This page is a part of my Moscow Life project, collection of illustrated stories from Moscow available online since 1995. I keep adding new ones now and then, please check complete list of all 50+ articles accumulated over 9 years of project existence - or the most recent story.



Season of early nights

Winter 1995 in Moscow. Christmas time and time of elections; Christmas lights are illuminating political posters, candidates keep promising much more than any sane Santa would, political commercials on TV are mixed up with the ads of season gifts…... a strange time...

It’s the time when blue twilight wraps the city early in the afternoon; when you have to keep the lights on in the room all day long if the sky is overcast - and that is not unusual in December. A winter day in Moscow is always short. Early darkness shifts colors of poorly painted walls and the city becomes slightly magical.
When the sky is clear, the city glows quietly on the dark and rich blue background. Most of the landmarks are cleverly illuminated and look better at night than in merciless daylight. Heavy buildings loose their weight and seem to be hovering above their reflections in the ice-covered river.
It’s a cold time, the right one to drink Beefeater with Herschi Tonic on a Friday night to mark the end of a busy week. At this time even a plain view from the office window may be slightly magic, gin or no gin. Skirts of flying snow dance in the lights of street lamps. Not many walk in the streets in such a weather, but traffic is heavy even late in the night.
December! The time to buy a Christmas tree, to bring it home and spend a family evening decorating it and sharing memories of other New Year seasons. The smell of a fur-tree and blinking colored shadows in the room corners bring us all back to the years of childhood. Marina enjoys the time, perhaps the only time of year when all family spends much time at home. Those are unique hours when the laptop sits idle on the desk by the Christmas tree. Now, when I’m typing the story, green needles brush occasionally against my knee.


This time I’m late with my story, late even by the relaxed standards I have set for this page. Sorry! Time before Christmas was full with other duties. But now when I’m writing this, we have magical two weeks, a unique length of time between two New Years. There are only 13 days separating two New Year nights, two First Nights, - and these special 13 days do exist only in Russia...

  Sounds strange?

  Okay, I’ll explain.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XVIII introduced to the Christian world a new calendar to replace a less precise Julian calendar that had been used for almost 16 centuries. Gregorian calendar has less leap years in it than Julian one.

However, Russian Orthodox Church came up to expectations once more and refused to accept heretical western novelties. Russia followed in the wake of its official church. Russian Empire kept its own pace and calendar. By the turn of 20 th century, the difference between Russia and the rest of Christian world accumulated 13 days.

Then the revolution broke many Russian traditions. On February 14, 1918, Soviet Government proclaimed the new calendar; it decided to accept Gregorian one and adjust the dates. Obviously, some people were upset, and the Church again refused to break the tradition. Since that time, there were two systems of dates in Russia (Soviet Union), one of them called “New Style” and the other, “Old Style”. The New Style is simply the standard Gregorian calendar you all are used to. The Old Style lags behind by 13 days. It is always used to calculate the dates of any Church events and holidays and also by some radical traditionalists.

Nowadays, very few people use Old Style in everyday life. Let the Church calculate the dates as they want, and then we just mark them on our standard new calendars. But there is an exception. We all do know that the New Year comes twice, both on the night from December 31 to January 1 and then again on the night of January 13.

And these days between the New Year and the Old New Year (this is how we call it) are strange, slow, and slightly timeless. Of all the holidays in Russia, New Year is the most private and intimate. But the unofficial Old New Year is even more sweet and homely.

So right now I’m in this strange time which is already a new year and still, in a sense, an old one... A good time to wander Moscow streets with no particular purpose on my mind, to enjoy pale colors and long shadows cast by the sun that never climbs high in the hazy sky.

Let’s try to walk keeping the face up instead of hiding it from stinging wind in the cozy warmth of a furry collar. The streets are less crowded then in summer, but architecture sometimes looks even better.
Long plumes of steam flow across clear sky, Moscow heat plants produce huge amounts of hot water that circulates in the heaters of all apartments and offices of this 10-million city.

Moskva river is covered with ice. A few years ago this was an impossible sight because many factories used the river to discharge their wastes into it and this hot sewage kept the water temperature well above freezing even in December. Now the river looks much nicer for an environmentalist. The factories are shut down, no more hot wastes. Unfortunately, unemployed workers of those factories do not necessarily share this view and enjoy the peaceful scenery.

Christmas is a shopping time. Of course not an ordinary shopping I told you about in my October story. Now it’s a rare time when even sane people visit huge malls, all crowded and decorated and choose something special for the loved ones.

Good old GUM, the largest department store in Russia, born anew after privatization. Busy and decorated, full of hushed but excited hum generated by many thousands of shoppers and hundreds of salespersons. A big Christmas tree for a few weeks replaces the fountain in its center and this place becomes a special attraction.
On the other pole of shopping options are countless small stands, kiosks and tables. These artificial jungles, racks with all sorts of plastic, one can find almost everywhere in the underground kingdom of Moscow metro. You can find live flowers there too, but this time Masha and Marina are looking for something to decorate our bathroom. A place is a bit dark most of the time, so hardly any natural plants would do. Anyway, all the weeds and flowers look great in the marble and granite passes of Moscow metro stations…...

Hey, I was going to keep my face up. While there is still some light, better go up to the surface from the metro. So - what else can be seen up there besides smokes and clouds?

Flags, crosses, and state emblems, of course.

This is the dome on top of the building of Constitutional Court of Russian Federation. Not an architectural monument, but definitely one of the seats of power and a spectacular enough sight...

A remake of an ancient gate at the entrance to the Red Square, and the two-headed eagle, once again the state emblem (for how long, I wonder?) proudly sits on top of the spire. Of course, this impossible bird has always been a target of many jokes. Now its colloquial name is “Chernobyl Chicken” - guess why!

Another modern remake, a very beautiful church at the corner of the Red Square. As in many other cases of the restoration of historical buildings, there were quite heated arguments around this church. Some people hate the modern copies of the ancient buildings, other believe that they look exactly like people used to see them many centuries ago...

I personally do not think that there is an ultimate correct answer to this question. Some ruins are picturesque... some are memorial... But a respectfully made new copy of an ancient masterpiece in my opinion is better than an ugly and faceless house in its place.

One of the most formal flags, this one flies above the White House, the residence of Russian Government, not the President. Our President has all most of his staff and offices in the Kremlin.

The huge boulder perhaps feels quite comfortably in the biting winter cold. It was brought here and placed in front of the former KGB building from Solovki, one of the prison camps far up north to commemorate victims of totalitarism. The rock quietly sits, KGB (under a different name) quietly works. Life is going on.


Holiday season will pass, we all will be back to work. There will be no time to frequently enjoy sightseeing and all the cool shades of Moscow sunsets. But fortunately, there are memories…...… and the pictures on the Web when memory fails….

See you next month!

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