Friday, March 10, 2017 - Bolshoi Theatre, Christ the Savior Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Moscow Metro, St. Basil's Cathedral, State Tretyakov GalleryWe both slept very well. We woke up refreshed, took nice warm showers with lots of water pressure, and then went downstairs to the buffet breakfast. We were much more hungry today than we had been when we first arrived yesterday. We each got a cup of coffee as well as some cranberry juice. I really enjoyed the sirniki, a Russian cream cheese puff that reminded me of cheese blintzes. I also had Russian blinis (thin crepe-like pancakes), sausage, bacon, cottage cheese, and pineapple. Craig had scrambled eggs, fresh bread, potatoes, and bacon. It is always good to eat a big breakfast before sightseeing, especially if you don't know where and when lunch will happen.
After breakfast, we were met in the lobby by our Abercrombie & Kent "guardian angel" Katya. She was very sweet, welcoming us to Moscow and telling us to give her a call if we need absolutely anything. She oriented us to our program for the next few days, and we chatted with her for a few minutes.
Olga arrived to pick us up, and we headed straight to the Bolshoi Theatre for a private tour at 10:00 a.m. When we got there, we were met by Yelena, who showed us around the theatre while Olga translated for us. The original theater opened in 1780 as the Petrovsky Theater. It burned down, and was rebuilt in 1825. The new building was much larger, and was referred to as the Bolshoi (Big) Petrovsky Theatre. This also burned down, and the present structure, known simply as the Bolshoi (Big) Theatre, opened in 1856.
The theater was amazing! They were setting up the stage for tonight's performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. The stage plus the seating area together are shaped like a violin. The theater seats 1700 people, with chairs on the floor as well as five levels of balconies. In the center opposite the stage is the royal box. To the left of the stage is the Romanov family box, and to the right of the stage is the theatre director's box.
An amazing 2.5-ton crystal chandelier hung overhead, surrounded by paintings of the 8 muses (as well as a 9th unofficial muse of painting). The chandelier has 336 bulbs and 25,000 crystal pendants. It is made of gold-plated tin. The first chandelier used flax seed oil to light the theater. Oil was messy, and would often drip. The theater needed to put a mat in place so that it wouldn't drip and burn the audience. The current chandelier dates back to 1863, and it was switched over to gas in the late 19th century.
The stage itself was massive, and is at a 4% angle for the benefit of the ballet dancers. Five kilos of gold leaf adorn the acoustic fir panels on the balconies, and the main stage curtain was woven with 500 kilos of gold thread. There was an orchestra pit directly in front of the stage. The theater was absoultely opulent. It must be breathtaking to see a performance her.
After enjoying the ambiance of the orchestra section of the theater, Yelena brought us to the upper balcony, where we could see the chandelier up close and personal. It was amazing! We had a bird's eye view of the theater. There are some obstructed view seats here, and Yelena told us that this is where blind people used to sit to hear the performances. Today these seats are sold as rush tickets. and they are usually purchased by college students.
We followed Yelena up a small staircase, and we could hear a piano. At the top of the stairs, we were stunned to find that there was another much smaller stage and seating area above the main stage. We were able to see two male and two female ballet dancers practicing. The men had wooden swords and danced with the women to the accompaniment of the pianist. It was amazing to watch these talented professional dancers for a few minutes. Not surprisingly, photography was not allowed.
Next we went to the costume studio, where six ladies were making the costumes using seweing machines and doing hand embroidery and embellishment. The costumes were incredibly intricate, and the woman who designs the embroidery patterns has been working there for 45 years!
From up here, we could look out the front windows and see the back of the statue of Apollo and his horses on the portico.
Next Yelena took us to the seats right next to the royal box. She explained that historically, only women had seats at the theater. Men had to stand. They could duck behind the curtain behind the seats to chat or have a drink if they got bored during a performance.
We toured several other rooms, including the white foyer. This room contained a grand piano and the entrance to the royal box. We went into the Round Hall, a red room which was used for Nicholas II's coronation. It has amazing acoustics, which helped to amplify his soft voice.
Next was the Grand Imperial Foyer, where nobles danced during the time of the Tsars. It was used as small concert hall during Soviet times. The wall panels were brought from France and are made of silk with wool thread for the embroidery. The antique chandelier belied its age by the presence of gas keys.
There was a room which had an exhibit of costumes and photographs from the history of the theater. We saw a poster for Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, and costumes for Swan Lake. The latter actually had its premier at the Bolshoi on March 4, 1877.
