My impression on Russia mostly comes from films I watched when I was a kid – Soviet soldiers shedding blood looked up among the flames of war and the flying bullets, shouting: ‘Comrades! Let’s go! Moscow is just over there!’ Or bushy-browed famers with intense eyes in the golden waves of wheat fields drove tractors along, whose clothes were stained by dung, sweat shone the foreheads; Or those who stared into the middle distance as if thinking about the abundant beef and potatoes provided by the communist society…
Then it came to my secondary school, when I learnt that there had been a Russian Empire, notorious for its ever extravagant and posh royal families who collect treasures from all over the world, and its rulers – metal, evil, corrupted, or vigorous and aggressive. Those tsars were not only the owners of the empire, but also the godfathers of Queen Victoria from the UK, and made alliances with many counterparts in Germany. Squares named after tsars can still be found all over Europe.
I had never thought this was the same country as the Russia today. And there are Russian girls. Why were so many cracking beauties like Maria Sharapov, Natasha Poly, and Sasha Pivovarova, born and raised in this deserted, bleak, and freezing land? What’s more, the female population here exceeds the male one by almost 10 million. That’s not fair!
Therefore, when I arrived at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow with my friend, I was so excited that I felt like my heart was about to pop out of my body. One surprising thing was, you could hardly see huge advertisements of Bank of China, QR Codes, or Chinese characters, which could be commonly seen in many airports in other parts of Europe; instead, we were surrounded by bizarre letters, different smell and strange language, caught by a long-lost feeling of strangeness.
Early the second day, we went downstairs to the cafe and ordered some poppy seed bread and coffee. Chewing the seeds, I looked out of the window at the people passing by, rejoicing at my good luck. Due to the recent economic sanction, Rouble had dropped by almost half, so Moscow, the once expensive city had become a lot cheaper, and I didn’t even feel the European price at all when I got the bill.
After the breakfast, we went towards a huge red star hanging in the sky further away, which was where the Red Square was located. Soon after that, I discovered unexpectedly that, Moscow was different from Europe not just in terms of price, but including the Chinese tourist groups consisting of mostly old men and women everywhere in the city centre.
We crossed the Red Square and headed to the Lenin’s Mausoleum, not because how much we admired him, but we thought a person who changed the history path deserved visit and respect. Unfortunately, there had been a long queue already at the entrance of the Mausoleum. Every several metres, you could find a flag held by a Chinese tour guide. It seemed that they paid close attention to historical sites. Otherwise, it was probably because this was the only free entry place to visit here.
We had walked for about half an hour until we found the end of the queue. The flag here wrote ‘luxurious journey’, and a group of old Chinese men, each holding a Canon 5D camera equipped with the most superior lens, were busy with focusing on the spires in the distance, brick walls nearby, as well as the faces and the backs of the Russians around.
The tour guide was at his 20s, with a wireless loudspeaker across his body, one hand holding the little flag, and the other fiddling with a string of amber, nagging about how difficult it is to find a job in China, anecdotes, mysterious details about some national leader’s last visit… and amber is something really good.
My friend turned to me saying, ‘Believe it or not, I bet the next stop of this tourist group is a tax-free shop of amber.’ I contemplated for a bit, looking back at the chattered tour guide and the still queue, and went out of the crowd with her.
She’s absolutely right! Sorry Lenin. I’ll see you next time.
We walked alongside the red wall of the Moscow Kremlin, and the eternal flame of the anonymous martyr mausoleum was only steps away. Beside it, there were a few lines written in Russian: ‘No one knows your name, but your stories survive the river of history…’ Two soldiers were posted nearby, with army rifles in their hands, and one could not overlook their Roman noses, straight and prominent. They seemed to pretend that the noisy crowd didn’t exist.
Walking along the towering red wall, we walked past an exquisite park, and arrived at the entrance of the Kremlin. I hadn’t realised until I came here that first, Kremlin was actually not a palace, which actually meant fortress in Russian. Therefore, you can find a Kremlin in almost every historical city or town in Russia.
Besides, even though the Kremlin here has an intricate history with the Soviet Union, the buildings can date back to the Yuan Dynasty of China. Back then, Moscow was nothing but a small town devastated by Mongolian military forces.
By crossing the gate of the Kremlin, one could feel as if travelling back to centuries ago. You can see everywhere were snow-white churches, golden onion domes, and lintels decorated in orange, blue, red and golden colours like in fairy tales.
Even more astonishingly, just then, a grand cavalry troop were marching into the square nearby holding their sabres. Different sounds – clops of hooves and boots, swishes of guns and swords, together with the drumbeats of the military bands, resonating within the high-rise walls between the churches. We bumped into the military performance!
