by Roxane Hudon
As a child, I dreamt of Russia, of Tsar Nicholas II writing love letters to his Empress wife, of Rasputin’s mysticism and Anastasia’s possible survival, of ridiculous palaces and long carriage rides across an impossibly vast and icy land. As a teenager, I still dreamt of Russia, of Ivan Drago’s fists of steel, of Rosa Klebb’s killer shoe, and any other Soviet villain with a nifty killing gadget and a thick, over-the-top accent. Eventually, the dreams evolved into a strange sort of infatuation, of the grim and dark, Stalin, Dostoevsky, gulags, Anna Politkovskaya, Chechnya, to the odd and hilarious, Putin and an invented underwater Antique vase discovery, cat circuses, dashboard cameras, a photo of an obese woman sexily posing next to a microwave and anything else that would provoke a bemused ‘what the fuck, Russia?’
And so, when a 60-pound return ticket to Moscow popped up as a response to my query ‘where can I go for cheap before I’m forced to go back to Canada and be severely depressed for a few months?’ the reality of my dwindling UK bank account and limited time left in Scotland didn’t seem to matter, because, what the fuck, I was actually, finally going to Russia. “Eek, not the best time to go, eh,” said they, and I answered, “possibly, you’re right, Ukraine, gays, Pussy Riot, what the fuck, Russia, but when, pray tell, historically from a Western point of view, would have been a better time?” Somewhere between Ivan the Terrible striking his son on the head and Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a desk, probably. Alas, February 2014, post-Olympics and mid-Crimea, was the perfect time for me.
Arrive in Moscow with your head full of ideas: Dr. Zhivago, Gogol, Soviet propaganda, Putin on a horse and ballerina acid attacks. Step out of the airport into an enormous, cold and stern-faced city. Brush up on your Russian or your queries will receive aloof shrugs as a response. Moscow, a giant, circling, fantasy of a city, with its bizarre alphabet, cotton candy cathedrals, looming Stalinist, Mordor-style skyscrapers, high-kicking soldiers and icy winds, entangling you and dragging you along uncomfortably as you whisper “angliyski?” or something of the sorts, trying to make your own mind up about the notorious, historical bad guy. Arrive late into the night and go for a wander, once you’ve figured out which subway station you’re meant to bustle out of. “Oh, look at those pretty chandeliers!” as the rickety old wagons whistle past and the pious little lady sitting across from you crosses herself for the hundredth time. What was that famous Churchill saying? Russia is like a riddle wrapped into an enigma strangled by a mystery? No matter, it’s 1 a.m. and you’re thirsty. The so-called ‘Chillax’ hostel is making you feel anything but, and you need to wind down and sink your teeth into this big, fat Russian mystery. Find warmth in what seems to be the only pub you’ve stumbled upon, dim red lights and Nirvana posters on the windows, it’s too late to be selective. Contort your face into some semblance of beauty to get past this alleged Russian disco ‘face control’ policy and let a silent butler-esque figure take your coat and send you down to an empty basement where a lone bartender stands behind countless colourful vials. “Dva piva, por favor,” said with 14% multi-lingual confidence. Give up and mumble “English?” half-heartedly when he answers you lengthily in Russian. Ah, he gestures towards the scientific lab he seems to be in charge of: “cocktail?” Fine, there won’t be a relaxed 1 a.m. pint, ask for a whiskey and hope for the best as he takes out some eggs and shakes them about. A delicious, tense, raw egg and whiskey 1 a.m. beverage, served by a charming man, dying to tell you in broken English about his dreams of getting a Manchester United tattoo, as half-naked bejewelled barmaids come down occasionally from the upstairs party you were refused entry to. Ah yes, Dr. Zhivago indeed. Go back to Chillax and hear a man having a wank, tomorrow is a new day.
Walk to the centre of this giant urban mess where imposing grey structures stand next to beautiful tsarist relics, admire the views, admire the ladies. Welcome to Red Square; imagine the tanks, imagine the power, imagine Russia, you are walking on history, stop by Dunkin’ Donuts on the way. Enter Lenin’s mausoleum, dead for 90 years, the little man is somehow religiously kept looking alive thanks to Soviet science, an occasional fresh bale of hay stuffed up his ass and a bit of blush. Admire him lying there in his glass coffin, as the middle-aged Russian woman in front of you places hand to heart and the young, pock-faced Cossack guards yell at you in Russian. Advance, back away, thank the lil’ man for something or other and go on with your day, thinking, quite possibly, ‘what the fuck, Russia.’ Visit the Kremlin, stroll in front of imposing government buildings and give ‘em the finger in honour of Western supremacy. Follow a man dressed in camouflage casually throwing around a hawk. Wait till the changing of the guards and enjoy the fair-skinned guards kicking them as high as Bolshoi’s best, guns in tow, a Cossack throwback performance for the smartphone spectators. Chosen for their Aryan looks and young age, hear them cackle like a gaggle of teenage girls and imagine them riding against a revolution.
It’s March 1st, celebrate spring and eat a pancake, drink some kind of warm, honeyed alcoholic drink. Head to Gorky Park and stand next to multiple Lenins, vestiges of times past mixed in with contemporary art: a statue of a cross-legged naked man named “Overcoming” sitting under imposing Soviet insignia and a noseless Stalin. Cross the road and join the “Maslenitsa” outdoor party. You don’t know what that is, but the Russians are dancing, and skateboarding and having a laugh. Dostoevsky never had it so good: an odd scene of Russian winter spun on its head. Watch out for the rollerblading boy in a bear costume encircling the warmly dressed crowd, jumping around to bagpipes and upbeat folk tunes.
It’s March 2nd, celebrate spring, cross the road and land smack-dab in the middle of a protest, where women and men of all ages are chanting repeatedly “Нет войне” and waving Ukrainian flags. Spot the countless riot cops, get closer. This is it, you are walking on history. Stand around like the rest and wait for shit to go down, as random arrests sometimes interrupt the anti-climax. Take your phone out, zoom in, circle the crowd, step in, step out, stand around for twenty more minutes until you resign to accept that you don’t really know what’s going on, except that bad guys always sound scarier when speaking Russian. “Stay away from crowds of people,” you were told. Stop for a burger at Wendy’s, wave your hands up in the air and sing a terrible song in front of the Pussy Riot church and head back to the party.
Return to Gorky Park, where the Maslenitsa festivities are still bumpin’. Famed Bosnian composer Goran Bregovic takes the stage, warming up an even bigger crowd than the day before, arms raised, feet kickin’ to the Slavic beats. Follow the crowd like you did earlier as they stood against the riot police, follow them to the pier where they light a giant fire, a handful, of brave and foolish purple-faced revellers fuelling it with vodka, as boyfriends carry their gorgeous Russian girlfriends on their shoulders. Order a double Jameson in a wine glass and observe the merriment, not drunk enough to join in, stomp your feet on the icy, Moscow ground to warm them, still uncertain of it all. “Stay away from crowds of people,” you were told. If Russia is a stack of riddles, Moscow is its Rubik’s cube, a heaving cobweb of streets and squares, of Imperial and Soviet strands interweaving, and you don’t have enough days to line up the reds and blues and figure it out. Stand in front of a Slavic Starbucks, thumbing your passport in your pocket, with the gut feeling that the world has become a very tiny place.