Moscow: day 2

On Friday we toured the churches and gardens inside the red walls of the Kremlin, full of tombs and images of saints and tsars, and then took a great leap into another time and mind set with the exhibition in the State Historical Museum, "The myth of the beloved leader." For this small but densely packed show, the curators brought out of hiding objects, posters, videos and other images related to the creation and elaboration of the myth that was supposed to substitute for the suppressed myth represented by those churches: the enlightened heroism and steadfastness of Lenin, and the continuation of his spirit in Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin ( Russian : Иосиф Виссарионович Сталин).

Stalin's version of the myth required distorting or obliterating much of the turbulent story of the creation of the Soviet Union and of the Comintern, which is why so much of the material in this exhibition had been hidden after Stalin consolidated his power in 1927. Many of the heroes of those earlier phases had been declared enemies by Iosif Vissarionovich — Trotsky being the best known, but there were scores of others who had worked closely with Lenin but now were to be expunged from the record and, when possible, killed. But all those bright, enthusiastic faces have been brought back to view, in photos, documents and the vivid sketches by Isaak Brodsky and, most impressively, in his huge painting (1920-1924) of the Second Congress of the Communist International.

In the full-size original, with the help of an electronic screen provided by the museum, you can pick out Lenin (presiding), Stalin (far to the right of the picture, a few rows in front of the column), Trotsky (behind and to the left of Lenin, leaning over a rail and talking to another comrade), Karl Radek (a special hero of mine— I think he's the man sitting in the same row as Lenin, to his left), Zinoviev, Kamenev, John Reed (the only American I found), plus scores of men and women delegates from Germany, France, Hungary, Bulgaria...

If those early Bolsheviks had only tried to demythologize Christianity as intelligently and respectfully as the museum curators seek to reveal the construction of Stalin's myth of his own continuation of a heroic Lenin, maybe we would not see today so many frightened people pleading for salvation by the saints. But it seems that most people need powerful imaginary companions to get through all our troubles, and for decades, a mythified Stalin-Lenin duo did the job for millions of Russians and others. Now they're gone, and the saints have come marching back.


Moscow: day 1

We've taken our first day in Moscow slowly, to orient ourselves. Besides getting acquainted with the subways and strolling the length of Varvarka Street (Moscow's oldest), we spent most of the day on and around Red Square, where we plan to return tomorrow for an exhibition that was closed today: "The Myth of the Beloved Leader" at the State Historical Museum. Today we visited the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed (a complex of ten churches under as many domes, where we stopped to hear a 4-man vocal group who made a chapel and its labyrinthine corridors vibrate to old Russian paeans to God), GUM and the other part of the historical museum (open today) for pre-20th century Russia.

Vast and overwhelming. So much history, so complex, and all the labels in Russian — which may be why we were the only foreigners we saw in the place. Fortunately Susana had found on the Internet and printed out case-by-case descriptions of things in all the 18th and 19th century halls, but when we got into earlier times — Mongol invasions, medieval salt production (I think that's what a big wooden machine was doing), cruel and primitive weapons, all the way back to the mammoths and giant rhinoceros that were there before the humans — we could call upon only our memories of past readings and my searches through my Russian-English dictionary to interpret what we saw.

Still, it was worthwhile. Viewing clothing, tools, housing and artifacts linked with images we had retained from Tolstoi and every other Russian author who had passed through our consciousness, each of these experiences (reading and seeing) strengthening the other. So we are beginning to feel Russia, which is important to understand it.

And that of course is the main reason I've been studying the language. I've made small but significant progress: people understand me when I ask directions. The next big step will be to understand their answers, but so far, Russians on the street or the subway platform have been very helpful and very patient, and we've been able to find our way.