excellent English; full-figured with short blond hair with mauve-ish/pinkish highlights, dressed in a trencchcoat (it has been raining a lot off and on), white blouse and small square ceramic earrings, she had a shopping bag with her also, and looked as if she might be going shopping (for some luxury items) after she finished with us.
We begin our tour walking towards the Troitskaya (Trinity) Tower, the Kremlin’s tallest tower.
Built in 1495 by Antonio Bono and Pietro Antonio Solari, the Trinity Tower was crowned with a spire similar to that of the Spasskaya Tower at the end of the 17th century and serves as the main entrance into the Kremlin complex. Chimes were added to the tower in 1686, but were destroyed in 1812 in the fires that raged around Moscow during Napoleon’s occupation of the city.
Looking towards the buildings which face the walls of the Kremlin, while walking across the stone bridge into the Kremlin.
A street inside the Kremlin; The Arsenal, just inside the Troitskaya Tower, was commissioned by Peter the Great in 1701 to store weapons and military equipment. Several canons that were captured during the Napoleonic Wars are arranged in front of the building.
The Senate building, opposite the Arsenal, built between 1776 and 1788 by architect Matvei Kazakov, commissioned by Empress Catherine the Great to house meetings of the Moscow branch of the Senate. The cupola sits above the building’s grand hall, which was formerly used for meetings of the USSR Council of Ministers and the awarding of Lenin Prizes.
The building also used to contain the former quarters of Lenin and Stalin’s study, under which a secret passage was discovered that may have enabled the Director of the Secret Police, Beria, to overhear the dictator’s conversations. In 1991 it became the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation, although Putin does not actually live there.
The Tsar Cannon cast in 1586 was originally created with the purpose of defending the Kremlin’s Savior Gate, which leads to Red Square, but the canon was never actually fired.
The State Kremlin Palace was built between 1959 and 1961 to host Party congresses. Its 6,000-seat auditorium now plays hosts to the Kremlin Ballet Company and various Russian pop and rock artists.
Patriarch’s Palace and Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles. In 1589 the estate was turned into the Patriarch’s Court when Patriarch Iov, the first Patriarch of Moscow and the newly formed Russian state, took up residence there. Subsequent residents included Patriarch Filaret, the father of Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov.
A group of schoolchildren on the steps of The Cathedral of the Assumption.
The Cathedral of the Assumption was the place of the coronation of the first Russian Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, in 1547, and all the Emperors from 1721 onwards. Napoleon’s cavalry stabled their horses there. Legend has it that in the winter of 1941, when Nazi troops had already reached the outskirts of Moscow, Stalin gave the secret order for a service to be held in the Cathedral of the Assumption to pray for the country’s salvation; The spacious and light interior covered entirely with glowing frescoes.
Looking around Cathedral Square with the imposing turrets behind Church of the Deposition of the Robe.
After going through the brief security check we walked over a bridge that once spanned the Moscow River, through one of the main towers (the oldest of the fortress) onto the Kremlin grounds. The grounds are enormous and parklike, similar to a college campus with lawns, groves of trees, flowerbeds, double-laned roadways, and what the Russians call “squares” but what most Americans would regard as would-be parking lots.
Most buildings are from the 18th century or older with the exception of a very large concrete and glass building which reminded me of Lincoln Center in New York. Not surprisingly it was built around the same time as Lincoln Center. It was originally built for all the Soviet Congresses with an auditorium with a capacity for 6000 people. Today is serves many purposes and most especially as a concert hall. The concerts for children often run as often as three times a day.
Across the way is an enormous yellow building which houses government offices and a great armory originally constructed for Peter the Great. Napoleon came along and lived in the Kremlin for about a month and during that time, or soon thereafter, had the armory blown up in 1812. It was reconstructed a century later. Interestingly, at the Moscow World Art Fair, there is one dealer who sells almost exclusively Napoleonic memorabilia and works of art including busts of the French emperor.
Two views of Ivan the Great Bell Tower. Napoleon took a great interest in it when he captured Moscow during the campaign of 1812. On hearing that the cross on the central dome of the Cathedral of the Annunciation was made of solid gold, he immediately gave the order for it to be taken down. Unfortunately, the French leader confused the cathedral with the Bell Tower and its gilded iron cross. All attempts by Napoleon to remove the cross failed, and it was only when a Russian peasant volunteered to climb the tower that they were finally able to lower the cross on ropes to the ground. When the peasant approached Napoleon looking for a reward, Napoleon had him shot as a traitor to his own country.
Tsar Bell, the largest bell in the world, weighing in at 200 tons. Cast in 1655, but not hoisted for another 19 years, it fell to the ground and immediately shattered in the fire of 1701.
The Cathedral of the Annunciation, Patriarch’s Palace and Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles, and Ivan the Great Bell Tower.
The choristers at The Cathedral of St. Michael.
The Great Kremlin Palace was commissioned in 1837 by Emperor Nicholas I. The western wing of the palace features the Imperial family’s private apartments and five grandiose state reception rooms, each dedicated to one of the chivalric orders of the Empire. The ground floor of the Grand Kremlin Palace features the Imperial family’s private apartments, which have been carefully preserved as a museum to the Russian Tsarist dynasty.
Our guide led us to the square of churches just beyond this modern building, where the czars were consecrated, crowned and buried. Fifty-six Russian rulers, including Ivan the Terrible are buried there. The czars’ Moscow palace is also on this Square, great yellow and white edifice of five stories. It is there that the Russian presidents now entertain foreign dignitaries and hold receptions, but the palace is no longer permanently occupied. President Putin, for example, does not live in the Kremlin. He has several residences as president but lives mainly in a house outside of Moscow that was once occupied by Vladimir Ulanov Lenin, from which he commutes daily.
On the tour we were taken inside two of the churches — the one where the czars were crowned (and which Napoleon used for a stable and later tried to destroy) and the other where the czars were buried up to Alexander II. The last czar, as we know, was buried very unceremoniously, his body thrown, along with his family and entourage down an abandoned mineshaft in Ekaterinburg. The leadership succeeding Nicholas II, however, preserved the relics and symbols of the previous forms of leadership and religious traditions, despite the finality of its closure in the public consciousness, so that the history remains intact for all to consider.
The tragedy of Nicholas and Alexandra, like the tragedy of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, is personal but not national in the scheme of political changes. However, Mr. Gorbachev’s Perestroika reflects another course in political transformation less violent, and is a tribute to the ability of man to find other solutions for old problems. Reviewing the lives of the czars, one can see easily what a long road it’s been and how much better off the Russian people are today than their forebears were. Touring the grounds of the once foreboding Kremlin, able to see its beauty, its architecture, its religious history, one can also feel a very strong sense of the transformation that has come about just since the ending of the Soviet rule but even moreso since the fall of the autocratic system.
The grounds of the Kremlin.
Our tour was concluded after about two hours. We were told that there were several exhibitions in the Kremlin which we were free to view although it was time for us to visit the building just outside the Kremlin wall where the Art Fair was setting up for its Vernissage opening last night. The building is called The Menage. It is very old but completely restored for purposes such as last night.
It was a hub of last minute activity, putting things in place, putting down the final carpeting, adjusting the lighting. Everywhere you turned people were on cellphones or chatting with colleagues, in a rush for the big night.
We toured the place and JH photographed many of the booths. We’ve seen a number of art fairs at this stage of the game and so are able to quickly assess the differences and the styles. There were approximately 70 dealers participating in this Moscow World Fine Art Fair from Paris and Geneva and Moscow, along with jewelers from all over the world. There was a difference, however, in that this one was designed most specifically for the Russian clientele many of whom are possessors of new (and often large) fortunes. Americans are familiar with their forebears who settled the American West and California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Their tastes run the gamut between the classic and the contemporary and there is a strong inclination for mixing both as freely as entrepreneurs mix their business interests. The whole fair reflects that freshness and newness.
After our tour and photo op, it was time to return to the hotel and deal with the lingering jet lag, which brings me to the matter of transportation around the great city of Moscow.
Construction abounds outside the Manege, the location of the Moscow World Fine Art Fair.
One of the problems confronting a tourist in a new city anywhere is how to get around. In Moscow, the solution for some might be a van (if you’re in a group) or a hired limousine (if you can afford it). For us it has been a taxi. Now taxis are not so plentiful in this boomtown, compared to New York where yellow cabs are everywhere all the time. Furthermore addresses in this foreign language can be almost as difficult to master as the language itself. The Kremlin, the Kempinski, the Cafe Pushkin are easy for both parties to understand. After that it’s the world of the unknown for the tourist.
The taxi is obtained in one of two ways: you can order one at the restaurant or hotel you are visiting. Or you can go out on the street and hail one down. However, unlike New York, or many American cities, there are very few cars that are marked as taxis. So you stand on the roadside and just raise your hand to hail, hoping that one of the unmarked cars passing by is an available taxi and will stop. Fortunately there are lots of them once you begin this proceess. They see you and pull over.
Then you must negotiate a price — 200 rubles, 300 rubles. The driver might say 800 rubles and you say, 500 rubles, and he may motion you to get in or turn you down. The cars we’ve ridden in are personal cars, often not in very good shape but comfortable enough for the purpose.
Stuck in traffic, looking through the rain-splattered window at St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square.
Shots of the opening night crowd at the Moscow World Fine Art Fair
Benjamin Steinitz and brother Steinitz
Stanislas de Quercize
Moscow models take a break below Salvador Dali.
The Chanel pearls.
Exiting the Moscow World Fine Art Fair.
Last night after leaving the fair, we hailed a cab to go to an Italian restaurant called Mario’s which had a very good rating from Zagat’s. (Yes, Zagat is in Moscow too!) The first taxi that stopped didn’t know what we were talking about (“we want to go to Mario’s restaurant”). JH had written down an address but when he repeated it the taxi driver still didn’t know what he was talking about. When JH showed him the address, written in English, he couldn’t read it. So he turned us down. The second driver also couldn’t help. There was a moment (and it has occurred several times on this trip) when you realize that you are completely at the mercy of an individual who does not understand one word of your language and you do not understand one word of his. He could take you anywhere and too bad for you if he does. This did not happen, of course. Taxi drivers are interested in the same thing they are interested in in New York: get the customer to the destination, get the money and move on.
Finally a taxi came along with a driver who did not understand what we were talking about, had never heard of Mario’s restaurant or where it was located. However, he pulled out a map and a magnifying glass and started to look. Finally he said in his Russian: “ahh, Mah-ee-oo.” Yes Yes. “Ressa-awnt.” Yes yes. “Ahh,” he nodded. Then JH said: 400 rubles. He nodded again, and we were off.
It was a bit of a ride to Mario’s, moving quickly through main thoroughfares, down neighborhood streets, around corners, down some more neighborhood streets until the driver began to slow down, as if looking for it. Finally, there it was: a one-story white building with a yellow sign: Mario’s. Now, we were also told that the taxi drivers will accept rubles, or euros or dollars, and that they especially like dollars. The current exchange rate is approximately 27 rubles to a dollar. So I pulled out fifteen bucks American and asked if that would do. He was very pleased.
We were very late for our reservation (9:15 — we arrived at 10) but the staff at Mario’s was very accommodating. The place looks not unlike an Italian restaurant in Greenwich or Westchester. The menu is in Russian and Italian. I’m proficient in neither also pomodoro and tagliatelle may as well be English at this point. The waitstaff (mainly younger men) looked very American to these eyes. It was busy but not crowded. At a big round table next to us, three couples were celebrating one man’s birthday.
We both ordered a tomato, mozzarella and basil starter followed by a dish of pasta and two glasses of Vodka in chilled glasses along with some Pellegrino. At first the waiter didn’t understand when I ordered vodka. Vahd-ka. Hmmm? Finally, Woid-ka, and he smiled acknowledgement and was off.
The dinner was excellent. About fifteen minutes before finishing we asked the hostess if she could get us a taxi. Fifteen minutes later, a young man named Sergei who manages the restaurant, informed us that the taxi had arrived.
This taxi was marked: yellow with a light on top. One of the few. But when we got in, there was no meter working. So it was “the Kempinski” and “400 rubles.” Okay. Returning to the hotel, I kept looking for milestones that were familiar but it wasn’t until we passed through Red Square and the GUM that I began to feel at home once again. It had been raining briefly while we were eating dinner. On arrival at the hotel, we strolled over by the riverside where JH got that great shot of the Moscow night.
Mario’s manager, Sergei, in front of the restaurant.
Serving the birthday cake and mixing the pasta at Mario’s.
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