Last week I’ve recollected my Moscow memories* from back then when I’ve traveled to Moscow and the adventures that followed when visiting the Red Square. This week I’ll continue with the second and last part of my memories. You can read part 1 of Travel Memories: Macabre Moscow over here.
*Looking back at my article from last week, I’ve realized that I’ve made a tiny mistake. We went to see a performance at the Moscow Circus and not Moscow Zoo. I’ve changed last week’s post accordingly.
Ded Moroz and Other Beings
When we decided to re-schedule our trip to Moscow for December, I really didn’t think too much about Russian winter. Sure, we all know that it can get cold over there, but to actually be in Russia during one of their coldest winter in years is a different issue. With temperatures of -16°C during the day, my very kind host family was worried that I might turn into a human icicle with my ‘westerner’s coat’ and offered me one of their fur coats. The idealistic teen that I was at that time, I’ve just became a vegetarian, I refused their offer. I’ve always been very stubborn so, of course, I’d rather lose a limb to the cold than ask my guest family to lend me a coat. Although, I’ve regretted that decision on more than one occasion.
I think it was later that same day, when I was offered the fur coat, that my teen idealism was challenged again. Our group was invited by the partner school in Moscow to see a performance of the Moscow Circus. While I was initially excited, my enthusiasm faded away rather quickly when I realized that the Great Moscow Circus uses Bears and other animals for their performances. I was angry, constantly mumbling “how could the Russians do that” while being in denial that I’ve seen circus performances back in Germany featuring Elephants. It is easier to blame ‘the others’ than to acknowledge that the treatment of circus animals is problematic everywhere and not just in one particular country or circus. Our hosts in Moscow were throughout the entire time very polite and as hospitable as can be while I was on more than one occasion a difficult guest with my stubborness. Looking back, I came to realize that my 15 year old self was too eager in being judgemental, in drawing the line between black and white. The great thing about travelling is that you learn to see the world differently. Not only do you learn more about yourself, you learn to see other cultures in a different light. However, more importantly, you learn to see your home country in a different light as well. Over the years and after countless other journeys, I’ve learned how to be grateful of other people’s hospitality while still staying true to my principles.
You Only Die Twice
Of course, Moscow is not just a city with a political significance. Theatre, literature, arts; Moscow can look back on a rich cultural history. We went to see more places of literary significance than I’m able to remember. Besides places where Pushkin lived or frequently visited, the only other literary place that we visited and that had a lasting impact on me were the former home of author Nikolai Gogol. While we were walking around outside, our host told us a story about Gogol’s life, and more importantly, death.
Towards the end of his life, Gogol was rumoured to have become insane. On more than one occasion he, allegedly, addressed his fear of being buried alive. After several days of sickness Gogol died in March 1852 and was buried at the Danilov Monastery. When decades later, Moscow authorities decided to demolish the Monastery and relocate Gogol’s remains to the Novodevichy Cemetery, they found Gogol’s body lying face down. That much can be read on Wikipedia. Our hostess also told us how, allegedly, there were also scratches found on the inside of his coffin. These days it is a widely believed myth that Gogol was, indeed, buried alive.
However, the story doesn’t end here. According to our hostess, Alfred Nobel, whose money and legacy was used to found the Nobel Prize, heard about Gogol’s incident and was, allegedly, so terrified that Nobel changed his last will and wrote:
“It is my express wish that following my death my veins shall be opened, and when this has been done and competent Doctors have confirmed clear signs of death, my remains shall be cremated in a so-called crematorium.” (Source: mentalfloss.com)
Now, while the part of Nobel and his fear of being buried alive is true, the connection between Nobel and Gogol is nonsense. Gogol’s remains were relocated to another cemetery, and thus the beginning of the myth, in 1931. Nobel, however, died already in 1896. When I heard this story, I wasn’t aware of this, uh let’s call it ‘impossibility’, and was utterly fascinated and terrified. Early on, this story struck me as if an Edgar Allan Poe story became reality. To this day, whenever I hear the name Gogol I also have to think of Nobel and Poe. Well, I guess their majestic beards and moustaches also played a role in this association.
Place of Extremes
Even though we’ve stayed only a week in Moscow, we managed to see a great deal. There is so much more about Moscow that comes to my mind that I haven’t even mentioned. At one point my host family invited me to see a ballet performance at the Bolshoi Theatre. The Moscow Metro itself is a ‘must see’ for every traveller. However, what also stayed with me was the visible extreme between the rich and the poor. Everywhere on the streets, wealthy citizens dressed in extravagant fur coats were alternated by the extremely poor. There is one particular man I will never forget. Somewhere in Moscow, I can’t even remember where anymore, I saw a legless man doing errands. Since he was so poor that he couldn’t afford a wheelchair, he was using a piece of wooden plank with wheels to move around.
Nowadays, I realize what an amazing experience this week in Moscow was. Even though I didn’t appreciate my time in Moscow back then, I’m still in awe with it beauty. I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back, but I’m more than ever determined to revisit this metropolis, knowing I’ll be finally able to appreciate it fully.