Ah, the Kremlin

by Rachel on January 25, 2010

Armory Park inside the Kremlin Walls

As a former National Security Policy junky, going inside the Kremlin in post-Soviet Russia is a bit bizarre.  I came of age in the early 1980s when the Iron Curtain was made of iron, the Cold War brought shivers to every warm-blooded American and when all bright international policy and political science students (me) stayed awake at night worrying about nuclear winter and the security of U.S. ICBM silos.  In 1986 I finished college with my degree in Political Science and a burning desire to wage peace with the Soviets.  Despite my best efforts I didn’t have a thing to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unraveling of the Soviet Union.  Though I could take no credit for the warming of relations between the East and West, it did mean that I was able to visit Red Square with my Russian-Jewish cousins, and go inside the walls of the Kremlin in the summer of 2006.  What I found there bore absolutely no relationship to what my nightmares 20 years prior suggested I might find.

In 2006 behind the still severe walls of the Kremlin we found a plentitude of beautiful churches, elaborate and elegant monuments, ornate gardens and the very impressive Armory Museum.  What was missing was thousands of massed tanks, vast radar arrays, long corridors of tiny offices filled with Soviet trained spies, and stockpiles of nuclear fissionable material.  Well, at least I didn’t see any and I looked pretty hard.  The beautiful Armory Museum was instead filled with extensive holdings of glitzy gifts given over the centuries to the Tsars and other major Russian leaders.  Organized by area from whence they came, one could view les beaux cadeaux from the French, the Germans, the English and numerous other fine nations (many no longer with us – where are the Prussians and the Austro-Hungarians when you really need them?).  The absolute showstopper was a basement room full of carriages straight out of Disney’s Cinderella.  I had no idea that such things actually existed.  I had labored for years under the misimpression that they were just a figment of the imagination of folks who toil in cartoon departments.  The Tsars had carriage after elaborate carriage decorated with gold leaf and swirls of lavishly carved wood.  Painstakingly repaired and renovated in recent decades one could not help but expect that fabulously dressed footmen were soon to step out from the shadows to escort some lovely lady or gentlemen as they climbed aboard.  The whole Armory Museum was filled with jaw-dropping excess.  Swords and scabbards, candelabras, glass, porcelain tea services, plates and serving platters – you name it, someone gave one (or two or three) to the Tsars.

One upside of the Armory Museum was that it was pleasantly chilly and well ventilated.  Perhaps the well-hidden nuclear stockpile was producing cool gases that allowed the Kremlin museums and office spaces to stay comfortably fresh.  Or perhaps not.

After our myth-busting visit to the Kremlin we went out to lunch at a “Caucasian” restaurant, or so our Russian tour-guide said.  It turns out that it was not a restaurant for white people (though there were plenty inside) but rather was one that served food from the Caucuses.  Surprisingly enough such restaurants have not caught on in the U.S.  It was our last meal with Moscow guide Svetlana.  My youngest son had, as I may have mentioned in a prior post, embraced the notion of meal-time toasting with both vim and vigor and proceeded to toast the charming, slightly quiet and unassuming Svetlana repeatedly until I thought perhaps her young heart might burst.  Our then four year-old son could teach international diplomats a thing or two about making strangers feel welcome.  It’s really too bad we didn’t have a video camera with us.  All the gracious toasting, had it been caught on tape, might serve as a useful teaching tool once he hits his thankless teen years.  After lunch we were dropped off on car-free Arbat Street, lined with a zillion shops all selling exactly the same thing.  My father’s handy pedometer said that we’d hit five miles of walking that day and surprisingly enough, our youngest son was still standing.  A massive thunderstorm was looming overhead and rather than add another activity to our already slightly lunatic day, we cancelled our booked boat ride along the Moscow River and retreated to our hotel to listen to the thunder crash and bang overhead.  Shiver me timbers matey, I was glad to be indoors.

On our final morning in Moscow we made a brief shopping trip to Red Square to visit GUM, the totally gorgeous, scandalously over-priced shopping mall catering to international tourists and organized crime bosses.  Given the average annual salary of most Russians none of them could possibly afford the astounding prices found inside every pricey boutique.  Within the walls of GUM you can purchase all sorts of Russian regalia, lovely clothes, hand luggage etc… However, my youngest son, spry just the day before, had experienced a complete and total collapse in energy and willingness to go along with the family outing.  He was done before he started and did at one point throw himself – face down – on the frightfully germ laden stone floor refusing to go another step.  Since I had no intention of paying $200 for a t-shirt I was more than happy to lug Jonah back to the hotel.  There we sat until the van was ready to take us to the airport.  I didn’t come to Russia to shop.  My son was just making extra sure that I did not.  He’s so thoughtful.

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