Red Square

Now we're really acting like tourists!

Click on any image for an enlarged view.

The entrance to Red Square.
Of course, no trip to Russia would be complete without a visit to Red Square, perhaps Russia's most well known place for us westerners. In the past, Red Square was typically associated with stone faced Soviet leaders watching parades of military hardware from their review stand atop Lenin's Mausoleum. Today the square is quieter, and more friendly, with the most expensive shopping in Russia along the shops in the mall.

An afternoon at the square is a good way to spend some time, taking in the impressive architecture and getting a feel for this historical site. So, now I guess is the time for the obligatory history, however brief.

The name of the square does not actually come from the color 'red', but actually from the older Russian word for beautiful, 'krasnyi'. This word sounds very much like the modern Russian word for red, hence the mixup in the translation.

In older times, Red Square was the site of many beautiful cathedrals, most of which were destroyed under orders from you know who, Stalin. Some were preserved, however, and many are being restored today.

The old name still fits the place quite well, so we may as well call it Beautiful Square.

When we arrived I was suprised to see so many Russians strolling the large plaza and taking in the sights, along with us camera crazy American tourists. I learned that day that Red Square (or Beautiful Square) remains a favorite place to visit for Russians, as well. Still, it was here and at the Kremlin that I saw more Americans in one day than I did my entire stay in Russia. Funny, but I can't say that I was really missing my fellow countrymen a great deal at this point. I mean, I had seen enough of them at home, and would upon my return, so for now I was content to spend my time around real live, good ol' Ruskies, and my Georgian hosts.

A view of the History Museum on Red Square.
A few days after our visit to the square, I read in the newspaper that a drunk Russian guy had driven his car onto the square accidentally, and then crashed into Lenin's Mausoleum. Can you imagine having to stand in front of a judge and answer for that one?

As long as that subject has come up, let me dispel with another long held myth many Americans have had about Russians. Russians are not vodka swilling drunks, and the streets are not filled with stumbling old men, clinging to bottles of cheap vodka.

While it may be true that many Russians like vodka, you can find a lot more drunks on the streets of Atlanta than you can the streets of Moscow. In fact, Moscow today is a much more orderly city than my present hometown Atlanta. I suppose by comparison of twenty years ago or so, maybe Moscow today seems chaotic in contrast to the strict order of Soviet times.

However, there is an old saying that I think is very relevent to both Russia and America these days, one that I think we can both think about and realize how similar our two countries are: 'How much democracy can a country afford?' Food for thought, as we say on this side of the pond.

So here I was strolling around Red Square, and thinking about these kinds of things, as my impression of Russia was taking shape with every new sight, every new experience. I had done a lot of reading prior to my trip, so I was well prepared for many of things I saw and experienced, but of course reading can never be a substitute for the real thing.

While, as I said, I was surprised to see so many Russians in Red Square, it was also definately a big attraction for tourists from all over the world. As we strolled around I heard plenty of english, naturally, but also German, Italian, and a few others I couldn't quite identify in passing.

Another cathederal along the square.
Moscow was impressing me as a truly international city. There are not only people from the former republics of the USSR in Moscow, but people from all over the world, as well. Many people, upon my return, were surprised when I told them of a very good Mexican restaurant we ate at in Moscow. 'Mexican food in Moscow?' they'd say with disbelief. Well folks, you can get just about anything you want in Moscow, Mexican and otherwise. It may cost you a small fortune, but you can get it.

The growing economy and incredible potential and opportunity for business in Moscow are drawing people from all over the world to take their shot at making fortunes. A quick read through the english newspaper, Moscow Times, shows small businesses advertising a variety of services from pagers and cellular phones, to apartment finding services. The names of the businesses and people running them read like a directory of officials at a United Nations gathering.

It doesn't take a person long in this atmosphere before you start thinking yourself about possible business ventures here. When you start seeing the prices on some items in the shops you find yourself thinking, 'Gee, I can get these in the states for about one fourth the cost. Now if I find someone here in Moscow to ship them to, and we can find a shop to sell them to... maybe if we rent a small space somewhere near the Arbat..." Then you come to your senses and realize you're just a silly tourist and better stay clear of business in Moscow; this is a pretty tough place to try and make a buck, so better just stick to the day job back home.

The free enterprise spirit has hit Moscow just about everywhere, nowadays, and even Red Square is no exception. Artists were stationed at various places around the square offering to draw your picture with one of the famous landmarks for a backdrop. People with Polaroid cameras would provide instant memories for just a few thousand rubles.

St. Basil's Cathderal, perhaps the most recognizable structure in all of Russia.
St. Basil's Cathedral, to the right, is probably the most easily recognized piece of architecture in Russia. It is the image that springs to the minds of many Americans when they think of Russia. However, photographs cannot do justice to the impressive style and intricate detailings of the exterior of the building.