However, this guard of honour was quite different from the ones in China. You couldn’t see the neat goose steps, while the infantry and the cavalry arranged sometimes into a round-shaped team, sometimes into a square one. The soldiers spun the long-barrelled guns with bayonets, like Monkey King in China’s ancient legend fiddling with his golden stick. Then at the same time, they put all of their guns onto the ground. As the majestic music climaxing, the cavalry swished out their sabres simultaneously, wielded vigorously and swished them back into the sheaths, following the drumbeats.
It had been a while since the performance began, so I started to think about whether we shall go to the church nearby. All of a sudden, an extremely loud noise shattered the square into silence, in which I felt like hearing my skull cracked. It was the soldiers whose muzzles pointed towards the sky, emitting smoke all together. Before everyone came back to themselves, the music had restarted and the soldiers had stood into a neat column for marching out.
I tried to calm down and looked at their marvellous uniforms – glittering double-breasted brass buttons, shinning silver barrels and sabres, high-rise black top hats with elegant feathers on them, golden lines on trousers and riding boots… This was evidently an exquisite royal cavalry underwent tough training and rehearsal, extremely solemn but without any trace of fierceness or violence.
It was hard to imagine that, not long ago, Russian’s favourite military performance had been the surging amour and helmets on the Red Square and endless launching vehicles of nuclear missiles, enjoying watching the shivering Europe and America in the magnificent Soviet March. With this thought lingering, my friend and I left the Kremlin, walked past the Red Square, and entered the Ploshchad Revolyutsii metro station.
Since you must be used to the railways and subways in China, the first encounter with the Moscow Metro might freak you out. The endlessly long escalator stretched downwards continuously, as if entering a time tunnel in some sci-fi movies, no end, no light, only some faint reddish light shimmering dozens of miles down. I was guessing it might be the magna.
Moscow has the deepest metro system in the world. The record-breaking Park Pobedy is buried under a layer of 84 metres, and the St Petersburg is even deeper, almost as the same height as a 30-floor building. In comparison, the depth of most Chinese subways are no more than10 metres or so.
I stood on the endless escalator with my friend and slipped down towards the dark geocentre. Now I realised that why Russian metro could be used as a refuge for nuclear wars during the Cold War. So far away from the ground, no matter how big a nuclear bullet i
was, it couldn’t do anything unless self-mounted with a drilling head. Actually, if I found myself in Australia and surrounded by a group of kangaroos after I came out of the tunnel, I wouldn’t feel surprised at all.
In China, when you enter a subway, it’s like you stepping into a box of toothpaste – square, neat, and colourful. Therefore, after I finally got out of the long tunnel and entered the hall of Ploshchad Revolyutsii station, I felt a bit surprised: looking up, it was the grand curved dome; around us, there were marbles, Roman columns, sculpture with various faces and expressions, as well as bronze chandeliers with complicated patterns. It was totally as fancy as what was like in a palace.
All the stations deep under the ground had their passionate names: Partizanskaya (guerrilla), Pushkinskaya (Pushkin, a famous Russian poet), Biblioteka Imeni Lenina (Lenin Library), Kursky vokzal (named after the Battle of Kursk), and Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square). Also, almost every time you walked around at a corner, you could see a sculpture – a little girl with a rifle across her body, an old soldier hiding behind a blindage, a worker holding a steel bar, sickles and hammers surrounded by blossom… My friend and I walked along the flow of people, so astonished that we even kept our mouths open.
If a nuclear war broke out, it would still be a joy to stay here actually, appreciating the bronze petals and fruits, while the zombies were out there barging about. Well anyway, the premise should be unlimited providing of bread and kvass, no more than 200 people in the station where I was, who must all be beauties…
Getting back to the outside world, we felt chuffed to reunion with the warm sunshine. I said thanks to Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy silently, and walked toward the west of the avenue. Here it was greatly different from the downtown. You couldn’t see whacky tourist groups, nor arterial roads with crazy traffic. One could only find those tall and silent trees as well as those laid-back but attentive Russians.
Then we arrived at the Novodevichy Monastery, a compound of ancient buildings and grassland. Inside, it was really silent. Turning around, we bumped into a nun in an all-black gown; and turning around again, a tower block was just in front of us, whose paint were almost peeled off.
At the bottom of the monastery, there was a massive piece of open space, scattered with piles of stones, which were from some old buildings. On the relics of columns, lintels, you could still find some words, though hardly distinctive as the time and history washed by.
I liked such trace of history, which was eroded by time, and survived all the vicissitudes. There were nuns passing by from time time, so peaceful that as if nothing had changed in the past centuries. Unfortunately, most of the local people didn’t think so. The adjacent building was being refurbished by a Russian passionately – some gloss on the dome could already be seen, and the walls were all clean and new. It seemed like, people could never feel relaxed until they get everything done as flashy and clean as a new BMW car. I thought this was somehow like a modern OCD actually. But for now, I’d better not complain, because first, I didn’t speak Russian; and second, if they found out that I was from a city with less than 40 years of history, they would probably be annoyed and beat me up…
Just like in many monasteries and churches in Russia, you can hear endless steps in the central hall of the Novodevichy Monastery, however silent still. A baptised baby was held high up over her head, and a nun in a black robe was taking photos for the little one. Beside the enormous window, there were someone reading the Bible quietly, and someone kissing the crucifix in front of them.
