REVOLUTION IN THE AIR
The red tide still washes over modern Moscow, mesmerising visitors
There’s a queue in Moscow’s magnificent Red Square that can be seen snaking its way across the landscape four mornings a week. For the less-informed, it’s a bit of a mystery why it’s there, ending as it does at an understated structure on one side of the square.
But for those in line there is a deep sense of anticipation as they wait patiently to see the body of a dead man … a very famous and very dead man indeed. They are about to view the perfectly preserved body of Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union. Date of death: January 21, 1924.
And, once you make it to the entrance of Lenin’s Mausoleum, it’s all over in a minute. You take off your hat (if you have one), step past the stony-faced guards at the door, and it’s a solemn and eerily silent walk past the immaculate figure of Lenin.
It’s not yet appropriate to quip how small he was, or that he looks better at age 148 than most Australian politicians. For now it is a respectful and strangely moving walk past a figure of immense historic stature.
On leaving the mausoleum the starstruck glow is immediately jolted from you, replaced by a more appropriate chill when you spot the grave of one of history’s worst mass murderers, Josef Stalin, a comradein-arms of Lenin.
There is no fanfare surrounding Lenin’s Mausoleum, understandable since the Bolshevik leader himself wanted to be buried in his home town of Ulyanovsk. It is a smallish building that surprisingly blends in with the rest of Red Square. And, as for Stalin, his grave is understated to the extreme, almost lost amid those of his revolutionary cronies.
Indeed, the relationship between the smiling face of modern Moscow and its stern communist past, which came to an abrupt end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, is a complex one but is felt nearly everywhere in this great city.
From the so-called Stalin skyscrapers that dominate the skyline to rail stations stunningly decorated with Soviet artwork; from tales of churches destroyed to tales of cathedrals reborn. It can be seen in the vibrant trade of communist souvenirs and the powerful memorials to Soviet war heroes.
Just along the Moskva River from Red Square, there is the glittering, golden-domed Cathderal of Christ the Saviour. Rising more than 100m into the air, it is the tallest Orthodox church in the world. The local tour guides all quiz travellers on when they think the historic-looking building was constructed. The answer surprises most – the late 1990s.
Of course, there is a tangled story of revolution politics as an explanation. A massive Tsarist-era twin of the church had stood in the same spot until 1933 when it was blown up on Stalin’s orders. A Palace of the Soviets was started but never completed and, eventually in 1959, a huge heated outdoor swimming pool was opened on the site. Today, gazing at the incredible new church that replaced it, it is surprising how some locals still pine for the Soviet swimming pool they grew up with.
As Muscovites basked in the warm waters of Europe’s largest outdoor pool in the 1960s, the Cold War was heating up in the form of the US versus Soviet Union space race, a contest beautifully documented from the Russian side at Moscow’s Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
And, surprisingly the museum provided more preserved bodies of Soviet heroes … this time of space dogs Belka (Squirrel) and Strelka (Little Arrow). The pair made history when they spent a day in space aboard a Sputnik space capsule on August 19, 1960, before safely returning to Earth.
A year later, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave US president John F. Kennedy one of six puppies to which Strelka had given birth, a bid to ease tensions between their nations.
Like Lenin, the two space dogs look completely at peace in their place of final rest, as tourists stroll past contemplating their place in history.
The Red Army’s triumph over Hitler’s Germany in WWII is the proudest area of Soviet history for most Russians, and so it’s not surprising Park Pobedy or Park of Victory is a must-see Moscow attraction. Easily accessible by the Metro (a super-efficient underground rail system), this sprawling open-air park with its monuments, relics, museums and places of worship is an impressive reminder of the sacrifice, heroism, terror and destruction of the greatest conflict in human history.
The central feature of the park is the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which is both a documentation of history and a heartbreaking memorial. The Hall of Remembrance
A RESPECTFUL AND STRANGELY MOVING WALK PAST A FIGURE OF IMMENSE HISTORIC STATURE
and Sorrow honours the more than 25 million Soviet citizens who died in the war. Its ceiling is covered in glass beading, representing the countless tears shed for those victims. There are also dramatic reconstructions of the cataclysmic Soviet-Nazi battles, including a stunning recreation of the final destruction of the Nazi capital, as seen through the prism of one normal Berlin house.
In contrast to the glory of Park Pobedy stands the curiously wonderful Graveyard of Fallen Monuments, officially known as the Muzeon Park of Arts. Here you can see hundreds of discarded monuments from the Soviet era. A host of Bolshevik baddies appear in various guises. Lenin is particularly well represented but there are others – Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
The park, which runs alongside the Moskva River, is quite peaceful and also contains the modern art section of the Tretyakov Gallery. Plus, it lies across the road from famous Gorky Park, once the pride of Soviet city planning, so a great morning or afternoon in the Moscow sunshine (fingers crossed) beckons.