Tuesday, November 17, 2009


In Russia: Day 10

Tuesday starts slowly over eggs, sausage, toast, yogurt, and fruit. Setting out, we’re without Faith, our translator. We stop along the way to get trip photos developed; we have albums to fill for the kids. They’ll want to show their friends back at the orphanage the activities and the people they spent time with. Some of them have an inkling we’re doing more than just sightseeing, and they’ll want to show off their new mom and dad. We drop into a photo shop, and since the chaperone and I share about 100 words in common, none of which have anything to do with photography, it is a bit of an enigma if the clerk will understand how many copies we want of each print. She writes on a paper when we should return, and we eventually establish a price, which I think I understand.

We hustle to Red Square for one of Moscow’s quirkiest sights: the Lenin Mausoleum, a cubic pyramid safeguarding either the well-preserved body of Vladimir Lenin, or a good wax effigy, depending on whom you believe. Regardless of my distaste for communism and its poster child, I believe this is one of Moscow’s must-see sights; it’s not every day you see the well-preserved body of a long-deceased world leader. The mausoleum’s hours would make a banker blush; the rest of the time, the corpse stews in preservatives, and occasionally, undergoes a change of clothes. In spite of the care, rumors an ear once fell off circulate. Lenin hoped to be buried; eighty-five years posthumously in a post-Communist Russia, his wish may be granted. Communist Party demonstrators armed with bullhorns, placards, and vintage Soviet Union flags are frequent and fervent protestors outside Red Square, taking umbrage with plans floating to bury the mortal remains of their hero. I find the modern-looking pyramid architecturally dissonant in Red Square, though its design provided seating for Soviet officials atop the mausoleum, watching military parades on important Communist holidays. During the height of the Cold War, American foreign policy workers studied annual Revolution Day photos of the pyramid to determine who was on the rise in the Party by their proximity to Josef Stalin.

In my youth, years before the fall of the Iron Curtain, I read Lenin’s remains were publicly displayed. A history buff even as a child, I added the Lenin Mausoleum to my sightseeing wish list, never believing I would check it off. Twenty years hence, on my first morning in Russia, I visited the mausoleum, and if the sight itself was underwhelming, the fulfillment of a childhood dream was not.

Waiting in a line I feared interminable, filing through metal detectors, checking bags, and under advisement that absolute silence was enforced, we traipsed through an otherwise closed-off Red Square to the pyramid. It was dark inside; a large hammer and sickle, especially creepy in this context, welcomed us. Descending black marble steps in near-darkness, I wondered who you’d sue if you broke your neck. At the bottom, around a corner, there he laid, Lenin, waxy and encased in glass, wearing red tie and subtle smirk. As I paused to see how well the ears were attached, excusing my macabre interest as historical exercise, a humorless guard snapped his fingers and pointed the way out. Up more lightless steps, out the door, my youthful desire bore fruit, absent fanfare, in under a minute.

Exiting the mausoleum, the obligatory walk along the Kremlin walls passes the graves of many a Communist luminary, including Stalin himself. For a time, Stalin kept Lenin company, though today, he reposes outside the mausoleum under a bust labeled “СТАЛИН.” We marveled at the number of red carnations left there by fawning, and historically ignorant, admirers; usually, the Stalin grave has more flowers than do other premiers. His reputation has undergone a bit of a restoration of late, as those who remember first-hand his purges and gulags pass from the scene.

Today, in Lenin the kids see the face of the darker side of their country’s history. Those who are interested appreciate the spectacle; those who aren’t dislike the same. None connect the man to his deeds, and what he did to their country and countrymen.

We cross the square to eat pizza in GUM, then rush to make our tour time at the Armory, a treasure trove of Russian artifacts in the Kremlin. Fabulously ostentatious carriages, Ivan the Terrible’s ivory throne, Catherine the Great’s embroidered gowns, and priceless objets d’art shine in my favorite Moscow museum. It’s an expensive ticket, but worth it. It thrilled me to see my own kids’ pride to be Russian, as they saw the grandeur of the exhibits. Unfortunately, my companions today, both adult and child, are less moved. I am dismayed both by their relief as we depart, and their request to return to the hotel rather than use the Kremlin tickets I already hold in hand. But with seventeen votes for the hotel, one for the Kremlin, I acquiesce. On our way out, we pass a lone violinist in a road underpass, playing Vivaldi’s “Summer,” from the Four Seasons. His gloveless hands red, I shiver vicariously, wondering at the irony of his musical selection. Standing there as long as I do, etiquette demands I drop a few rubles in his open case.

On our way back to the hotel, we pick up our pictures. The quality is sub-optimal, but the order is correct, and far less costly than I thought we’d agreed to. In the hotel common area, we serve cake to the kids and sing “Happy Birthday” in Russian. It’s nobody’s birthday, but we want them to know we love them, and it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

As I clean up the dishes, an Egyptian man staying in the hotel approaches us. “You Americans are fathers of the world,” he praises. “You even care for children of other countries.”

We’re a long way from home, but apparently exuding compassion. I appreciate the affirmation, but hope more than anything that his words are prophetic.
See photos and videos here.