A Tourist In Russia
By Gabrielle Blair
May 9th, Victory Day: I’m in the main hall of the Mayakovsky Metro station in Moscow, our pre-arranged point for meeting Sergei and Yulia. It is one of many constructed in the 30’s that feels like a palace, intended as such. Why shouldn’t the transport system that moves millions of passengers each day be gorgeous? I’m leaning against one of hundreds of white and red marble pillars, looking down the long hall of arches; the domed ceilings are decorated with intricate mosaics of Soviet depictions of war scenes and everyday activities such as sports, children playing ball or flying toy airplanes. Brilliant, white, glass chandeliers light the marble floors with red, white and black geometric designs.
We are about to start the March of the Immortal Regiment, an ever growing annual event across Russia, and indeed in other countries, in which relatives carry framed photographs of those who died in the Great Patriotic War, in the West known as World War Two. But first we must ride one more metro stop to Dinamo Station, another grandiose, underground, palatial structure named after the Dinamo Sports Stadium.
People flow onto the twelve-lane Tverskaya Ulitsa, now empty of traffic. Police guard along the way, but the chance of disruption is unlikely. Orange and black- striped St. George ribbons are being given away to be tied in a bow and worn pinned over your heart or on your pilotka (khaki-colored soldiers cap) for sale for a few rubles if you don’t already have one. This historic ribbon goes back to pre-Soviet times, in Imperial Russia 1807 – 1913. The St. George Cross, an award for bravery and distinction in combat, would be hung from it. There is an air of excitement and expectancy for this very emotional day. I remember that Russia was on ‘our side’ before someone drew the curtain between East and West. It was Churchill who coined the phrase the “Iron Curtain,” and thus began the Cold War.
We are at the start of the six-kilometer march, one million expected this year. Musicians on the side-lines are playing accordions, saxophones and strings. Space is cleared for a mother and young son who are waltzing to a well-known tune. Military marches and songs are piped through speakers. More marchers have joined us with flags, banners and blue, white and red balloons, the colors of the Russian flag. Sergei, who is fluent in English and a bit of an historian, points out architectural periods: pre-Revolution; Stalin; Khrushchev, his descriptions being drowned out from time to time by the ‘hoorahs!’ coming in waves down the lines. Arms wave to the helicopter flying over at regular intervals, filming for Russian television. We pass a TV film crew and I volunteer to say something as a foreigner from Canada, with my Russian-speaking husband interpreting for me. We never find out whether my segment is aired, but I’m pleased to share my enthusiasm for being part of this momentous event.
The crowd is now dense. Little children trot beside parents, their view obstructed by the large bodies around them, or the lucky ones ride on their father’s shoulders. The sea of black and white photographs of the dead loom above us attached to white poles or clutched close to the chest of their relative. Women with canvas bags ease through the masses and hand out bottles of water. The air is hot and sticky. At intervals we pass army field kitchens where you can get a free, plastic bowl of kasha (buckwheat porridge), typical of a soldier’s ration.
My history lesson continues as Sergei points out the statue of Uri Dolgaroky, who founded Moscow in 1147. The occasional sign in English surprises me: “Conversation Coffee and Cakes” and the ubiquitous McDonald’s. Menus are often in Russian and English and metro stations are announced in Russian and perfect BBC English. Soon this may also be in Chinese as Chinese tourism burgeons.
As we approach Red Square, in the final kilometer, we come to a virtual standstill. We shuffle forward five or ten paces at a time as they funnel us into a couple of lanes to pass through security. Just then the ominous cloud ahead, that we’ve been eyeing expectantly, announces the storm with forked lightning, ear-splitting thunder and the first drops of rain. Raincoats appear out of back-packs, umbrellas are opened, but in minutes some are turned inside-out in the fierce wind. We hesitate for a few minutes, reluctant to leave the stalwarts that have no intention of deserting the ranks, and decide to join those scattering like ants from a disturbed nest. We learn later, watching television, that we, the ‘softies’ who ran, were a mere drop in the ocean. The other thousands and thousands of marchers remained to the very end.
In minutes the streets have become running rivers and my soaked clothes cling to me. We shelter in an outdoor restaurant, where other deserters are hanging onto the patio umbrellas against the wind. They let go promptly when someone suggests that lightning might strike. A young couple lifts their little girl over the patio railing. She is so cold that her teeth are chattering. Baring his chest to the elements, Dad strips off his wet tee-shirt and jacket to wrap around her.
There’s a break in the deluge and we set off in the rain, sloshing through the streaming streets. Eventually, thoroughly drenched, we find a cab and the driver agrees to take us, but he charges extra because we’ve wet his seats! At home, we change into dry clothes, fortify ourselves with Spanish wine and go out to our favorite neighborhood restaurant, Katchapuri, where Haidar, from Central Asia, seats us at our usual corner table and brings a large order of freshly made cheburiki (paper-thin pastry folded over into a meat or cheese-filled pie) served piping hot.
Later, on a bridge over the Moscow River, we watch the fireworks display, hundreds of exploding ‘pin-cushions’ - red, green, purple, gold and silver - with canon-like booming, as though under fire in war time. Now in peace time, as the smoke from the fireworks dissipates, the day ends as it began, in a mood of celebration and harmony. Here and there stragglers, arm in arm, make their way home from Red Square, with the occasional verse of a favourite war song to be heard.
Blair Bio: Born in South Africa, Gabrielle made Canada her home during the Apartheid Era. She and her husband summer in their Ontario cottage and a remote cabin in Quebec, and winter in Ajijic. Once a professional ballet dancer, she now expresses her creativity by writing poetry and reflecting on the world around her.