Saturday, March 11, 2017 - The Kremlin, Novodevichiy Convent, and a Classical Music ConcertWhen we woke up this morning, we had a Facebook message from Valiria, telling us that there is a classical concert tonight at the Tchaikovsky Theatre, which is only a 10 minute walk from our hotel! We had wanted to see some kind of performing arts while in town, and we had no plans for the evening. Ballet prices were prohibitive, but this was perfect. Valiria and Natela would be unable to join us, but we were sure that we would be able to manage fine on our own due to the proximity to the hotel.
We asked at the concierge desk about booking tickets. We know that adds additional overhead to the cost, but we had a bisy day of sightseeing. Booking tickets through the concierge meant that we wouldn't have to waste precious sightseeing time go to the theatre to purchase them, and the tickets would be delivered directly to the hotel. Even after the additional overhead, the seats were quite good and they still cost less than a comparable ticket at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
We are now regulars at the breakfast buffet at the hotel. They cook eggs to order, but we have been so satisfied with the quantity and quality of buffet items, that we still haven't ordered anything. We had sirniki, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, cottage cheese, fruit, coffee, potatoes, cake, and cranberry juice.
Olga and the driver picked us up at 10 o'clock for our half-day tour. We drove the short distance to the Kremlin. Kremlin means "fortress", and there are many kremlins around Russia, but the Moscow Kremlin is the most famous. We entered the triangular fortification by crossing a bridge and passing through a gate in the Holy Trinity Tower. The weather was overcast today, but temperatures were still in the 40's and quite comfortable. The sun even peeked out once in a while.
The Kremlin was originally a walled settlement, a triangular plot of land next to the Moskva River, dating back to 1156. For the next couple hundred years, the Mongols repeatedly attacked, razing all of the buildings and killing up to half the population at a time. Once the Mongols were expelled once and for all in the 15th century, Ivan the Great rebuilt the Kremlin with more of an eye toward aesthetics than strategic fortification. He invited Italian architects and Russian architects from the northern part of the country (Novgorod) to build structures in European as well as traditional Russian styles. Ivan was also responsible for the red brick incarnation of the Kremlin walls and complement of towers. The towers which fall at the corners of the triangular perimeter are round. The other towers are rectangular.
In 1712, the capital was moved to St. Petersburg, but the settlement at the Kremlin remained. During the War of 1812, Napoleon quartered his invading troops in the Kremlin for 35 days. When they retreated, they attempted to blow up the Kremlin. However, they were only successful in destroying three towers, since townspeople helped to extinguish the fuses.
In 1918, following the revolution, Moscow was once again named the capital. Lenin expelled residents from the Moscow Kremlin, while vowing to restore buildings and preserve works of art. Later, Stalin forbade commoners from even entering the walls. The Kremlin was solely the seat of the Soviet government. In 1937, ruby glass stars were placed atop the five tallest towers, replacing the double-headed eagle which had equated Tsarist Russia with the Roman Empire. In the 1960's, Kruschev commissioned a very stereotypically functional Soviet building: the Palace of Congress of the Soviet Party. It stands out as particularly austere among the other more ornate architecture.
In front of this building, we saw a young Chinese couple with a toddler daughter. The baby seemed very intrigued by us. She stared at us and smiled. We called "Nihao!" to them and waved. They were quite friendly, and the baby immediately waved to us. Olga took a photo of us with them. When I showed the photo to the baby, she got a big smile. We would run into them several times over the course of our Kremlin tour.
Across from the Palace of Congress is the Arsenal. It dates back to Peter the Great. Around the perimeter of the building, 875 cannons and other war trophies taken from Napoleon in the War of 1812 are arranged. The Presidential regiment of soldiers who guard Putin live there today. There is a year of mandatory military service in Russia, and the elite who meet certain intellectual and physical requirements are selected for this special detail.
We passed the yellow triangular Palace of the Senate. This building, commissioned by Catherine the Great, housed the Soviet Government and Bolshevik party offices and residences. The Senate now convenes here. President Putin has offices in the building, but he does not live in the Kremlin.
Visiting this place, and with the current zeitgeist scrutiny of our 45th President's alleged ties with Russia, the conversation inevitably came around to politics. Olga told us that the Russian people were very relieved when Trump was elected, though not for the reasons that one might expect. They are terrified of war, and they feel that Obama and Hillary are hawkish and would go to war with them. We explained that we feel exactly the opposite. The Democrats might not always agree with what Putin does, but they are unlikely to start a war over it. Trump is fickle and unpredictable. Even if he is currently cozy with Russia, that doesn't mean that he always will be. [Editor's note: by the time I am posting this on our web site, a month after our Russia trip, Trump has already bombed Syria, thereby souring his relationship with Russia.]
