Monday, June 25, 2007

So this won't be a long post, as we're off for the train in under half an hour. We've discovered that we're going to have some trouble picking up our onward train tickets in Irkutsk, so we're desperately trying to see if we can find someone to pick them up for us and meet us at the station. We're offering good money in dollars, people!

Anyway. As mentioned above, our search for paintings here in Moscow has been a bit of a trip. After the huge relief of discovering that we were not going to miss the Trinity, we spent a number of hours going through the contemporary Russian art collection at the New Tretyakov. It has just been reorganized, as it used to be divided into pre- and post-Revolutionary art, but is now chronological, allowing a much better insight into the development of Russian art in the 20th century. Hideous though the building is, the permanent collection is actually quite well organized and marked. Throughout are interspersed televisions showing clips from historical events matching the time of the art (Lenin speaking etc), which provide a super-interesting background note.

The next day, we planned to start with the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, which promised Fayoum portraits and some Rembrandts. But first, it was off to B's priority sight-seeing: Lenin's tomb. In St. Petersburg, an unexpected highlight was the Russian Museum of Political History. It contained a number of exhibits on various political developments in Russia in the last century, until you were suddenly waved into another section and realized that you were standing in Lenin's office that he used during the beginning of the Revolution, looking at the balcony from which he used to address the crowds! I knew, of course, that if B didn't get to see Lenin, he would be hugely disappointed. On Saturday, the entire Red Square area was closed off for military marching/speeches/whatnot, so it was impossible to go then. (The tomb is only open a few days a week from 10-1, presumably in order to allow plenty of time for the continued preservation of the body.) We get to the Kremlin, and see a huge line wending its way out of the Red Square. Can this be it? Indeed. The whole Red Square area is cordoned off for the benefit of the Lenin-goers. No cameras or large bags are allowed, and the check is strict. A good hour or so in line is rewarded with an almost solitary walk across the Red Square to the tomb. It's a pretty cool feeling to walk there with hundreds of people watching enviously from beyond the cordon (especially those not themselves in line!). Upon entering the tomb, it is a shock to the eyes because the light is dim and red. Marble stairs descend down, and at every turn stand three poker-faced Russian soldiers. Creepy as can be! At the bottom, you climb up and walk around Lenin. He looks good, waxy as by repute, but quite fresh and therefore ultra-creepy, especially with the guards monitoring that everyone keeps a constant speed. Out the back are the tombs of a number of luminaries, including Stalin, who for some perverted reason had the biggest bunch of fresh flowers of them all! Gagarin is also there.

Then it was finally off to the Pushkin, but due to faulty signing, we once more ended up in the wrong museum. What are you supposed to think when the building is labelled "Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts"? How are you to guess that the Museum of Private Collections has moved into the building? Most of the private collections were rather dull, but in the bottom was a book illustrator who had collected icons (in case it's not obvious by now, that's what we spend almost all our time on). She had a lovely one of the Novgorod bishop holding his monastery in his hand and presenting it to an approving Christ. Absolutely delicious!

So the Pushkin is next door, we finally discover. We know, thankfully in advance this time, that the room containing the Simone Martinis is closed, but the Fayoum portraits are a real treat. Found in Egypt, they must be some of the earliest portraits of real people (painted while still alive to be used as death masks) in history. Some are cartoonish and unsophisticated, but several--especially one from the second half of the first century--look absolutely realistic and could have been painted recently. Very delightful. The Rembrandts were underwhelming, but still ok. Off to lunch, which is a constant obsession as we continue our tour through the ethnic restaurants of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Uzbek Friday night, and yesterday Chinese/Indian. After lunch, we know that we have only a short while left to see the final most important picture of our journey, the Virgin of Vladimir. We had eventually discovered that the Tretyakov now houses it in an attached church, the Church of Nicholas in Tolmachi, which is only open 12-4 (and closed Mondays). As we approach the entrance to the church at 3:20, it looks ominously closed. But aha! We escry a neighboring entrance with a security gate that is clearly marked as the church entrance. It is locked.

Now we start to panic. We head around the building to the next entrance. "Nicholas in Tolmachi?" As so often, the response is a torrent of incomprehensible Russian with no indication whatsoever of what is being said. Down into the main basement of the Tretyakov, where the ticket office is. Over there in the corner! An information desk! Determined to cause a scene if necessary, I head over there, babbling nervously. "Why is the church closed? The Virgin! Tolmachi!" In fluent English, the guard directs us to a barely-marked entrance hidden in the shadows (marked with the single word "Museum"--note that we are currently IN the main museum). Up the stairs. Through the dark, deserted halls. Around corners. Suddenly we find ourselves in the original locked building that we had desperately peered into. Down the stairs. Up the stairs. And there it is! The chapel with the Virgin. More delightful in reality than we expected from pictures. The church was the Tretyakov family's chapel and it also contains a wonderful (Pisan?) cross probably from the late 12th/early 13th century (our guess, as it wasn't signed).

We then gave up on sight-seeing for the day. The emotional exhaustion of the hunt for the Virgin was simply too much. The desperate feeling--"foiled again!!"--left us with no energy for further museuming, so we wandered around the area of the gallery and looked at various onion-domed churches. Then made an early evening of it.

This morning, we went out to the Izmaylovskaya park, since we didn't run on Sunday and wanted to get out in the green. We headed out at 7:15 to get an early start to the park that we were told was a delightful green area ideal for hiking. Stupid guide book. The first thing we encountered in the park was an assortment of feral dogs. (Our tetanus shots are thankfully up to date.) The second thing was piles of broken glass everywhere. And the third was mysteriously circling cars each containing one man and one woman. But we perservered, doing a tempo run (for me, for B it's more like a jog) instead of the planned long run, considering the undesirable conditions.

Today we did the Kremlin, but that will have to wait as I'm out of time again. No more posts until Friday at the earliest, as we hope to be on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal then. That will be more outdoorsy!


Kristel said...

what a treasure hunt..... what are you eating these days? make sure to look for Georgian restaurants= delicious food.

Robert said...

I don't mean to spoil the surprise, but can we skip to the part where you find naked corpses on the floor of an abandoned gallery and cleverly decipher clues hidden on the underside of DaVinci portraits? The suspense is killing me!

Oh, and thanks to Wheat Thin for your helpful geography posts.

Love you guys!