We exited via the grand staircase, which is very wide in order to accommodate ladies' wide ball gowns which were the style at the time.
It was an amazing private tour which lasted 90 minutes. Yelena was a wonderful guide with a sharp wit, and we enjoyed the experience very much!
Yelena, our Bolshoi guide
Olga told us that ballet dancers have always had many admirers. If fans would ask them on dates, they would tell them that they would meet them at the 9th column in front of the theater. There are only 8 columns. Clever!
After exiting the theater, we saw the second theater (New Stage). This was a former apartment house for artists, but it was converted to a new theater in 2002. It served as a place for Bolshoi performances to continue while they restored the main theater from 2002-2005. To the right of the new theater are rehearsal rooms.
Olga pointed out TSUM department store, which was one of the few places to purchase nice clothing during Soviet times. People would queue up for 4-5 hours. It was affordable, but quantities were limited.
We could also see a statue of the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky in front of the Maly Theatre.
Next we went to Christ the Savior Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Alexander I commissioned this cathedral on Christmas day in 1812, when Napoleon's army retreated from Russia. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture was debuted for the dedication of the original cathedral in 1882. However, the structure was demolished during Soviet times. The Soviet government did not like religion, as it was a threat to their power. They banned public worship, but the people never lost their faith. They kept it in their hearts even if they pretended to tow the party line. People who were caught practicing could be executed or exiled to Siberia.
After demolishing this cathedral, the Soviet government planned to build a Palace of Soviets here. It would have an enormous statue of Lenin, and Stalin's offices would be located in the head. However, this never came to fruition. Instead, a swimming pool was put on the former site of the Cathedral.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a public resurgence of religion. People donated their own money to finance rebuilding a replica of the original Christ the Savior Cathedral. After it was completed, the first service was held on Christmas day in the year 2000, 188 years after the defeat of Napoleon.
No photos were allowed inside, but it was beautiful. It was colorful and spacious with lots of natural light and large chandeliers. This was our first time inside a Russian Orthodox church, and we were surprised to find that there are no pews or seats - just a large expanse for people to stand. Olga pointed out the iconostatis, a wall of icons with a gate in the center that blocks the main altar from view. The gate is only opened during services. The iconostasis here had elaborate white and gold gingerbread trim, with religious icons embedded in it. On the gilded top was a cross. Looking up, the underside of the domes were painted with bright murals of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit looking down from heaven. There was beautiful artwork eveywhere we looked. The cathedral was laid out in the shape of a cross.
After exiting, Olga asked what we wanted to do for lunch. Did we want to go to a restaurant? Did we want to get something quick? We didn't really know what to say, as we weren't sure what the options were, but we said that we'd rather get something small and quick, so that we could resume our sightseeing on this beautiful day. We once again had sun, blue skies, and temperatures in the 40's! Olga was pleased by this answer and asked if we would like to try some traditional Russian pies for lunch. That sounded perfect! We stopped in to a tiny cafe behind the cathedral, looking out over the Moskva River toward the Kremlin. The sign on its roof said "Orthodox Meal" in Russian. Inside, there was a small sales counter, with pies of every type imaginable lined up behind glass. Across from the sales window is a tiny lunch counter with three stools. Olga helped us to order. Craig got a chicken pie and I got a meat pie. We each got a cup of hot tea. THe pies were so good that we had another round. I tried a cheese pie this time, and Craig had a meat pie. The pies cost less than a dollar apiece, and they really hit the spot. It was delicious, simple, cheap local food...the best kind!
Due to construction and lack of parking in the area, our driver was stuck in traffic. Olga decided that rather than waiting outside, we would take this opportunity to explore the Moscow Metro. Ten million people ride the extensive network of lines each day. We got on right next to the Cathedral at Kropotinskaya. This station on the Sokolnicheskaya Line was part of the original metro line launched in 1935. The station is cavernous and clean, with architectural columns inspired by ancient Egypt.
There are over 10,000 trains in the system, and at rush hour, they come every 60-90 seconds. At this time of day, they were less frequent than that, but we never had to wait more than a couple of minutes. When we got onto the first train, a young man saw Craig with his cane and immediately offered him his seat. It was very nice, as Craig has a hard time keeping his balance when standing up in a moving vehicle.
We got off of the train at Park Kultury. The station has 22 pillars covered in Crimean marble, and the subway tiles on the platforms were sparkling white and made of porcelain. It was really striking how beautifully designed immaculately kept the subway is here. In Boston, the subway stations are dingy and grimy. This is like an underground palace!