We saw the Tsar Cannon, an enormous 16th century bronze cannon with an internal diameter of 35 inches and a barrel length of 17.5 feet. (The wheels and casing are newer than the barrel). It weighs almost 43 tons. It is the largest surviving cannon in the world. Although huge cannonballs are sitting next to it, it actually is a bombard cannon, which means it shoots multiple smaller projectiles, similar to a shotgun. Nonetheless, the sheer size of the ballistics was enough to drive home what this 450-year-old weapon was capable of. It has never been fired, though an even larger cannon built in the 1530's was fired over 300 times defending Russia from the Tartars. So the design and size were certainly viable!
Then, we saw the Tsar Bell. This is the largest bell in the world. It is 20 feet tall and 22 feet in diameter and weighs 220 tons. Soon after its casting, while it was still cooling, it was caught in a fire in the Kremlin in 1737. Cold water was poured over the hot bell, and a 12.5 ton "chip" broke off. Because of this, the bell was never rung. It sits on display on the Kremlin grounds. Its sheer scale is awe-inspiring, and can't really be comprehended until you stand next to it.
Our next stop within the Kremlin was Cathedral Square. There used to be 12 Orthodox cathedrals in this courtyard. Six are still here today. We went inside of the Dormition (Assumption) Cathedral and the Annunciation Cathedral. Large churches like these were only used for special occasions such as coronations. It was too difficult to heat them in winter. Smaller chapels were used for day-to-day worship, sometimes in the homes of the nobles. We could see the spires of the Romanov's home church, Savior Cathedral, which was on the roof of their home.
Olga explained that all Orthodox cathedrals are built in the same way. The altar is on the eastern side, because that is the direction of Jerusalem. The altar is hidden behind ornate closed doors and a wall called an iconostasis. The western wall contains paintings of judgment day, with souls being weighed on a scale and ascending to heaven or descending to hell. This is a reminder as people leave the church that they need to stay on the straight and narrow.
The Dormition Cathedral had every square inch painted with religious icons: on the ceilings, walls, and columns. Craig used the analogy of a person who has every single bit of exposed skin tattooed. (You can see a high resolution photo of the amazing interior at Wikimedia Commons) It was rather dark inside, but the light from the small windows was enough to see the vibrance of these icons. The cathedral was designed by an Italian architect in a combination Italian Renaissance and traditional Russian style. Coronations took place here between the 15th and 19th centuries. Although people stand for Orthodox services, there were 3 thrones in this cathedral: for the Tsar, Tsarina, and the Patriarch of the church. The iconostasis dates back to 1652.
The Annunciation Cathedral contained many beautiful 14th - 17th century icons, said to rival the work of Da Vinci. This was the private church of the grand princes and Tsars. The floors were made of jasper, and there were bejeweled crosses from the 16th century on display in the outer gallery. No photos were allowed inside either of these cathedrals.
We concluded our visit to the Kremlin with the State Armoury. This is a museum which houses the treasures amassed by Russian royalty. It was originally established in 1485, but the current building dates back to 1851. There were royal costumes, thrones, armor, gold, silver, jewels, etc. It was amazing. Many of the treasures were ambassadorial gifts from other empires, including Persia, Poland, England, Scandinavia, etc.
Noteworthy exhibits include:
One of the highlights for us was the collection of royal coaches dating from the 16th to 18th centuries. These are horse drawn carriages which were made locally, as well as in other European countries (Germany, England, France, etc.) Some were on wheels, and others were on sleigh runners for the snow. The glass in the windows of some of the early coaches is made of sheets of micah. The early coaches also could not turn, so they needed to be lifted by hand to be turned.
Over time the coaches became more elaborate, eventually employing leafsprings and articulated steering technology. There were open-air summer coaches as well as enclosed winter models. They could fit from 2-4 adults depending on the style, and there were separate smaller models for children. The coaches were surreal and fairy-tale-like, reminding us of Cinderella's coach.
Another highlight were the Faberge eggs. The House of Faberge was a prestigious fine jewelry workshop founded by Estonian-born Gustav Faberge, and passed on to his son Carl. The Romanov family commissioned elaborate Easter eggs from Faberge starting in 1885. The tradition continued until the Tsars were deposed during the 1917 revolution. Each egg contains a tiny treasure. The elaborate workmanship of the eggs and their surprises is phenomenal.
