Celebrating the 4th in Moscow


Things that come to mind when I think about celebrating the 4th of July back home in the good ol’ U.S. of A: backyard BBQs complete with an assortment of grilled meats and a variety of salads, side dishes and deserts (maybe even one of those  mouth-watering, angel food “flag cakes” with fresh berries on top). Watching (and marching) in the annual parade (watching is better…). All manner of fireworks, from sparklers and bottle rockets to the huge “weeping willows” that rain sparks down on fields in every town and city across the country. Humid nights filled with the buzzing of mosquitos. Trips to “Summerfest” in Milwaukee. Time spent with family and friends.

This year was a bit different. In case you were wondering, they do not celebrate for the 4th of July here in Russia, which makes sense. As such, I had to figure out my own way to “celebrate”. I got a little contemplative (as I am wont to do), so I spent the day at “Park Pobedy”, the massive WWII memorial complex here in Moscow, which provided an environment conducive to reflecting on the human and material costs and sacrifices that establishing and maintaining a country’s independence can inflict. It also gave me a chance to be outside on a beautiful summer day and to check out some legendary military hardware (pictures of which I’ve included below).

I finished off the day in more “traditionally American” style with some pizza and a beer with the RELO for Russia, Jerry, both of which we enjoyed while conversing with Russians and Americans alike at a local bar/restaurant called Papa’s. My only regret? No bottle rockets.

A Visit to the “Odd Flat”

“The tongue can conceal the truth, but the eyes never! You’re asked an unexpected question, you don’t even flinch, it takes just a second to get yourself under control, you know just what you have to say to hide the truth, and you speak very convincingly, and nothing in your face twitches to give you away. But the truth, alas, has been disturbed by the question, and it rises up from the depths of your soul to flicker in your eyes and all is lost.”   Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a fan of the Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov and most especially, of his wonderfully satirical and surreal novel, The Master and Margarita. For those of you who have not read the book, I’m afraid I am unable to satisfactorily summarize its plots, their interaction and the wonderful detail included therein. If pressed, I would reduce the story to its core and tell you that it contains two distinct narratives and deals, in part, with their interaction. The first plot deals with the Devil (in the book referred to as “Woland”, a foreign professor) and his spectral retinue wrecking havoc throughout 1930s Moscow. The second provides a fictionalized treatment of Pontius Pilates’ interactions with Jesus Christ before and after his execution. If any of that sounds interesting, I’d highly recommend reading the whole thing. The story is at once funny and tragic and the writing immerses you in a world filled with beautifully imagined characters and their (often absurd) interactions.

As my friends Tatiana and Dima knew of my love of The Master and Margarita (and are themselves great fans), they invited me out a couple of weeks ago to visit some of the Moscow locales featured in Bulgakov’s masterpiece. Included in our tour was a stop at “Patriarch’s Ponds”, where the memorable opening scene of the novel takes places. While impressed, I didn’t lose my head and we continued on to visit the “Odd Flat”. Only a two block walk from the Ponds, it is an apartment once occupied by Bulgakov and his wife during the twenties.

In the novel, the “Odd Flat” becomes the Moscow pied-a-terre of Woland and his gang (a group that includes an enormous talking cat named “Behemoth”, a dour knight and master illusionist and a demon-assassin). In real life, the apartment on Bolshaya Sadovaya has a history of its own. It was part of one of the first communal apartment complexes in Moscow home to a wide variety of artists and “creative types”.  Over the years, the flat (and surrounding premises) have housed gatherings of different artistic and social groups and served as an unofficial cultural center in Moscow. As you can see in the pictures, it is a little worse for the wear these days.

So, once again, I was afforded the chance to wander around the real life inspiration for the setting of The Master and Margarita and once again, the experience was utterly devoid of any surreal moments. But while it lacked talking cats and there were no gruesome magic tricks, the whole experience left me with a few images and impressions that will surely enhance my imaginings the next time I re-read Bulgakov’s best book.

Photos from My Bulgakov Tour (courtesy of Tatiana & Dima) 

A Visit to St. Petersburg with Cassandra (Визит в Санкт-Петербург с Cass)


My wonderful girlfriend decided to spend her birthday in Russia this year. Lucky me! Her only wish: to visit St. Petersburg, the “Venice of the North” and Russia’s “Window on Europe”. As it is one of my priorities in life to make her wishes come true (especially when her wishes coincide with my own!), I made sure I would have enough time to spend a long weekend in the cultural capital of Russia with my little fish. It was a memorable trip, at once exciting and relaxing and an experience I am grateful to have shared with Cass.

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A Visit to the Katyn Forest (Визит в Катынский лес)


As part of the long weekend I spent in Smolensk last month, I visited the Katyn Forest Memorial. Unfortunately, it’s a place that, for many, is of little note. For me, growing up, the name “Katyn” represented a mythical place, like the setting of a ghost story. I was familiar with the name and its associated history because my father had told my brother and I stories about it as kids. As a result, I’d spent years imagining what it would be like to visit.

Located about 20 km outside the city of Smolensk, right off the main highway, its earthworks entryway tunnel adjacent to a gleaming, newly constructed Russian Orthodox cathedral, the Katyn Forest Memorial commemorates the massacre of over 20,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia by elements of the Soviet NKVD during World War Two. Walking the grounds with my friend Tatiana, a professional translator and professor of linguistics at a local university, was a surreal experience that left me thinking about what kinds of stories the trees in this particular section of forest could tell if they could talk.

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Exploring Russia (Исследуя Россию)


It’s been a little under nine months since I first arrived here in Moscow. During my fellowship, I’ve had the chance to visit a lot of different cities throughout Russia. I’ve already written about life here in the capital and visits to Smolensk and Arkhangelsk. The last couple of months have been filled with even more travel. I’ve been lucky enough to explore some regional capitals as well as a few smaller cities closer to Moskva. In the spirit of sharing, I want to upload a few pictures and impressions from three of the most interesting places I’ve visited over the last few months: Ekaterinburg (Екатеринбург), Kazan (Казань) and Tula (Тула). Continue reading

Victory Day in Moscow (День Победы в Москве)

Victory! 70 Years.

May 8th, 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe. It’s what we in the U.S. refer to as “VE Day”. In May 1945, after years of death and destruction, the news of the Nazi surrender made it to Moscow in the early hours of May 9th and so, for the last 70 years, the 9th of May has been known as “Victory Day” across Russia. It is a sacred day that celebrates the victory achieved by the people of Russia over the Nazi invaders and honors the sacrifices of those that perished, those that persisted and all those involved in ensuring the “Great Victory” (Великая Победа).

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Theme and Variation (Тема и вариация)

In addition to its efficiency and the museum-like quality of many of its stations, the Moscow Metro is a great place to do some people watching. Literally millions of people use it to get around the city every day. As you journey along and your car fills to capacity, you can never be too sure exactly who will be brought together for the ride.

Well, that’s not exactly true. There will usually be at least one or two people (usually more) reading something. Russians love a good story and are strong proponents of self-edification. And there are almost always an equal number of people dozing because if you’re lucky enough to get a seat at the end of a long work day, you might as well take advantage of it. But after that, the make up of each car really becomes the proverbial, Gumpian “Box of Chocolates”.

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