Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia Trip
by John Fuhring
For me, the highlight of our trip was Moscow. Yes, Berlin was extremely interesting and enjoyable, but what I got to see while at Moscow was actually more relevant to my life as a child of the Cold War than the ancient stuff I saw in Berlin. I can't believe it, but I actually walked around Red Square, watched the changing of the guard in front of Lenin's Tomb, stood in front of St. Basil's and went into the Kremlin. We got to go to all those forbidden and forbidding places that I had heard so much of in movies, on the radio and TV, in news papers. We got to see the "Russian White House" (that was later shelled by the Army when some lawmakers took it over), we went inside the Kremlin wall and saw the Congress building (the old Supreme Soviet), the Hermitage, beautiful cathedrals and so many other things that I just don't have the space to tell you about. For me, the absolute highlight of the trip and something I never dreamed I would ever get to do was attending a private visit to Lenin's Tomb.
Of course we have heard of Lenin all of our lives. The fact is, the State he founded turned out to be a monstrous thing, especially under Stalin, still, he put in motion the most profound events of the 20’th century - my parent's and my century. Who of my generation hasn't seen pictures of the mighty Russian generals and dictators on top of Lenin's Tomb watching missiles and guns roll by as thousands of uniformed soldiers, with their bayonets fixed, marched in perfect precision? It was those pictures that scared the bejebbers out of everybody and provided the excuse for my country to spend untold thousands of billions of dollars to counter those (perceived, but ultimately empty) threats.
Even now I can hardly believe it myself, but we got to walk past the guards, into the entrance, down the steps and actually see the body of Lenin. The body was very heavily made up to look life-like and some people in our group thought that it was really a wax image, but I am of the opinion that it was real. At any rate, I felt this indescribable thing that I was standing in the awesome presence of history. The overthrow of the Czar and the murder of his family, the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin's bloody purges, the mass starvation, the horrific loss of life during W.W.II, the Cold War and finally, the ultimate failure of communism - its all so tragic and bloody, but I was standing there looking at what remained of the man who started it all.
While in Russia, I got the distinct impression that most Russians feel that Lenin began with the best of intensions to end the misrule of an intolerable monarchy, but that his movement was corrupted and turned murderously evil by his successor, Uncle Joe Stalin. Almost everybody believes that Joseph Stalin was a very evil person, but a person who nevertheless saved the Russian people from Hitler (at the cost of untold millions of Russian lives) and even people who suffered greatly at his hands cried when he died.
Before I leave the topic Lenin's Tomb, I want to say something regarding the Changing of the Guard there. The ceremony was carried out in a highly dignified, very precision military manner. The guards rigidly goose-stepped in and out of their assigned positions in a stately manner while carrying their 1891 model rifles with fixed bayonets held out in front of them. A few years later I traveled to Washington D.C. by train (wonderful trip!) and I had the privilege of watching the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, but the jiivey, almost hip-hop way our soldiers marched to and fro really shocked and deeply disappointed me. I thought their "fluid motion" way of marching was highly inappropriate and did not match the solemnity of the proceedings. To my eye and tastes, the honor guard at Arlington looked just awful from the way they moved to their tastless uniforms to their awful looking shaved heads. Quite frankly, I was embarrassed that this military ceremony looked so lax and silly.
To change the subject, let me say something about the Russian Orthodox churches we went into. First, Orthodox Church architecture has never been influenced by European Gothic. The buildings are of the very ancient, heavy and solid Roman-Byzantine style of architecture. There are no large openings of stained glass or artistically styled vaulted roofs or flying buttresses, but that does not mean that they are not beautiful on the outside and especially on the inside. If you think you know what Baroque or Rococo means, then believe me, "you ain’t seen nothin’ " until you've seen the inside of a Russian Orthodox church. There is no way to describe the beauty of the decorations, the paintings, the metal and wood work, the gilding, carvings and richly robed and bejeweled statues found in side those churches. What those churches lack in architectural sophistication, they certainly make up in decorative art.
Inside a Russian Orthodox Church
Now, speaking of Russian Churches, I've always been told that under Stalin's rule, most of the churches of Russia were closed and turned into museums, warehouses and public buildings or just torn down. Starting in the 1990s, many buildings have been given back to the Russian Orthodox Church and have become churches once again. There are so many of them everywhere that it boggles the mind and I wonder what in hell the Russian Orthodox Church wants with all those churches.
Many of these highly ornate churches were built strictly for use by the nobility and never intended for everyday use or use by the public. They were also a status symbol in that if you were an important person, you enhanced your prestige by building yet another fancy church. I guess that is why they appear so close together in and about Moscow. There are four lavish cathedrals within the walls of the Kremlin alone and each had a specific function associated with the Czar and was used for nothing else.
Our guides told us that a typical Orthodox service lasts more four hours and it appears perfectly OK to come and go at will and visitors may look in at anytime. I asked our guide if the faithful are offended by us coming in on their services and looking around, but she assured us it was perfectly OK. I explained that people entering and walking around in one of our churches during services are considered rude and sacrilegious. Well, I guess in the Orthodox Church you are welcome to participate at any time and for however long you want. In these churches we saw men and women of all ages, but the majority were always older women in dressed in black. No one seemed to pay us any attention at all except there was always an old lady at the entrance who would sort of greet us and make the Sign of the Cross as we entered. There was always a little booth at the back that sold prints of Icons, silver crosses, sacred calendars, etc.
The churches were beautiful inside, but so was the subway. We went for a ride on the Moscow Subway while there. I love subways and thought the Paris subway was the most beautiful in the world until I got to Moscow. While millions of Russians were literally starving to death, Joe Stalin decided to make the Moscow subway the finest in the world and (in at least this) he succeeded. Each station is filled with bronze statues, frescoes and crystal lamps. No two stations are remotely alike and all are incredibly decorated and beautiful. It cost about a penny to ride anywhere in Moscow (at that time).
Compare the elaborate beauty of the Moscow subway with the stark grey walls of the Washington D.C. subway.
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