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This Year, Moscow

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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And now at last the goal is in sight:
In the shimmer of the white walls gleaming near,
In the glory of the golden domes,
Moscow lies great and splendid before us!

These tender words by Russia’s most beloved poet, Alexander Pushkin, occurred to me as my plane landed at Moscow’s Sheremetievo airport last January on the eve of the Epiphany.

As the bus took me closer to the city, however, I was greeted not by medieval monasteries with golden domes and three-bar crosses, but by wide boulevards, grim office buildings and smokestacks.

Enchantment with things Russian extends back to my childhood, but until January, I had never been to that country. Like Anton Chekhov’s three provincial ladies in his play Three Sisters, I often mused, “Next year, Moscow.”

As my departure for Moscow approached, I thought my visit would answer some questions and confirm a few opinions. I was certain I would have much to write about Moscow, and Russia by extension. I thought wrongly. Instead I am baffled by a city and a nation confused about its past, present and future.

In a land where great numbers of saints once walked on pilgrimage, where writers and philosophers discussed how to improve the peasants’ lot, where revolutionaries gathered to plan an earthly paradise, the victims of corruption, greed and fear now wander. Poverty, political instability and moral and spiritual apathy have generated a loss of self-knowledge. “Holy Russia has lost her soul,” lament her cultural, religious and social leaders.

References to the Russian “soul” abound in this nation’s history, literature and religious philosophy. Today, after more than 70 years of communism, the now-proverbial search for the Russian soul is nothing else than the search for what is authentically Russian.

My hunt began in Red Square (red and beautiful are synonymous in Russian), an immense space filled with shoppers, beggars, peddlers and tourists. In the square’s northeast corner, dwarfed by neo-Russian buildings, stands a small gazebo-like edifice. A temporary structure, it houses a copy of the icon of the Iberian Virgin. As worshippers stand in line waiting to light a candle, others stuff ruble notes into the shell of a glass water cooler that serves as a collection basket. Their offerings will help the Orthodox Church rebuild the famous chapel that housed the icon, which stood on the spot until Lenin ordered its destruction in 1921.

Although Red Square burgeons with pickpockets, the ruble-filled water cooler stands unprotected. Meanwhile a few hundred feet away, an honor guard marches in front of the tomb of Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state; the soldiers’ uniforms sport the Russian tricolor, the flag of the former tsarist empire.

At the square’s base sits the Cathedral of the Intercession, better known as St. Basil’s. A twisted conglomeration of colored tiles, onion domes and golden crosses, it is a moody structure. Depending on weather and the time of day the cathedral can appear foreboding or carnival-like, splendid, even ugly. Many Westerners associate this 16th-century cathedral with communism – its prominent position on Red Square, the site of the former regime’s displays of military might, is a connection they find hard to forget.

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Tags: Russia Icons Communism/Communist Soviet Union