Wednesday, June 28, 2017

30 years ago today: Good morning, Moscow.

Mr. Ottersbach, I presume?

I've been telling the story of my European travels in 1987. Trust me, I know that it's dry reading in places. You had to be there, right? Still, this is a blog, and I'm allowed to create the equivalent of a lengthy post-it note before it all dissipates from memory.

ON THE AVENUES: Train Whistle Reds, or my journey from Budapest to Moscow by rail in June, 1987.

30 years ago today: Saying goodbye to Budapest, and an era now long gone.

It was June 28, 1987.

After 36 hours mostly seated on a train, confined to a stuffy compartment and the adjoining minimalist leg-stretcher of a corridor ... having consumed enough Hungarian salami and Soviet hot tea to last through Thanksgiving, this being a holiday unheard of in the nominally atheistic USSR, there was something highly liberating about finally bounding out onto a sparsely populated platform at Moscow's Kiev Station on the morning of June 28, 1987.

That's right, liberating -- at least in a spatial sense, if not politically. A cursory glance at the map I'd purchased in Budapest unhesitatingly revealed the vastness of the capital city of the Soviet Union, home to 8,000,000 or more at the time. It became all too quickly evident that if infamous emperors and dictators (Bonaparte, Hitler) hadn't been able to conquer Moscow, neither would I.

Moreover, as an American, redolent of the Reaganesque polemical taint, I found myself arriving in the belly of the supposed beast. Mikhail Gorbachev's diplomacy notwithstanding, the USSR remained the evil empire, even if individual Russians almost unfailingly proved to be friendly.

Fortunately, my visit to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1985 provided sufficient evidence that citizens of the USSR were not space aliens. I had this knowledge going for me, although Moscow's pulsating sprawl was a decidedly different tempo than the arguably more cosmopolitan though measured Baltic city.

All these preliminary musings aside, the budget traveler's credo remained intact. My first imperative was to establish base camp, and only then extend the perimeter. It meant locating the hotel where I'd be meeting the tour group later that day.

Whether the bureaucracy there would allow me to register ahead of the group was a bridge yet to be crossed.

So, where the hell was I going?

There was an address for the Hotel Molodjezhny, but directions were left to my own calculations, hence the Hungarian tourist map. I might have hailed a taxi, and probably could have paid for it in dollars; by the time of my return in 1989, I knew to pack tubes of toothpaste for such contingencies. As matters stood, public transportation seemed a viable and crazily inexpensive option.

Moscow Metro (subway) tickets cost mere kopecks (cents to the ruble) -- perhaps a nickel each. I stumbled through the act of buying a handful of them, then got to the task of deciphering a system map. I'm not certain if the station names are the same as then, so my route today would be as follows.

Begin at Kievsky Rail Station: Ки́евский вокза́л
Change lines at Arbatskaya: Арбатская
End at Timiryazevsyaka: Тимиря́зевская

There were no English language equivalents, just the Russian. While not as daunting as Mandarin or Arabic, the Cyrillic alphabet was certainly mysterious. I'd already experienced it in Serbia and Bulgaria, though probably it was familiar to Americans of the period (if at all) solely from the letters СССР on Olympic hockey jerseys.

They stood for Союз Советских Социалистических Республик, or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. "C" is S; "P" is R. As a side note, recall that in theory, the USSR was composed of nominally autonomous republics (Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, etc). In practice, the USSR was centralized and highly bureaucratic. Moscow was the lynch pin of it all.

I learned that Russian words are far easier to pronounce once you've learned the Cyrillic alphabet. There are Russian letters that require multiple Latin (Roman) letters in transliteration to indicate the same sound. Knowing the Cyrillic letters doesn't imply you'll know what the words mean, but when it comes to deciphering the subway diagrams, it's an invaluable tool.

In the aftermath of my brief Leningrad excursion, I'd resolved to learn the alphabet and a few simple words. I'm proud of myself that I did so, and it came in quite handy in Moscow.

The Cyrillic script is named after Saint Cyril, a missionary from Byzantium who, along with his brother, Saint Methodius, created the Glagolitic script. Modern Cyrillic alphabets developed from the Early Cyrillic script, which was developed during the 9th century in the First Bulgarian Empire (AD 681-1018) by a decree of Boris I of Bulgaria (Борис I). It is thought that St. Kliment of Ohrid, a disciple of Cyril and Methodius, was responsible for the script. The Early Cyrillic script was based on the Greek uncial script with ligatures and extra letters from the Glagolitic and Old Church Slavonic scripts for sounds not used in Greek.

My initial reaction to Moscow Metro stations was one of utter disbelief. If nothing else about the "worker's paradise" were true, there'd still be these ornate underground transit palaces from the Stalin era, intended to illustrate the superiority of Communism, and without irony, built according to the motto, "Whatever and Whomever It Takes."

Construction on the Moscow Metro began in 1933. The work was done mainly by hand, by miners swinging pickaxes and shovels. Josef Stalin spearheaded the prestigious project to showcase the superiority of socialism. He chose Lazar Kaganovich, the “Iron Commissar,” to oversee construction with utmost ruthlessness.

“The Russian metro system was a truly unique project in the history of urban development when you consider how, when, where, and why it was built. They do, however, have a dark side when you consider much of the labor was forced by a leader who eliminated anyone and everyone who stood in his path or threatened his power.” The system opened in May 15 1935, with some 285,000 people riding it that day. Today, some 9 million people ride on 12 lines that pass through 196 stations.

As of 2017, the Moscow Metro is more than 200 miles long, with more expansion planned. Are the new lines as opulent as the old? Perhaps it's time to go back and find out.

Photo credit: David Burdeny.

The commute took almost an hour, but I successfully located the Hotel Molodjezhny. It was large, ugly and could not be missed. Now came the hardest part, as I'd been warned that interjecting a stray variable into even the simplest task might well result in gridlock.

I'd be asking hotel staff to check me into a room ten or more hours before the group arrived. If my argument fell flat, I might be spending the time guarding my belongings in the hotel bar (surprise -- there wasn't one).

Clutching my sheaf of documentation, I began the search for an English speaker. To this day, I'm not sure what happened, because resistance was very brief, and soon enough I had a key. Although my memory is hazy, the desk may have retained my passport, which was standard operating procedure so they could finish their paperwork in peace.

I had a room and a place to stow my gear. My scant notes suggest I then accompanied "the New Yorkers" to Red Square. I have absolutely no clue what this means. Did we eat and drink? Talk about the Mets?

No idea.

At some point in the afternoon, I changed money with a young man who called himself Bill. Not a common Russian name, Bill. It was a seamless transaction, and he wasn't at all threatening, just on the make -- not sexually, but economically. Think of Bill as the inadvertent poster boy for Gorbachev's policy of perestroika ... and see ON THE AVENUES on Thursday for the next installment of the tale.

Ice cream, to us.

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