Unanswered Questions about Russian History
For our first day in Moscow, we visited the Museum of Contemporary Russian History and the iconic and incorrectly named St Basil Cathedral. Russia has had such a turbulent history in the last 150 years that we wanted to understand more about it, from a Russian point of view.
I wish that we had gone to The Museum of Contemporary Russian History, with a translator. It had a huge array of exhibits very well displayed, but I am sure we missed some interesting bits of information. What we did glean is that the museum is housed in the former Moscow English Club, the oldest aristocratic assembly here in the Tsar times, and converted to a museum after the 1917 Revolution.
The rooms took us on a journey from tsar rule, where, of the 74 million people, 1.5% were nobility, and 86% were peasants, to present times with 144.5 million people. Interestingly, in 1861, Emperor Alexander II implemented the abolition of serfdom and reforms giving freedom and land to the peasants, but twenty years later he was murdered by the “People’s Will” socialist group. This raised many questions for us. Was this because the ordinary person, at last, had a voice?
By the end of the 19th century, the population had grown to 126 million. There was an industrial purge, which all sounds good, but increasing political unrest. In the early 20th century, Russia experienced great upheaval; war with Japan, WWI and two civil revolutions in 1905 and 1917, then the civil war of 1918-1922; resulting in the end of imperial rule and the start of communism.
The museum included many artefacts such as everyday outfits, a French cartoon of foreign relationships with Russia, and how the English Club resembled back in the day. I particularly liked a poster showing the pyramid of power. (see above)
Unless we both missed an exhibition room, neither of us saw anything about Lenin or Stalin; a significant gap in Contemporary Russian History. Why? More questions.
The rooms took us from WWI straight to “Mid 1950’s to early 1980’s”, a period which is known as the “thaw”, and celebrated the advancement in science and space, with an exhibit of the Sputnik and the first dog in the cosmos, “Laika”. We did also enjoy looking at the weird and wonderful gifts given to the Soviet people, including an Armadillo and globe phone.
Moving beyond the communist times, the description of the hall named “Link of times – link of generations” said “The most important task of Russian society today is overcoming spiritual and value crisis caused by a series of shocks experienced by the country in the twentieth century” and also that Russia is formed from a union of many people; 193 peoples have distinct languages, cultures and traditions in this vast country. On a side note, guess how many time zones Russia has? (*Answer below)
The exhibition of present time was full of razzamatazz, rejoicing the achievements of sport, industry and science and stating that the priorities of the country are moving away from needing humanitarian aid, growing the economy and raising the living standards including housing, education and health. Let’s hope that the Climate crisis is also on their agenda.
In the afternoon, we visited the Cathedral of the Protecting Veil of the Most Holy Mother of God on the Moat, or St Basil’s Cathedral as it is better known and easier on the tongue! This fantastic place was constructed in 1555-1561 by order of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. From reading about him, he sounded somewhat deranged, and definitely had anger issues! I learned that he was so impressed by the Cathedral’s beauty that he had the architect blinded so that he couldn’t create anything better.
An additional church was added in 1588 above the tomb of St Basil, or St Vasily, as he is better known here. He was a visionary and led a life as a vagrant, roaming the streets of Moscow naked. Wow, was the climate warmer then? We’ve been wearing at least four layers of clothes. It didn’t seem to do him any harm, as he died in his nineties!
I didn’t realise that this stunningly colourful iconic building with its striking onion-shaped domes, was, in fact, ten churches, one central church with nine churches surrounding it. Despite paying extra for audio, we didn’t get to learn why there were separate churches. They are all dedicated to various Saints, but who went to each church? Were they for different classes of people? More questions.
The churches are just as colourful as the building on the outside with many paintings on the walls of stories of Christ and his disciples. The central church, reached by narrow spiral steps, was incredible with the top of the dome over 47m high and we were lucky to hear a harmonious quartet; very moving in such a holy place. The other nine churches were full of incredible paintings. all a few hundred years old. I am so thrilled that we came to Russia now. Definitely one for your bucket list if you haven't visited, but perhaps come when it is drier and warmer!
It was getting dark. Over the cobblestones of Red Square, we could see a grand building illuminated with fairy lights. We ran over through the rain into this majestic building. It was GUM, another of Moscow’s favourite institutions. It houses all the designer boutiques that you will find in a Vogue magazine. At the other end were more lights and twinkly trimmings, not sure if these were early Christmas decorations, I hope not, they looked gorgeous reflecting in the puddles. We walked back to our accommodation, slightly wet but satisfied with our first day in Moscow.
*Russia has 11 time zones, China has 1!