A dead revolutionary and a bell that never tolled

Tower on the Kremlin Walls with Soviet Star.
Tower on the Kremlin Walls with Soviet Star.

Get a good night’s sleep and you’ll be ready for anything, including seeing a dead revolutionary.

We all felt immeasurably better today after sleeping in beds and then a long, leisurely breakfast overlooking the walls of the Kremlin.

The first order of business for the day was going to Lenin’s Mausoleum. Although everything we’d read had warned of long queues, we pretty much walked straight in. And there he was, right in front of us, under bright lights. There’s simply no way to tell if it’s really his body or, as many claim, a waxwork effigy. I sort of hope it is the latter simply because it seems sad that such a huge historical figure should be so reduced. It was very noticeable that, in stark contrast to when we saw Mao’s mausoleum, the other people going through, and they were Russian, showed little respect – and that’s probably pretty indicative of how unreal the whole thing feels.

Having grown up during the Cold War, the words “The Kremlin” are redolent of menace and intrigue, but the reality is more impressive just because of its imposing bulk. The walls loom above Red Square, although they give more of a sense of being built to hide what was going on behind them than to serve as serious defences. The walls are interrupted at regular intervals by a series of towers, which are themselves topped of with grand Soviet stars, placed there by Lenin instead of the original Russian Eagles. The stars really stand out in modern Moscow which seems to have made a determined effort to rid itself of Soviet symbols.

Inside the walls of the Kremlin there’s absolutely no sign of menace or intrigue. There are several churches and cathedrals of the Russian Orthodox church, beautifully surmounted by gilded onion domes. The cathedrals are quite small but every interior surface is covered in painted decoration. The effect is more interesting, thanks to the detail of the paintings, than beautiful. It’s possible that the relatively low-key decoration in the cathedrals is because all of the interior pieces have been moved to the Armory Museum.

Tsar Bell - it never tolled.
Tsar Bell – it never tolled.

The Museum is quite stunning,. It’s also not large, but it’s just loaded with wonderful pieces taken from the churches and from the palaces. Religious books literally encrusted with pearls and jewels, icons dripping in gold, the fascinating Faberge Eggs, and a ridiculous amount of gold and silver table-wear. Then there were the guns and swords and armour most of which, again, was clearly built for beauty rather than utility. Declan mused himself by trying to guess the age of the exhibits, and by the end was getting pretty good at judging things.

The final sight of the Kremlin is the Tsar Bell – the largest bell in the World. Personally, I’m not sure than you can claim that record for a bell that has never rung, but that is how it is known. The bell weighs in at a ludicrous 200 tonnes and broke while still being made in 1737. A piece broke off, that itself weighs as much as the largest working bell today, and so the Tsar Bell was never raised above ground level. In act it’s so big that it was used as a chapel for a while.

But that was enough history in the cold and the opposite side of Red Square from the Kremlin is dominated by the GUM Department store. GUM is entirely symbolic of the new Russia in that in its privatised post-Soviet incarnation it is filled with shops selling things that are quite inaccessible to the average Russian citizen, or the average citizen from anywhere for that matter. It’s a beautiful, arcaded building packed full of luxury goods. It makes for a good place to have a snack and people-watch the rich end of Russia at play.

I somehow don’t think this is what Lenin had in mind when he launched his revolution. The wheel seems to have turned in a full circle with vast riches once again being available to only a small slice of the Russian population. But then, I’m sure he would never have envisaged that he would be turned into a tourist attraction on the other side of Red Square to a luxury department store housed a building that he’d had nationalised to crate a model shop “democratising consumption for workers and peasants”.

We had dinner in a restaurant near the hotel that advertised authentic Russian food. I had a lamb goulash, Jennifer and Callum had Siberian meat dumplings with sour cream. It was noticeable that the waitress was very, well, Soviet in her use of smiles, until the boys said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in Russian. Which goes to show they’re still cute enough to charm wait staff around the world with a bit of good manners in the local tongue.

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