The Moscow Kremlin Imperial egg is a music box. The egg itself is shaped like the dome of the Cathedral of the Assumption, and it is perched atop the Kremlin walls. The Memory of Azov Imperial egg is made of jasper and contains a miniature replica of the Imperial Russian Navy cruiser Pamiat Azova. The Standart Yacht Imperial Egg was made of transparent quartz. Inside is a replica of the Imperial Standart Yacht. The Trans-Siberian Railway Imperial egg is engraved with a map of the railway route, with precious stones marking each railway station.
The surprise is a miniature clockwork replica of a steam locomotive made of gold and platinum in three sections, forming a train with a length of one foot. It has a diamond headlight, and ruby marker lights. The train has five carriages with rock crystal windows, labeled "mail", "ladies only", "smoking", "non-smoking" and "chapel". The train has a gold key that can be used to wind it up and make it run.We were awe-stricken by the tremendous detail of all of these works of art! We knew that we would be seeing more of these priceless works of art in St. Petersburg later in the trip.
We could have spent forever exploring the treasures here, but we were running low on time. Olga helped to make sure that we saw all of the most important exhibits. Again, no photography was allowed.
After leaving the Kremlin, we had one final stop on our half day tour: Novodevichiy Convent. It is a nice oasis in the middle of the city, a walled convent founded by Basil III in 1524 to commemorate the Russian victory over Smolensk. This convent historically housed noblewoman nuns, who seem more often than not to join the convent for societal reasons more than religious ones: they were either put there by the noblemen in their lives, or because there were a lack of suitable foreign princes to marry. Peter the Great sent his half-sister Sophia here after she plotted to overthrow him. He also banished his first wife here, so that he could remarry.
In Soviet times, the convent was not destroyed. Rather, it was turned it into a museum of women's emancipation. But anyone who tried to worship there during Soviet times was killed. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the convent was given back to the Russian Orthodox church. It is still an active convent, with 55 nuns in residence.
We went into the Church of the Assumption, as the larger Cathedral of the Virgin of Smolensk is closed for the winter. There were lovely icons in here, and people were lighting candles and praying. Russian Orthodox devotees do not touch idols with their hands, only with their lips or foreheads. Olga asked if she could write our names on a piece of paper to give to the priest to bless us during the next service. It is a tradition here, and we were honored.
A very important icon is housed here: the Iberskaya (Our Lady of Iberia). It is a 17th century replica, commissioned by Tsar Alexis. Pagans attempted to destroy the original, shooting it with an arrow. The icon is said to have bled where the arrow penetrated it. It was then thrown into the river and lost, but was recovered intact much later. Even the replica is said to perform miracles. People were lighting candles and placing them in front of the icon. The flames reflected in the glass and it looked magical.
Unlike the dark interiors of the cathedrals in the Kremlin, this cathedral was light and bright with high ceilings. The convex ceiling is painted with a technique that gives the illusion of moulding around the frescoes, and there were gilded chandeliers suspended from support beams.
We wandered the grounds of the convent, and the leafless trees and a bit of snow on the ground gave the place a beautifully somber feeling. The bell tower is said to be beautiful: octagonal and 236 feet tall. However, it was undergoing restoration and was completely obscured by tarps.
Apparently there is a sister statue to Boston's "Make Way for Ducklings" by Nancy Shon very close to the convent. The statues were presented to Raisa Gorbechev by First Lady Barbara Bush in 1991, as a gift to the children of the Soviet Union from the children of the United States. Growing up in Massachusetts, Craig and I both grew up with "Make Way for Ducklings." Robert McCloskey's 1941 award-winning children's book tells the story of a family of ducks returning to the Public Garden in Boston, with friendly police officers helping them to cross the street. We have seen the statues which were installed in the Boston Public Garden in 1987. If we had known that the companion piece was in Moscow, we definitely would have made it a point to visit it. But I only became aware of it when researching Moscow public art after returning home.
Speaking of public art, we got a good view of the statue of Peter the Great, oversized, behind the ship's wheel of a frigate, holding a golder scroll aloft. It was erected in 1997 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Russian Navy, which was founded by Peter the Great. However, the whimsical and oddly-proportioned statue has been controversial. Peter the Great hated Moscow, and people speculate that he'd hate to be memorialized here. Urban legend says that the statue was originally designed to depict Christopher Columbus for the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the New World. Legend goes on to say that the USA rejected the statue, and Columbus' body was replaced with Peter the Great's so that the whole thing could be repurposed. Whether that is true or not, it doesn't really seem to fit with the style of Moscow. Craig had thought that it resembled Columbus' ships, even before hearing this legend. It reminded me of a pirate ship.
