In one of those ad hoc conversations in a local café in the autumn of 2000, two old friends invited Annette and I to accompany them on a journey on the Trans-Siberian railway, starting in Moscow, ending in Beijing. Within what seemed like moments, and somewhere in the midst of a couple of bottles of red wine, we had accepted.
I kept a diary. The trip took place from 6 to 21 August 2001. The brochure advertising the journey was glossily seductive and our passports were duly dispatched in December 2000. After increasingly insistent promptings, our visa stamps for Russia and China arrived a mere five days before our flight to Moscow on 6 August. Our medical insurance arrived three days later, like a tardy and reluctant adolescent.
At the airport at Moscow we met our Intourist representative, Eva. A chain-smoker, Eva face was ravaged; but there was a hint also of willfulness and character. Her darting, purposeful movements suggested a high level of anxiety (‘trait anxiety’ the psychologists would say). If Eva was not herself an Intourist obstacle, the next episode was: the coach to transport us to the hotel did not turn up. Belatedly, we found ourselves en route to the hotel, disappointingly named ‘Hotel Cosmos’. A string of Russian drug-dealers peddling their wares by the roadside and a multitude of uniform blocks of apartments stuck in my mind. Our flight had arrived in Moscow at 8.15pm, but it was midnight before we decamped at our hotel. We had a quick beer.
Unready as yet for bed, I returned to the hotel bar to read, having at that stage got a third of my way through Hosking’s excellent ‘Russia and the Russians’ (I was later to meet him at a UCL Sociology Network seminar). But I was soon interrupted, and was to be several times. The cause on each occasion was a hotel-based sex worker, only to be expected perhaps in a country where sex work is illegal. I managed one informal interview.
The 7th August featured a prepaid Intourist trek round the Red Square and the Kremlin. Eva, British-born but raised and schooled in Czechoslovakia, and, we surmised, not especially enamoured of Russians, stood down as guide in favour of Olga. Professional in appearance, deportment and manner, Olga was in many ways the antithesis of Eva. She was also taciturn, which we were to come to recognize as a Russian characteristic.
The territory of Rus, later Russia, was always more empire than nation, a function largely of its ethnic mix. The Slavs had moved early from the east, occupying the central river basins, clearing the forests and living by agriculture, hunting and trapping. Nomadic tribes like the Pechenegs eked out an existence in the grasslands to the south. To the north, the Vikings showed a worrying imperial interest; until, that is, ‘Ruric the Viking’ was actually approached early in the ninth century by the Slavs to provide protection from Pecheneg raiders. Ruric did not hesitate to conquer his way southwards. Novgorod was capital of Rus at this time. Later, in 882, Oleg moved his capital to Kiev. It was only after the all-encompassing Mongol invasions of the fourteenth century that Moscow eclipsed north Novgorod and Kiev. But the Kremlin has earlier origins than this.
It was in 1156 that Prince Dolgorukiy opted for the confluence of the Moskva and Neglinnaya rivers as the site for the first wooden Kremlin (from kreml, meaning fortress). Late in the fifteenth century, Ivan III, unhindered by Intourist or customs control, brought over leading Italian architects like Ruffo and Solario to erect a splendid new complex. The result was a fusion of Early-Russian and imported Renaissance styles, incorporating the Cathedral of the Assumption and the Faceted Palace. Much remains today despite Stalin’s ideologically driven vandalism in the 1930s. The complex was made accessible to the public in 1955.
Olga took us to the Kremlin via St Basil’s and the Red Square. It was tsar Ivan III too who ordered the clearance of dwellings outside the Kremlin walls to accommodate a torg or market. The wooden market stalls apparently burned down so often the area became known as the ‘fire square’. The term ‘Red Square’ dates from the seventeenth century and is derived from the Russian word krasnyy, which originally meant ‘beautiful’ but later came to denote ‘red’. The association between the colour red and communism is incidental. The Square is undoubtedly impressive. A full 500 metres in length, it may be easier to appreciate from the air than at ground level. Bordered by the Kremlin walls and Lenins’ Mausoleum, the Historical Museum, GUM (Russia’s largest department store), and St Basil’s, it is almost too awkwardly expansive for the imagination to work on. I found it difficult to conjure up tsars and patriarchs addressing their peoples, or indeed the several public executions of traitors or pretenders on the circular dias in front of St Basil’s; the centuries of religious pageants and processions; or even the secular May Day military parades after 1917. To my surprise it was not evocative for me, at least on this hurried Tuesday morning in mid-summer. Nor did I like St Basil’s, commissioned by Ivan the Terrible (Olga insisted, ‘the Awsome’) in 1552, completed in 1561 and currently under repair. Some forms of gaudy profusion are simply messy. But then I was not to like many Russian Orthodox churches.
The scale and extent of the buildings within the walls of the Kremlin took me by surprise. We entered through the Trinity Tower, as did Napoleon in 1812 (only to leave a month later with his tail between his legs). It presented as a village. It had none of the Cold War austerity of western newscasts. Bathed in sunshine, it was an intriguing hybrid of ancient and modern, ecclesiastical and secular. We passed Putin’s working offices, Khrushchev’s monstrous Palace of Congresses, the flawed Tsar Bell weighing 200 tons, and the no less extravagant Tsar’s canon. Eva dutifully rounded us up to listen to Olga as occasion seemed to require. Our little sub-group wandered off, keener on Sartre’s groups-in-fusion than his groups-in-series. We spent most time in Cathedral Square, which hosted an extraordinary ensemble of fifteenth-century churches and palaces. It was tiring and one could easily have lost sight of the wood for the trees. What remains in my mind is the 12th century icon of St George the Warrior in the almost relentlessly decorated Cathedral of Assumption, not because of its aesthetic qualities – if anything, I feel a perverse disinterest in the artistic merits of religious iconography, as well as all it stands for – but because of its age and ancestry.