We then changed to the Koltsevaya (Circle) Line. This is a line which connects all of the other lines. It is said that when Stalin was reviewing the plans for the Metro, there was no circular line. All of the lines radiated from a center point like spokes in a wheel. Stalin supposedly put his coffee cup down on the plans, and it left a coffee ring. The engineers thought that this was a deliberate design change made by Stalin: a circular line to connect all of the other lines. They thought that it was brilliant. This urban legend may explain why this line is depicted as brown on Metro maps.
We took an escalator further underground to the Park Kultury Koltsevaya station. The upward escalator had a backup of people waiting to board. We emerged in a beautiful hall designed in the 1950's, complete with Georgian gray marble on the walls and Greek-inspired medallions depicting sports and leisure activities enjoyed by Soviet youth. The ivory-colored vaulted ceiling was divided into large geometric shapes and decorated with moulding and medallions.
We took the Koltsevaya Line train to Kievskaya station. This is unlike any subway station I could imagine. It resembled an art gallery, with mosaics in elaborate gold-colored frames, and proscenium-like arches over the various tunnels. The mosaics celebrate unity between Russia and the Ukraine, and were created by A.V. Myzin. In the center of the corridor hung old-school chandeliers with frosted glass shades.
Our train from Kievskaya was more modern than the previous ones, and was decorated inside and out with photos from the history of Russian film.
We stopped at Novoslobodskaya station. This station features 32 stained glass panels created by Latvian artists. Since there is no natural light underground, the windows are set into a marble wall and illuminated from behind. Again...it shocked me that this is a subway station. Any art installation as delicate and fragile as this would not last a day in Boston. It seemed so civilized to have these subway stations being a showcase of culture. It is a much more pleasant way to spend one's commute!
Next we arrived at Beloruskaya station. The artwork in this station consisted of twelve octagonal mosaics inlaid at intervals in the ceiling. As Kievskaya station paid tribute to the Ukraine, Beloruskaya honored Belarus. The mosaics depict daily life in Belarus, and the tiled floor is said to represent a Belorusian quilt. Here we changed to the Zamoskvoretskaya Line, and got on another train.
We disembarked at Mayakovskaya. This station was named after poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. The interior of the station is based on hiss Futurist vision of the Soviet state. Stainless steel lined all of the arches, giving the station an art deco flair. There are 34 large niches in the ceiling of the main passageway. Each contains a mosaic with the theme "24-hour Soviet Sky." We noticed mosaics of Sputnik parachuting back down to earth, a zeppelin moored to the Spasskaya (Savior) Clock Tower, and a ski-jumper soaring through the air. The station is very deep, at 33 meters below the surface. It was used as a bomb shelter, and it is said that Stalin took up residence in the central hall of station during World War II. It turned out that this particular station was only two blocks from our hotel.
We took the Zamoskvoretskaya Line to Teatralnaya (Theater) Station, near the Bolshoi Theater. The station itself is decorated in marble and would not be out of place in a grand theater. We transferred to Ploshchad Revolyutsii. This station contains 76 bronze statues by artist Matvey Manizer. These statues depict the Soviet people: from the piercing yet optimistic gaze of a young Lenin, to soldiers, students, farmers, writers, industrial workers, and aviators. It is said to be good luck to touch the snout of a statue of man's best friend. The snout was shiny brass due to the number of people who did this, and Craig decided to join in.
Olga had made it a point to take us to the most noteworthy stations, so we went a roundabout way. If we had truly just been going from our starting point to our ending point, we could have done it in two stops.
We got off of the subway just outside of Red Square. We walked through the GUM shopping arcade. The interior is beautiful, with catwalks and glass ceilings. The shops inside were all luxury shops, mostly international brands, so the only thing we bought were creme broulee ice cream cones.
The weather was still sunny with clear blue skies. We passed a raised circular platform called Lobnoye Mesto (place of foreheads). Ivan the Terrible addressed his subjects on this platform in the mid-16th century. It was a mainly a stage for the reading of royal edicts and for blessings, though it was also used for the occasional execution.
Ivan the Terrible commissioned St. Basil's Cathedral in commemoration of the annexation of Mongol states Kazan and Astrkhan to Russia in the mid-16th century. There are nine chapels inside the cathedral, and each is dedicated to a saint on whose feast day the Russian army won a victory. The cathedral got its current name from Basil the Blessed, a so-called Fool for Christ who was canonized after his death. Our tour of the cathedral began in the Chapel of Basil the Blessed, where his body is entombed. The adornment was amazing!
We then went upstairs and explored all of the other chapels. It felt quite like a medieval castle as we climbed up the narrow spiral staircase and passed from one small chapel to the next. They are all intricately decorated with icons, murals, and gold leaf. Three men from the Doros choir started to sing a capella hymns, and it was otherworldly. The acoustics were amazing and we were entranced. They were selling two CD's which were recorded in this chapel, and we bought both of them.
After fully exploring St. Basil's, our driver picked us up and brought us to a lookout spot on Sparrow Hills from which we could see the new modern skyline of the City of Moscow. Behind us was the imposing structure of Moscow State University, one of Stalin's "Seven Sister" skyscrapers. At 787 feet in height, it was the tallest building in Europe until 1990.
We drove past a statue of cosmonaut (and first human in space) Yuri Gagarin. At the bottom of the statue was a metallic sphere. Olga told us that this was an actual original Sputnik! Also, my friend and colleague Maria had told me that the apartment building where she grew up was right behind this statue! I snapped some photos from the car for Maria.
Our tour had come to an end for the day, and we asked Olga and the driver to drop us at the State Tretyakov Gallery. We had arranged to meet Maria's friend Valiria and her friend Natela here at 5:30. They were right on time. The women are friends through church, and since Valiria doesn't speak English, Natela offered to come along as translator.
Pavel Tretyakov was a wealthy merchant who collected Russian art to share with the people. He started his collection in 1856, and opened it up to the public in 1892. The art was evacuated in 17 train cars to Novosibirsk during World War II, and the museum reopened in May 1945.
The gallery is enormous. Valiria and Natela asked if we had any specific interests, or whether they should start by showing us pieces which have significance to them personally. We said that the latter would be perfect. Valiria smiled and extracted a notebook on from her purse in which she had written notes about which pieces she wanted to show us. She would occasionally ask a docent where a particular piece was on display.
Valiria and Natela spent nearly three hours with us, showing us the pieces which meant the most to them. As Orthodox Christians, they were most keen to show us religious works, including some amazing 19th century paintings of Jesus' life, and 14-16th century religious icons. The gallery was beautiful, and we really appreciated them taking the time to show us around.
Not only would it have been overwhelming to explore on our own, but they explained things to us about art history and its relationship to the Russian people. Many of the paintings had very dark subject matter, depicting suffering and cruelty. The Russian people have suffered a lot over the years, and this is reflected in their art. But the way they have gotten through it is by holding tightly to their religion (even when it was officially banned in Soviet times), and this is reflected in the religious art.
Another coping mechanism seems to be dark humor. Serious subject matter often had an ironic title. Some art seemed satirical, much like a lot of Russian literature.
The first work that they showed us was "The Appearance of Christ to the People" by A.A. Ivanov. This enormous oil painting measures 24 feet wide by 17 feet tall. It took twenty years to paint, completing in 1857. Ivanov actually painted it in Italy and then had to transport it back to Russia. It depicts the third chapter of Matthew. Its large format allows it to be incredibly detailed, and the artist even included his own image in the group of people standing with John the Baptist, witnessing Jesus' appearance. On the adjoining walls are smaller paintings, "sketches" made to practice elements of the main painting. It is interesting to see the iterative nature of this art, and to notice what remained the same and what evolved during the process.
Another interesting religious-themed painting was "Nikita Pustovyat: Dispute About Faith" by V.G. Perov. Pustovyat was a leader of the "Old Believers", a group of Russian Orthodox Christians who rejected the Ecclesiastical reform of Patriarch Nikon. The painting depicts a violent disagreement between Pustovat and Patriarch Joaquim of Moscow.
The theme of this schism between mainline Orthodoxy and the Old Believers was also depicted in another large format oil painting called "Boyarynya Morozova" by V.I. Surikov. Morozova, an Old Believer, was arrested by Patriarch Nikon's followers. As she is dragged away, she is depicted defiantly making the sign of the cross with two fingers (the old way), rather than the reformed way with three fingers. She died in prison and is considered to be a martyr. This painting was displayed next to various sketches of elements of the painting, and it was again possible to see the iterative nature of the creative process.