We drove by the wooden house where Leo Tolstoy and his family lived during the winters of 1882 through 1901.
We came back to the hotel at 3 o'clock. I was quite hungry, so we took Olga's advice and walked over to the Tchaikovsky Cafe, adjacent to the Tchaikovsky Theatre where we would be seeing a classical music program tonight. It is a lovely cafe with reasonable prices and authentic Russian cuisine. I have been dying to have beef stroganoff, and we each ordered it here, served with mashed potatoes and pickles. It was delicious! We also had a basket of fresh baked bread served with olive oil. I particularly liked the brown bread. It reminded me of the B&M canned brown bread, only fresh. We each had a Fanta (afraid that any alcohol might exacerbate our jet lag before going to the classical concert).
From the park across from the cafe, we could see the imposing Soviet-era Peking Hotel. In the park, there were adult-sized swingsets. Kids and adults were swinging, and kids were riding scooters over the bricks.
At 4:30, we headed back to the hotel for a short rest before our evening out. I looked at photos and typed up some notes.
At 6:30, we walked back to the Tchaikovsky Theatre.The concert started at 7:00. When we arrived at 6:40, they allowed us into the building, but the doors to the auditorium had not yet been opened. It was quite warm in the lobby area, as we perused the CD's, LP's, and souvenirs for sale. Unlike Symphony Hall in Boston, where every concertgoer is given a complimentary program, here programs were on sale for around $2. Although they were in Russian, I bought one anyway, as a souvenir. I also bought a Christmas ornament of a small doll in ethnic dress carrying water buckets.
All of the buildings in Moscow are quite warm. Steam hear is provided for free by the government, and people make good use of it. Restuarants, shops, theatres, hotels, churches, museums...all stiflingly hot. It is very important to dress in layers.
The doors to the audororium opened at around 6:50. We were seated in the 7th row, right in front of violin soloist Maxim Fedotov. The program consisted of three violin concertos:
It was amazing to us that a single violin soloist would perform three pieces in a single concert. We were not familiar with Fedotov before tonight, but we are fans now! He was spellbinding to watch. He played with such passion and personality! After researching hi, it turns out that he is a conductor as well. No wonder he could memorize three pieces and play them in rapid succession. There was no break between the first two pieces, and only a short intermission before the final piece.
The Bruch piece was my favorite. It was familiar to me as we had seen it performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I was mesmerized by Fedotov. Sometimes my mind wanders at classical concerts, but not tonight. He totally shredded it!
There had been flower sellers outside of the theatre, and at the end of each piece, Fedotov was presented with bouquets and baskets of well-deserved floral arrangements. It was an invigorating performance.
Thank you so much, Valiria, for making us aware of this concert. We had such a wonderful time! And when it was over, it was just a 10 minute walk back to the hotel. We arrived back at 9:30.
What a great way to cap off another amazing day!
Tchaikovsky Concert Hall
Approaching the Holy Trinity Tower to enter the Kremlin
Cathedral of Archangel Michael and Annunciaton Cathedral, Cathedral Square
Spires of the Savior Cathedral, on the rooftop home church of the Romanovs, Cathedral Square
View of Christ the Savior Cathedral from the Kremlin
Leaving the Kremlin
Monument to Saint Vladimir. This statue was erected in November 2016. He baptized Russia and brought Orthodox Christianity here in 988 A.D.
Outside the walls of Novodevichy Convent
Quarters in which Peter the Great's sister Sofia lived when he confined her to the convent
Gate Church of the Transfiguration, Novodevichy Convent
Church of the Assumption, Novodevichy Convent
Interior of the Church of the Assumption, Novodevichy Convent
Replica of Our lady of Iberia icon, which bled when pierced with an arrow, and then was dumped into the sea. It is said that it was rescued from the sea intact, with the blood still on Mary's chin. Church of the Assumption, Novodevichy Convent
Cathedral of the Virgin of Smolensk, Novodevichy Convent
Beef stroganoff at Tchaikovsky Cafe
Craig underneath a poster advertising tonight's concert; Tchaikovsky Concert Hall
Violin soloist Maxim Fedotov and conductor Alexander Vedernikov with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall