Our group arrives in Moscow first thing in the morning after an evening on the train. Unable to check into our hotel rooms, our group does its best to wash up and change clothes in the hotel lobby bathroom. The results are mediocre but there’s a city to see and we make for the Red Square straight away. We take the metro which, it has to be said, is a great achievement of Stalin’s – it is one of the most heavily used metro systems in the world. The statues of determined communist workers lining the halls are almost comical… I wonder if propaganda is comical when taken out of context or, one might argue, even when contextualized.
Red Square is full of all manner of nerdtastic fun – but sadly, I’ll never see any of it. We arrive only to find the entire place including the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the Square itself gated off and guarded by Russian military. Apparently, on the one day in my life I decide to visit Moscow, its historical epicenter is blockaded to accommodate some kind of Olympic ceremony rehearsal. Weak. But isn’t that just life? Your boat finally comes in and inevitably you find yourself at the airport. (Sigh).
I Wax (A Little) Political
Our group takes it in stride and we head to Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This Russian Orthodox Church made headlines in 2012 when members of the punk rock band, Pussy Riot, staged a guerilla performance in the church – a form of protest against Putin (at that time entering his third term). In addition to likening Putin to a dictator, Pussy Riot also advocated for LGBT rights and expressed concern (to put it mildly) over the lack of separation between church and state. Members of the band were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in prison. Those reading the news this week may have noticed that one band member, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, has gone “missing” while allegedly being transported to another penal colony in Siberia.
So… I have no desire to turn my travel blog into a political soapbox but to gloss over the social and political issues of the country I am visiting would be remiss. You can travel for fun, to make friends, to take great photos, to “bug out” on whatever weirdness you have going on at home… but perhaps the greatest gift travel offers you – if you are open to receiving it – is the ability to contemplate the lives of other people. Having loved ones in the LGBT community I find myself wondering what their (our!) lives would be like in Russia. I ponder these things and am overcome with a sense of pride in the US – a country where things are slowly changing for those who are underrepresented and a country where I can run my mouth about our government with reckless abandon.
Some of my friends from the LGBT community disapproved of my trip (fair enough) but I would ask of them and you, dear Reader, to not assume the Russian government speaks for all of the Russian people. I mean, when was the last time the White House reached out to get your thoughts on important matters of state?
THE Ballet (Or So We Thought)
Failing to see any of Moscow’s must-see sights, a few of us decide to get tickets to the ballet. A word about the Russian ballet and the Bolshoi theatre: it’s a BIG freakin’ deal. This isn’t a ballet. The Bolshoi is one of the world’s oldest ballet companies so, in many ways, this is the ballet. This past winter the New Yorker ran a story about the Bolshoi theatre’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, getting sulfuric acid thrown in his face – an attack allegedly plotted by one of the ballet company’s lead dancers. Yikes.
Ashley, Louise (from the UK), and I head to the Bolshoi ticket office to see what all the fuss is about. The ticket attendant is irritated with me (surprise, surprise) and finds me so unbearable she just walks off never to return. Since I’m used to this now, I simply request three tickets from the woman who takes her place. Also irritated with me for reasons unknown, the second ticket booth attendant insists there are only two tickets left to the performance that night. But of course! We take the two tickets. Surely, there is one more to be found – after all, we are in the land of bribes…
Thanks to a scalper we find just outside the theatre, we are able to obtain a third ticket. I carefully compare his ticket with my legitimately purchased tickets. The barcode numbers, font, watermark, and logos appear comparable and sure enough, we are admitted to the theatre with no trouble. While I think myself quite clever for negotiating the price and inspecting the ticket, one very obvious fact escapes me: I can’t read Cyrillic. Neither can Ashley. Neither can Louise. Had we been able to read the tickets we would have noticed the performance that evening was not a ballet at all but rather, an opera. And so it was that we arrived at one of the world’s most famous ballets not, in fact, to see a ballet, all while still unshowered and underdressed from the train ride the night before… It was magical all the same.
Up next: We ditch the west for Siberia’s Wild East. Yeow!