The cathedral is actually a collection of nine churches built from 1555 to 1560, and was originally built to commemorate Ivan the Terrible's capture of the Mongol stronghold of Kazan. I heard another story about the cathedral's construction, and I'm not sure if it is true or not, so maybe someone can help me out here. Anyway, the story goes that Ivan asked his builders to build the most beautiful structure they could imagine, and St. Basil's was the result. He then asked them if they could build something even more beautiful, and when they said yes they could, Ivan gouged out their eyes.

Well, I don't know if that story is true or not, but I guess he had to earn his name somehow, and gouging someone's eyes out for something like that would sure as hell do it in my book. Anyway, it's still a very beautiful and interesting sight to see, gouged out eyes and all.

Strolling the square one begins to get a sense for the long and complex history of Russia and its people. In American, since we've lived basically under the same system of government since the inception of our country, it's fascinating to read about the different periods in Russian history, and the completely different kinds of systems that have existed. For all but the most academically astute, Russia was for a very long time a tightly closed book. Russian politics seemed filled with intrigue and clandestine operations.

When the new openness came, and independant media began operating without censorship, America was amazed. The lifting of the secrecy left many us staring like children. I can still remember the strange feeling reading news reports about the political activities in Russia and feeling like I was allowed in on some great new secret. The whole idea we could know so much, through normal media channels, seemed fantastic.

Savior's Tower, an entrance gate to the Kremlin.
Now, of course, American media is steadily focused on activities of the Yeltsin administration, and the Duma. I read the Moscow times daily on my trip and was tickled by the irony that Moscow and Washington D.C. seem to operate in such similar ways. Politicians posturing for public support of their initiatives, opponents trying to dig up scandel to cast doubt on their character. And all the time, the people shaking their heads saying, 'When are they going to just shut up and get some work done?' Isn't democracy beautiful?

The longstanding tradition of slandering your politicians is also good healthy democracy. Many historians of American government have said that the lampooning of leaders, making them the butt of jokes, is good for a country's political health. In my own opinion, I think this is true because it reminds the people, and the politicians, that they are just regular people, subject to the same laws and humanity as the rest of us. Elevating leaders to some higher plane, above criticism is always a dangerous mistake. Once a poltical figure ascends beyond reproach you have created a tyrant in the making.

From my perspective, and I could have been wrong here, but it seemed to me that the Russian people are still rather detached from engaging in the political process on the level that a healthy democracy requires. My friends in Moscow seemed to find my own activities in grassroots politics here in the states suspect. But a healthy democracy requires more than just officials going about their business between election cycles. In the states, I think we're just starting to learn all over again that polticians are like little children, keep a close watch on them or they get themselves, and you, in trouble.

I got the impression that Russians are meeting this possible new level of control over their government with a bit of skepticism, and they're probably right. Let's face it, money tends to run government, and government tends to feed on money, so how much power do the people really have? It's always an interesting question, and one that must be continually asked and examined.

Ivan Grozny makes a friend in Red Sqaure.
As we were leaving Red Square, this little guy to the right was being pushed towards us by his father. I happen to be carrying my traveling companion, Ivan Grozny the stuffed gorilla. When the little boy saw the gorilla, his eyes lit up and he stretched out a hand. We handed him Ivan Grozny and snapped this picture. Then the little boy didn't want to give Ivan back, which was a bit of a problem since Ivan and I have become very close on this trip. However, with just a little intervention from his father, he relinquished his grip on Ivan Grozny and we and the boy and his father said goodbye.

We were pretty hungry by this time and Nino recommended a place very near the entrance to Red Square, Patio Pizza. And I must say this place was great! Sometimes dining out can be difficult in Moscow, at least for us tourists, so if I can give one tip on a good place to eat this would be the one. It was some of the best pizza I've had anywhere, so when you get to Moscow and you visit Red Square, end your excursion with some great pizza!

After dinner I was in the mood for some typical tourist trinket shopping and this neck of the woods was the place. Right outside the restaurant were tables with lots of good loot for a yank like me to fill his backpack with. They had the great Russian and Soviet hockey jerseys that were the biggest must-have of my trip, but Nino, ever the frugal host, insisted they were overpriced and we'd find them cheaper elsewhere. This was the second time I passed them up, and it was getting more difficult each time. However, her advice had been infallable thus far, so I figured I'd better do as she said.

We rode the Metro back to our side of town and finished the evening off with a stop at the home of Nino's sister and brother in law, Kate and Alex, for a little Georgian Cognac and a lesson in card tricks. Alex does some amazing card tricks. He was also to give me a lesson shooting pool a few days later, but that's for another story.

My Russian Adventure Atlanta Life comments Guestbook

All contents and photos © 1997 by Skip Evans