XXV: Around Moscow

Moscow, June 6th — It’s fortunate I’m sick at this hostel, which is a pod hostel that at least grants me visual privacy. Coughs reverberating through particleboard can be attributed to that guy rather than me. Yet, combine cough and these pod dimensions—seven feet long, three and a half feet wide, just enough overhead space for my elbow to touch—and you have a person who is perhaps dying and locked into his coffin for expediency.

After an awful night, resting during the day is hopeless; a crew in the main room is jackhammering the building’s foundation.

A girl is in the aisle between the two pod stacks. (The room is like a block of tenements in miniature.) She is serious and frank. Her habits around organizing her belongings indicate she’s been here for weeks. She’s on a quest for work, she says. This quest leaves her with no patience for humor.

“Are you sick?” She asks me. The only kindness in her voice is the one assumed from acknowledgment. “I know a place to get you tea.”

On the way, I learn she is from St. Petersburg. Her work quest took her to Turkey, which she is recently back from. A job at a resort on the Black Sea lured her there and then turned out to be a job working as a performer in a dervish show. “Awful, awful environment.” She left after three days, and the trip had cost her her bank account. “I have money left for one week,” she tells me.

The moment we arrive at a tea house, which is next to a McDonald’s in a mall, she says, “I must be getting to the next place I hope to interview.”

June 7th—Moscow is as crisp and clean as new bedsheets.

I’m in a fine mood and less under the canopy of sickness. I tour the city, but without a jacket, which I fear is going to leave me susceptible to relapse since the cold is aggressive here. The relapse does come in the evening.

I don’t know if this Moscow is Moscow or its World Cup Chimera. Opening matches begin next week. Already the city is filled and energized with the world’s ungovernable soccer fans. Citizens appear to have cautious patience and an as of yet not unleashed vexation, like policemen holding batons at the start of a rally. Brigades of cleaning crews are stationed around the Kremlin and Red Square. Components to make a giant grandstand are stacked near Lenin’s Tomb, which is closed.

Across from the Red Square is GUM, a department store with an Anna Karenina exterior and Crazy Rich Asians interior. The ceiling is curved glass. Full-moon lanterns line footpaths, and children run around small fountains. There is an imperial vibe in what is otherwise a capitalist zoo. Behind store-windows are fur coats that could be mortgages, Caspian caviar in drums, shoes studded with the GDP of Cote d’Ivoire. This zoology of the .01% is gawked at by crowds licking ice cream, the mall’s most affordable indulgence. “The best in Russia,” the server tells me from behind his cart, and I take his word for it.

Inside Gastronome No. 1, an epicurean store that is essentially a Soviet Dean & Deluca, I meet a blonde who in any other part of the world would be a runway model but here, in Moscow, ensures oranges are aligned inside of a wicker basket.

“Do people shop here?” I ask her.

“Only tourists.”

June 8th— From an urban planning perspective, central Moscow is a bullseye girded by two circular highway systems that have straight avenues poking from them like spokes. I make a pilgrimage to the west, far outside the latter of those circular highways. The rococo subways I pass through are masterpieces. Mosaic galleries showing scenes from the Bolshevik Revolution, long marble halls with yellow and gold ceilings, and massive steering wheel chandeliers that cap the din of transport.


When I emerge, I stand on the outer ledge of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, a vast memory cathedral built on Poklonnaya Hill from which Moscow’s skyline is visible.

For Americans, the primacy of the names and footage of Pearl Harbor, Midway, and Normandy are inoculations from the truth that perhaps no country during World War 2 suffered or achieved as much as the Soviet Union. Its mere survival was its apogee. It is easy to forget, too, that for a substantive part of the war, the Soviet Union fought alone. When the Battle of Britain ended in the summer of 1941, Nazis, despite the loss, remained Europe’s sole occupants save for Portugal, fascist Spain and Italy, and neutral Switzerland. And this possession was unthreatened. Britain’s expeditionary force had averted catastrophe at Dunkirk in 1940, and was in no position to threaten the continent from across its channel. British soldiers wouldn’t set foot in Europe until the Sicily invasion in 1943. With that being the scene, Nazi military ambition narrowed on the Soviet Union’s west. In Operation Barbarossa’s initial push, Nazi armies overtook Minsk in a week. By September, two months after the operation’s start, Kiev and Smolensk fell. The Nazi advanced stalled in three places in December 1941: Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Moscow. Each name would be the high-water mark of the Nazi push into Russia. And when the Soviet Union reversed the ebb and planted its flag on the Reichstag’s symbolic dormer in 1945, few countries could fairly justify fighting the Soviet Union’s right to do so.

Yet the cost. Inside this museum, within the Hall of Remembrance and Sorrow, there is a ceiling made of thousands of individual strands of glass, reminiscent of tears, flitting with light. At the hall’s far end is a marmoreal sculpture: a Pieta, in a way. A mother whose soldier son is dead at her feet. It is illuminated to alabaster, and bright so that the contours of the mother’s suffering and the agony of sudden death in the son’s face cannot be seen except for when standing near it. Against the walls are ledgers. The ledgers are three feet thick. Open, their pages are marked with rows. Each row is a person. All that is written is written in inscrutable, small script: name, birth date, town. Dozens of rows to a page. These are the military dead, and there are eleven million of them here. There are no ledgers for those who did not serve. Were there, and were they remembered on this same scale, the room and its ledgers within would more than double in size.

June 9th— Experienced an endearing moment while with Nigora, a girl I was put in touch with from a connection I’d made in New Zealand. She’d shown him around Moscow, she is doing the same favor with me. She is gregarious and outgoing and never not active. She’s taken me a bar near the Red Square. Subterranean, there is a low ceiling, a naked microphone with a guitarist on one end, a deep bar on the other, and patrons standing in between.

Nigora insists I try the bar’s homemade fruit vodkas. We go through the menu of them, shooting them in succession. The guitarist is young and balding and has the crowd’s attention. We are at the night’s turning point, where sobriety is just behind us but sloven rowdiness is more potential than a truth. Bodies and mouths are looser, but not undisciplined.

The guitarist plays Maroon 5’s “She Will be Loved.” A nice millennial song staple, your classic break-up song from the aughts. It is a song familiar here as well, at least the tune. The room full of drinkers sing along with “da das” and “yeaaahs” rather than actual lyrics, but they follow the chords with competence and energy.

The guitarist sings in English. His singing is falling in line with what I remember of the song’s lyrics. He comes to what should be a stanza with the lines: “It’s not always rainbows and butterflies/It’s compromise that moves us along yeah/My heart is full, and my door’s always open/You can come anytime you want, yeah/I don’t mind spending’ everyday…”

But the guitarist sings: “It’s not always rainbows and butterflies/It’s compromise that I forgot the fucking lines, yeah/I’m just singing along, because I don’t remember the words to this fucking song, anymore, yeaaaaah/I don’t mind spending everyday…”

No one seems to recognize what’s happened. They keep going, keep dancing and singing their “da das” in tune. No one even laughs.

“I think,” Nigora says, realizing this the moment I do, “That no one else here speaks English.”

June 10th— My train to Kiev leaves in the evening and arrives mid-morning. Due to Russian military action in Ukraine, flights are suspended. Train and car travel is what is left, and from I hear auto crossings are taking hours. Fuel runs out and people are stranded.

I know I will not have an empty compartment.

While waiting, a family who needs a porter is in line behind me. The family consists of a woman her three children. Based on the precocity of the children, the absurd surplus of their luggage, and the general, hectic demeanor of the mother, I fully expect I will be sharing my compartment with them.

I am correct.

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