We went out of the hall and wandered about along a path against the wall. After several turnings, a small stone tower building started to loom in front of us. At the gate, a nun was sitting there, turned the pages of a gold-foiled Bible quietly. It looked so small from the outside that I thought the maximum capacity would be no more than two people. I stepped onto the stairs, greeted the nun, and strode in, where I was totally astonished.
The tower was about tens of metres of height, from the foot of the wall to the dome, the whole building was furnished with glittering golden mosaics, and on top of that, a Jesus statue spliced by blue stones had his right hand waving, as if saying hi. On the wall close to the ceiling, a small window let in the sunshine onto the face of the Jesus, and diffused onto the wall, so in the whole tower, there were nothing but the blue-golden ray and flowing dusts.
This was the reason why I didn’t like to travel in a tourist group. The tour guides were always busy promoting with a loudspeaker, the vulgar stories in history and how amazing the local products, and they would never have the time and patience to come to a tower like this. Thanks to them, I could have the chance to stand in the golden serenity. We had taken turns to stand in and enjoy the towers before we left the monastery, walking along the tall wall to the back of the yard, where we found a metal door. It was so old that it creaked when we pushed it, in which we found a graveyard with the same name as the monastery. This was actually the initial intention that why we came here.
Even without heavy gates or fences, you could never realise that this was a graveyard if you walked pass by. From the outside, one could only see rows of sculptures: a marble ballet dancer, under which a dancer was buries; a huge anchor, marking the resting place of a captain; a rising aeroplane, memorising the well-known aircraft designer Andrel Tupolev; and a statue whose hands holding a aerospace helmet, obviously, indicating that here it was an astronaut.
This could be regarded as the second most beautiful graveyard that I’ve ever seen. The first place, as I see it, should be the Vyšehrad in Prague. Several years ago, in a sunny afternoon, I bumped into the Vyšehrad, which was located on top of a hill. Tenderly green vineyards were climbing on the white marbles, and wild flowers were blooming at the foot of the goddess. One could feel some special smell typical in the dry summer afternoon, and it was so quiet that you can only hear the buzz of insects between the columns and the sculptures.
Looking at the azure blue River Vltava at the foot of the hill, and the stretching Bohemian Plain afar, I fantasised that I’d rather move into the graveyard. Just one hammock would be fine, with one end on the marble goddess and the other on the black amphora.
Vyšehrad Graveyard, Prague (together with the following three pictures)
We walked past a musician holding a cello, an astronaut under a rocket, a hero buried under a metal tomb, grassland which was just trimmed, fresh flowers still with dews on them, and we arrived at a grave decorated with black and white stones.
Nikita Khrushchev, the chubby leader who knocked the table with his shoes, was now lying quietly underneath. Once upon a time, the highest honour a Soviet Union leader could receive had been being buried besides Lenin under the red wall of the Kremlin. However, Khrushchev had made too many enemies in his life, so that he was exiled here. His black and white gravestone indicated that a controversy person couldn’t be accepted by the land of the World Revolution Centre.
To tell the truth though, at least there was one thing that we needed to thank Khrushchev. If he hadn’t ordered the Soviet Union to withdraw the missile form Cuba, it would be unlikely that we sit here messing around with our phones, because all of you would turn into greenish radioactive monsters, while I would be trapped in the underground palace with over 200 beauties…
If not because of the soaring land price in China, this kind of graveyard would definitely be a great place to reside. I had even thought about what my gravestone would be like: a QR code carved by marble, on which there would be a highly raised hand. If anyone nosy touches it, the hidden switch would be turned on, and a recorded song of mine would be played by a built-in speaker in the gravestone. He or she would also receive a dinner invitation on the phone…
Having seen countless tombs, my friend and I were a bit hungry, tempted to have a feast. However, the suburb wasn’t as bustling as the town centre, so we didn’t manage to find any restaurant even after traveling for a long distance. With achy backs and legs, finally we saw a restaurant-like place, but unfortunately, we couldn’t see anyone in it through the window.
A middle-aged woman passing by noticed us, two foreigners miserably clinging to the windowsill. She shouted some Russian words at us, made a ‘eat’ gesture besides her mouth, and went into the restaurant. Eagerly, I dragged my friend to follow her. However, the moment when we stepped into the restaurant, she pushed the backdoor and strode away, leaving us there, staring at the empty tables and listening to the creaks of the wooden door.
We looked at each other, trying to comfort our intricate sentiments, and continued our food hunting. (To be continued)
Writen by: Sky ( Wechat: skyyouthking )
Translated by: Lu Han