Begin the Tran-Siberian adventure
Jul 2, 2011
|Being that our train leaves late we had the day to continue our adventures in Moscow. With an early start we bee-lined for Lenins Mausoleum. The queue grew quickly, most with Chinese. I was interested in this visit as in high school i read animal with great interest. For the burial of the "Father of the Revolution", it was decided that something special had to be arranged. In 1929, architect Aleksei Shchusev was commissioned to design a more lasting home for the body than the original wooden room. The result, unveiled a year later, was a squat but attractive pyramid in layers of red, grey and black granite that harmonizes remarkably well with the Kremlin buildings behind it, despite its clear Constructivist influences. In the 1930's, granite platforms were added around the sides of the mausoleum, providing a point for government officials to inspect parades, a sight that became famous throughout the world in the Soviet Era.
While the mausoleum is comparatively small from the outside, it has hidden depths. There are two underground floors to the structure, which used to house a rest area for VIPs and the Kremlin guards, and the laboratory that was once used to supervise the ongoing embalming process. Sadly, though apparently no longer used, they aren't open to the public.
Despite the attention of a team of scientists - and leaving aside rumors that he was long ago replaced by a wax model - Lenin is not the freshest-looking of corpses. Gone are the days when eager citizens queued round block to catch a quick glimpse of the great leader. However, if you do wish to see the body, the process is far from simple. First you have to leave bags and cameras - no filming inside - in the Kutayfa tower cloakrooms. Then you join the queue that runs along the Kremlin wall. Visitors are kept moving, so you only get to spend a few minutes inside the mausoleum before you're hurried out by the guards. The funerary chamber is very dark and, on such a sunny day, the sudden contrast was bewildering. Nonetheless, I think this is still something of a morbid necessity for visitors to Moscow. It was strange to be there for a viewing, after all the history past, and I got a little thrill at the fact his last wishes were to be buried, yet here I was with millions of others staring at his decaying body with contempt!
Next stop was The Kremlin and its Amoury. I had idea what was within, but boy was I impressed!
Part of the Great Kremlin Palace complex, the Armory is home to Moscow's oldest and most prestigious museum, which boasts a staggering collection of Tsarist artifacts, Russian and foreign jewelry and armour. Although the museum has been open to the public since the mid-19th Century, the current collection was established as recently as 1986, which means that display techniques are relatively modern, the layout is clear and coherent, and there is even plenty of labeling in English.
The Armoury covers two floors, the lower dedicated to artifacts directly linked to Russia's rulers. The first hall on the lower floor contains court dresses and religious vestments, including Catherine the Great's glorious coronation dress, the saccos (ceremonial robe) of Peter, Moscow's first Metropolitan, which dates back to 1322, and Peter the Great's high boots and cane. The next hall contains state regalia and ceremonial objects, which means thrones such as Ivan the Terrible's beautifully carved ivory throne and the exotic gold and turquoise throne given to Boris Godunov by the Shah of Persia, and crowns - most notably the Crown of Monomakh, purportedly a gift from the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachus, and used to crown all the Tsars up until 1682.
The last two halls of the ground floor contain equestrian-related artifacts: decorative saddlery and state carriages. The most impressive pieces of tack are the two gold harnesses that were presented by the sultans of Turkey to Catherine the Great, and the carriages include one given by James I of England to Boris Godunov, and Empress Elizabeth's coach with paintings by the French artist Francois Boucher.
Upstairs, the first two rooms contain Russian gold and silver from the 12th Century onwards, a sumptuous collection of jewelry, tableware, icons and decorative objects. The large case of Faberge eggs, presents exchanged between the tsar and tsaritsa every Easter, is probably the highlight of the collection, including the famous Siberian Railway Egg. However, the most beautiful items are those from earlier centuries, when Russian craftsmen developed their own techniques and styles, rather than taking their cue exclusively from Europe. Traditional Russian decorative art reached its peak in the late 16th and 17th centuries, and there are scores of examples in the collection illustrating the styles of the schools that developed in different cities of Russia.
The collection of weapons, also divided by hall into Russian and foreign examples, is equally impressive. Mikhail Romanov's ornate, jewel-encrusted arms case and quiver, and the splendid dagger presented to him by the Shah of Persia, are particularly noteworthy.
We were very hungry after all this so we walked across Red Square, to Russia's most famous shopping mall - the State Department Store, GUM. In the Soviet Union, the top floor was home to Section 100, a secret clothing store only open to the highest echelons of the party. Nowadays the rows of exclusive boutiques are accessible to anyone with a platinum card. That said, the building itself is glorious, and there are still a few more interesting relics of a bygone era on the higher floors that make it well worth exploring.
The site has been used for trading throughout history. By 1520 there was already a large stone arcade standing here. Fire destroyed the old Upper Trading Rows, as they became known, and the current building was completed in 1893. A joint project between architect Aleksander Pomerantsev and engineer Vladimir Shukov, its steel framework and glass roof were, at the time, on the cutting edge of technology, and give GUM a certain resemblance to a large European station. Before the 1917 Revolution it contained a staggering 1,200 stores.
In 1928, GUM was closed by Stalin, who decided to use the building as the headquarters for officials working on the first Five Year Plan. GUM was reopened in 1953, and became one of the most popular sites for the legendary Soviet queues, which could at times extend all the way across Red Square. After privatization in the early 90s, it rapidly became the address of choice for top-end Western retailers. Journalists and travel writers often comment on the sharp contrast between prices in GUM and poverty in Russia - as if the majority of New Yorkers get their clothes from Saks, or the average Londoner could afford to do their grocery shopping in Harrods. Tonight I was to meet the others for dinner, but I piked. I am exhausted! I had pizza delivered to my room, read the local expat newspaper (remind me about a very interesting article on abuse of the pysch system) and went into heady oblivion.