We enjoyed viewing a gallery of landscapes, many of which seemed photo-realistic and had gorgeous depictions of natural light. Initially, Russian artists did not perceive the Russian landscape to be worthy of such paintings, and focused on foreign subjects. A.K. Savrasov's "The Rooks Have Come" changed all of that, as he depicted the spring migration of rooks, sitting in trees against a blue sky with snow on the ground and a church steeple in the background. This turning point ushered in a wave of paintings of the beautiful Russian landscapes.
"The Baptism of Rus" by V.M. Vasnetsov depicts the mass baptism of people in Kiev into Russian Othodoxy by Prince Vladimir in 988 A.D. Through prayer, the water of the Dnepr River was transformed into the River Jordan, and all of the people of Kiev were baptized.
There was also an interesting gallery of impressionistic art by Mikhail Vrubel, which I enjoyed very much. He worked in various media including a majolica fireplace, a pastel and charcoal sketch of his wife (opera singer Nadezhda Zabela), and a series of oil paintings depicting the demon from Mikhail Lermontov's poem.
To cap off our tour, we went downstairs to see the museum's collection of Russian Orthodox icons. Most of these were painted with tempera paint on wood in the 14th-16th centuries. Valiria and Natela drew our attention specifically to an icon called Trinity, painted by Andrei Rublyov. On the surface, this icon depicts three angels visiting Abraham, but it is often interpreted as symbolic of the Holy Trinity. Rublyov painted it in the 1420's, and it was displayed at the Trinity cathedral in Sergiev Posad (which we would visit on Sunday) since the 16th century.
Three Rublyev icons which were part of the 7-piece Deisus Chin are displayed together: The Archangel Michael, The Saviour, and The Apostle Paul. Only Jesus's face and neck are visible in The Saviour. The wood on which this icon had been painted was repurposed as a tread on a staircase, so it is amazing that the image survived at all! It was nice to see some original icons, as over the course of our trip, we would see many replicas in various cathedrals. These were the real deal.
After exploring the gallery, we asked Valiria and Natela if we could take them to dinner. Natela asked "Do you like McDonald's?" I thought that she was just teasing us because we are Americans. But it turns out that McDonald's is quite the happening spot here for cheap, quick food. This particular location had an outdoor walk-up take-out window. The restaurant itself is huge, with two floors. Being Friday night, it was packed, and only after much searching could we find a seat. The interior was tastefully decorated (it didn't look like American franchises). We had burgers, fries, and tea, and enjoyed chatting with Valiria and Natela for nearly two hours.
Olga would later tell us that when the first McDonald's opened, people would queue for 6 hours, and there was a limit of 4 sandwiches per person.
We were a couple of miles from the hotel, so Valiria called a cab for us. It turned out to be an Uber (the first time we have ever used the service). We got back to the hotel at exactly 11 o'clock.
It was an amazing day filled with iteresting activities and good company. We always enjoy meeting locals and taking their recommendations on things to do, and the day worked out perfectly!
Thanks to my friend and colleague Maria and her friends Valiria and Natela! Meeting local people is one of our favorite things to do, and we very much enjoyed seeing Russian art history through your eyes. As Maria promised, a visit to the Tretyakov Gallery really reveals the psyche of the Russian people through the years, and gave us a contextual lens through which to view everything else that we would see over the next week. We enjoyed the Friday night ritual of dinner at McDonald's, and learning about both of you. Thank you for sharing your faith with us. We really enjoyed our conversations.
It is now past 1 a.m., so...time for sleep!
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
St. Basil's Cathedral
State Tretyakov Gallery
Candelabra, Bolshoi Theatre
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
Orthodox food stall
Olga orders pies and tea for lunch
Novoslobodskaya Metro Station
Mayakovskaya Metro Station
GUM shopping arcade
St. Basil's Cathedral
Chapel of St. Basil the Blessed, St. Basil's Cathedral
Ceiling mural and iconostasis icons, St. Basil's Cathedral
View of the City of Moscow from Sparrow Hills
Yuri Gagarin statue and Sputnik (with Maria's apartment building in the background)
The Appearance of Christ to the People by A.A. Ivanov
Boyarynya Morozova by V.I. Surikov
Craig, Natela, and Valiria at the Tretyakov Gallery
After a concert, portrait of Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel by the Fireplace by M.A. Vrubel
Andrei Rublyov: Deisus Chin: The Archangel Michael, The Saviour, The Apostle Paul
Trinity by Andrei Rublyov
Natela, Steph, and Craig at the icon exhibit at Tretyakov Gallery
McDonald's in Moscow