IV. Moscow: the Mind of Russia
The countryside dotted with picturesque farm communities and their ubiquitous onion-domed churches merges occasionally into small towns, through most of which the train merely slows down. . . we stop only two or three times between Yaroslavl and Moscow. . . . As we penetrate the growing density of the suburbs, the vibration of the legendary capital city grows palpably more intense: an intellectual, political, cultural and historical hive humming with the complex aspirations of its ten million inhabitants, majority ethnic Russians mingling sometimes in harmony and sometimes in conflict with minorities from every corner of the country’s vast and varied expanse. . . .
Gratefully, we are met here as we step off the train by a team of porters with a large flatbed trolley, on which they expertly pile and strap down our small mountain of gear and luggage, then whisk us down the level platform and out into the parking lot where our next van and driver await. . . the police strong-arming a vagrant through the bustling crowd lets us know we’re not in Kansas anymore, and our “big-city” awareness kicks in.
No rest for the weary: we go straight from the train station to the radio station (about an hour’s drive through chaotic rush hour traffic), through the building’s security checkpoint manned by no-nonsense guards packing Uzis, up the typically tiny (and for me, claustrophobic) elevators in shifts with our instruments, and into the studio, where the show host and translator await—we squeeze in a quick photo op in front of the station’s logo and then crowd into the darkened sound booth for an hour-long interview punctuated by on-air musical improvisation. . . .
Back out into the air and light and off to Hotel Peter I, the most luxurious of our accommodations, right in the cultural heart of Moscow, two blocks from the Bolshoi Theater and four blocks from Red Square. . . as we check in we take note of the spa two floors below street level for future reference, trundle our gear and luggage up to our rooms, grab quick hot showers and changes of clothes, and re-group in the lobby for a short walk to Café Sherbet, which features belly dancers, hookahs (not at our curtained corner booth), sumptuous Central Asian cuisine, an expansive wine list, and again the traditionally-served Sambuca with its mystical blue flames and head-clearing vapors. . . .
A post-prandial promenade through the bustling Friday night street life takes us to the Bolshoi Theater, the single most impressive edifice I’ve ever stood before anywhere: lit from below, its block-wide, intricately-designed and superhumanly massive façade radiates the deep, rich pride Russians take in their artistic heritage. . . . We continue on through an underground pedestrian arcade and back up into the plaza fronting Red Square—the outer buildings are literally red! As we pass through the main gate into the Square itself, there stands the Kremlin at the opposite end, lit up in all its storied glory. . . . As we cross the well-worn and deeply-intersticed paving stones, past Lenin’s tomb, the official presidential palace where the much-disputed Vladimir Putin dwells, the halls in which the Duma convenes, the cathedral, and the enormous fortress wall enclosing it all, the ironies are vivid: one feels the history and humanity of this place seeping up through one’s footsoles; one is also keenly aware of this place as a monument to inhumanity and suffering, poignantly highlighted by the raised concrete platform adjacent the Kremlin where public executions used to be staged; and one also wonders at the surreal Disneyland quality of the garishly-lit commercial enterprises that now offset those of government, religion and the military. . . . Red Square has been prepared for Victory Day celebrations, with grandstands erected along one side and the plaza demarcated with marching configurations for bands and troops. . . hindsight will reveal that those celebrations are contrasted both before and after our visit with massive and sometimes violent demonstrations for and against Putin’s re-election, which strangely subside for the short time we are here. . . .
Another sumptuous breakfast buffet on white linen in the Peter I dining room, some last-day shopping in the open-air bazaar in front of Red Square, a long, luxurious steambath in the subterranean spa, a power nap, then off to the Moscow International House of Music for load-in, sound-check, and our final performance of the tour. . . .
The venue resembles a gigantic alien mothership that has improbably landed in the heart of the metropolis along the banks of the river. . . we encounter one last, very thick layer of bureaucracy in attempting to find and access our load-in point to this towering complex of multiple theaters; after an interminable wait in the van and many animated phone calls from Nastya to various functionaries lurking somewhere within the building, we are finally granted entrance to our dressing rooms and the stage. . . this is the first and only modern concert hall we’ve played, so we let out a big exhale and set about setting up and tuning in. . . . As has been the case throughout the tour, our pre-show process must be integrated with an elaborate and lengthy on-stage TV interview, this time with Moscow’s (and therefore, one assumes, Russia’s) leading cultural television program, which turns out to be the most in-depth and knowledgeable coverage we’ve received. We meet our translator for the evening, the lovely and charming Moscow native Olga, and repair to our dressing rooms to get ready for curtain. . . .
Again, our performance is graciously and warmly received, rewarded with standing ovations and multiple encores. . . there is no meet-and-greet at this venue, so at the conclusion of the final encore the audience spontaneously comes up on stage for autographs, acknowledgements, hugs, photos and gift-giving—we are somewhat taken aback by this unaccustomed crossing of the proscenium line, but roll with it in the ebullient spirit of the moment and in deference to the obvious good will of the crowd. . . . an informal post-concert hallway tete-a-tete with Michael Hurley, Cultural Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, who is evidently one of the movers and shakers who initiated and oversaw our inclusion in the Festival of Traditional American Music in Russia. . . a spontaneous sidewalk photo session with a group of fans dressed in faux Native American regalia and chain-smoking cigarettes, then back into the van and back to the hotel. . . . RC and Pam are in the mood for a quiet nightcap and a prompt departure for dreamland, while William, Nastya, Olga and myself are too buzzed to turn in; so RC and Pam repair to the hotel bar while the Four Moscowteers head out for a late-night supper and a couple more bottles of fine red wine, our soiree enlivened by the good-natured bantering between long-time friends Nastya (a St. Petersburg native) and Olga (a Moscow native) which illustrates the traditional rivalry between Russia’s two great cities, one the soul of this wonder-filled world and the other its mind, and bringing our life-altering journey full circle. . . .
~With much gratitude to Thea Austen of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Susan Katz of CEC ArtsLink, and of course our guardian angel Nastya Tolstaya~
by Will Clipman