Sep 4 2010

Moscow Madness (and a little St. Petersburg, too)

Editor’s note: We’ve spent a few weeks with poor internet access so I’m way behind on my posting. Apologies for the forthcoming barrage!

First: Arrival in Moscow. I’d heard beforehand that train stations were the epicenters of all things sketchy in Russia, so when our train pulled into the Moscow train station, I was a bit apprehensive about finding our way to the hotel. If Moscow were anything like Beijing, we’d be mobbed by aggressive cabbies trying to, both literally and figuratively, take us for a ride. But instead, the opposite happened. No one approached us at all – and it was left to us to find a cab driver with whom we could negotiate a price. Our hotel had told us to pay between 350 and 500 rubles, so when the first cabbie announced that he wanted 1500, we laughed. Not even attempting to bargain, he snorted back at us and resumed playing cards with his friends. So much for the official taxi stand. We tried a few other labeled cabs, to no avail, and then I remembered a piece of somewhat disturbing advice that I’d read in our guidebook: for the right price, any car in Moscow can be a cab.

This didn’t make me feel particularly calm, the whole “find an unmarked car and ask a guy to take you somewhere in a city you’ve know nothing about”  approach, but I’d seen it used by a young woman in St. Petersburg, so we decided to try. Sure enough, after a few more failures, Peter stumbled upon a tanned, muscular guy in a white tanktop and dark sunglasses who seemed up for the challenge. Never mind that he spoke no English and didn’t quite know where the hotel was. He agreed to 500. We hopped in.  I spent the next twenty minutes trying to memorize the birthmarks on his back, just in case I needed to later identify him in a police line-up. Luckily, this was not necessary – the guy wasn’t ill-meaning; he just didn’t have a particularly good sense of Moscow geography. Several phone calls and questions to pedestrians later, and we were there.

Second: some words about Russians and vodka. They really do treat it like water. My favorite vodka sighting was in a big tourist gift shop across the street from Peter the Great’s log cabin in St. Petersburg. The shop is a long hall stuffed with endless marshrutky (nesting dolls), enameled boxes, keychains and fake fur caps – and at the end of the room, next to a samovar, there was a plate full of free vodka samples, plain or cranberry-flavored. I would like to take this opportunity to point out that a. this would never happen in America and b. free vodka samples are an excellent way to increase sales.

Our second vodka run-in – this time more deliberate – was at the vodka museum in Moscow, and it proved that I learned nothing in St. Petersburg. You see, the vodka museum happened to be located directly next to the Izmaylovsky craft market (which, incidentally, you get to from a subway station featuring floral bas reliefs decorated with AK-47s) and, being efficient travelers, we decided to combine them into one trip. I enjoyed my initial wander around the craft market, which sold everything from the ubiquitous marshrutky to antique propaganda posters, icons that you’d never be able to get through customs, and all sorts of communist trinkets. But I enjoyed it even more after our visit to the vodka museum where, after receiving a 20-minute guided tour of the one room exhibition, our guide led us to the museum restaurant and gave us three shots of vodka – a rough, cedar variety from Omsk, a vodka from a bottle designed to look like a nesting doll, and Kalashnikov vodka, which our guide said was sold in a numbered, gun-shaped case. After some snacks of cheez spread wrapped in bologna and several pickled garlic cloves, she gave us a small glass of a sweet, smoky plum-flavored liquor, which she said was popular with the ladies.

Not only was this, without a doubt, the most vodka I have ever consumed in a museum, but it was likely the most vodka I’ve ever consumed in one sitting, period. The result? The craft market got a whole lot more fun. I looked through endless stacks of propaganda posters, hoping to find one I’d seen in a friend’s house that shows a babushka-wearing ear of corn above the caption “To dislike corn is to be an enemy of the people” –despite the fact that I have no way of carrying home even an extra doll, let alone a fragile vintage poster. I made friends with some guys selling salmon shish kebabs, who told us how much they wanted to come to America. (“We hope to see you there!” I encouraged them, as we bought a bottle of water.) I bought a set of hand-painted Christmas ornaments from an excellent saleswoman named Tamara, who greeted us by saying, “I like money! And if you give me money, I like you!” And at a stall on the market’s upper level, I bought my favorite souvenir of them all: a hand-carved space shuttle launching from a piece of bent coat hanger. I love it.

Space dog!

I’m being serious. The Russians are obsessed with all things space-related, as evidenced by cosmonaut museums in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. They’re also obsessed with space dogs — especially Laika, the first dog to ever have been sent into orbit. (Peter bought a Laika t-shirt, only to discover that it had different length arms.)  I like dogs, too. So imagine my delight when the maker of said wooden space ship popped open the carving to reveal a hollow interior containing not one, but two tiny wooden dogs.  It was pretty much the tackiest thing I’d ever seen. But it is also kind of amazing.

One of these sleeves is not like the other.

A last Moscow observation: if you have a chance, by all means, visit the All Russian Exhibition Center, known as Vystavka Dostinzheny Narodnogo Khozyaysta SSR (VDNKh) – the USSR Economic Achievements Exhibition.

Created in the 1930s but expanded in the 50s and 60s, the VDNKh was intended to show the world the economic achievements of socialism. Its grounds are 2 km long and 1 km wide, with dozens of buildings and pavillions constructed to celebrate socialist accomplishments in everything from education to health, technology and science. I’m fascinated by socialist realism to begin with (you must depict reality! But an idealized form of reality that does not yet exist!) and am fond of clashes between communism and capitalism, especially those that involve camel rides. So I was pretty much in heaven.

VDNKh’s funding was cut off in the 90s, and what was built as a soaring tribute to socialism is now a combination of amusement park and shopping mall. I mean both literally. You enter the complex through a giant arch topped by a socialist-realist sculpture of a triumphant peasant who’s since been joined, a bit lower, by a banner advertising cheap fur coats. Beyond the arch is a cartoon-themed tourist train, which makes loops of the immense grounds – though if Tommy the Tank Engine is not your style, you can also rent bicycles or, better yet, in-line skates. The tourist train and rollerbladers zig and zag along a promenade leading to one of the main buildings, with a beautifully decorated white facade set behind an enormous statue of, you guessed it, Lenin. (We actually saw a man get down on one knee before it – he remained there so long and with such intensity that we worried he might be about to blow himself up, especially when he started reaching around in his bag, but he emerged with a black umbrella to use as a parasol).

Lenin with Ferris wheel.

There are merry-go-rounds, there are games of skill and chance. There are hot dogs and ice cream cones, a miniature race track, a display of sand sculptures in the face of Soviet leaders – and yes, there are camel rides. And that is just outside. Inside the magnificent halls is the very world they were intended to rebuke: they’ve all been turned into shopping malls. As the occasional pigeon flies overhead, you can shop for everything from spiked collars to Siberian birch boxes to cameras to manicure supplies. One particularly impressive hall, a large arched space that ends in a now-shrouded portrait of Russia’s first cosmonaut, has been turned into a gardening center.

As we wandered past ice cream vendor after ice cream vendor, we wondered what Lenin would think. I assumed he would roll over in his glass coffin. But Peter pointed out that if he were to simply drop by with no historical update, he might actually be thrilled: the place was packed with happy people enjoying the smog-free afternoon. Someone would just have to make sure he didn’t go inside.

I bought things from this person.

I did not buy things from this person.