Enigmas and Russian Mysteries

July 10, 2014

Russia is a need to know place. Someone, somewhere with the authority decides what, where and when you need to know something. Today we would live in the Russian world and experience some of this in an amusing manner.

Despite it being mid-July, we prepared for fall conditions and possible rain. The image of Russian invaders dressed in their summer garb come readily to mind. We hopped on a shuttle bus to downtown and were given information about the probable collection point and time. We were then our own.

We entered Red Square through the rebuilt Resurrection Gate and looked at the growing lines to see a rather stiff Lenin. I had little interest in seeing the corpse of the brilliant architect of revolution. Our traveling companions who endured the process of waiting reported that they were unsure if he was actually there or had been replaced by wax. The authorities are not inclined to tell you state secrets. Meanwhile, we headed in the direction of St. Basil, the cathedral of many domes.

The cathedral today is a museum but houses a collection of ancient icons and relics in a structure that was built in the time of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan was so pleased with the result that he rewarded the architect with a blinding so he could not do a repeat. My reaction was similar but for different reasons.

Russian Orthodoxy is far removed in its expression and practice from my Protestant beliefs. On the basics of the Trinity and core Christian beliefs we can agree with our Orthodox brethren. Their practices of worship and liturgy are far removed from my understanding. The church of Ivan’s time was not concerned with parishioners understanding but focused on creating a spiritual shock and awe. In my Protestant world understanding and faith go hand in hand. In Orthodoxy, it appears that faith is enhanced by the display of emotion and piety expressed in a trance like liturgy. The medium is the message.

The cathedral consists of 9 chapels or mini-churches enclosing a central cave like nave. You wind through highly declared passages of brick passing through chapel after chapel. There are no pews or chairs as parishioners stand through the service. Maybe 20 believers could squeeze into a chapel and stand before the iconostasis which shields the altar from the eyes of the believer.

We explored this labyrinth and concluded that this would be the venue for a world class hide and seek game. We kept looking for the central nave where the worshippers would gather. We didn’t think that we found it until we asked the guard at the gate where it was hiding. With some dismay he guided us back inside to a chamber through which we had wandered before. The room might hold fifty anorexic Russians. It lies under the central dome. The other chapels account for other domes for which the cathedral is known and admired.

It is easy when entering a Western European cathedral from the 16th Century to figure out the connection between liturgy or service, if you like, and the structure. I finally figured out things out when a group of four a Capella singers filled the entire church with a mystical chant. The acoustics in this brick beehive allowed the sounds to permeate the building. I could then imagine a worship time with ten priests and officiants chanting and performing their part of the service in their part of this nest of chapels and churches. Add some incense and plenty of candles and you have a spiritual experience that required few words to explain. After all, the Orthodox place a premium on mystery and the worshippers need no more to enhance their faith. I hope my simplistic version of Orthodox theology does not permanently damage my chance of having friends of their faith.

We then ventured in the direction of the Pushkin Museum. We needed to continue our walk around the red bricks of the Kremlin. We would eventually complete the circumnavigation of the place by the end of the day. We managed to not get hit crossing the multi-lane roads filled with Crazy Ivan’s. This was aided greatly by the pedestrian underpass tunnels that festoon the place. They are marked with graphics that require no understanding of Russian. However, they are a bit cavelike and you are not really sure where they emerge. We eventually reached the Pushkin and were greeted by a manageable line.

Anatole Pushkin was a Romantic poet during the rule of the conservative
Tsar Nicolas. Despite being of ancient noble ancestry, he was arrested by the Third Department and exiled to his country house. Evidently, his musings about common people aroused the suspicions of the police liberal hunters. He was eventually pardoned by the Tsar but died an early death dueling his wife’s lover. The museum is named in his honor.

There are two buildings and I chose to focus on the pre-19th Century collection. The paintings and original artifacts are mixed with replica casts that served as models for students. It was somewhat weird to see familiar statuary that you knew are actually in Florence and the Vatican in room after room. Again, the need to know the origins of the pieces was not necessary for us a the visitor.

Of course, the origins of many pieces in the museum are not to be known by us as they are still state secrets. In brief, much of the collection originated in private collections in both Russia and elsewhere. A considerable portion of the collection consisted of pieces seized from the Nazis by the victorious Russians at the end of WWII. See the “Monuments Men” movie or book for clarification. Probably most of the collection was gathered in as a result of the Russian Revolution from the bourgeois Russians. This formerly private property now belongs to the State and therefore the Russian people.

I specifically wanted to see the Schliemann collection from Troy that was acquired from the Berlin Museum and whose capture was denied by the Russians until 1993. They have no intention of returning anything just like the Elgin Marbles will never return to Athens. What other pieces lie hidden in vaults is not for us to know.

We survived the return to the point of beginning near Red Square and returned to the boat after snacking on cheese and crackers purchased from a bunker like store. The check out girl was charming in her serviceman’s hat. Our room held a complimentary bottle of champagne which we quickly dispatched. After a short nap we enjoyed my birthday dinner and a nice complimentary upgraded wine accompanied by singing waiters and a cake with mercifully few candles. It was a good day.

3 thoughts on “Enigmas and Russian Mysteries

  1. Sounds like you had a wonderful birthday in Red Square. Is it mainly just tourists visiting St. Basil and the Pushkin Museum or regular Russians on day trips. Wondering where are the pictures?


  3. Fascinating about the labyrinthine interior of St. Basil’s. I always wondered. And I think your rendition of the service might be quite accurate, which means haunting.
    Happy Birthday to you!

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